Ladivine by Marie NDiaye tr. Jordan Stump

Ladivine, written by the Senegalese-French writer Marie NDiaye, known for her 2009 Prix Goncourt award-winning Trois Femmes Puissantes (Three Strong Women) came to my attention when it was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.

The blurb describes it as a novel about a women named Clarisse Rivière, who travels by train once a month to visit her mother Ladivine, a woman neither her husband, daughter or grandchildren, or anyone connected to her present life is aware of. They believe Clarisse, whose real name is Malinka, is an orphan and due to mixed parentage, a father unknown, she bears little resemblance to the mother she is ashamed to acknowledge.

The novel demonstrates this artifice of a life, where Clarisse spends every day trying to remove from her very essence who she really is, and while the result could be seen by some as perhaps attaining some kind of perfection, as a character she is hollow, superficial, not there. What makes it hard to accept or believe, is that there appears to be no reason for this decision, no apparent childhood trauma, no cruelty to have turned her into such a narcissist, except perhaps her isolation from normal family and social norms, being the daughter of a single, working mother who was obviously a foreigner, most likely from an African country.

“She kissed her mother, who was short, thin, prettily built, who like her had slender bones, narrow shoulders, long, thin arms,  and compact, unobtrusive features, perfectly attractive but discreet, almost invisible.

Where Malinka’s mother was born, a place Clarisse Rivière had never gone and would never go – though she had, furtive and uneasy, looked at pictures of it on the Internet –  everyone had those same delicate features, harmoniously placed on their faces as if with an eye for coherence, and those same long arms, nearly as slender at the shoulder, as at the wrist.

And the fact that her mother had therefore inherited those traits from a long, extensive ancestry and then passed them on to her daughter (the features, the arms, the slender frame and, thank God, nothing more) once made Clarisse Rivière dizzy with anger, because how could you escape when you were marked in this way, how could you claim not to be what you did not want to be, what you nevertheless had every right not to want to be?”

I admit, I found this novel strange, weird and inhuman. While I understand the author may have been trying to portray something about humanity, what results is the shadow of a human when an aspect of their humanity, their cultural and familial identity, is removed.

“And another realisation hit her at the same time, with the violence of a thing long known but never quite grasped, now abruptly revealed in all its simplicity: being that woman’s daughter filled her with a horrible shame and fear.”

Marie NDiaye by Nicolas Hidiroglou

As Clarisse, Malinka marries and has a child, who she names Ladivine, a daughter who drifts away from her family, when she moves to Berlin and who senses something missing in herself, but with no way to understand what it might be or how to resolve it. Clarisse’s husband Richard leaves her, for perhaps the same reason, again something he can’t quite communicate.

Slightly frustrated having finished the novel, which features a dog in various scenes, which may or may not be the incarnation of one of the characters, I decided to read a few interviews to discover what I was missing in understanding this weird novel by an award-winning and highly revered French novelist.

The details about Marie NDiaye’s life are telling, as are the common themes in her fiction to date. I’ll admit, I find I appreciate the novel more, for having been made aware of this background, to read it without this context, is to feel something this character, that something vital is missing!

Marie NDiaye is the daughter of a French mother and a Senegalese father she barely knows and is married herself to a white Frenchman. She, like the character Clarisse, was raised just south of Paris, and according to an interview in Le Monde, has spent only 3 weeks on the African continent, 2 of those weeks in Senegal, and was said to have felt “wholly foreign” to the continent. For me, this may explain why it feels as though Ladivine, the mother also has no heritage, it is clear she comes from elsewhere, but the author chooses not to provide the narrative any clue to that heritage or cultural reference and even when later in the book, it seems as though the daughter of Clarisse and her family visit that country, though it is never named, again the reader is kept from knowing the actual origins, except through the occasional physical description of the people, reminding us of those opening clues to her mother’s physique.

