The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart tr. Barbara Bray #WITMonth

Bridge of BeyondAbsolutely brilliant, astonishing, loved it, one of my Top Reads of 2016 for sure.

Originally published in 1972 as Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle, The Bridge of Beyond is acknowledged as one of the masterpieces of Caribbean literature. It was republished in English in 2013 as an NYRB Classic, with an introduction by Jamaica Kincaid, beautifully translated by Barbara Bray, described as ‘an intoxicating tale of love and wonder, mothers and daughters, spiritual values and the grim legacy of slavery’.

Telumee is the last in a line of proud Lougandor women on the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe. It is a novel best left to speak for itself, as the many quotes from the novel that follow here illustrate, a work infused throughout with a vital and vibrant female energy, a force that empowers them to forge ahead, no matter the circumstances, one that will permeate the reader, instilling courage and awe at the language that creates this positive, intoxicating feeling.

In the first part we learn about her people, her mother Victory,

“a laundress, wearing out her wrists on flat stones in the rivers, and her linen emerged like new from under the heavy waxed irons”

her father, his life cut short in a fatal stabbing,

“Angebert, had led a reserved and silent existence, effacing himself so completely
that no one ever knew who it was died that day. Sometimes I wonder about him, ask myself what anyone so kind and gentle was doing in this world at all.”

the man who pulled her mother out of her grief, and out of her daughter’s life,

“The fact is that a mere nothing, a thought, a whim, a particle of dust can change the course of a life. If Haut-Colbi had not stopped in the village my little story would have been different.”

and her grandmother Toussine, ‘Queen Without a Name’, to whom her mother sent her to live.

“My mother’s reverence for Toussine was such I came to regard her as some mythical being not of this world, so that for me she was legendary even while still alive.”

Simone Schwarz-Bart

Simone Schwarz-Bart

Telumee narrates the story of her life, in small details, in melodic, incantatory prose that lures the reader in, consuming her story with great pleasure. Every change of home, village, or great journey takes them across the Bridge of Beyond, a symbol of change and the unknown, the other side.

As she passes through various stages of life, she is guided but never pressured by her grandmother, remembering her stories, her songs, her advice.

“My little ember”, she’d whisper, “if you ever get on a horse, keep good hold of the reins so that it’s not the horse that rides you.” And as I clung to her, breathing in her nutmeg smell, Queen Without a Name would sigh, caress me, and go on, distinctly, as if to engrave the words on my mind: “Behind one pain, there is another. Sorrow is a wave without end. But the horse mustn’t ride you, you must ride it.”

She will fall in love, leave to work in the kitchen of wealthy white family, build her own home, experience both profound happiness and the depths of despair, brush up against madness and find its cure, and always the reassuring presence of her grandmother.

“Sometimes old thoughts arose in me, shooting up like whirls of dust raised from the road by a herd of wild horses galloping by. The Grandmother to try to whistle up a wind for me, saying we should soon be going away, for the air in Fond-Zombi didn’t agree with my lungs now.”

As Jamaica Kincaid articulates well in the introduction, The Bridge of Beyond is not a conventional novel, and it never tries to be. It is a fluid, unveiling of a life, and a way of life, lived somewhere between a past that is not forgotten, that time of slavery lamented in the songs and felt in the bones, and a present that is a struggle and a joy to live, alongside nature, the landscape, the community and their traditions.

The cultural traditions and historical events from which this work of art springs cannot be contained in a strict linear narrative. In fact, such a device might even lend a veneer of inevitability to them. For the narrative that began with a search for fresh water on an island one Sunday morning has no end – it circles back on itself, it begins again, it staggers sideways, it never lurches forward to a conclusion in which the world where it began is suddenly transformed into an ideal, new world. Schwarz-Bart’s prose awakens the senses and enlarges the imagination; it makes me anxious for my own sanity and yet at the same time certain of it; her sentences, rooted in Creole experience and filled with surprising insights and proverbs, resonate in my head and heart.” Jamaica Kincaid

It is one of the best books I have read in a long time, coming from a place of love and appreciation that reaches far back, acknowledging the gifts of all, that make up who we are. Outstanding.

Simone and André Schwarz-Bart

Simone and André Schwarz-Bart

Simone Schwarz-Bart was born in France(her parents were from Guadeloupe) in 1938, her father a solider, her mother a teacher. When war broke out, she and her mother returned to Guadeloupe. She studied in Paris, where she met her future husband, the writer André Schwarz-Bart.

