Cut-throat or mocking-bird: of Conde's renewals.
Of Conde's transgressive mode of story-spinning, a recent novel is most exemplary. Celanire cou-coupe ("Cut-throat Celanire") can and should be taken seriously at various levels, but here Conde has made sure she would not again be misread. She told another interviewer: "the only means for us, as a black nation--although I have said on several occasions this word does not mean all that much is to distance ourselves from our history, to be able to laugh about our history and to acknowledge the components of it that we can attribute to our personal or collective responsibility. I don't think one should see the world in black and white." (3) Several critics have already shown the novelist's strategies of distancing used in various ways in earlier works. Leah Hewitt underlined how Conde, in The Last of the African Kings, resists the temptation to reassure or seduce distinct constituencies of readers: Africans, Creoles, African-American women, and other repressed, marginalized groups. (4)
In her very first novel, Heremakhonon (1976), Conde was already "mistreating" the dominant narrative scheme of the quest for roots and the return to Africa; already baring the teeth of a gnashing irony that purports to debunk received ideas. She was already using female sexuality to question the conventions of novelistic discourse where sexuality was traditionally inexplicit. There were always already forms of transgression in Conde's discourse: Veronica's hyper-sexuality and that of her "sister in joyful bitchery" ("soeur en putainerie"), Adama, were risky stereotypes in the context of an Afrocentric identity quest. Nor was it a simple indiscretion to put in the mouth of her protagonist the following remark about African political figures: "To possess the white man's riches (the colonized is envious, Fanon said so) and their blonde women. The blonde woman is the black man's dream, everybody knows that." (5) This sort of sally at the expense of her "heroes" will be cultivated by other scandal-prone women writers; not the least among them, Calixthe Beyala takes pride in her "bad genre/gender" ("mauvais genre").
Not all of Conde's novels push the reader around to the same extent as do the characters of Tituba the witch or Celanire the "cut-throat cut-throat." Not all of her protagonists charm us into first-degree, comfortable, and erroneous interpretations. Some narratives are seriously dominated by the somber or tragic mode along with in-depth reflection on socio-political questions. As concerns La Colonie du Nouveau Monde, for example, it can be argued that the only real victims of authorial derision are the rastas and the amorous chief of police. The central figure, Aton, is a parody of a guru, an egyptomaniacal spiritualist patriarch, yet his frailty and his secret (not to us) dependence on his beloved wife protect him from readerly laughter. Likewise in Desirada the narrative voice abstains from bantering to treat a doubly painful topic" proto-incestuous sexual abuse and the failure of the mother. Conde agrees that this is a "sad novel." (6) But the deeper layers of Conde's evolution become manifest in this novel which systematizes what was held back in previous works: "contradictions, discontinuities and the very limits of putting the real through narration" ("limites de la narrativisation du reel"). (7)
Irony, as we know, is grounded in ambiguity and tends to imply the reverse of what it signifies, thus opening the door for contradictory interpretations. It is not by chance that, as humans became educated semiological animals, the expression "au premier degre" ("at the first level") has become quite banal in French. Meantime Anglo-American journalists and politicians spend their time "emitting messages" and "decoding signs" correctly whilst we all send out bodily messages, and dress and gesture significantly/signifyingly. And so Rimbaud's famous "litteralement et dans tous les sens" ("literally and in all possible meanings") has become our reading key for absolutely untrustworthy writers. They are machiavellian in their passion to construct and de-construct coarsely basted plots and playful mirror games ("mises en abyme"), which does not prevent us from regularly stepping into the snares of the reality effect ("effet de reel"). These are the now established traits of postmodern fiction that A. James Arnold recognized in Conde's work a dozen years ago.
Conde's narratives are studded with winks to the (good) reader. Celanire cou-coupe and La Belle Creole exemplify a new, jubilant narrative mode, and the latest novel, Histoire de la femme-cannibale (2003), if we go by the title alone, follows on the same path of deliberate, savory outrageousness. (8) La Belle Creole--an enticing title for addicts of exotic fiction--is in fact the name of a boat that serves as a uterine refuge for a young Carribean fellow. He is a failed gigolo, of an unknown (until too late) father and madly (masochistically) in love with an ageing, alcoholic, rich white Creole. While the plot purports to re-write Lady Chatterley's Lover it is largely a provocative screening of all the social ills of Conde's native island of Guadeloupe, including Haitian immigration and labor organizations' politics. It also tackles for the first time head-on, though not in depth, the issue of male homosexuality.