“NDiaye’s novels frequently feature biracial couples, absent or distant fathers, and strained filial relationships. Her characters often feel ill at ease within their communities, and struggle with doubts that they are not who they believe or wish themselves to be.” New Republic, The Metamorphoses of Marie NDiaye by Jeffrey Zuckerman

There is an emptiness at the core of the novel, a sad indictment of the policies of some countries in their attempt to assimilate the many cultures into one, a loss of a richness that even when unknown can be exhilarating to explore, which is why I have enjoyed so much the work of writer’s like Maryse Condé’s Victoire: My Mother’s Motherand Yaa Gyasi ‘s Homegoing who through their stories seek to explore that which they were not exposed to during their childhoods, but which they come to understand more by visiting the places or exploring through storytelling.

The article in the New Republic (linked below) is worth a read for its discussion of comparisons with Gustave Flaubert’s ‘free indirect discourse’ and how NDiaye submerges the reader into the speaker’s mind and the role of the element of fantasy, or those aspects that cause the reader to wonder whether what they just read was real or a hallucination or the product of an unreliable narrator.

Overall, an interesting read and an interesting writer and novel to read about, but that lack of a cultural heritage or interest in going there to seek it out and confront it, make me less inclined to want to read more of her work. I would however be interested in what she might come up with, should she decide to research her African roots and risk taking that inner journey that would no doubt enrich her fiction and interest this reader.

Further Reading

The Metamorphoses of Marie NDiaye, New Republic by Jeffrey Zuckerman

3 Generations Of Trauma Haunt ‘Ladivine’, NPR review by Jean Zimmerman

Top Reads 2016

In 2016, I read 55 books, just over my ongoing intention, to read a book a week.

I managed to read books by authors from 26 different countries and 19 of them, just over a third, were translations. My absolute favourite book of the year, was written by an author from Guadeloupe, translated from French into English, and 3 of my top 5 fiction reads were translated.

Outstanding Read of 2016
Bridge of Beyond

The book that has stayed with me, that I loved above all else was Simone Schwarz- Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond, a novel that touched on the lives of three generations of women from the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe, narrated by the granddaughter Telumee as she grows up on the island, learning from experience and the traditions of her culture, guided by the wisdom of her grandmother Toussine, ‘Queen Without a Name’. A masterpiece of Caribbean literature, “an unforgettable hymn to the resilience and power of women,” translated from French, republished as a New York Review of Books (NYRB) classic.

Top 5 Fiction Reads

Human ActsHuman Acts, Han Kang (South Korea) tr. Deborah Smith

As much a work of art as novel, Human Acts is an attempt to understand a despicable act of humanity through story telling, Han Kang was one of the most thought provoking authors of 2016 for me, equally incredible was her novel The Vegetarian, which won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.

What Lies Between UsWhat Lies Between Us, Nayomi Munaweera (Sri Lanka)

Like The Bridge of Beyond, Munaweera’s work is evocative of place and she brings a childhood in the gardens of Sri Lanka alive. A woman remembers her past from behind the walls of a cell, and as she reveals her upbringing and the changes that brought her family to live in America, we wonder what went terribly wrong, that caused her to lose everything. And best book cover!

zoraTheir Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston (USA)

I finally read this great American classic and it was absolutely fantastic, another story that touches on multiple generations of women and how the lives of each affects the other, as they all wish a different life for the future generation. Janie is determined to live her life differently, but some lessons have to be lived thought and not told. The prose is astounding, melodic and the whole reading experience one I’ll never forget.

FirdausWoman at Point Zero, Nawal El Saadawi (Egypt) tr. Sherif Hetata

An internationally renowned feminist writer, activist, physician, psychiatrist and prolific writer, I’d been wanting to read her for some time and during August, reading books by Women authors in translation #WITMonth was the perfect opportunity. And what a novel! Inspired by real events, after she was given the opportunity to interview a woman who had been been imprisoned for killing a man and due to be executed, she retells this story of Firdous, too beautiful and poor to pass through life unscathed, who finds the desire to lift herself and others out of oppression and will pay the ultimate price. Haunting, beautiful, a must read author and book!

Days of AbandonmentDays of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante (Italy) tr. Ann Goldstein

The year wouldn’t be complete without Elena Ferrante, the reclusive Italian author whose identity was outed this year, although I didn’t read any of the reports, preferring she remain as unknown to me now as before. Days of Abandonment was published before her popular tetrology which began with My Brilliant Friend and is a compelling, searing account of one woman’s descent into semi madness following abandonment by her husband, in the days where the hurt prevents her from seeing things objectively and her rationality leaves her. It’s full of tension, as she has two young children and Ferrante uses her incredible talent to make the reader live through the entire uncomfortable experience of this roller coaster ride of temporary insanity.

