Maryse Conde's 'Les Derniers Rois mages.'(Maryse Conde: A Special Issue)
- Glissant, Le Discours antillais [Caribbean Discourse]
The cloudy introspective musings, the troubled dreams and recollections of Spero Jules-Juliette which fill the pages of Les Derniers Rois mages(2) last from breakfast time to late evening on a rainy Sunday, a 10th of December at the end of the 1980s in South Carolina. It has been 25 years since Spero first came from Guadeloupe to live on swampy Crocker Island near Charleston in the house belonging to his American bride Debbie Middleton, and in all that time - a quarter century - this is the first December 10th upon which he forgets to observe the anniversary of his royal African ancestor's death, December 10, 1906.
When Spero was growing up with his two brothers in his parents' house in La Pointe, his father had a requiem mass said every 10th of December in memory of the King of Abomey whose realm (in what is now Benin) the French took over in 1892. They exiled him to Martinique in 1894; six years later they finally allowed him to return to Africa - but only to die, and not in his own country but in Algeria. Between 1894 and 1900, however, while living in a rather luxurious colonial villa in Bellevue, a suburb of Fort-de-France in Martinique - with his five favorite wives, his favorite son Ouanilo, his daughter the Princess Kpotasse and his honton [alter ego] Prince Adandejan - the fallen monarch had a child by a local girl: a boy, whom he named Djere. Or, so it is said. So goes the lore in Spero's family. It is true that there is no actual document attesting to the existence of this royal offspring: Ouanilo, who recorded his father's last years in detail, makes no mention of Djere's birth. Perhaps he didn't consider the event worthy to figure in a royal chronicle. But there exists a photograph of the King and his family taken in Fort-de-France in 1896, and in it a one year-old boy - Djere himself - can be seen in the arms of the King's chief wife Queen Fadjo. Unfortunately, there is no dependable evidence that the King ever even thought of taking Djere with him when he left Martinique, and no word ever came from him after his departure; he never answered any of the boy's letters or any of the boy's mother's requests for a little money: "Roi africain ou pas, le papa de Djere s'etait comporte comme tous les autres negres de la terre. Il ne s'etait pas occupe de son enfant" [African king or not, Djere's Daddy behaved like all the other no account Niggers in the world. He didn't take care of his child] (18). Such was ever the point of view of the women in Spero's family. In any event, Djere's mother, Hosannah Jules-Juliette, eventually married and moved with her new husband and her bastard son to Guadeloupe, where Djere grew up, married and had a son of his own - Justin, Spero's father.
It was Hosannah who inaugurated the December 10th ritual upon hearing - indirectly and about four years after the fact - of her son's father's demise far off in Algiers. Not that she seemed to have felt any particular grief: "on aurait dit que tout cela ne la concernait meme pas" [You wouldn't have thought it had anything to do with her] (77). Nonetheless, she ordered a mass and prepared a traditional funeral meal. Thereafter, it is the men in the family who, from generation to generation and always to the mild exasperation of the women, preserve the memory of royalty. They keep the noble African heritage alive in the household, and the consciousness of their own uncommon stature, for - as Djere recounts in the Notebooks wherein he inscribed his memories of his father and of his father's memories - they descend from Tengisu, founder of the Huegbaja dynasty in Dahomey, first and favorite son of Posu Adewene, jungle princess, and of Agasu the panther.
Neither Djere nor Justin, his son (Spero's father), ever gets around to making a living. They leave such concerns to their wives, while they send off to France for books on Africa, which no one else has ever bothered to read, and search through the bookshops and libraries of La Pointe for information which they can only locate in scraps, the better to honor a figure their compatriots consider a mere curiosity if not an aberration ("Un roi africain! Ka sa ye sa?" [An African king? Ka sa ye sa?](3)), lest they be reduced to acknowledging that they actually inhabit - as opposed to having been exiled there by a tragic injustice - "une miserable krazur(4) de terre" [a miserable scrap of earth] few people can locate on a map, and that they are nobody's favorite child nor in anybody's eyes the son of a panther. Like the Ancestor, who spent his years of exile in Martinique talking about his father, his high priest and his prophet, his palace, his betrayal by the French and by his own brother in league with the French - until this past faded from his mind and he believed he was once more Kondo the Shark, merciless warrior, proud conqueror, receiver of rich gifts from the French - so Justin eventually sinks into a half-asleep existence, muttering incomprehensible speeches about ritual offerings and other exotic customs, just as Djere before him, his mind similarly blurred by drink, had regularly amused clients at a local bar with muddled recitations from his Notebooks and thus - a figure of both pity and contempt - earned the sobriquet Wa Maj (Roi Mage): every year on January 6th, the Church holiday commemorating the Three Kings' arrival at Bethlehem, the inhabitants of La Pointe put a cardboard crown on Djere's head and made him pay for everybody's drinks.