The incomparable "cut-throat" Celanire can be dubbed "Superwoman" with Conde's indirect permission on the basis of a recent interview where she confesses a desire to venture on the turf of science fiction, "a sort of science fiction with a slightly pedagogical, liberating postulate at the start. To lead the Caribbean readers into a world as yet unfamiliar, but a world that belongs to them, to give them ownership of this world, so that they get the role of winners this time, after being losers for so long." (9) In another journal, Conde's humor is nonetheless lost on a (rushed?) reviewer who insists on presenting this fictional world as a "cruel chaos ... dominated by images of women who mingle their tears and their wounded silences to feed Celanire's fiery wrath...." (10) While Celanire cou coupe does not encroach on science fiction techniques, Conde definitely pursues the parody of marvelous realism incepted in I, Tituba, and she also plays with detective fiction ingredients. The plot is a complex intercontinental "quest for the father" which inexorably transforms itself into a manhunt where said "father" turns out to be a murderous, unnatural genitor. Like Tituba, Celanire is born of violence. First stolen from her birth-mother (declared still-born to her), she may or may not have been the victim of pseudo-incestuous behaviors by the doctor who has miraculously sewn up her slashed throat (inflicted on the newborn in a sacrifice ritual) and raised her with mixed feelings. But she is born to the reader, that is to say clearly identified as "cut-throat Celanire" only when she fails to rape a homosexual teacher who tears off her neck-scarf out of desperation, thereby unveiling her secret. The creature is "ridden"--as in voodoo--; she has dark magical powers as we had reasons to suspect. Celanire will pursue and destroy this unwitting object of her insatiable desires, beginning with having him convicted and shipped off to Guyana.
Paratextual considerations are in order to exemplify Conde's humor and multi-layered entrapments. Undoubtedly the author was involved in creating the remarkable, playfully devious book cover. We have a painted portrait of a beautiful, very modern dark woman with a perfect neck and open dress collar: she is the presumed protagonist of the title, Cut-throat Celanire, but the painting is entitled "Sudanese" if we read the small print on the back cover. There, we find a portrait parallel in size, cropping, and greenish background: it is a color photograph of the author, wearing an enormous gold chain and a mysterious Mona Lisa smile. Two captions, one in black ink and one in red ink "frame" the author. The black ink text is an excerpt of the novel, a portrait of Celanire. The red ink caption is a presumed authoritative "critical" voice that interprets the novel as a "politically correct" story of female victims, exotic mysteries, post-colonial politics and infanticide with no suggestion of its most distinctive achievement: fun.
In French one could tag Celanire as some detective-fiction protagonists are and dub her "Triple C" or CCC. The title of the novel is an intertextual capsule referring to the closure of Apollinaire's most famous poem, "Zone" ("Soleil cou coupe") rather than to the African bird. This poem was also picked up by Aime Cesaire for a collection of poems entitled Soleil cou coupe (1948), and more recently pursued by Annie Lebrun in her defense of Cesaire entitled Statue cou-coupe. The latter is an allusion to the headless statue of Napoleon's first empress, Josephine de Beauharnais. It was "beheaded" covertly in 1991, and in later years spattered with blood-like red paint, but it still stands in La Savane, the popular seaside garden of Fort-de-France, Martinique. It so happens that Celanire, on several occasions in the story, appears wearing "Empress style" dresses, that her quest for the father takes the form of a race for power through seduction and magical (unexplained and unpunished) murders. It also demands securing a French governor for a husband as well as a saint for a mother. Before readers can even embark on this massive fiction, however, Conde endows the novel with another wink for a sub-title: "a fantastic novel" is the sub-genre designated, a squint for a dedication to "Racky who will not read [this book]," and, finally, a ghastly glimpse of reality in the following irresistible epigraph.
This story is inspired by a real incident. In Guadeloupe, in 1995, a baby was round with its throat slashed, on a garbage heap. Throughout the island, imaginations galloped away, Mine included.
Retrospectively, once the reader has reached the end of Celanire's wild adventures, the term "fantastic" of the subtitle takes on its own specific nuances. Our grandfathers' literary notion of the fantastic (Maupassant's practice or Todorov's theory) did not encompass humor, nor the portly dimensions of the socio-historical novel, a genre that originally put Conde on the literary map of the world with her monumental Segou. Alejo Carpentier's or Isabel Allende's use of the marvelous real did not induce laughter either. A cabin in Peru is actually named "Casa de los espiritus" by Conde. Her novel is indeed "marvelous" and "fantastic" in all senses of the term "wonderful": it is powerful, formidable, moving, etc. But it also plays with core elements of the Haitian voodoo tradition, of Caribbean magic, and of African rituals as well. In 1960, tales of human sacrifice were alive in Southern Nigeria, for one, and of course they are not unheard of in today's California lore.
