Dialogue with the ancestors.
At the beginning of Segu, we feel that this dialogue with the ancestors must have existed, serving as a clear guide for human behavior. The history of the decline of Segu is also a history of the weakening of the power of the ancestral word, blurring the characters' consciounesses. With I, Tituba Black Witch of Salem, awareness of the words of the ancestors resurfaces as a more individual conquest. The "witch" is isolated in groups which do not share her knowledge, and even if she has two ancestors for guides, her destiny depends more on her desire, on her own choices than on her obedience to the ancestors' words. Finally, with The Last of the Magi, the words of the ancestors have lost their direct dimension. One reads about them, sees pictures, paintings, and hears stories that mediate between the ancestors and characters - a distancing which leads the characters to new doubts.
Through her history of the transformation of human consciousness, starting from a moment when that consciousness was based on knowledge born of shared blood, up to the point when it seems to individuate - but does it really? - Maryse Conde finds in each work narrative techniques which bring out these transformations in a unique fashion, so that we as readers also witness these changes and relive in our own way the tragedy of knowledge.
Segu: The Epic Novel or the Drama of the Darkening of Consciousness
From the first pages of Segu, certain Bambara beliefs are evoked. The "forgeron-feticheur"(2) has a central role in the family. He looks to protect it and deciphers the words of the ancestors who know the future and influence it, above all by their anger which one must avoid provoking. Other characters also seem capable of interpreting certain signs, especially through their dreams. Two events, the arrival of the first white man Segu sees and the birth of a child in the Traore family, are thus examined, by the "forgeron-feticheur" and other members of the family, to see if they contain signs of the future. The emotional reaction of Western readers with little knowledge of African history and culture is disengaged at this point. Their interest is mainly intellectual, or anthropological: these characters seem to evoke a time and place where people thought like this. The distancing is very easy because the narrative voice places each interpretation of the future in the consciousness of her characters. The narrator moves us from one consciousness to another, underlining in this way the subjectivity of each one. In parallel fashion, readers draw on their own knowledge to guide them. They know - or think they know - the history of the last two hundred years and imagine more or less what the arrival of a white person means for Segu's history. They are thus able to anticipate certain givens for the rest of the novel, much like the characters who believe they can anticipate certain givens in their future thanks to the "forgerons-feticheurs" and their own dreams.
Suddenly, however, a new factor appears. The "forgeron-feticheur" of a family that is an enemy of the Traores tries to negatively influence the future of the newborn. This new episode suggests to Western readers another realm, that of fantastic stories in which evil fairies cast a spell on children. What kind of novel are we reading? A realist novel with a tinge of history or anthropology, or a text tinged with the quality of a fairy tale or legend? This discomfort over what the novel is becomes accentuated a few chapters later. The predictions of the enemy "forgeron-feticheur" come true, and a fusion begins to take place between the consciousness of the characters and that of the narrator. What are we supposed to think of this slipping of narrative definition? Does the realistic dimension of the novel give a seriousness to Bambara beliefs? Would the characters be right to believe that such an action would bring down the anger of the ancestors, or that a certain dream had a certain meaning? Could it be that someone met on the road was really the incarnation of an ancestor sent there to guide someone? Or might the opposite effect be produced? Will the fantastic element now destroy the realistic dimension of the story?
But what does the work say about its own definition? On one hand, Segu presents itself as a novel evoking the history of Mali. It began as a doctoral dissertation, as writing implying serious research. Because of this fact it calls forth an anticipation based on our judgment of certain historical and cultural givens. There is a parallel between the "realistic" anticipation evoked earlier and another, "scientific" anticipation, both of them equally Western. Thus an anthropological reader of Segu, like Anne-Marie Jeay, underlines historical errors in the novel and takes offense at its lack of "truth." And yet, on the other hand, Maryse Conde, at the end of a list of authors she thanks in her acknowledgments, says, "Thanks to them, this fiction does not take too many liberties with the facts." Therefore, we have a "fiction" which admits to taking some liberties with historical truth.(3)
More informed readers could say that the mixture of narrative types including "realism" and the "fantastic" is something found in modern African literature. Thus, in the first pages of Les soleils des independances by Ahmadou Kourouma, an evocation of the invisible is immediately mixed with a more "realistic" narrative. Such a phenomenon is also present in the literature of the Antilles, as well as in literature written on the American continent, particularly literature with African roots. One might also take a literary critic's view and say that we are now in a post-modern period which accepts such a mixture of genres, of discourses, of sensitivity to the actual.(4) However, is this just a simple matter of literary expertise? Are such hypotheses sufficient to describe our actual experience of reading a text? For instance, asked to comment on Traversee de la Mangrove, Patrick Chamoiseau says,
My feeling is that the act of reading is a personal, even intimate affair. It is the articulation of a sensibility on another sensibility . . . The laws and effects of this articulation secure their meaning within the narrow space of a dialogue, in this case, the dialogue between reader and author. (389)
If I question my own position as a reader, it seems to me that I am divided between different habits of thought since my literary formation is fundamentally French, but I also read works which do not belong to the French tradition. This position, in a sense, is perhaps not that far in its pluralism from that of Maryse Conde. In her conversation with Marie-Clotilde Jacquey, she answers, by way of defending herself against the charge of not having expressed an African way of thinking in the novel, that the imagination is hers, one belonging to someone formed by a plurality of cultures: ". . . You mustn't forget I am from the Antilles, which is to say with a lot of French culture mixed in which I must, alas, own up to" (58).
