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Emancipating the voice: Maryse Conde's 'La vie scelerate.'(Maryse Conde: A Special Issue)

Implicit in the narrative strategies employed in La vie scelerate(1) is a concern on the part of the novelist with articulating the power of the word, a concern made compelling by the threat of silence which haunts several of the main characters. The crucial dynamic of speech and silence is clearly understood by Claude, the narrator/ protagonist, as she celebrates, towards the end of the text, a hard-won eloquence, "le chant de ma voix eteinte" (295) [the song of my muffled voice(2) (323)]. The completed narrative is evidence of the final liberation of this "muffled voice," a voice which had appeared strangely disembodied throughout the first two sections of the four-part text, and which only achieves plenitude after reintegration with family and with self.

The scope and form of this vast account of the changing fortunes of one Guadeloupean family are elucidated, near the end of the work, in a challenge issued to the adolescent Claude, a challenge which also adumbrates a concept of the responsibilities of the creative writer in an increasingly westernized Caribbean:

[Look at this country, ours, yours, being sold off to the highest bidder. Soon perhaps it will be no more than a memory, little by little growing dim in our minds. Me, what I'm trying to do is save its voice for it. And you, too, you can, you must do something. (367)]

It is not inappropriate that it should be Gesner, old family friend but more importantly, celebrated gwoka musician, who urges Claude to try to "save" her people's voice, since his own work defiantly asserts a unique heritage menaced by the cultural hegemony inherent in the continuing influence of "metropolitan" France. Claude, on the other hand, is in some ways an improbable griotte/scribe, initially marginalized by her exclusion from the Louis clan, and vulnerable to a concomitant voicelessness. Yet the importance Conde attaches to this character is underscored by the fact that she gives the same name, Claude, to the youngest protagonist of the short story "Three Women in Manhattan,"(3) which explicitly addresses the concerns - and frustrations - of the female writer. The character in question, a Guadeloupean domestic worker in the alien world of Manhattan, is subject to the concerted pressures of exile and economic difficulty, and yet fired by an imperious need to tell, to write her story. These apparently powerless figures inevitably recall the muted Other of the colonial era, expunged from the first pages of Caribbean history books which foreground Columbus and his fellow conquistadores, and yet finally asserting and reclaiming the right to speak for oneself.

Gesner's challenge to Claude focuses on one of the imperatives which will inform her acceptance of the task of relating her family history: the need to interrogate and mediate the reality of the community to which one belongs, to assert its presence. In this respect, the text belongs to the tradition of "autobiography of the tribe,"(4) the category used by Laurence Breiner to highlight the tendency of Caribbean writers to give primacy to collective experience. It is important to note, however, that in attempting to save the voice of her people, to tell a story obscured by the master text of colonialist discourse, she is also telling her story. On the one hand, this implies inscribing a female presence, in a text whose very existence attests to a fruitful appropriation by the narrator of the power traditionally wielded in the Louis family by autocratic males who failed to acknowledge their women as speaking subjects. On a more personal level, the narrative serves as an individual strategy for survival and self-construction by incorporating a third untold/repressed story, that of a young girl who is finally free to give voice to the pain of maternal abandonment and exclusion from family. Conde is able to fuse these personal and political concerns - implicitly linked, in La vie scelerate, to the act of writing - by her manipulation of the central trope of silence.

The narrative begins by emphasizing its autobiographical perspective with the words "Mon aieul Albert Louis qui n'etait encore l'aieul de personne, mais un beau negre d'environ trente-deux ans . . . " (13) [My forebear Albert Louis was not yet the forebear of anyone that day but a handsome Negro of around thirty-two years of age (3)], and goes on to chronicle the circumstances of the departure of Claude's great-grandfather for Panama in 1904. Whereas Conde stretches the first person narrative to the limit, allowing the narrator a quasi-omniscience as she meticulously relates the adventures of her forebears over several decades, it is only at the beginning of Part Three of the novel that the reader begins to understand what has so far been a troubling, faintly audible sub-text: the problematic relationship of the young girl with the formidable family which colonized her mother's childhood: "Moi, Claude Elaise Louis, je naquis a la sauvette dans une clinique du XVe arrondissement a Paris, la nuit du 3 avril 1960. Ma mere venait d'avoir dix-huit ans" (173) [I, Claude Elaise Louis, was born in secret at a small private hospital in the fifteenth arrondissement of Paris, on the night of April 23, 1960 (185)].