After delineating major themes of Celanire cou-coupe as playful variations on the fundamental concerns of Conde's work, I will pursue certain micro-textual and narratological structures to illustrate why this recent work is probably the freest, wittiest, and most entertaining book Conde has written (the story of the cannibal woman remaining an unknown as I write). Wandering is a familiar schema of the modern protagonist (with Don Quixote as forefather). For Celanire, who is out to conquer her world at the dawn of the twentieth century, the quest has an unmistakable jet-set dimension, from Guadeloupe to Paris to the Ivory Coast, then on to Guyana, back to Guadeloupe, on to Peru and back "home." As a rule, Conde has visited the sites of her protagonists' adventures to feed the realistic dimension of her writing, one of this novel's fortes I will not dwell on. At age ten, little "cut-throat" Celanire has been exiled to Paris and a nuns' school, much like rich planters' offspring. There has been a scandalous aborted trial as to whether she seduced her adoptive father or he abused her. Only in the middle of the novel do we hear his point of view and denial of the abuse, which does not save him from "accidental" death in the jungles of Guyana. But prior to the central episode, Celanire has climbed the social ladder and emancipated herself from purported would-be nun to schoolmistress and mistress of the governor. Her charms turn out nefarious for the governor's wife, fatal for Hakim, the homosexual mulatto already mentioned, and erotically gratifying for a number of women and men, including the local African king.
A third part of the novel anchors us firmly in Guadeloupe for three years. This is the time Celanire needs to conquer the people's hearts, to smash that of the chief of police (whose wife she seduces), and to rid the island of three among the various actors of her failed ritual sacrifice as an infant. One is the pathetic beke (white landowner) who had ordered the immolation in order to have success in his career. As a sugar-cane tycoon he finishes himself off logically: imbibed with rum, he sets fire to himself, his money cache, and his entire household. The second is the medicine man and executor of the deed. He ends up stabbed by nocturnal forces in Celanire's service while she is on a humanitarian mission on a nearby island. The third is his son, who exposed the baby's body instead of hiding it, thereby salvaging for us the possibility of reading Celanire's adventures. The boy, Zulefi, has now grown into a successful, post-Afrocentric preacher and guilt-monger, but ends up trampled to death by a mad black horse dashing forth from the unnamable locus (and residence of the unnamable). Only a few pages from the conclusion, the reader still doesn't know who the real culprit is, who picked baby Celanire-to-be, or how, for the sacrifice. But she has found herself a spiritual (and possibly biological) mother whose timely death bestows on our heroine a much-needed halo for the rest of her adventures. But since she needs a rest, she officially embarks on a voyage to Peru with her spouse (in Flora Tristan's tracks). The most "marvelously" realistic battle is the one that ultimately takes place between Celanire--as a lethal nightly creature or "soukougnan"--and the last person on her never-revealed list: her genitor and vendor, for whom she never had more reality than one of his spermatozoids. By the good graces of a nurturing healer the young woman, who nearly loses her life-spirit in this dubious battle, survives and goes home ... and the book closes in a peal of laughter (the reader's).
There is obviously little need to consider Celanire's wanderings as belonging to the repertoire of absurd non-quests, let alone the seasoned Bildungsroman. Hers are the adventurous heroine's adventures, clearly linear, with vengeance in mind and relentless pursuit as method. The reader's armchair travels turn into magic carpet swishes and boat rides at times. In French "to take for a boat ride" (mener en bateau) also means to "embark on delusive rides"--to deceive, to entrap. This the author gleefully does to the reader. When Celanire declares that she is not there as a tourist (in 1901 colonial Ivory Coast), the text inaugurates a series of playful anachronisms that divert the meaning of a potential return to roots, or spiritual quest. Her travels and travails, however, take us through some serious socio-historical constructions regarding the history of the narrative spaces traversed. Beneath the plot's fanciful twists and laughable caricatures, its political criticism is sharp, topographical descriptions are reliable, and changing human relationships on sex, gender, and ethnic and economic differences and divides are presented critically. Substantial realism is not absent but derision sneaks up everywhere, violating a time-honored, French classical tradition of uniformity of tone (Hugo and Apollinaire having wreaked havoc with it, of course, among renowned iconoclasts of tradition). Thus the narrative voice presents the Reverend Father Huchard as a "vieux de la vieille" who has "fait eclater la Lumiere de Dieu" (11) ("one who was there before the Flood, and has loosed God's fateful lightning on the locals" [my rendering]). In the year 1907, we are invited to note as visual witnesses "two SDFs ... comparing notes on their predicaments at some street corner." (12) Here the fun resides in the anachronistic reference to "Sans Domicile Fixe" (SDF), which is a 1990's administrative ail-inclusive euphemism for the homeless, vagabonds, bag ladies, addicts, and traditional bums. The reader can also relish a geographically "displaced" Caribbean creolism in the same breath as an Africanism, in formulas such as "quartier poto-poto ou les cases avaient l'air petries avec du caca-boeuf;" (13) that is "a mess of an area where huts looked like they were kneaded out of cattle-dung"; or smile at "krazurs de ciel azur," (14) where the fun comes from the stylistic clash between "poetic" standard French and a Creole paronym (azur/ecrasure, from ecraser, to crush), yielding "krazurs de ciel azure" for "tidbits of azureous sky" (my rendering).