But there is another dimension which reminds us that Maryse Conde has also listened carefully to what went on around her in Africa.(5) Doesn't the "questionable" relation toward historical "truth" and the fantastic dimension that the novel illustrates recall an ancient African tradition, that of the griot? The griot is the official memory of his people, and yet he doesn't need to be limited to "the real truth":
Griots . . . are responsible for conserving and disseminating history, but as an early French observer, Dr. Toutain, wrote in Revue d'ethnographie in 1885, "Unfortunately, very often they invent [it] out of wholecloth or modify [it] in order to please the village they are in at the moment, the family they are currently exploiting." True casted griots ignore "the discipline of 'truth'" a proverb states. "The griot is allowed to have two tongues," and another, "Such is the speech of the jeli! It isn't the real truth [la verite vraie] but we accept it as such. (Miller 92-93)
What then is the griot's listener waiting for? Gordon Innes, presenting three versions of the Mande epic Sunjata, suggests that the Mandinka listener "listens to his national epic for feelings and for truth at a deeper level than that of mere fact" (cited by Miller 93). This is precisely my experience as a reader of Segu: I found in this "fantastic" dimension, where signs of the invisible are invoked, a level of truth "deeper than that of mere fact."
Roman Jakobson recalls in "Of Realism in Art" that the word "realism" has multiple meanings. A reader might either have a conservative attitude or a revolutionary attitude based on the artistic practices in use. The "conservative" reader will judge "realistic" that which corresponds to these practices, and the "revolutionary" reader will consider "realistic" that which upsets standard practice. One can apply this reasoning to Segu. Western "realist" literature (in this case meaning an historical literary school) has hardly looked favorably on the opening of our imaginations toward the invisible. The attention of a "revolutionary" reader based on such a practice would thus be forcibly awakened here by the realm of the invisible.(6) This was my own experience. Reading these passages on the dialogue with the ancestors, I became more sensitive to signs from the invisible which the rules of the narration had just helped me take seriously. This imaginative opening was undoubtedly rendered possible by the fact that it found an echo in me ready to resonate. It is this reading trope that I am proposing here. Daring to believe that I'm not unique, I'll pass from saying "I" to saying "we" from now on.
However, in Segu, very soon after these passages where our readerly sensibility is awakened to signs from the invisible, our new faith is suddenly shaken. We are, for instance, tempted to return to our preceding way of thought when Naba, one of Traore's children, is stolen and sold to the whites. By evoking the painful history of the slave trade, this incident draws the reader away from the previous focus on the "magical" or "fantastic" dimensions of the narrative. Similarly, the conversion to Islam of Tiekoro, the oldest son of Dousika Traore, announces the beginning of a period of Islamic expansion in this region of Africa, which leads us back to thinking about historical facts.
However, it is precisely with his conversion that the consciousness of this character begins to change. On the day when Tiekoro thinks that he has summoned the anger of the ancestors because he raped a young Bambara woman, he defends himself against a belief Islam doesn't allow him to have. One quickly realizes that Tiekoro's system of beliefs, like that of his Islamicized descendants, is becoming divided. Looking for signs of a new type (the direct manifestation of God), quite often the characters don't find any. Their guide becomes God's Word written as texts, or more precisely, their meditation on his Word. But the characters find themselves alone, because the fixed form of the text - a definition of the written - seems also to correspond to God's silence (or that of the gods, or of the ancestors). At the same time, on the narrative plane, one notices a dominance of indirect free discourse of the interrogative type, for these characters question themselves. Western readers rediscover familiar territory, that of the literature of "monologic discourse" which retraces the exploration of individual consciousness. It seems clear that this change is willed by an author who has an expert literary understanding of this mode of discourse, as well as experience with the type of interior debate it reflects.
Does this mean that a Western mode of thought and literary genre will now dominate? There is, from this moment, a rent in the text between the anxious subjectivity of the Islamicized characters and that of the characters who remain faithful to Bambara customs: only the latter continue to be able to read the signs of the invisible? So we are told that Naba, grown up and living in Brazil, encounters the soul of his father when he smokes a pipe of "maconha." Likewise, he foretells his death at the moment of sinking into sleep when he sees his mother's face bathed in tears while the odor of vulture climbs toward him. The narrative voice occasionally even intensifies this dimension of the text, bringing it closer to myth, to legend. For instance, it tells us, without any distancing, upon Dousika's death, that the soul of Dousika visits Sira, the woman whom he loved and who left him. In the same mode, it tells us that when Naba died, he was reincarnated in the child conceived by his mother that night. We believe it. We can't not believe it. And these pages give us at the same time the feeling of being citations from other discourse, African texts that we believe we are suddenly hearing more clearly than before.