Spero, for his part, appears to have taken the side of women in general and of Marisia his mother in particular, who thinks the African Ancestor is just an excuse for Justin's idleness and for his father's before him; that men unlike women are always inventing fantastical ideas and ambitions which only end up making life (for women) harder, and that it is wisest to forget the past and look the present straight in the eye. Spero prefers an anchor in the here and now to hazily glorious memories of le tan lontan(5): as Les Derniers Rois mages opens, he has forgotten the 10th of December rites and he recognizes that in fact he began forgetting 25 years earlier, upon first arriving in South Carolina and observing among the African-Americans of Charleston the equivalent of his own family's mystifying tradition: South Carolinians dressed up in cowry shell necklaces, naming their children Shaka and Kwame. But the woman he has married and followed to her home in the United States, far from appreciating his lucidity, is ashamed of him for faithlessness to the Ancestor, and for being unworthy of his own heritage - for the sake of which she married him, secretly unconvinced by her own. Debbie, a college teacher and noted expert on the Reconstruction, subjects Spero to unbearable sermons. One of her many tiresome associates, Jim Marshall (a sociologist, the director of Charleston's African Ballet Theater and a non-stop talker), orates relentlessly at dinner parties about the Ashanti Empire created by the legendary Osei Tutu, about the Ashanti religion, the Ashanti philosophy, the role of the Asantehene and the Kontihene ... and moreover about Malcolm X's trip in North Africa where Jim himself was on hand to see an illuminated 14th century Koran presented to Malcolm by the Moslem sage Abdou. While Debbie reverently absorbs these stories, Spero fumes: "C'etait des gens comme Jim qui l'avaient degoute de sa propre origine et qui l'avaient conduit a la traiter comme un vulgaire fantasme. Ils avaient fait de l'Afrique leur carnaval, leur defile de mardi gras dont ils pillaient les oripeaux. Ils ne cherchaient a comprendre ni son sens ni sa signification et la paradaient sans rime ni raison" [It was people like Jim who had made him disgusted with his own origin and led him to treat it as some vulgar fantasy. They had made Africa their carnival, their Mardi Gras parade whose showy rags they plundered. They didn't try to understand its meaning or its importance; they just showed it off without rhyme or reason] (168). Nor is it only self-serving Africa-worship that wears Spero down: Debbie's solemn cultivation of Black History in the U.S., her pantheon of Black leaders, her litany of Black goals and values make him feel as if he can't breathe: "C'est vrai qu'il etouffait a Charleston! Qu'il n'en pouvait plus des eglises noires, des universites noires et des histoires noires des amis noirs!" [It's true he was suffocating in Charleston! He'd had enough of black churches, black universities and black friends with their bleak affairs] (46). Sleeping with a white woman descended from a Confederate general gives Spero the sensation of having been sprung from jail.
Thus the story which bit by bit comes into focus during Spero's rainy, solitary Sunday of reminiscences, and which moves among Benin, the West Indies, Algeria and the southern United States (Paris and Lille, New York and even Berkeley), concerns a Black man from the Antilles and an African-American woman from Charleston whose cultural baggage piles up between them into such a giant obstacle that they are condemned to hostile misery practically as soon as they fall in love and marry. The novel's epigraph comes from Lena Horne's rendition of Stormy Weather: "since my man and I ain't together it's raining all the time."