Leisurely readers will note parodies of various styles and stereotypical "romantic" turns likely to raise the brow of Robbe-Grillet's children, as in "You could tell that night was eager to stuff to the bottom of her deep-mourning dark sack the green of the sugar cane fields" ("On sentait que la nuit etait pressee de serrer au fond de son sac grand deuil le vert des champs de canne"). (15) There is fresh flavor in the ironical use of cliches, and here Conde echoes literary humorists and comic writers of the Queneau and San Antonio family: "seule dans le triste chemin de la vie" (16) or "Sous le soleil de Celanire, les enfants rayonnaient de sante" (17) ("lone on the desolate path of life", or "Under Celanire's sun, the children radiated health"). On occasion, there will be an ethnographic caricature. In the following case, the cadaver of Charlotte de Brabant (whose husband is already under the spell and will quickly become Celanire's husband) has just been discovered, rotting in a marsh. At that instant, "Spontaneously, the weepers of Tiabega, who were just done with Adueli Kabanlan, the [departed] staff-bearer, volunteered their tears and wailing, which created a gorgeous din all the way to the palace." (18)
Celanire can speak like a book (she seems as well-read as her inventor). In somewhat anachronistic fashion, she shows off her very contemporary interest in the newly retrieved feminist curriculum: "In her eyes, a few lines from The Peregrinations of a Pariah inaugurated the linkage between racism and sexism while the entire opus comprised a powerful condemnation of the enslavement of Blacks." (19) The most elaborate, comical leitmotif is that of classical music, popping up at the most unexpected times and least predictable places, sometimes brashly juxtaposed by Celanire with African musical instruments and rhythms. (20) The narrative voice goes as far as to use iconoclastic sayings that betray self-scorn and alienation, according to Fanon and other negritude writers. We startle at tidbits directly borrowed from raw Caribbean discourse such as "Black as the bottom of a cooking-pot with a long life on the
fire," (21) or "Black like the ass of a kongo slave." (22) But, with blindfolded equanimity, we remember that Celanire did lower her eyes, nauseated at the spectacle of her travel companions' pallor at bathing time. (23) In this area of thematic indiscretions on the question of skin color, we hear Dr. Pinceau (Celanire's savior is a light-skinned mulatto) profess his (again anachronistic anti-aryanism as follows:
My dad's name was de Royer Belle-Eau, that's a high white name he did not give me. But because he adored my mom--she was a seamstress at home--he sent me to school and paid off my entire education. But I could not take it. I had dreams about eating his tripe as a salad, making sausage of his blood. My mom cried every time I spewed out insanities against him. Because, after all, he only did well by me. In Pau, Aurelie did love me, half Negro though I was. I could have married her, made quadroons with her. Whitened the race. But I didn't want to. On the contrary, I would have loved to darken the race. Return to Africa. Become cannibal once again. Climb back up my tree. That's why I married Ofusan, a Wayana. Wayanas were runaway blacks who had escaped the plantations and settled on the slopes of La Soufriere volcano. (24)
And popular rumor has it that Wayanas are "black as sin." (25) Pinceau's negntudist or white-phobic philosophy does not prevent him (the good doctor who explicitly compares himself to Dr. Frankenstein) from cheating on his Wayana wife and exercising his scientific and sexual powers in a bottom-wrung whorehouse. He falls madly in love, in surrealistic style, with the worst of the prostitutes. Indeed, Pisket is of a distinctly coolie-Creole mix. She stinks (a trait of those sent or escaped from hell), she is an opium addict, and she is enmeshed with her male twin. Not out of choice, she will conceive (and spontaneously abort at seven months); the premature baby was the pawn in the deal we are aware of if we have read the back cover of the book (quoted earlier). So, in passing, Maryse Conde touches upon the graceful motif of incest between twins, which leads us on to the bumpy terrain of ethical-thematic transgressions; that is, the realm of Celanire's generalized polymorphous perverse sexuality (to counterfeit Freudian lingo).