This dimension appears also in relation to the Islamicized characters. The most striking passage here is the one which narrates the death of Mohammed and that of the inhabitants of Segu who were with him. Its very particular style dramatizes this moment, instantly transforming the story into legend: "And the soil of Segu ran red with blood . . . and the bodies piled up on the breast of the maternal earth, feeling their way through the darkness back to the womb . . . And the dying breaths of so many souls all hurrying at the same time toward the invisible realm blanketed the city in a mist" (The Children of Segu 188-89). We know that other texts are evoked here without knowing exactly what they are. This effect of floating intertextuality, hardly graspable, contributes to the impression of strangeness.(8)
At this moment, two new phenomena are progressively affirmed: a call to blood consciousness and a growing blindness. The first concerns the exodus of the four Traore sons on "the roads of the world," followed for some of them by a return - usually derisory or cruel - to Segu, to home, the family, blood relations. The second concerns the repetition of destinies. I will take for an example here the destiny of Malobali and his male descendants. Malobali is the first child of mixed blood (Bambara and Peul) whose story is told to us. Like his three other brothers, he will leave Segu. Yet the achievement of his destiny, like the destiny of his descendants, is particularly mysterious. It would seem that an ancestral memory is inscribed in them, leading them to follow the way marked by the ancestors. At the same time, the mixture of blood seems to provoke a failure of vision and finally a curse. Malobali learns at the last minute that the woman he is going to marry is the widow of his brother Naba who died in Brazil. He has thus, without being conscious of it, followed a Bambara custom according to which a widow returns to the brother of her dead husband. However, for the next generation, the call of blood relations leads this time to incest and the transgression of taboos. The son born of Malobali's union, Olumbunmi, rapes the wife of his brother Mohammed without knowing who she is(9); such a union would be forbidden because it is incestuous. Learning later about his crime, he kills himself by drifting in a boat on a river until he dies - and we learn that suicide is also forbidden. Finally, in the next generation, the child of this forbidden union, Dieudonne, wants to find his unknown father. He returns to Segu, and precisely to the Traore family, without knowing that this is his father's family. When he learns the truth, he hangs himself in the branches of the sacred tree of the compound - the "dubale" - a supreme insult to the ancestral powers. The "forgeron-feticheur" will have the tree cut down, a dramatic event which barely precedes the final fall of Segu and the end of the novel.
Reading the story of a given character, we also notice that his story resembles that of another character of the same lineage. A certain repetition of destinies begins to show itself. With it, we affirm in ourselves another type of knowledge: we too can now predict what will happen. This new understanding of the readers is, this time, independent of what we know about the world. It is based on narrative "rules" which are put in place little by little. However, our superiority over the characters is perhaps illusory. For what leads characters from a certain lineage to repeat the destiny of their fathers? Is it simply a dramatic spring, chosen by the author for its effectiveness? Or is it that something more profound expresses itself in this way? This brings us back to the obscure knowledge of blood shown well after conscious knowledge has been lost. We have seen it in relation to the lineage of Malobali. It reappears in the lineage of Tiekoro. Tiekoro is destined to become a martyr of his new religion, Islam, like his son, Mohammed, and, later Mohammed's son Omar. Inside this experience of repetition leading to a sense of anticipation, an uncertainty infiltrates our sense of the quality of this knowledge: should we open ourselves "seriously" to the "truth" of religious myths, of fairy tales, of legends?
And yet, as the novel slowly unfolds, our understanding of anticipation, based on repetition, begins to dominate, whereas the animist understanding of the characters still faithful to Bambara beliefs becomes less often evoked and seems progressively to dissolve. With other characters, the unconscious understanding of the blood begins to dominate the clear consciousness of the existence of the words of the ancestors. Besides, added to the silence which progressively overtakes the Islamicized characters, desperately watchful for a sign within the solitude into which they are plunged, is a second even deeper silence, that of the Christian God. The Christianized characters in the novel seem to lose the resource of relying on the sacred texts or on words pronounced by other believers. Thus Eucaristus and Samuel (from the line of Naba who survived the ordeal of slavery and a forced conversion to Christianity) use, like the Islamicized characters, free indirect discourse and interrogation. But for them it is hardly a spiritual guide; they will not become saints or martyrs either.(10) Moreover, they also seem less guided by the invisible in their search for blood relations than the characters in Malobali's line. Thus, Samuel hopes to find in Jamaica descendants of his maroon ancestor Nanny. The encounter is cruel and its conclusion might seem familiar to people of the Antilles or African Americans:
How he would have liked the old woman to recognize him formally and recite his genealogy to him, as in the biblical text: "And A begat B, who begat C, who begat Emma, who had two sons, Samuel and Herbert." But things happen differently in real life, where genealogies are riddled with uncertainty and error, so that one must sometimes simply choose one's ancestors and stick with them. (The Children of Segu 284)
More cruelly ironic still is the end of Ahmed, the soldier in the French colonial army, the "indigenous auxiliary" (son of Mohammed). His consciousness is the most obscured of all, and it certainly isn't accidental that he has the last word in the novel. Ahmed returns to Segu, led like Dieudonne by an obscure blood calling. But he doesn't try to find his origins. He is possessed by a spirit of revenge, a need to dominate the city of his origins about which he has heard only the faintest echo. He serves the French and is pleased with himself because he is a good soldier. In the very last pages, doubt finally arises in him and the revelation of his origins begins its work of torturing him. Only the premises of this revelation are given to us, and the novel remains open-ended. Linked to colonialism, Christianity seems thus to have the most obscurantist effect on the consciousness of characters. While Islam led people to a solitary path, where they confused religious and economic domination, Christianity merges the two. As El-Bekkay says, speaking of the French: ". . .these men have only one religion: profit" (The Children of Segu 406).