Now one unmistakable bond between Guadeloupe and South Carolina, between Spero and Debbie, is Hurricane Hugo, mentioned strikingly in the novel but with relatively little comment: the houses on the hill where Spero grew up slid to the bottom, turned upside down and lay there like cadavers with their insides spilling out; the second story of the house on Crocker Island that Debbie inherited from her family flew off and the gale swept up blankets, clothes, books and family photos which it left hanging in the branches of trees. None of the novel's characters endows these events with any particular significance. The photograph of the Ancestor, however, with his pearly headdress, his sunglasses, parasol and pipe - "enthroned" for generations over the buffet in the dining room chez les Jules-Juliette in La Pointe - has its equivalent in Debbie's bedroom in South Carolina which is a sort of chapel dedicated to the goddess "Black Americana": reproductions of Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence share the walls with photos of Martin Luther King, Andrew Young and Jesse Jackson "doigt leve sur fond d'arc-en-ciel" [finger lifted against a rainbow background] (38). Les Derniers Rois mages is a scathing satire of the religion of racial heritage whose inspiring aura is supposed to make the present bearable. Debbie and Spero's "roots" have made them exiles; they wander banished from love.
Now Maryse Conde is, of course, herself famous for a two volume historical novel about the African kingdom of Segu, dedicated to "my Bambara ancestress" and structured as a family saga(6); La Vie scelerate(7) likewise recounts the fortunes of a family - this time from the Caribbean - and La Traversee de la Mangrove(8) features a heavy family legacy passed on for generations. It seems, however, that such histories appeal to Conde as a writer precisely because they prove so undependable as confirmations of what one already knows and indeed may have excellent reasons for wanting to maintain. They are unsatisfactory as defenses against one's own forgettableness and miserable substitutes for being loved - but attractive by the very same token to whatever learning impulse may persist in one. For they generally lead to encounters one would not have expected, for which one is ill prepared and which one might prefer to have avoided.
[Caltex - a grey jeep driven by a young, almost yellow Black passes another shiny green one driven by an extremely thin old Asian man - the Cat's Head, Bull's Head and Panther Mountains.]
- Butor, Mobile, Etude pour une representation des Etats-Unis
Debbie is obstinately attached to Black history as inspirational tableau or edifying lecture, all ambiguities and contradictions smoothed out. It is essential for her that the principal figures of the past be exemplary, that each episode in her family's story and in the history of the Race fit into a consistent and handsome pattern so that she may picture herself as the culmination of a smooth, stately, linear development. One is reminded of the first page of Djere's Notebooks, on which he drew a family tree "qui se terminait par ce mot orgueilleux: MOI" [which ended with that proud work: ME] (56). And of the manner in which Spero's father came on to his mother when he was an orderly changing her bed pan in the hospital where she languished, barely half alive at the age of eighteen: "Tu me prends pour un rien-du-tout, un negre tres ordinaire, a pa vre? Collectionneur d'excrements. Met kaka? Eh bien, je vais te raconter quelque chose, te dire qui je suis. Ecoute-moi bien . . ." [You take me for a good-for-nothing, just another worthless Nigger, isn't that right? Collector of feces. Well, I'll tell you something, I'll tell you who I am. Listen up ...] (54). It is easy to guess what Justin proceeded to breathe into Marisia's ear, though she never told anyone. Presumably she kept it to herself, in reserve, to light up the dark days of her marriage to Justin - "et Dieu sait qu'il yen eut" [and God knows there were plenty of them] (54). Djere inscribed the first page of his Notebooks with family tree and resplendent MOI shortly after news reached Guadeloupe that his long distant and silent father had forsaken him for good, by dying; when he went out to buy ink, he looked to his neighbors like a walking corpse.
Debbie, for her part, renounces the idea of writing a biography of her late father, George Middleton, upon learning that the crucial scene in his life story did not take place, as she had always believed, on a podium shared with Martin Luther King, but in a public toilet reserved for Whites where he was beaten to a pulp for having intruded once when in a hurry. She devotes herself to translating Djere's Notebooks instead. For her daughter's benefit, she prettifies Djere's story, indicating that far from having been abandoned to his mother (a mere servant employed by Queen Fadjo) - abandoned "comme un ballot de linge sale" [like a bundle of dirty linen] (32) - he'd been the son of a young lady who couldn't tear herself away from her island and her upper class family even to follow her baby's royal father upon his departure for Africa: "Debbie avait besoin d'admirer. L'admiration c'etait sa religion" [Debbie needed to admire. Admiration was her religion] (98).