As with adult comic books, Harlequin romances, and the French morning daily, Liberation classifieds, sexual activity is a carefully modulated leitmotif in this novel, beginning with a sudden death that reeks of the goddess Juno's vengeful ways. The headmaster of the Ivory Coast Mulatto Boarding School (meant for the unofficial sons of the French administrators), the Honorable Desrussies--whose newly appointed assistant is Celanire--suddenly dies. How? "He was about to make love to his new sixteen-year-old mistress when a giant black widow spider hidden in the bed-sheets had bit him on his member." (26) Celanire, thankful to her patron saint (unidentified for good reasons), not only wins Desrussies' post, but also his widow (who recalls Queneau's whimpering Roque widow in Zazie). The Desrussie widow will come to no good, unconditional slave as she is of Celanire's caprices. The femme fatale loses no time in creating a triangle with the lieutenant governor, who in turn loses no time becoming governor, thanks to the sudden death of the governor, and finds himself (we are talking of the new governor) widowed soon enough, thanks to the timely disappearance of his spouse, who was found, as we have seen, rotting in a marsh, but died we know not how or why.
Thus Celanire unwittingly illustrates Lacan's (and Freud's, Proust's, and Duras') theory of everlasting desire for ever-changing objects. Using this theory we understand that Celanire's sexual demands are but symptoms of her monolithic desire for her own vindication. From infancy, the people who surround her come, one by one, to recognize her superhuman seductiveness and special powers. For example, she quickly transforms the lackluster Mulatto Boys Boarding School into a prosperous plantation serving also as a model institution, a battered wives refuge, and a night-time bordello for rich visitors. One glance at her suffices to bewitch the neighborhood king. Until then, he is ferociously opposed to colonization, a patriarchal tyrant whose devastating passion now leads him to collect blue crystal stemware, to convert to Catholicism, (27) and to bequeath of all his worldly belongings to the White Man's God in the person of His (black) envoy, Celanire. In so doing, he sends the destitute royal heirs into exile.
Among numerous politically incorrect breaches of conventional wisdom, homosexuality is richly explored in this novel. Hakim (forsaken son of a white administrator) bears the burden of iii omen. He feels responsible for his first lover's suicide--a suicide that took place years after their affair in boarding school ended. He demonstrates a visceral allergy to femininity but, unfortunately for him and by law, only the king may enjoy sex through sodomy or incest (we have the narrator's word for it). Poor Hakim--whose fatal passion is reminiscent of the vicious love circle of Racine's Andromaque--is pursued by Celanire but he is in love with the prince, who is in love with any loin cloth that passes by, and who makes no effort to keep his amorous activities away from Hakim's ears. After unmasking our heroine (un-scarfing her accidentally but in self-defense), Hakim lives in terror of being discovered; he becomes an alcoholic and ends up stabbing his loved one (the prince) in the nether regions. Celanire sends him to his doom in Cayenne where--as chance would have it--his jail companion turns out to be Dr. Pinceau. Hakim must then and there endure the tale of Pinceau's innocence and of Celanire's perversity. Before long, the two jailbirds escape only to meet their fate in the form of a waterside wata woman ("manman d'lo").
It is more particularly on the side of female homosexuality that Conde exercises her gynocentric humor. The novelist is conversant with the aberrant debates "in favor" of excision under the shield of respect for traditional customs and foreign ways. According to the discourse of certain Afrocentric cultural critics, "Western" feminists should refrain from comment, as if no African feminists had ever denounced clitoridectomy. This question surfaces in Conde's novel, raised by Celanire. Despite her own secret ferocity, Celanire upholds the most politically correct position on the issue, which turns out to be comical for reasons of anachronism. It is all the more funny since the graphic details are destined for poor Hakim's ears:
[S]he talked about her passion for Africa. In her opinion, there was only one blemish to this magnificent civilization: the treatment of women. Did he know that African peoples mutilated female genitals? They cut out the clitoris and larger lips. Then they sewed the test up, leaving only a narrow passage for urine and menstrual blood. Hakim's imagination had rarely wandered in such areas. Very uncomfortably, he mumbled that these practices were the equivalent of male circumcision. She protested energetically.... (28)
Female homosexuality provides particularly successful comical episodes, primarily at the expense of men. One memorable scene involves a police chief whose very name signifies ridicule: Dorlis, the Mongoose. In Caribbean folklore, the "dorlis" is a magic phallic creature who sneaks into lonely women's beds at night and takes them, sometimes impregnating them. Despite his name and nickname, Dorlis is the last person to see what is public knowledge. His subservient wife has recently been recruited by Celanire for the purity of her voice (as first lady of Guadeloupe, Celanire has undertaken to promote the fine arts). It turns out the wife is appreciated much beyond her voice by the fascinating creature who, as Dorlis rightly discerns (sniffs out), may well be the unforgettable cut-throat girl of his earlier police work years. Dorlis, as a former friend of Dr. Pinceau (sentenced and now defunct in the Amazon as we have seen), has vowed to unmask the she-devil. As Amarante, his wife, concludes her solo in Johannes Brahms's Rhapsodie pour alto opus 53,
A new round of applause burst out. The two women embraced, then kissed each other. The manner in which they were pressing against each other, the way their breasts rubbed against one another's, the eagerness that drew their lips close, evoked such shamelessness that [Dorlis] rose straight up, transported. Did others see what he was seeing? His nostrils itched irresistibly and through a series of sneezes the truth exploded. (169)
The reader must appreciate the subtle redundancy of a mock creolism ("se leva debout") suggesting that Dorlis the sniffer was "erected" by the suddenly eroticized spectacle, only to be the victim of his legendary sensitive nose. His appendage reveals to him beyond the shadow of a doubt what he will never be able to demonstrate: Celanire's links to the supernatural. Lesbianism, however, is not beyond the reach of Conde's satirical humor. She remembers, at the very least reminds us of, Wittig's Guerilleres, the Belle Epoque "lionesses" or other gynocentric utopias. Soon after the scene just evoked, Amarante and Celanire produce themselves in the duo of "Lauda Jerusalem" and spend delicious weekends with the friendly members of the Fireflies Association or those of the "Zanmi Club" (Female Friends Club). The very complacent governor often accompanies his beloved wife and cohort but sleeps outside under the moon.