Thus this progression towards solitude, interrogation, interior discourse, and at the end, mental obscurity, seems deliberate in the novel. One could see in it the expression of a real despair, of a total loss of confidence in what has been if it weren't for the evocation of the rite followed by the last "forgeron feticheur" of the Koumare, near the end of the novel. This man with glaucous eyes is apparently the only one still able to see because he has remained true to his beliefs. Sadly, the ancestors no longer speak clearly:
He now knew, as his father had before him, that the misfortunes of the Traores were only a reflection of much greater suffering and disorder whose source lay well beyond the family itself. Like his father before him, however, he had not been able to discover what offense was buried in the dark mists of time. (The Children of Segu 366)
I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem:
The Parodic Epic Novel or Consciousness Divided
The question of the relations between the fictive dimension and the historical dimension was a subject of dispute in Segu. In I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, Maryse Conde tried to get rid of this misunderstanding by validating the fictive dimension of the novel. She explains it this way in her interview with Ann Scarboro:
Tituba is just the opposite of a historical novel. I was not interested at all in what her real life could have been. I had a few precise documents: her deposition testimony. It forms the only historical part of the novel, and I was not interested in getting anything more than that. I really invented Tituba. I gave her a childhood, an adolescence, an old age. At the same time I wanted to turn Tituba into a sort of female hero, an epic heroine, like the legendary "Nanny of the maroons." I hesitated between irony and a desire to be serious. The result is that she is a sort of mock-epic character. When she was leading the fight of the maroons, it was a parody somehow. (201)
If the borrowing of historical sources remains, it is more limited, and the off-handedness in relation to exactitude of the borrowing and of sources is here flaunted. A parodic dimension is easier to decode for readers of European and North American backgrounds.(11) Thus, Maryse Conde introduces in the novel a character with very advanced ideas for her time (we are in the 17th century). She is called Hester Prynne, like the heroine of The Scarlet Letter, and the word "feminism" (which dictionaries place in the 19th century) often springs to her lips.
But the question of a dialogue with the ancestors weaves a line of continuity with Segu, in spite of being posed differently. In Segu, as in African epic, history/the story was really concerned only with men. The initiates who speak to the invisible (the "forgerons-feticheurs") are men, and the reincarnated ancestors are also men whose souls slide into the bodies of newborn males. This characteristic remains true of Islamicized characters. Only the men Tiekoro, Mohammed, and Omar become saints with extraordinary destinies. In Tituba, by contrast, a woman is the heroine of the story, and she is initiated into dialogue with the invisible by another woman. The transmission of understanding now follows a feminine line. We are in a different culture: the Black culture of the Antilles.(12)
In addition, contrary to Segu, which is written in the third person, Tituba resumes the autobiographical technique of first person narrative in the style of Heremakhonon. This difference in narrative technique often corresponds in Maryse Conde to an opposition of gender in her principal characters.(13) Yet it has other aspects here. The use of first person creates an intimate relation with the reader which has for correlation a relative isolation of Tituba from the other characters. The knowledge transmitted by women seems to be less recognized in the slave community or the maroons than was the knowledge of the "forgeron-feticheur" in his community. With a few individual exceptions, it is even less admitted in the other social groups that are presented, particularly the Puritans. By contrast, Tituba has great intimacy with the spirits who protect her, Mama Yaya, her mother Abena, and sometimes Yago, Abena's companion. The repercussion for our status as readers is paradoxical: we are equally isolated from other social groups and admitted into the intimacy of the ancestors. First person narrative here has thus the surprising effect of rendering the invisible very visible. The signs of that other world are clear for Tituba and are shown to us with the same evidence, the same candor, thanks to her articulate and precise descriptions. We "see" the spirits. We "hear" their sighs, "smell" their odor of eucalyptus and honeysuckle, and we would be able to recreate the list of sacrifices to perform if we chose to.
The problem here concerns rather the value one must place on the words of the ancestors. The plot will develop around the meaning of the term "witch." In the Puritan world a witch is "someone who has made a pact with the devil" (62). Tituba's conception is entirely different:
What is a witch? I noticed that when he said the word, it was marked with disapproval. Why should it be? Why? Isn't the ability to communicate with the invisible world, to keep constant links with the dead, to care for others and heal, a superior gift of nature that inspires respect, admiration and gratitude? Consequently, shouldn't the witch (if that's what the person who has this gift is to be called) be cherished and revered rather than feared? (Tituba 17)
This description seems to echo that which Maryse Conde gives of the African power of "the right hand":
In Africa, as you may know, the word "witchcraft" has a different meaning. In any given community, you have two types of individuals relating to the invisible forces. The first type is working for the benefit of the society, i.e. is working, as they say, with the right hand. The second type is working evil on the individuals and the community. It is said that this type is working with the left hand. Only the second person is called a witch and is ostracized. Tituba was doing only good to her community. Could she be called a witch? I don't think so, and the book is there to prove it. (Scarboro 206)
But in fact it isn't certain that the character is not without a certain ambiguity. In her description of the powers of a witch, Tituba does not mention the power to influence the destiny of another in an egotistical direction, which risks bringing "the right hand" close to "the left hand." For Tituba has two weaknesses, that of loving men too much and of having little strength in the face of her desire. From the moment of her meeting with John Indien, who will be her first companion, she communicates to the forces of the beyond the following message: "Mama Yaya . . . I want this man to love me" (14). It is a dangerous desire, as the two spirits immediately signal to her. It will soon lead her to wish for the death of Susanna Endicott, the woman who is an obstacle to her desire to live with John Indien: "I want her to die slowly, suffering horribly, knowing it's because of me" (29). As awful as Susanna Endicott may be, the wish to make her die is ill-advised, as Mama Yaya tells her: "Don't let yourself be eaten up by revenge. Use your power to serve your own people and heal them" (29), and she adds: ". . .you will have perverted your heart into the bargain. You will have become like them, knowing how to kill and destroy" (30).