The discretion of this birth prefigures the self-effacement which will manifest itself in Claude's lack of voice, and which is implicit in the way in which she chooses to tell the story of a family in which she initially felt her position to be precarious. Beneath the smooth surface of this apparently logical, linear account of the lives of the narrator's ancestors, there are troubling omissions suggestive of rupture rather than continuity, omissions which become apparent after Claude begins, half-way through the text, to move away from the periphery where she had so discreetly placed herself. One such omission is observed in the enigmatic reference in Part Two to the narrator's grandmother, in terms which mask the painful fact that the two never met: "Qu'elle etait belle, ma grand-mere Tima! Le teint noir et brillant, les cheveux fournis comme une foret coiffes en grosses <<vanilles>> . . . " (105) [How beautiful my grandmother Tima was! A shining, black complexion, her forest-thick hair fashioned into the heavy plaits known as "vanilla-bean style" . . . (105)]. The flow of words and the abundance of detail obscure the fact that Claude is speaking here in her grandfather's voice, and that the memory of a grandmother of whom she felt deprived can hardly be an innocuous one. Two pages further on, the reader is confronted with a terse reference to the loss of a grandmother who, we will later learn, died without even knowing of Claude's existence: "Une chose me frappe quand je songe a ma grand-mere Tima, morte sans que je l'aie connue: c'est qu'elle ne travaillait pas" (107) [One thing strikes me when I think of my grandmother Tima, dead before I could know her: she did not work (107)].

Despite the use of ritual formulae such as "mon aieul" throughout the first two parts of the novel, one feels that there is much left unsaid in this deceptively comprehensive account of the past. As if deliberately depersonalizing her role as narrator, Claude frequently allows her identity to be submerged in the collective voice, distancing herself and silencing her own pain. It is only in Part Three, when she relates the circumstances prompting her first journey to an unknown homeland, that her own voice finally rises in all the stridency of a keenly felt loss, loss of a childhood, and loss of a cultural heritage:

[The first of the great crimes whose blame I lay on my mother is my grandmother Tima's death. For it occurred without Tima ever being able to hold me in her arms and listen to me recite my lessons, without her ever being able to plait my hair, or rub me with bay rum. (221)]

A more conspicuous ellipsis in the narrative occurs in Claude's treatment of the first nine years of her life, spent in Finistere with the French wet-nurse to whom Thecla abdicated the responsibility of mothering: these decisive years of exile from family and homeland are "written off" in a few laconic pages in the first chapter of Part Three, although the resulting pain of rejection will never be completely exorcised. When, some thirty pages further on, the narrator tells of the marriage which resulted in Thecla's reclaiming her child, an immediate, unnecessary digression betrays a strange muteness on her most deeply-felt emotions:

[ . . . after a honeymoon at a property owned by his family, the new couple were on their way to Finistere, in whose depths I was growing up, a skinny soon-to-be-ten-year-old.

However, before commenting on the upheaval that this marriage brought into my life, let us rather speak of its repercussions among our family in Guadeloupe. (217)]

These textual silences replicate the varying problems of expression to which several generations of the Louis family are subject. Despite the implicit emphasis on the woman's voice,(5) it is important to note that the problem of inarticulateness is not represented, in La vie scelerate, as an exclusively female dilemma. Three of the narrator's male forebears, Albert, Jacob and Jean, retreat into taciturnity after a youthful crisis resulting in a loss of illusion. Ten years after his departure for Panama, the eldest Louis returns to a joyless homecoming, disenchanted and emotionally battered by a tragic encounter with American racism. After it becomes apparent that his new-found prosperity will not secure him the favor of a closed, unforgiving society, Albert virtually abandons what has always been for him the difficult art of communication: "Personne n'entendit plus le son de sa voix. Ses conversations se reduisirent a deux ou trois grognements plus ou moins brefs qui signifiaient sa satisfaction, son impatience ou sa colere" (78) [The sound of his voice was rarely heard again. His conversations were confined to two, sometimes three, more or less short grunts signifying his satisfaction, his impatience, or his ire (76-77)].

This familial burden of silence will also manifest itself in the lives of Albert's sons Jacob and Jean. Ironically, the latter is a teacher, and author of a scholarly work (published at his own expense) entitled La Guadeloupe inconnue, adept at expressing himself in a public voice; after the suicide of his first love Anaise, however, his speech falters in situations of intimacy. Of the ensuing verbal void in the relationship of her great-uncle Jean and his wife Marietta, the narrator writes, in the tone of gentle mockery with which she sometimes dilutes the quiet tragedies of the Louis family: "Dix enfants naquirent quand meme de ces etreintes sans paroles" (141) [Even so, ten children were born of these wordless embraces (147)].