They collaborating on more than one work of literature, including a six-volume encyclopaedia Hommage à la femme noire, (In Praise of Black Women), to honour the black heroines who were missing in the official historiography.

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WIT logo

August is Women in Translation #WITMonth

1 Summer Chunkster - A Brief History of Seven Killings

One Summer Chunkster

Summer reading used to be beach reads, these days I have one beach read, my one summer chunkster, otherwise I try to participate in #WITMonth, reading women writers in translation, those who originally wrote their books in a language other than English.

I won’t be putting any pressure on myself to achieve any lists or numbers, but a quick scan of my shelves shows me that I already have a few potentially excellent novels to choose from for #WITMonth.

One Summer Chunkster

My summer chunkster isn’t a woman writer, it will be Marlon James Booker Prize winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killingsa novel that explores Jamaican life, culture, politics and the drug trade through a fictionalised telling with a multitude of characters, of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in the late 70’s in a blend of standard English prose and Jamaican patois.

Women in Translation

A quick look at my shelves tells me that these are the novels I’ll be choosing from in August to read books by women writing in a language other than English. I’ll be reading them in the English translation and starting off with Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang (South Korea) tr. Deborah Smith (Korean)

Viewed in South Korea initially as ‘extreme and bizarre’  it has gone on to become a cult bestseller and in English, it was the winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2016 – an allegorical novel about modern-day South Korea told via three narratives surrounding a woman’s decision to become vegetarian; a story of obsession, choice, and our faltering attempts to understand others. I read and was blown away by her Human Acts earlier this year.

Masks by Fumiko Enchi (Japan) tr.  Juliet Winters Carpenter (Japanese)

A subtle and sometimes shocking novel about seduction and infidelity in contemporary Japan and the destructive force of feminine jealousy and resentment with allusions to the masks of the traditional Japanese theatrical Nō plays and the 11th century epic The Tale of Genji.

The Rabbit House by Laura Alcoba (Argentina) tr. Polly McLean (French)

A short memoir set in 1975 Buenos Aires, Argentina when Laura is seven years old and the brutal military regime has just taken over. Her father is imprisoned and she and her mother go into hiding in ‘the rabbit house’ where the resistance movement is involved in clandestine activity that puts their lives in constant danger.

The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart (French-Guadeloupean) tr.Barbara Bray (French)

Set on the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe, a story of mothers and daughters, spiritual values and the grim legacy of slavery, a reminder of the Creole oral tradition.

Crossing the Mangrove by Maryse Condé (Guadeloupean) tr. Richard Philcox (French)

More from Guadeloupe, following the death of a handsome outsider, villagers reveal clues that will uncover the mystery of this man’s death, a story imbued with the nuances of Caribbean culture.

A Season in Rihata by Maryse Condé (Guadeloupean) tr. Richard Philcox (French)

Condé’s second novel set in a sleepy backwater fictitious African state, a family struggle amid the backdrop of political upheaval, a community torn between progress and tradition, subject to the whims of a dictatorship.

The Door by Magda Szabó (Hungary) tr. Len Rix (Hungarian)

A young writer employs an elderly woman as housekeeper, a woman everyone knows, though no one knows anything about, nor have they ever crossed her threshold. An event will provoke her to unveil glimpses of her past, shedding light on her peculiar behaviour as the relationship between the two evolves. This recent New Yorker article makes comparisons with Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant FriendThe Hungarian Despair of Magda Szabó’s “The Door”

The Looking Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen (Norway) tr. John Irons (Norwegian)

A Peirene Press novella from the Chance Encounters series and another intense relationship between two women; sisters who live an isolated life, one who nurses the other and keeps house. Until one day, a man arrives… ‘raw, dark and wonderfully different from anything else’

The Fox Was Ever the Hunter by Herta Müller (Romania) tr. Philipp Boehm (Romanian)

An early masterpiece set in Ceaușescu’s Romania by Herta Müller, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Literature. A young school teacher returns home to find her fox fur rug has had its tail cut off. Then a foreleg. Signs she is being tracked by secret police – a portrayal of the corruption of the soul under totalitarianism.

I would love to hear any recommendations you have, that I might add to the list, anything you’ve read and absolutely loved, or are anticipating reading soon that you’ve heard good things about, let me know in the comments below. And if you’ve made a list, feel free to provide a link to it in the comments as well.

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