In choosing the spirit of vengeance, one is destined to work with the left hand, represented in Segu by the "forgeron-feticheur," serving a master jealous of the Traore. Is this choice caused by the fact that Tituba doesn't have the same capacity to read the future as the "forgerons-feticheurs"?
Although I could communicate with the forces of the invisible world and change the present with their help, I was unable to decipher the future. (34)
Tituba explains that Mama Yaya died before being able to teach her "the third degree of knowledge, the highest and the most complex" (34). But it is difficult to believe our character since, from the beginning of the novel, the two spirits give many signs of her future. They sigh and make a thousand faces when Tituba mentions John Indien. Mama Yaya says of this man: "I only have to take one look at him to see he's a shallow nigger, full of hot air" (15), and her mother adds: "Why can't women do without men? . . . Now you're going to be dragged off to the other side of the water" (15). But Tituba doesn't listen. She recognizes this herself: "Mama Yaya's reluctance, and my mother's lamentations, might have warned me to take care. But this was not the case" (16). Meanwhile, we readers, who aren't in love with John Indien, read these signs and take careful note. We also note them better than Tituba because we know the history of the witch trials in Salem and we know equally what the heroine stubbornly wishes to ignore, because of her naivete or perhaps the desire the narrator gives her.
There is then irony in the novel not simply because of the parodic aspects evoked earlier, but also because of the dramatic irony in which the principal character is plunged and which recalls the obscure way followed by the characters in Segu. But this time the obscurity seems less mythic; it has a psychological dimension. One cannot forget that if Tituba hadn't wanted John Indien or had heard the spirits, this entire story - her story - wouldn't have come about. She would not have "crossed the water," thus losing the protection of the two spirits. She would not have found herself in Salem, and wouldn't have been associated with the famous trial. Tituba recalls Segu in the way it attaches itself - even as fiction - to "history" and in its large epic dimension. But it's also a "psychological" novel, that of a character who makes her destiny - more or less unconsciously - happen.
However, the relation to a "strange reality" is not abandoned. It returns towards the end of the novel. Later, Tituba will have other reasons to seek revenge, "good" reasons this time, and she won't do it, showing the power of the right hand. Yet, when she finds herself mixed up with the Maroons in Barbados, she decides again to ignore Mama Yaya's warnings. She wants to explore the possibility of new powers, based on natural elements, and looks to "do" something to change her destiny or at least that of her daughter to come. Once more, we can anticipate the future promised to the character. For at the moment when Tituba looks for and perhaps finds new powers, we know that the armed revolt against the English with which she is associated is lost from the start; we expect she will die. But when she does die, it is then that a strange feeling comes over us. What in this case does the autobiographical narrative signify? Has it been written by a dead person? Addressed to us from the beyond? Is it we who are in direct communication with the ancestors? In its simplicity, the narrative structure of Tituba knows how to throw us off more effectively perhaps than Segu.
Les derniers rois mages [The Last of the Magi]:
The Postmodern Novel or the Ambiguity of Consciousness
After La Vie Scelerate in which the progression is still chronological, Maryse Conde breaks with her previous mode of narration to adopt a disjointed technique made up of collages which illustrates, as she explains in her interview with Taleb-Khyar, a new interest in "memory":
You know the difference that Pierre Nora made between history and memory. He says that in history, you have a rational organization of facts. You select facts. You organize them and you try to see their meaning. On the contrary, memory is something totally disorganized; there's no rule, there's no order. It comes from all corners, and builds up, and you have to find meaning in the complexity of things. Also memory is not made only of the things which are supposed to be important. Memory is made of a lot of trivialities, a lot of unnecessary things. So it seems to me that in Segu, I was writing history. I was trying to explain the decline and fall of an African kingdom and of Africa, of the Black people, in a way. But, in Traversee de la Mangrove, I'm writing memory. I'm in a small village among people who are not heroes, who are just ordinary men and women, and whose life seems totally meaningless. (357)
In The Last of the Magi it is the same. One finds oneself on an island south of Charleston, with a couple who no longer get along. The principal character is Spero, a failed painter who sifts through his memories. One spends the day with him - an even more banal situation than in Traversee de la Mangrove which evoked the strange death of a man. In addition, greater attention is paid to the thought processes. The montage by collage, the fragmentary aspect of evoked memories, seem to respect more than before the process of free association.