Spero, on the contrary, takes irreverent pleasure in discovering the jags and snarls, the illegitimate conjunctions and errant departures which Debbie's version of history is designed to cover up. And also the everydayness of misery, the drab insignificance of death. "L'envers du decor" [the other side of the picture], he says. This sarcastic, demythifying drift in Spero's reflections constitutes one of the principal currents in Les Derniers Rois mages. Thus we read that Debbie's forebear Senior Middleton, brought along by his master Arthur Middleton to South Carolina from Barbados in the 17th century, served his owner as a purchaser of slaves, "et sa couleur ne le genait pas. Il leur inspectait le blanc des yeux et des dents. Il leur pincait la peau et leur soupesait les parties tout comme les planteurs blancs autour de lui. Peut-etre meme avec un peu plus de rudesse" [and his color didn't bother him. He inspected the whiteness of their eyes and teeth. He pinched their skin and weighed their parts in his hands just like the white plantation owners around him. Perhaps even with a bit more roughness] (145). Some people have apparently suggested that Senior Middleton was Arthur's own son, and that this explains why Arthur eventually freed him. Debbie maintains that there isn't a drop of white blood in her family. She avoids investigating the family background of the ancient Agnes Jackson, whose vague recollections of Langston Hughes and other Black luminaries she is taping for an eventual work of oral history; but Spero is pleased to find out about a pale-skinned mulatto, James Earl Jackson, who, not content with his lot as a free artisan, bought two African slaves for a high price. By means of their labor he developed one of the finest rice plantations in South Carolina and was about to marry his children off to genuine whites when General Saxton conquered Charleston for the Union and burned Jackson alive. Jackson's son, haunted by his father's agony, became an itinerant preacher known as "the second Christ." Between sermons he visited a brothel where he met a Southern belle forced by circumstances to take up a career as prostitute. He married her and had many children, among them Agnes Jackson's paternal grandfather (144). Such accounts ("peu catholiques" [hardly appropriate]), in which all the roles seem to have been shuffled and redistributed to the wrong actors - or cut up and spliced back together wrong, so that none is completely consistent - recur in Les Derniers Rois mages.
The design of the whole novel might be described in somewhat similar terms. The multiplicity of its characters and geographical settings, arranged according to a zigzag chronology (determined for the most part by the non-linear sequence of Spero's reflections), allows separate fragments of a given drama, or facets of a personality, to appear at uneven intervals; thus the novel's form favors the interference of heterogeneous patterns superimposed on each other and the migration of themes and images among different contexts. The repetition of one story in another, the reappearance - sideways, or upside down - of elements from one history in a different one may suggest some future style of learning and thinking thanks to which Debbie's family and Spero's, Dahomey and Algeria, the West Indies and the southern U.S.A., Algiers and Lille, could grow attentive to each other. If one of the principal themes of Les Derniers Rois mages is that of origins and identities (history as gratifying legacy, culture as Self) - a theme presented the more mercilessly to be mocked and broken up and left in scattered splinters across the pages - another motif is the web of complicated, changeable, undecided relationships among Black men and women of Africa and the African Diaspora, and among their histories. No overarching meaning is evident, no ultimate harmony resounds. The scope of the novel is impressive, but it denies the reader the satisfaction of a panoramic vista. Contradictions, ironies, reversals stay active, tilting life precariously toward a future, and preserving a kind of effervescence favorable to love, jokes and insouciant pleasure in beauty - but the novel doesn't tell what finally happens between Debbie and Spero.