Even the sometimes outspoken Thecla, despite her flamboyant rebellions against the rarefied tedium of her childhood, seems by the very nuances of her voice to continue a family tradition of self-concealment. In a rare moment when mother and child find themselves locked in an unrewarding tete-a-tete, Claude is struck by the contradictions inherent in this voice which has rarely served to bridge the gap between them:

[In the airplane, for the first time in the three years we had lived next to each other, my mother began to speak to me from behind her wall, in that somewhat hoarse yet musical, fluid yet stammering, luminous yet shadowy voice . . . (301)]

In several respects, this child of exile is not "her mother's daughter." That their paths will ultimately diverge is underlined towards the end of the narrative: at a time when Claude is beginning to savor and to harness the power of the spoken word, Thecla, whose fluency had sometimes bordered on incoherence, is retreating into a strange verbal apathy. It is revealing that this withdrawal coincides with a period when she has abandoned her youthful fantasy of militancy; finally reunited with her extremely protective French husband (it is surely significant that he is a doctor by profession), she is more than ever object rather than subject of her life story.

This pattern of retreat is repeated, in a more tragic context, with the suicide of the unknown cousin Bebert, afflicted by a stammer which mirrors his ontological uncertainty. Like Claude, he grows up in a foreign land in ignorance of his genealogy, although the fact that he is of mixed race makes his predicament more complex and his origins more elusive. Bebert's "zombification" is suggested in an understated description of him as " . . . ce chabin sans paroles a qui on ne tirait que des monosyllabes" (296) [ . . . the wordless chabin, who spoke only in monosyllables (324)].

These various difficulties of expression prefigure the crisis of voicelessness experienced by the narrator herself. When the twelve-year old Claude returns to France in the company of her mother after an extended sojourn in the Caribbean, a period of exposure to the "foreign languages" of Guadeloupean Creole, English and Jamaican Creole, she is, perhaps understandably, ill-equipped to express herself in French. Beneath the obvious prosaic explanation of her inarticulateness, however, one may read a reminder on the part of the novelist of the still unresolved anxieties and resentments which the persona herself does not - or cannot - make explicit, problems which deny her freedom of voice. Claude's lack of fluency is accompanied by associated difficulties with the written idiom, of which she speaks ruefully in describing the fruitless efforts initiated in Guadeloupe to remedy her "backwardness":

[having passed my twelfth birthday, I barely knew how to read and write. I was equally murdering three languages and was about to add a fourth, Creole, which my boy and girl cousins spoke exclusively whenever they found themselves out of earshot of adults. (296)]

It is interesting to observe that Conde avoids dichotomizing "parole" and "ecriture," so that Claude's later mastery of the spoken word heralds her final vocation of scribe. One should also note, in this connection, that although the novelist touches only lightly, in the lines just quoted, on the polemical question of the hierarchical relationship between French and Creole, the latter is implicitly valorized by the efforts of the insider/outsider Claude to capture, in a text which is a reflection of her complex identity, some of the spirit of what was initially an unknown "mother tongue."(6)

When the young girl's silence is at last broken by the unrelenting efforts of a teacher who turns out to be yet another unacknowledged member of the Louis family, the almost magical gift of language makes possible a final process of healing and a sort of rebirth (Conde manifestly shares Cesaire's reverence for language as a tool for self-liberation and self-representation, though there is little trace in her work of the Messianism of the Cahier). It is significant that the emphasis is less on Aurelia Louis' pedagogical skills than on her blood relationship to Claude, and her ability to shower on this "unnurtured" child a maternal tenderness and affection:

[It is my unforeseen - yet no doubt foretold somewhere - meeting in a dreary dungeon of a special school with Aurelia Louis that healed me, that unstopped my stopped-up ears, that unsealed my sealed lips and set free, high and clear, the song of my muffled voice. (323)]

Claude's struggle for her voice may be usefully contrasted to the easy acceptance by the protagonist of Simone Schwarz-Bart's Pluie et vent sur Telumee Miracle of a prodigious verbal heritage which is passed on by a loving grandmother: Abena Busia's description of Schwarz-Bart's text as one which is "wondrously conscious of the giving and receiving of words"(7) is a reminder of the relational context that makes such fluency possible.

That Claude comes to revel in, and is empowered by, the spoken word is apparent in a later episode, when she finds herself back in Guadeloupe. In an exuberant speech, the longest which the narrator ever attributes to herself, she responds defiantly to a stranger's penetrating question: "Tu es l'enfant de qui?" (319) [Whose child are you? (351)].