In the beginning of Segu, Dousika scrutinizes his dreams "for a sign, a clue to what might lie ahead" (Segu 3). In that of Traversee de la Mangrove, Leocadie Timothee stumbles on a cadaver and scrutinizes her dreams, without success, to discover a sign. Again a dream opens The Last of the Magi. But this time we have a description of the dream: crabs attack a nude boy, leaving the reader uneasy. Then comes this commentary: "Depuis deux ans, il faisait le meme reve, trois et quatre fois par semaine. Il ne savait pas ce qui le provoquait. Quelle peine cachee au fond du coeur" (13) [For two years he had the same dream, three and four times a week. He didn't know what provoked it. What a pain hidden at the bottom of his heart]. Finally, two objects associated with the imaginary are presented to us. Spero opens his eyes "sur le portrait de son arriere grand-pere qu'il avait peint lui-meme a 14 ans a partir de la photographie qui depuis trois generations s'etalait sur la cloison de la salle a manger de la maison familiale" (13) [on the portrait of his great grandfather that he painted himself at 14 from a photograph which for three generations hung on the partition of the dining room in the family house]. He thus looks at an object created by his revery on another object, the only tangible support from a past he didn't know. Yet if subjectivity, the dream, the imaginary are immediately put in place, the theme of a line, an origin, of a relation to the ancestors is also recognizable. This painting, this photo, summon up the "boli," those fetishistic objects associated in Segu with the cult of the ancestors.(14) On the following page, the association of ideas is reinforced when we are told that the spirits of the elders of the island are in pain, and that Debbie offers them some milk and slices of bread in the dark.
It is difficult here to avoid suggesting a relation between The Last of the Magi and Segu. The hero of the book presents himself like the great-grandson of the last king of Dahomey, Benanzin, exiled in Martinique. Descendance is masculine, as in Segu, and one notices that the conduct of Spero recalls that of an African prince. He doesn't work ("il vit aux crochets de sa femme" [he lives at his wife's expense]). He is polygamous. Debbie even considers herself a "bara muso." And yet, precisely, the theme that will be affirmed in the novel is the rejection of this African genealogy, as if the novelist now were beginning to cite herself and as though The Last of the Magi were the inverted transformation of her African saga:
The past must be put to death. If not it will kill. Wasn't it all these stupid stories of ancestors and Africa that made Djere and Justin what they became? Two Magi, two drunks, the laughingstock of morne Verdol? Isn't this what made the unhappiness of too many Blacks around them, so taken up with building imaginary genealogies that they didn't have the strength to conquer in their turn an America?
For Spero denounces not only the too great importance given by his father and his grandfather to their African ancestor, but all African "dreams" that he sees around him in the United States. And Segu is precisely the kind of work that can nourish such an imagination.
But is the message really clear? If Segu has already announced a subversion of the question of focus (who speaks? when?), The Last of the Magi illustrates in a systematic fashion the expression of a plurality of voices difficult to identify. Traversee de la Mangrove also offered an example of multiple voices, but in an alternating and recognizable fashion, like theatre. Here it is difficult to identify who is speaking. The author accentuates the melange of what one calls narrative, indirect free discourse, and dialogue, in such a way as to create indecision about the source of possible voices. Naming a character often brings a passage which seems to offer his point of view. But within this passage, the same technique is sometimes repeated for another character who is mentioned. For example, the beginning of the novel is in the third person narrative mode until Debbie, Spero's wife, says to him. "Est-ce que tune te rappelles pas que c'est aujourd'hui le 10 decembre? [Don't you remember that today is December 10th?]. This question, reminding Spero that he has forgotten, and the remark "Il fut retourne" [he got deeply distressed] lead to a long flashback to Spero's memories. In a sense this "interior monologue" isn't very different in its linguistic texture from the narrative which preceded it, and when it mentions certain people, one thinks one is hearing them, thanks to the use of indirect free discourse. Spoken expressions reemerge when Marisia, Spero's mother is mentioned on the following page - "Elle n'aimait pas entendre ces betises d'ancetre royal" (16) [She didn't like to hear these stupid comments about royal ancestors] - and then two pages later - "Roi africain ou pas, le papa de Djere's etait comporte comme tousles autres negres de la terre" (18) [African king or not, Djere's father behaved like all the other Blacks on earth].
Elsewhere thematic changes, made without any transition, often work as follows: a character is mentioned and suddenly one is off on a new theme which might express his point of view or at least tell us about him. Doubtless one can speak of postmodernism here with more certainty than in earlier novels. The ambiguous relation to history already perceptible in Segu, and the parodic dimension perceptible in Tituba are accentuated. There is also an accentuation of polyphony, a typically Creole and doubtless postmodern phenomenon.(15)
The result of a multiplicity of points of view is uncertainty about the "truth." Even the African lineage of Spero is called into question by some characters. In any case, history has not written it down. And yet, at the same time, a thread leads us back to Africa in a manner which grows more and more precise. At first, anything which relates to Africa is presented in a very contrasted way to the narrative technique which blends and mixes voices, particularly in the use of Djere's notebooks. We were told that Djere had kept notebooks about his father, the former King of Dahomey. When the first notebook is inserted in the novel, we are alerted to the fact that it concerns something "different" by the chapter and title. Besides, the contents of this notebook (the story of the origin of the dynasty by the union of a panther and princess Posu Adwene) strongly confirms its mythic content. The various references in the novel to characters who are in communication with spirits mark also a change of tone. They seem to be presented as caricatures: it's a healer (32); it's "Zephyr Marboeuf, le plus grand gade dzafe de l'ile" (11) [the biggest gade dzafe on the island] or "Troisfois Cheri, un haitien celui-la" (180) [a Haitian that one]; it's the visionary Margaret, Debbie's mother (212) or Jeanne the spirit who calls the ancestors (228).