Top Non Fiction Reads

Memoir

Brother Im DyingBrother I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat (Haiti)

A beautiful memoir of her father and his brother, alternating between Haiti and America, it is a tribute to a special relationship and an insight into the sacrifices people make to better the lives of others, whether its family or their community. I’ve read her novel Breath, Eyes, Memory she is a wonderful writer with a gift for compassionate storytelling.

why-be-happyWhy Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson (UK)

Wow, this is the adoption memoir that tops all others, a literary tour de force, an entertaining, horrifying account of a young girl’s childhood, survived by a strong passion for life and literature that gets her through some tough moments and develops an iron will to pursue the joy that appeals so much more than the conformity her mother sought. Brilliant.

woman-on-the-edgeA Woman on the Edge of Time by Jeremy Gavron (UK)

Less a memoir of the son, than one of his obsession to understand why his mother, when she appeared to have everything a young woman would ever want, decided to end it all. Having never asked questions about his mother’s suicide, Jeremy Gavron, now a father of two girls becomes obsessed with knowing who she was and what pressures lead her to her end. Early 1960’s insight.

The Blue Satin NightgownThe Blue Satin Nightgown by Karin Crilly (US)

A reading highlight of the year for me, I’ve seen Karin’s book go through many stages leading to publication this year, in my review you’ll read how I was involved a little in its development. I knew it would be a success, as we sipped champagne together in Aix after she won the Good Life in France short story competition for the first chapter, Scattered Dreams. Last seen, Karin and her friend Judy were in China continuing their adventures, which age will never hamper and there’s a mysterious new man appearing in her recent Facebook posts, suggesting she may be writing a sequel perhaps?

Soul Food

This year, in particular after the harrowing experience accompanying my 14-year-old daughter through back surgery to correct a curvature of the spine, I read a few books by authors published by Hay House, whose radio show I often  listen to. I’m already a fan and follower of Colette Baron-Reid and her book Uncharted came out this year, and through her I discovered, listened to and read What if This is Heaven by Anita Moorjani, Making Life Easy by Christiane Northrup and I’m still slow reading a few others. During challenging times, these authors are a soothing balm, reminding us of much we may already know, offering an alternative perspective on how we see things and tips for remaining grounded and healthy in body, mind and spirit.

Special Mentions

how-to-be-braveUnforgettable Reading Experience Ever: How to Be Brave, Louise Beech(UK)

I couldn’t let the year pass without mentioning the extraordinary reading experience of Louise Beech’s How to Be Brave. I read this book while I was in the hospital with my daughter and it was surreal, a captivating, incredible story, based partly on true events, both those of the author and her daughter, who are both coming to terms with a recent diagnosis of Type1 diabetes and a retelling of her grandfather’s epic journey lost at sea, after their ship was destroyed.

Bonjour TristesseBest Translations: Bonjour Tristesse(France) & The Whispering Muse (Iceland)

Two fabulous novellas, from Iceland, Sjón’s The Whispering Muse was my first read of the year for 2016 and I loved it, it’s a kind of parody of The Argonauts and had me looking up references to the Greek classic and enjoying both the story and its connections.

Bonjour Tristesse is an excellent, slim summer read, of a young woman’s regret, a heady summer on the French Riviera, engaging as she has a deft ability to portray her minds workings and see herself interacting with the others, aware of her own manipulative ability and yet unable to stop herself. Brilliant.

GeorgiaBest Fictional Biography: Georgia, A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe, Dawn Tripp (US)

I love the work of the artist Georgia O’Keeffe, she’s probably my favourite artist in fact. And she was an incredible woman, who lived a long time and had an intriguing relationship with her husband, who discovered her as one of his protege, the photographer and gallery owner Alfred Steiglitz. Dawn Tripp has done an outstanding job of researching her life, bringing to this novel, insights from new material available and succeeds in doing what hasn’t really been done before, channelling the voice of the artist, providing a perspective that is loyal to the artist and how she may have thought.