Numerous intertextual and intercultural references provide another rich source of humor in the novel. Major authors invoked include the Reverend Labat (the late-seventeenth-century slave-master and explorer of the Caribbean) as well as Daudet, Fanon, Senghor, and Glissant. Music appears for comic purposes: from Bach to Bob Marley, from Brahms to the singer Christiane Valejo. A particularly delectable, anachronistic piece of theatrics shows Celanire as the champion of creolite every bit as much as the vindicator of GBL (Gay-Bisexual-Lesbian) freedom of choice. Conde's real-life critiques of the Creolist ideology as expounded in the 1988 Eloge de la creolite are well known. One can refer to the various dossiers that Conde published in Callaloo and World Literature Today as well as to collected interviews (Pfaff) or conference papers (Pointe-a-Pitre 1994). Conde stages Celanire as facetiously promoting "soul food" [manger pays], the Creole language, as well as Caribbean/African music precisely where they are least expected and traditionally unheard of: the inaugural reception of the Governor for the notables and the "High Whites" ("Grands Blancs" or rich planters) of the island. (29) Her purported creolity, however, will not bar Celanire from feasting in "caviar leftist" style, with the repugnant accomplice of yet another murder on her list, while the starving little people of Montserrat are burying their dead after a volcanic catastrophe. (30)
In her determination to preclude any attempt at reducing her intentions to a coherent message, Conde writes "creole" and "kreyol" in the same sentence (31) and credits Celanire with an ambitious cultural mission. She will reconcile contradictions, put an end to discriminations, and rehabilitate popular culture to the point of "noirism" or "duvalierism," while claiming in the same breath that she will promote all the Greek muses. "I'll drive you nuts," the divine iron lady promises her obsequious entourage. She becomes the adored icon of her people, Eva Peron style:
Her achievements were incomparable. We'll not even mention her intellectual activity, her constant striving to persuade the Guadeloupean that he must defend his own culture though he must open up to the whole-world ["le tout-monde" is a wink at Glissant's theory]. We won't even try to list her charitable work: orphanages, clinics, seniors' homes, soup-kitchens, good-heart restaurants. Despite this dazzling resume, members of her inner circle could not fail to note a surprising bitterness. (32)
If we turn to consider briefly such narratological transgressions as ironical twists and games with the reader, it must be conceded that these are designed for the enjoyment of the more attentive or sophisticated readers, although popular detective novelists like San Antonio (Frederic Dard) and the less than popular New Novelists alike have used such techniques (the playful or befuddling authorial intrusion), for half a century. One rather discreet one is the mismatching of "serious" chronological references. Whether by negligence, indifference, or intention to mislead her future critics, Conde tells us that Celanire is a newborn in 1890 (33) but she is ten in 1894, (34) although in 1906, she is twenty-four or twenty-five. "Understand who can" as the text says, or rather as the Archbishop says when his high-rise rhetorical flight enables him to proclaim Celanire's identity as the country's patron because she is the daughter of the newly dead-and-sanctified Sister Tonine (who now works miracles for sterile women). (35)
Here are a few examples of authorial intrusions that will inevitably bring smiles (mental at least): "the following sequence of events is not entirely credible." (36) "It will be hard to believe but with this sort of talk he enjoyed a considerable following" (37) refers to Zulefi's scathing sermons to a populace that feeds his family and begs for more lashes of the whip. The example explaining that Agenor (the one who flambes himself with rum and all of his money) "never related his final moments to anybody, needless to say. That's why we will never know what he saw at the ultimate instant" (38) is particularly toothsome. The author can take the voice of the reader, or the reader's point of view: "At the time this story begins (but is this the beginning? Where is the beginning? beats me!)" ("mystere et boule de gomme"). (39) Or she takes the piteous nitwit's (Dorlis, the police chief's) point of view: "after that, we lose his trace;" (40) or she points to a-chronologies that she exploits humorously at other times: "Yet, considering the time of these events--we are roughly in 1903--Art. Rozier did not dare (as one would have done today) pronounce the word homosexuality." (41)