And yet the "visions" of these characters are not stripped of sense and clarity. On the contrary, they seem astonishingly correct, which leaves us wondering. Besides, the exoticism of the African stories soon overtakes the telling of Martinique memories. At the moment when we are told about the union of Grandmother Hosannah with the ancestor, the former King of Dahomey, doesn't the ancestor dig his nails into her body? Aren't his cries of pleasure like growls? Doesn't he get his back up at times like a panther? It is true that one can associate this story with Spero, whose name was mentioned shortly before, and Spero, it is true, knows the notebooks of Djere by heart. Perhaps it is his imagination that colors the story in this way? But what are we to think of the following memory of the ancestor (128-38) which begins with the words: "En realite, le vieillard n'etait pas aussi coupable que le croyait Spero" (128) [In reality, the old man was not as guilty as Spero believed]. Who knows this? It is difficult to imagine it is Spero (or Djere his grandfather, or Justin his father). Wouldn't it be perhaps the narrator who now shows a certain independence from her characters while hiding all the while behind them? The more one advances into the novel, the more this dimension is accentuated. Thus the story of the death of the ancestor in Algeria will be followed by the story of the journey of his soul to Kutane, and, finally, of his reincarnation in the body of a newborn boy. One has thus found the central themes of Bambara beliefs and those of other African people, these same themes which link modern novels to myths, to epics. Their value can be interpreted on various levels, fantastic, metaphorical, psychological, because the narration takes Spero's subjective viewpoint.
For one realizes that there is a troubling parallel between the final destiny of the ancestor and that of Spero. The ancestor in exile worries above all about his ancestors with whom he wishes to live in peace. When he dies, his soul arrives in Kutome and sees with relief that the daadaa don't want him. But the soul is bored and looks to reincarnate itself, which it finally does. In parallel fashion, Spero's day is ending and his thoughts are leading him equally towards the hypothesis of a punishment from the ancestors. Thus, thinking about his daughter Anita who has left him to become a development specialist in Benin, he says there is an ancestor's revenge: "Ses crimes etaient sans pardon. Oui ! c'est l'ancetre et l'ancetre seul qui punissait Spero en s'emparant de ce qu'il cherissait le plus sur la terre" [His crimes were without pardon. Yes! It's the ancestor and only the ancestor who was punishing Spero and keeping him from the one he cherished most on earth] (253). Finally, one of his last reveries, when he is waiting for the ferry and stares at the black water of the ocean which makes him think of death, evokes the desire he had for a son, as though he was still reasoning according to the logic of a male line and the hope of a reincarnation.
What are we to make then of the conclusion? The episode evoking the reincarnation of the ancestor gives the feeling that over there, in Africa, the rupture with the past is not so great. It is true that "un soudard sans naissance" [a worthless thug] is now in bed with a royal princess, but it may not be significant since he's part of the new aristocracy. And if the princess, pregnant with twins, first gives birth to a stillborn girl, it probably does not matter, since it's only a girl. The ancestor will be reincarnated in the boy who is born next. All is well. The only troubling point is that this boy will be baptized Melchior (will he thus be a "magi" as well?) But on Spero's side what are we to think? In his mind his dreamed-of son will be different from him, he won't have dreams of an imaginary lost line, he will have his feet on the ground and a "real" job. But if Spero is well and alive, able to dream in such a way, is it not because of the role of women in his life, the women always relegated to serve men?(16) And the truth is that for now Spero's line has become feminine because all he has is a daughter. Is there only one possible resolution, that his own wife, Debbie, pardons him one more time and takes pity on him?
The last images of the novel lead us to the theme of water, the black opaque water, that Spero stares at going to the embarcadero to wait for the ferry which is bringing Debbie back. The water, one remembers, has already been associated with the dream of crabs that opened the novel. This opacity is thus not meaningless. For the theme of water traverses the entire novel. The ancestors had precisely forbidden the King of Dahomey to cross the sea which is what he did. And the King, despite his discomfort and guilt, loved the sea, which he looked at for hours. Besides, it is while looking at the sky above the Sargasso Sea that he lost his spirit in the course of the journey home. Aren't Djere's notebooks written in green ink, a color which reminded him of the forbidden and beloved southern seas his father loved? Hasn't Spero read and re-read these notebooks to the point of knowing them by heart and using them to sustain his imagination. His imagination? The symbol of the feminine sea? Could this be a new type of dialogue that is beginning?
Translated by Steve Arkin
1. I want to thank my colleagues: Chinosole for sharing and discussing secondary sources, Steve Arkin for offering graciously to translate this text, and Elisabeth Wright for rereading and editing the English version. Quotations from Segu and I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem are taken from the English editions of the novels. Quotations from Les derniers rois mages are taken from the French edition and followed by Steve Arkin's translations.
2. The English translation "fetish priest" seems too removed from the author's expression (see note 3). For this reason I will use "forgeron-feticheur."
3. Anne-Marie Jeay criticizes, for example, the following description: "Koumare was the fetish priest [forgeron-feticheur], high priest of Komo who for years interpreted for Dousika the signs of the visible and the invisible" (Segu 13). For, she explains, the Komo is in fact a male religious initiation society which was led by the "forgeron." This person is thus not a "forgeron-feticheur" but rather someone who possesses the knowledge (Jeay 124). However, if one thinks of the fictive side of the work, one might ask if by the choice of this combined term "forgeron-feticheur" the author isn't looking to underline the fetish dimension in order to underscore that the abstract, spiritual side of understanding would have already been partially lost in the period being recreated. One has the feeling that traces of a system of thought are evoked here as part of something already lost.