Brief HistoryBiggest, Most Satisfying Challenge: A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James (Jamaica)

Written a large part in Jamaican patois, with a wide array of characters, this 700+ page book won the Man Booker Prize in 2015 and was my summer chunkster for 2016. I gave it 5 stars for sheer effort, even though it’s not really my style of book, I tend to prefer the stories by women writers from around the Caribbean, Marlon James is perhaps too modern for me, he moves his story out of generational tradition and into the cold, dark, masculine front lines of survival, jealousy and ambition in a trigger happy, drug induced frightening world that is far from sleepy villages I prefer to inhabit.

Biggest Disappointment: The Fox Was Ever the Hunter, Herta Muller (Romania)(DNF)

It wasn’t on my reading list and I should have listened to my instinct, but since I was reading books by women in translation and I’d been sent this by the publisher (unsolicited), and it was a novel by a Nobel Prize winning author I attempted it. Impossible. Incomprehensible. Stop. Prize winning authors and books should be looked at like any other book I tell myself, forget about what a committee of 18 Swedish writers, linguists, literary scholars, historians and a prominent jurist with life tenure think, they are not you.

Well that’s it for 2016, another great reading year!

What was your outstanding read for 2016?

 

A Season in Rihata by Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe) tr. Richard Philcox #WITMonth

Marysé Conde is a Guadeloupean writer I came across in 2015 when she was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize, at a time when it was a two yearly prize for a lifetime’s work.

It has now evolved into an annual prize split between the author and translator for a book translated into English that year and in 2016 it was awarded to Han Kang (South Korea) and Deborah Smith (translator) for the novel The Vegetarian.

Maryse Condé didn’t win the prize back in 2015, but was the author on the list who most appealed to me.

Since reading about her at that time, I followed her own recommendations in terms of what to read to be introduced to her work, starting with a collection of vignettes in Tales from the Heart: True Stories from my Childhood, then Victoire: My Mother’s Mother and finally, the grand masterpiece and novel she is most well-known for, especially in academic circles, as it is widely studied and recognised as an important work of historical fiction set in the African Kingdom during a significant period of change: Segu.

I’ve wanted to read more of her work, so tracked down a couple more books that have been translated into English and was fortunate enough to have listened to her speak at our local library earlier this year – though she lived in France for many years, she is now retired and has returned to her native Guadeloupe to live, though still active in literary circles.

A Season in Rihata – reviewSeason in Rihata

Zek and his Guadeloupean wife Marie-Hélène live in a small fictitious African town of Rihata, with their six children and another due any day. It is far from Paris where they met and lived in very different way and far removed from the kind of life Marie-Hélène’s remembers on the island home of her childhood.

Like all men of his ethnic group, Zek had been brought up with a kind of fear and contempt of woman – malevolent creatures whose dark instincts had to be mastered. Love had taken him by surprise. He had difficulty accepting the power Marie-Hélène held over him and was convinced that no other man except him had undergone such humiliation.

Neither are happy; Zek has never been able to get over the feeling of being looked down on by his father, even though he is long dead, and remains resentful of his younger brother Madou, who found favour without having to do anything and who was the cause of him having to relocate his family due to the unwanted attentions of his brother towards his wife.

Influenced by a father who made no pretence of his preferences, Madou had soon considered Zek as a person of limited ability and in all ways inferior; although this did not exclude a certain brotherly affection.

Now Madou is coming to Rihata, he is a political Minister coming to conduct negotiations, his presence causing many to feel uneasy, a disruption in the sleepy town where not much usually happens.

It is a novel of discontent, of the effects of selfish behaviour, which none are immune to or able to rise above. Contentedness is within their reach, but so is temptation and the effect of indulging it ricochets through all members of the extended family and the rulers of the country.

While it doesn’t reach the heights of her other work I’ve read, it’s a worthy contribution to her body of literature and I look forward to reading more.

To Buy A Novel by Maryse Condé Click here (Book Depository Affiliate Link)

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante (Italy) tr. Ann Goldstein #WITMonth

ItalyOn the day when the nation is shocked and grieving after a devastating earthquake, that has destroyed entire villages and resulted in a significant loss of life, I don’t know how appropriate it is to share their literature, perhaps in the case of this particular novel, it serves to put things in perspective.