["I am the illegitimate daughter of Thecla, herself the legitimate and much-desired daughter of Tima and Jacob, Jacob himself the favorite son on the one side, unloved on the other, of Bonnemama Elaise, known as God's Own Child, and of Albert, called the Soubarou, who went off to sweat away his sweat and toil his toil in Panama in order to earn some gold and learn that when it comes right down to it, it buys nothing!" (351)]

In this irrepressible flow of words, marked by an emphasis on naming which makes it clear that her identity will no longer be obscured, Claude asserts the autonomy of a once muted voice. It is important to note that her new-found facility with words is accompanied by a strong sense of self, predicated on her acceptance of an apparently problematic genealogy.

The gift of eloquence demonstrated in this recital of lineage is an essential condition for Claude's accomplishment of the task thrust upon her shoulders by Gesner; his words, quoted earlier in this paper, in fact echo and develop a tentative thought which has begun to take root in the mind of the young girl, who clearly sees a connection between her new-found sense of belonging to a family and the need to document and interpret the story of that family: "Peut-etre faudrait-il que je la raconte, cette histoire?... Un livre sans grands tortionnaires ni somptueux martyrs. Mais qui peserait quand meme son poids de chair et de sang. Histoire des miens" (325) [Would I perhaps have to recount this story?... A book with neither great torturers nor lavish martyrdoms. But one that would still be heavy with its weight of flesh and blood. The story of my people (357)].

The protagonist's gradual realization of the full potential of the word is illuminated by the progression, in the last few pages of La vie scelerate, from the tentative formulation inherent in the question, "Peut-etre faudrait-il que je la raconte, cette histoire?" to the confident near-certainty of the final paragraph - and sentence - of the work, which suggests what the existence of the narrative confirms, that Claude does perform the task allotted her by Gesner, but transformed by an individual sense of purpose:

[And anyway, how could I deny the blood of my entire ancestry - and this is the other aspect of this story, my story - beginning with my forebear Albert with his fine teeth made for devouring the world, he who left to sweat out his sweat in Panama and raise gold only to realize when all is said and done that gold buys nothing. From Albert up to my mother, yes, even she, especially she, who bled from all her failures and was consumed by all her disillusions before taking refuge on the far side of the world. And not forgetting my poor grandfather Jacob, bound to the floor of his shop. And my great-uncle, my great-uncle Jean patriot hero martyr, whose bounteous blood had permeated our land ... (367-68)]

The fluid, unbroken rhythm of this long final sentence, striking for its sparse use of punctuation, is suggestive (the English translation departs somewhat from the original in this respect): the unchecked torrent of words, as insistent as the earlier declaration of lineage, implies a sense of obligation on the part of the narrator - and perhaps the novelist - to let her voice be heard, to strive to mediate a complex reality. That the text seems to flow naturally into the final words "notre terre" signals a complete identification with homeland which is the last stage of a gradual rapprochement reflected in the narrative point of view. In its apparently effortless movement across time and space, this final paragraph also illustrates the wide-ranging nature of the text, and the overlapping personal and political concerns which it articulates. The fact that Claude's is not the only voice heard in the narrative may be seen as an example of what Mae Gwendolyn Henderson has identified as the propensity of black women writers for "multivocality": "As gendered and racial subjects, black women speak/write in multiple voices - not all simultaneously or with equal weight, but with various and changing degrees of intensity...."(8) Claude's discourse sometimes reveals the different "strands" which make up her consciousness, as in the last lines of La vie scelerate, when she borrows from and echoes the words of Albert, the most taciturn member of her family, who now, paradoxically, becomes her literary forefather. It was Albert who first described his dream of escape from poverty with the image contained in the words "Je croyais que j'allais faire pousser de l'or" (113) [I thought I was going to raise gold (114)], but it is Claude who completes his text with the judgement that "... l'or en fin de compte n'achete rien ..." (333-34) [... when all is said and done ... gold buys nothing (367)]. No longer content with the passive role of reporting speech, she quietly subverts the patriarchy which characterizes the Louis family, filling in the gaps left by the silence of her ancestors. The reference to her great-uncle is particularly revealing of this revisionary function, and of Claude's final autonomy. The section describing his death in an incident linked to the pro-independence agitation of the 1970s had ended with a rhetorical question, spoken in the voice of the community: "Vraiment, on peut mourir pour Lendependans?" (265) [Truly, a person can die for Independence? (289)]. Yet Claude rewrites this death from a different perspective in the last lines of the work, clearly reflecting - and embracing - her subjectivity. Although Conde has distanced herself, in an interview with Callaloo,(9) from this representation of Jean as a martyr, in the narrative it appears unchallenged, since Claude's is the final word. Hers is, however, no "master text": it incorporates contradictions and biases which the author implicitly challenges the reader to deconstruct.