For this reader, at any rate, the intermittent jolts in Les Derniers Rois mages occasion from time to time something like what, in his discussion of photography, Barthes called the puncture: some detail pricks up, pierces; some peripheral element briefly stings.(9) And this, inasmuch as such pointed dislocations, such abrupt de-centerings in Les Derniers Rois mages, can't really be accounted for in any program, not even Spero's iconoclastic one. Ignorance suddenly produces the sharp effect of lucidity, for example, penetrating clouds of serious knowledge amassed by professors - and still doesn't lose its own dumb profile. Or, solidarity is expressed accidentally - by mistake. In short, a little event is produced by circumstances that ought to rule it out. No particular interpretation seems in order, but something happens. I think of the inhabitants of Bellevue in Martinique when they beheld the exiled Ancestor taking his daily walk accompanied by his honton and two of his wives. Unimpressed, they laughed, immune to the solemn self-deception at which the devoted Debbie is so expert ("croire, c'est vivre" [to believe is to live], she intones). "Un roi africain?" [An African king?], they asked. "Et puis quoi encore? Est-ce qu'il y a des rois en Afrique? Ces gens-la se font bouillir les uns les autres dans des chaudrons" [And then what? Are there kings in Africa? The people boil each other in cauldrons there] (20). Some felt a little sorry for a man so far away from home: "On top of everything else," they observed in commiseration, "it turns out he doesn't even know French! The poor guy!" (138). Or again, I think of a loosely connected chain of references to Algeria which extends from beginning to end of the novel. In Lille, where Spero studied painting for a few years, the French mistake him for an Arab and berate him: "Another dirty Arab! Why don't they stay in their own country?" This is Spero's main experience of European racism. In Blida, Arab children call the Ancestor and his entourage dirty niggers. The first Black Africans Spero dares approach are students in Lille. Some speak to him: "Cousin, tu es algerien? Nous sommes avec toi!" [You're Algerian, cousin? We're with you!]. This is the first Spero hears about the Algerian War. After the Ancestor's death in Algiers, the French authorities wondered where to bury his body, since he was neither Catholic nor Moslem; it worried them to delay disposing of the remains for they feared that partisans of Add el-Kader might make the dispossessed King of Dahomey a hero and a symbol of their own resistance.
Perhaps the Ancestor, when, at the end of his days he spends enchanted hours watching embroiderers in the marketplace in Blida - " Point biais. Point persan. Point de tige. Point pique" [Bias stitch. Persian stitch. Stem stitch. Quilting stitch] (172) - somewhat resembles a reader of Les Derniers Rois mages, pricked now and again by Maryse Conde's needlework, and sensing thus every so often the proximity of an unforeseeable intersection between Debbie's road and Spero's. Certainly not a solution to their problems, a gratifying ending to their story, but nonetheless a crossing.
. . .
Spero has a taste for the unexpected, for anomalies, perverse twists and jokes; it runs parallel to his taste for sexual pleasure and to his aesthetic sense which, though not very developed, has the hopeful characteristic of heating up just where it is not supposed to (he appreciates Pissaro more than Romare Bearden and would rather do watercolors of wisteria-covered antebellum Charleston than oils depicting Contemporary Black Life). Les Derniers Rois mages, with its irreverent ironies, its tone at the same time sensuous and cynical, is a novel he would enjoy. Of course it is his characteristic sadness, his wayward intelligence and unorthodox sense of humor, that give the novel the traits he would appreciate. But Les Derniers Rois mages is also a book from which he could learn something, precisely to the extent that the waywardness in it escapes his complacency.
He enjoys the cruel jags and snarls in the past which Debbie suppresses largely - I think - because they tend reassuringly to confirm him in the melancholy lucidity which he uses to absolve himself of responsibilities. He regularly rediscovers, in the contradictions Debbie covers over with Ideals, that there isn't after all much significance to anything. Therefore it's no use bothering to regret his failure to accomplish much, and in particular no use speaking to his daughter, no use attempting to answer her unspoken query: what is the significance of being Black? After all, he knows - from hearsay and TV, his principal sources of information - quite as much as he needs to about military dictatorshps in independent African countries, about power, which is neither black nor white, he concludes - about brutes and their victims all over the world, as often as not the same color. Nevertheless, his disenchanted silence is hardly more helpful to Anita, or less cruel, than his own father's furious response was to him when, long ago in Guadeloupe on an unforgettable late afternoon when he was about six years-old, he asked, "Papa, why aren't we white?" He was beaten that afternoon, sent to bed without dinner and subjected the next day to a very long and terrifying lesson about the great divide cutting straight through history as far back as can be recalled, between whites and their Black victims.
Spero thinks that like power, art is neither black nor white. He was surprised when his art students at a small college in Charleston objected to studying exclusively European Masters; he hadn't really noticed that Ingres's Baigneuse and Michelangelo's David are white: "Pour lui ce n'etait que des chefs-d'oeuvre de l'art" [For him they were just artistic masterpieces] (216). His own inability to respond "appropriately" to the requirement that his art be Black seems to me analogous to his inability to swallow Debbie's platitudes, or any paralyzing dogma, but his thoughtlessness with respect to art history and his uselessness to his students runs parallel to the mental lethargy which prevents him from being any help at all to his daughter: "C'est sans reflechir qu'il utilisait dans ses cours les methodes de son ecole d'arts plastiques de Lille. Il n'avait jamais pense que le David etait un blanc . . ." [In his courses he used the methods of his art school in Lille without thinking. It had never occurred to him that the David was a white man] (216). Without thinking . . . It had never occurred to him . . . One might almost suspect it is a relief to Spero that so many Black chiefs of state resemble the worst white ones, for this means he doesn't need to think any more than Debbie does. She believes politicians are neatly divided into martyrs and villains; he rests assured they are all crooks.