For while the protagonist of this novel may have felt her world was coming to an end, knowing how quickly and without warning life and home can be snatched away, might prompt us get over the more indulgent grievances of the heart.

Days of AbandonmentA national bestseller for almost an entire year, The Days of Abandonment shocked and captivated its Italian public when first published.

“One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.”

Like an orchestrated composition that begins with a quiet, solo voice and rises to a crescendo with the addition of more instruments, Ferrante’s novel and its female character move from reasonable, melodic harmony to loud, discordant cacophony.

“I listened to him attentively, I contradicted him calmly, I didn’t ask him questions of any kind nor did I dictate ultimatums, I tried only to convince him that he could always count on me. But I have to admit that, behind that appearance, a wave of anguish and rage was growing that frightened me.”

Like the stages of grief, The Days of Abandonment charts the stages of decline following a lost love, beginning with the irony of a love more fierce than it was when it was present, then the deterioration, as the realisation and reality of life without it comes to pass for this mother of two children, cooped up in her apartment one hot August, with only the sad figure of a morose cellist living downstairs to observe her descent.

The abandoned woman acts terribly reasonably, only to deteriorate into desperate disillusionment. Like madness descending, the loss of love and the feeling of abandonment rages through the various emotions like a tempest, no person or animal immune to its violent, destructive force.

“The circle of an empty day is brutal and at night it tightens around your neck like a noose.”

It is shocking in how far the madness delves and astounding as it reaches a turning point and she is able slowly to perceive herself and the illusion of what she thought she had, for what it really was.

“It was really true, there was no longer anything about him that could interest me. He wasn’t even a fragment of the past, he was only a stain, like the print of a hand left years ago on a wall.”

Elena Ferrante observes the minutiae of human emotion and suffering, the obstinacy of a grasping, possessive love, the effect of our behaviour on those around us and the resilience of the human spirit.

Exhausting, terrifying, ferocious, we are both beast and beauty.

Elena Ferrante is the pseudonym of an Italian novelist, whose true identity remains a mystery, author of the four novels in the Neapolitan tetralogy My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child. The Days of Abandonment was the first of her novels to be translated into English by Europa Editions in 2005.

Buy The Days of Abandonment via Book Depository

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Affections by Rodrigo Hasbún (Bolivia) tr. Sophie Hughes

AffectionsSelected in 2010 as one of The Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists by Granta, Bolivian author Rodrigo Hasbún’s Affections is his second novel and will be published in ten languages. It was the winner of an English PEN Award 2016.

The novel is less a story and more a set of loosely connected vignettes from the lives and perspectives of the three daughters of  Aurelia and Hans Ertl, a family who fled post-war Germany in the wake of their father’s position as a cameraman, (he had worked on several Nazi propaganda films), to live in exile in Bolivia.

One of his daughters Monika Ertl became involved with the survivors of Che Guevara’s guerrilla movement and was allegedly involved in the assassination of the Bolivian consul in Hamburg, a man said to have ordered the hands of Guevara be cut off and sent to La Paz.

Hasbún’s novel takes these threads and weaves a disparate narrative, that highlights different moments in the lives of all members of this family, whose life trajectory was dramatically altered by their geographic displacement.

No sooner have they arrived, than Hans, a climber, explorer, photographer, seeker of adventure announces he is quitting climbing and organising an expedition to find a lost Inca city named Paititi buried somewhere deep in the Amazon forest. Two of his daughters come with him, and for his eldest Monika, it becomes a first step towards a life of social activism, which will result in her involvement in revolutionary guerilla warfare.

With a father seeking adventure and a mother prone to melancholy, the girls find themselves in a place they can never truly call home, where they will always be viewed as outsiders and find it difficult to find solace even among their ex-pat community, which in a cruel twist of fate, view them similarly to the way they were regarded in post-war Germany, only now it seems futile to escape their fate.

“All that grind to end up back where I started,” he complained to me one day down the phone. He said he’d experienced something similar after the war, that they’d already made him feel like an outcast once before, that during that period they closed one door after another to him, but that this time he wouldn’t move an inch.