One such contradiction has to do with the narrator's portrayal of her mother, whose voice is distorted by the rancor which Claude is only able to surrender in the last few lines: our understanding of Thecla is mediated by a daughter who is usually a hostile witness, and the compassionate representation of this mother who failed to nurture as victim, even more so than her male forebears, is a surprising final reversal.

Perhaps the unanswered questions arising from this last paragraph translate the novelist's sense that no voice - either hers or her narrator's - can claim to capture the "whole" truth. The later work Traversee de la mangrove(10) goes much further in this direction: Suzanne Crosta rightly emphasizes that "there is no single authoritative voice in Traversee de la mangrove."(11) In La vie scelerate, however, it is Claude's voice, sometimes shrill, sometimes melodious, that finally dominates, and the text is the site of the remarkable triumph of a young woman who grew up bereft of "mother poets,"(12) to borrow the term used by Paule Marshall in acknowledging her indebtedness to her mother and to the other Barbadian women who introduced her to the prodigious resources of language.

In analyzing the concept of voicelessness in the context of Caribbean women's writing, Carole Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory Fido state:

By voicelessness, we mean the historical absence of the woman writer's text . . . By voicelessness we also mean silence: the inability to express a position in the language of the "master" as well as the textual construction of woman as silent. Voicelessness also denotes articulation that goes unheard.(13)

These remarks are suggestive of what I consider to be an important aspect of the significance of La vie scelerate in the context of Maryse Conde's already considerable oeuvre. It is pertinent to add that the wider resonance of the metaphor of silence in French Caribbean literature as a whole - going back as far as the Cahier - illustrates the clear correspondence between the issues of race and gender. In a self-conscious reflection on the power of the word, the novelist allows her fictional persona to overcome several "absences" by reclaiming her voice - on behalf of her ancestors, male and female, on behalf of her race and community, and on her own behalf - and by inscribing her/their story.


1. Maryse Conde, La vie scelerate (Paris: Editions Seghers, 1987). Further references appear parenthetically within the text.

2. Maryse Conde, Tree of Life, trans. Victoria Reiter (New York: Ballantine Books, 1992). All translations quoted are taken from this edition.

3. See Maryse Conde, "Three Women in Manhattan," in Green Cane and Juicy Flotsam, eds. Carmen C. Esteves and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1991), 56-67.

4. See Laurence A. Breiner, "Lyric and Autobiography in West Indian Literature," Journal of West Indian Literature 3.1 (January 1989): 3-15.

5. Carole Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory Fido have underlined the importance of the title of Conde's analysis of women's writing in the French Caribbean, La parole des femmes. See Out of the Kumbla, eds. Carole Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory Fido (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1990), 2.

6. In discussing the novels of Joan Riley, Isabel Carrera Suarez makes a point which is pertinent to the dilemma of Conde's protagonist: "In this literature of loss and absence, there is a literal and metaphorical absence that shapes the books: the absence of a mother, a mothertongue, a motherland. The self - female and black - can only be reconstructed when this gap is bridged." See "Absent Mother (Land)s: Joan Riley's Fiction," in Motherlands, ed. Susheila Nasta (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1992), 295.

7. See Abena Busia, "This Gift of Metaphor, Symbolic Strategies and the Triumph of Survival in Simone Schwarz-Bart's The Bridge of Beyond," in Out of the Kumbla, 291.

8. See Mae Gwendolyn Henderson, "Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialectics, and the Black Woman Writer's Literary Tradition," in Reading Black, Reading Feminist, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Penguin, 1990), 136, 137.

9. See Maryse Conde, "Je me suis reconciliee avec mon ile," interview with Veve A. Clark, Callaloo 12.1 (Winter 1989): 86-133.

10. Maryse Conde, Traversee de la mangrove (Paris: Mercure de France, 1989).

11. See Suzanne Crosta, "Narrative and Discursive Strategies in Maryse Conde's Traversee de la mangrove," Callaloo 15.1 (Winter 1992): 147.

12. See Paule Marshall, "Holding Onto the Vision," interview with Sylvia Baer, The Women's Review of Books 8.10-11 (July 1991): 24.

13. See Carole Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory Fido, eds., Out of the Kumbla (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1990), 1.

ANTHEA MORRISON is a lecturer in French at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Barbados.
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Author:Morrison, Anthea
Date:Jun 22, 1995
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