4. This relation to history could be compared to what Linda Hutcheon calls "historiographic metafiction."
5. "J'ai beaucoup ecoute, j'ai ete frappee par la parole populaire malienne, la parole du griot, des gens ordinaires; je me suis efforcee de recueillir tout cela, et de restituer cela dans mon texte" [I listened a lot. I was struck by Mali popular speech, the speech of the griot, of ordinary people; I made myself collect all of that and brought it back in my book] (Jacquey 57).
6. The point of view of Jakobson might seem formalist by virtue of his reference to artistic practice. But this doesn't exclude the possibility that there is a profound truth in it.
7. The Islamicized characters will be even more torn than the other Bambaras, who mix without too many contradictions the new and the old, the Islamic rules and rituals and the Bambara animistic customs and beliefs. These characters seem to serve as a bridge between this Bambara attitude and the intransigent view of the "real" Muslims (symbolized most strongly by El-Hadj Omar), who want the purity of the faith, a purity which must be realized at any price, that is to say by violence, by war.
8. The composite character of the text signals the "mosaic" of the writing that I analyzed in "L'ecriture mosaique de Traversee de la Mangrove." There it was the result of the same attitude toward a plurality of sources of inspiration.
9. "Brother" in the context of family used here encompasses as brothers children of the same generation who are blood relations or relations by marriage.
10. If Eucaristus becomes a pastor, he isn't presented as somebody whose faith is extremely important, unlike Tiekoro, Mohammed, and Omar.
11. Which is not to say that in spite of everything it is forcefully perceived. It is one of the beauties of irony that it rests on a desire for lucidity but gives itself over to misunderstanding by virtue of the modes of expression chosen, like indirection and implications.
12. In her interview with Marie Clotilde Jacquey, Maryse Conde poses this contrast between the Antilles and Africa:" ... il m'a semble qu'en Afrique, les hommes sont sur le devant de la scene; ce sont eux qui pretendent faire l'histoire, meme si derriere eux, il y a des femmes qui ont beaucoup d'influence, qui les guident . . .; comparez avec un roman antillais, terriblement fidele a la realite antillaise, vous avez une dynastie de femmes, et si vous cherchez les hommes ils sont absents" [it seemed to me in Africa, men are the ones who pretend to make history, even if behind them there are women with a lot of influence who guide them...; compare this with a novel from the Antilles, very true to Antilles reality, where you have a dynasty of women, and if you look for the men they are absent] (Jacquey 58).
13. Segu and The Last of the Magi, in which the principal characters are men, are written in the third person, while Heremakhonon, I, Tituba and La Vie Scelerate are written in the first person by a woman. Traversee de la Mangrove alternates first person narration by women and third person narration by male characters. The exception is Une Saison a Rihata whose principal character is a woman, although it is written in the third person.
14. This will be true as well of the notebooks written by Djere about his father.
15. See, for example, McHale's Postmodernist Fiction, which describes postmodern fiction as a carnivalesque mixture of styles, voices, and registers. The style, nevertheless, as in Traversee de la Mangrove, is typically a "mosaic," with a linguistic creolization less accentuated.
16. However, washing the dishes from his lunch, Spero realizes that things have changed. Djere or Justin wouldn't have been lowered in this way.
Chamoiseau, Patrick. "Reflections on Maryse Conde's Traversee de la Mangrove." Callaloo 14.2 (1991): 389-95.
Conde, Maryse. Les derniers rois mages. Paris: Mercure de France, 1992.
-----. I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem. Trans. Richard Philcox. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992. Originally published as Moi, Tituba, sorciere noire de Salem. Paris: Mercure de France, 1986.
-----. The Children of Segu. Trans. Linda Coverdale. New York: Viking Penguin, 1989. Originally published as Segou: La Terre en miettes. Paris: Robert Laffont, 1985.
-----. Segu. Trans. Barbara Bray. New York: Viking Penguin, 1987. Originally published as Segou: Les murailles de terre. Paris: Robert Laffont, 1984.
Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York & London: Routledge, 1988.
Jacquey, Marie Clotilde. "Segou est-il un roman malien? Entretien avec Maryse Conde." Notre Librairie no. 84 (juillet-sept 1986): 56-60.
Jeay, Anne Marie. "Segou, Les murailles de terre, Lecture anthropologique d'un roman d'aventure." Nouvelles du Sud (Mai juin-juillet 1986): 115-38.
Jakobson, Roman. "Du realisme en art." Questions de poetique. Paris: Le Seuil, 1973. 31-39.
Kourouma, Amadou. Les soleils des independances. Paris: Le Seuil, 1970.
McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. New York & London: Methuen, 1987.
Miller, Christopher. "Orality Through Literacy: Mande Verbal Art After the Letter." The Southern Review (Winter 1987): 84-105.
Perret, Delphine. "L'ecriture mosaique de Traversee de la Mangrove." L 'Heritage de Caliban. Ed. Maryse Conde. Paris: editions Jasor, 1992. 187-200.
Scarboro, Ann. "An Interview with Maryse Conde." I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992. 198-213.
Taleb-Kyar, Mohammed. "An Interview with Maryse Conde and Rita Dove." Callaloo 14.2 (1991): 347-66.
DELPHINE PERRET, one of the guest-editors of this special issue of Callaloo, is an associate professor of French at San Francisco State University.
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|Title Annotation:||Maryse Conde: A Special Issue; works of author Maryse Conde|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1995|
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