Also included in the narrative are what appear to be the responses to an interview or interrogation of one of Monika’s lovers Reinhard, who was her brother-in-law, probably in a follow-up to the assassination of the Bolivian consul.

//yes, she’s the only one who matters now, the misunderstood child, the chaotic, rebellious teenager, the woman who went on to lose all perspective and no longer knew where to stop and ended up hurting herself and others. //Yes, if you pressed me I would say this is the definition of her that sticks: the woman who went on to cause so much hurt.

Bolivian Author, Rodrigo Hasbún

Bolivian Author, Rodrigo Hasbún

It is a fragmentary novel that depicts a family set adrift, unable to remain united nor to be held together by their adopted community, the daughters seek to carve out a life of their own, struggling in isolation.

The piecemeal structure of the novel with its alternating narrators is symbolic of that disconnect and isolation, exile may have heralded adventure and discovery, however the expedition to discover a lost city, became the catalyst to the disintegration of all that once kept them together.

It’s not true that memory is a safe place. In there too, things get distorted and lost. In there, too, we end up turning away from the people we love the most.

Note: Thank you to the publisher Pushkin Press for a copy of this haunting novella.

Further Reading

The City and the Writer: In Cochabamba with Rodrigo Hasbún – an interview by Nathalie Handal.

Buy a copy of Affections via Book Depository (Affiliate Link)

Masks by Fumiko Enchi tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter #WITMonth

MasksA mysterious novella that begins in a quiet humble way as we meet the young widow Yasuko whose husband, the only son of Meiko Togano, we learn died tragically in an avalanche.

Yasuko has stayed close to her mother-in-law who in the early chapters seems like a peripheral character, however as the story ventures further, it is suspected that she may be manipulating events and that this is not the first time in her life she has done so.

“A woman’s love is quick to turn into a passion for revenge – an obsession that becomes an endless river of blood, flowing on from generation to generation”

Yasuko is ready to move on with her life and the two men who are in love with her become part of a triangle of deception, where the motives take some time to become clear.

Mieko is a poet and an essay she wrote called ‘The Shrine in the Fields‘, resurfaces, intriguing the two men. The shrine is a reference to a location in the Japanese classic The Tale of Genji that is mentioned in connection with tone of the characters in that novel the Rokujo lady.

“She has a peculiar power to move events in whatever direction she pleases, while she stays motionless. She’s like a quiet mountain lake whose waters are rushing beneath the surface toward a waterfall. She’s like the face on a No mask, wrapped in her own secret.”

Tale of GenjiIt is worth knowing a little about the plot of The Tale of Genji and the ‘Masks of Noh’ from the dramatic plays, as we realise there are likely to be references and connections to what is unfolding here. And not surprising given Fumiko Enchi translated this 1,000+ page novel into modern Japanese.

It may be that Masks, is an allegory to one or more chapters of The Tale of Genji, and in particular in relation to the story of the Rokujo lady, something that made me remember reading Sjon’s The Whispering Muse which did a similar thing with the Greek poet, Apollonius of Rhodes, and his epic poem The Argonautica.

Masks is an enchanting read, that begins as a straightforward narrative and becomes an intriguing multi-layered tapestry of long held deceptions and narcissistic conspiracies that will haunt the lives of these characters.

An intriguing, thought-provoking read, that expands our horizons, introducing us as it does, to classic works and theatre from the long Japanese literary culture.

Fumiko EnchiFumiko Enchi was a Tokyo born novelist and playright, the daughter of a distinguished philologist and linguist. Poorly as a child, she was home-schooled in English, French and Chinese literature by private tutors.

Her paternal grandmother introduced her to the Japanese classics such as The Tale of Genji, as well as gesaku novels,  kabuki and bunraku theatre. Her  adolescent reading included the works of Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allan Poe, Kyōka Izumi, Nagai Kafū, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, and especially Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, whose sado-masochistic aestheticism particularly fascinated her.

Much of her work explores female psychology and sexuality, while three of her works have been influenced by The Tales of Genji, – Masks, The Waiting Years and The Tale of An Enchantress.

Buy a Copy of Masks via Book Depository (Affiliate Link)

 

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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