More complex instances of authorial disruptions might be labeled narratological syllepses. Here, the narrator sounds like the author at her desk, and shares with the reader her critical consciousness: "In that story, there were tons of leads that had not been followed" (42) but the thought is at the same time credited to a character (Dorlis, the mongoose). So we have a message signifying on two levels simultaneously. At times the reader is the narrator's accomplice, but the author fools her/him on occasion, too. For example, Conde uses the character of Ludivine (the governor's daughter with his first wife) as a major plot device. We are led to believe that she will unmask Celanire (who, we suspect, is responsible for her mother's atrocious death) and avenge the maternal spirit, but it does not happen. The heroine gets away with (dubiously "justifiable") multiple murders. The most stunning example of narratological syllepsis unfolds over five pages--I would call it "discursus interruptus" in the spirit of this novel. The reader becomes fascinated by the graphic narration of Celanire's voodoo "sacrifice" with all the necessary ingredients, and the text also reports how it happened--against all odds--that the baby was saved (the crime was almost perfect). Five pages is a long time for the reader to keep in mind the narratological blazing planted by the author along with a blank space (Zulefi has often imagined the moment of his confession). (43) We are supposed to remember that this was all stream of consciousness. The return to the "real" (that is the un-reality of the framing narrative) is brutal for the reader. Zulefi (who as a boy derailed the sacrifice) is now a fear-ridden preacher-penitent. Instead of confessing to Dorlis, he was actually "holding back the swirls of words cavorting around his brain." (44) And it is actually on his way home that he meets his fate, suddenly trampled and reduced to mush by a black stallion. Obviously, as in the case of flambe au rhum Agenor, we were not supposed to be privy to his intimate reminiscences and his need to clear his conscience. The breach of narrative flow is quite effective and dramatic for the reader.
This novel is not governed by logic, uniformity of tone, conventional "propriety," or respect for conventions--thematic or formal. It follows upon Desirada and might even be regarded as a playful perversion of this "sad novel." For its protagonist Marie-Noelle, the enigma of her mother's rape remains largely unsolved and she assigns her obsession to oblivion out of duty to herself. Celanire, who is not a plausible character, resolves the mystery of her birth and sacrifice through magical powers. Unlike Tom Thumb, she has not marked her trail with white pebbles but with dead bodies. Indeed, the people identify her interchangeably as the Good Lord's babe or the Devil's babe ("Pitit a bon dye" or "Pitit a Diab"). The stigma of her cut throat provides the exclusive direction for her life, a quest whose ferocity recalls Maldoror's Songs, Exterminator's exploits and other hyperactive "dubious genres" of narratives. A strong syllepsis in French, "Mauvais Genres" was the title of an exhibit and debate (Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1999) where "gore" and horror film and literature were explored. Signs and captions on the brochure for this event might just as easily have illustrated Conde's novel, with a blood-gushing headless body in a dark suit and a nun's winged cornet (for Nun Crazy, translated as Cornettes endiablees) and other "most gorgeous amputations in the world." It is in fact easy to imagine an adult film scenario based on Celanire's adventures.
The paternal figure has somewhat been mistreated in recent Franco-Caribbean fiction. Cut-throat Celanire achieves a paroxysm in this respect, but makes fun of the genre and issue of the quest for the father. As we have earlier heard the author assert (my second paragraph): horror must be kept at bay through derision. Here the father is not one; he is a monster who engenders a monster with no trace of the heroic figures of Abraham or Agamemnon, to name a couple of immolator genitors. The devil in skirts for whom all men--and some women--damn their souls, inexorable Celanire stands as yet another reincarnation of the Caribbean "enfant terrible," the lawless, homeless Ti-Jean, born an adult of no known father and a defunct mother. Ina Cesaire has shown that this hero is the fruit of the foundational trauma of the Middle Passage: "It is indeed under the sign of violence (abduction, deportation, enslavement, corporeal punishments, tortures, and executions) that the Caribbean world was created. It is no wonder that the traditional Caribbean folktale is a child." (45)
I did not account for the only episode which is "fantastic," properly speaking, in this novel. It is a beautiful, somber passage, with no trace of humor, that describes the moments when the protagonist--agonizing literally--emerges out of her old skin to become a night spirit, a "soukougnan" (vampirical bird, the nocturnal evildoer double). This splitting of the self is the Caribbean pendant of the medieval German Doppelganger. Now the super-sexy adventuress has shed her beautiful body: the old Celanire (not yet thirty years of age) loses life (her old self) because her destiny as parricidal force comes to a close (she has a new, more normal life ahead of her).
At a time when "chic porn" and gore film seem to be legitimate business, Conde's narrative transgressions will entertain only a non video-intoxicated readership. They should be relished in the context of Conde's monument, and of the Caribbean novel as a whole. This is a post-colonial as well as an anti-colonial, tongue-in-cheek novel, a gynocentric, ironical and serious work that also claims an affiliation to the "fantastic" mode. Thus, many moods, genres, and intertextual references are traversed and trespassed in this new jewel of Conde's art. Among others, one French reviewer applauded in Le Monde "the sovereign ease of a novelist who has reached the perfect mastery of a polyphonic art of narration." (46) Suggesting that the French reception of Conde's texts has not measured up to her true stature, Meudal even ventured to pique his French readers by way of conclusion: "If she were translated from English, it is quite likely that she would be considered in France as a great American writer." (47)
(1.) All translations and "renderings" are mine. This article is adapted from a forthcoming reading: "Celanire Superwoman, on les nouvelles impertinences de Maryse Conde" in Femmes et ecritures de la transgression, Hafid Gafaiti & Armelle Crouzieres, eds. Paris: L'Harmattan, 2003: 17-40.
(2.) Pfaff 91.
(3.) Sourieau 1096.
(4.) Hewitt 649.
(5.) Heremakbonon quoted by Andrade 224.
(6.) Sourieau 1097.
(7.) Lionnet quoted by Anagnostopoulou 2000; 351.
(8.) It is set in South Africa, the inter-racial love story "plays" with a "real" case of conjugal cannibalism.
(9.) Africultures 25.
(10.) Brison 79.
(11.) Celanire 13.
(12.) Celanire 172.
(13.) Celanire 19.
(14.) Celanire 144.
(15.) Celanire 155.
(16.) Celanire 196.
(17.) Celanire 40.
(18.) Celanire 62.
(19.) Celanire 195.
(20.) Celanire 66, 147, etc.
(21.) Celanire 151.
(22.) Celanire 219.
(23.) Celanire 17.
(24.) Celanire 104.
(25.) Celanire 106.
(26.) Celanire 18.
(27.) Celanire 55.
(28.) Celanire 34.
(29.) Celanire 142.
(30.) Celanire 152.
(31.) Celanire 145.
(32.) Celanire 194.
(33.) Celanire 116.
(34.) Celanire 121.
(35.) Celanire 205.
(36.) Celanire 172.
(37.) Celanire 162.
(38.) Celanire 191.
(39.) Celanire 14.
(40.) Celanire 173.
(41.) Celanire 77.
(42.) Celanire 144.
(43.) Celanire 163.
(44.) Celanire 167.
(45.) Unpublished paper, February 2001.
Anagostopoulou-Hielscher, Maria. 2000. "Subjectivites 'autobiographiques' et 'creolisation' de l'ecriture feminine: vers la naissance d'une litterature sans frontieres dans Heremakhonon et Desirada de Maryse Conde." Francographies, Actes du cinquieme colloque. No Special 3, Tome II: 345-357.
Andrade, Susan Z. 1993. "The Nigger of the Narcissist, History, Sexuality and Intertextuality in Maryse Conde's Heremakhonon." Calalloo 16.1: 213-226.
Arnold, A. James. 1992. "Poetique forcee et identite dans la litterature des Antilles francophones." L'Heritage de Caliban, ed. Maryse Conde, et al. Pointe-a-Pitre: Editions Jasor: 19-27.
Brison, Daniele. 2000. "Celanire cou-coupe." Magazine Litteraire 391 (October): 79.
Conde, Maryse. 1997. Desirada. Paris: Robert Laffont.
--. 2000. Celanire cou-coupe. Paris: Robert Laffont.
--. 2001. "Entretien avec Catherine Dana." Africultures 35 (February): 19-25.
--. 2002. La belle Creole. Paris: Mercure de France.
--. 2003. Histoire de la femme cannibale. Paris: Mercure de France.
Hewitt, Leah. 1995. "Conde's Critical Seesaw." Callaloo 18:3 : 641-651.
Le Pelletier, Catherine. 1998. Encre noire. La langue en liberte. Guadeloupe: Ibis Rouge Editions.
Meudal, Gerard. 2000. "Maryse Conde, l'inconvenante." Le Monde, November 10.
Pfaff, Francoise. 1993. Entretiens avec Maryse Conde. Paris: Karthala.
Sourieau, Marie-Agnes. 1999. "Entretien avec Maryse Conde: de l'identite Culturelle." French Review 72. 6 (May): 1091-1098.
Pennsylvania State University
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|Publication:||The Romanic Review|
|Date:||May 1, 2003|
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