When Anita was first born, Spero felt that her arrival heralded a real change in his life: a break with the past, with his family and his family's traditions (for three generations there'd been only sons born to the Jules-Juliette clan). A daughter would anchor Spero in the present and promise him a future. But Anita seems mainly to have served him as a means of fighting Debbie, in a muted replay of the violent domestic dramas familiar to him from Guadeloupe. Indeed, it crosses his mind that his father would have killed Debbie if he had been her husband. And furthermore, wives in Guadeloupe have been known to kill husbands whose behavior toward their daughters is as bad as his toward Anita. When at last he actually speaks his mind to his daughter (for the first time just as she is leaving him for good), he tells her to kill the past (124).
Kill the past: does Spero mean to recommend the attitude of Africans he has heard about, who, indifferent to the traditions of another era, "n'avaient souci que des jours de leur present, [et] chantaient les louanges de leur militaire-maitre de l'univers" [cared only for the present and sang the praises of their military-master of the universe] (252)? The eradication of the past is, in any case, his advice to Anita. Also, renounce any sentimental hope of changing the world. Just face the present. Later, he imagines making the same speech more successfully to a son (for, never - as Debbie would indignantly put it - having taken any responsibility for his first child, he longs for a second). To the imaginary Rupert he again advises liquidating the past, and then, in his daydream, he picks out a woman for the young man: a simple woman who wouldn't know much, but who'd know what giving pleasure means. And who wouldn't make any farfetched demands on her man (295). Spero's sexist carpe diem amounts to insisting that there is nothing worth even being curious about that isn't already inscribed in familiar proverbs. So don't get launched on any foolish projects such as art or politics; nothing different is ever going to happen. If Debbie prefers the most preposterous stereotypes to an ordinary, uncinematic past free of saints and heroes, or to ambiguities that defy any single Educational interpretation, Spero chooses mediocrity and meaninglessness over history: over the chance, that is, of there being something else, something different, something to learn or to risk. Indolent, like his father and grandfather, he paints (and drinks and womanizes) the way Justin drank and half-heartedly played the clarinet, which is the way Djere drank and wrote: to put anger to sleep, to avoid actually killing anyone, to achieve detachment and wait for death. He likes best to be among people for whom everything is already all over: at the bar in Charleston run by a fellow West Indian, a foreigner and a failure like himself; or in bed with the blond descendent of plantation owners - heir, like himself, to defeat and surrender; or in a neighborhood in the Bronx peopled by composers without music, guitarists without guitars, boxers with neither a left hook nor a right, businessmen without any business, novelists without novels: "Il se sentait bien. Comme il ne l'avait pas ete depuis longtemps, car ceux qui l'entouraient n'attendaient plus que la mort. Comme lui" [He felt well. Better than he had for a long time, because like him, the people around him weren't looking forward to anything anymore except death] (122).
Comme lui, and like the Ancestor as well: for Spero's perigrinations after his marriage - to Jamaica, New York, Charleston, back to New York and back again to Charleston (never at home anywhere, always a stranger) - are not unlike the exiled King's after the burning of his palace in Dahomey: first to the bush, where he lived in secret for two years, then Martinique, then Blida, then Algiers, then Kutome, the realm of the dead. . . . Already, in the bush, the deposed monarch felt (according to what Djere remembers him saying) "a paradoxical happiness": "Il etait nu. Il etait leger. Il n'avait plus de guerres a entreprendre. Plus de victoires a gagner. Seule la mort a esperer" [He was naked. He was light. He had no more wars to wage. No more victories to win. Only death to hope for] (247). Finally, when his drift from exile to exile brings him to Kutome, he luxuriates in peace - that is to say, indifference. He knows that back in the world he is much discussed and that some think him a martyr, others a bloodthirsty tyrant, a first embodiment in Africa of power without the slightest concern for ordinary people, but he doesn't care: "Tout cela lui etait egal. Dans Kutome, il avait la paix" [It was all the same to him. In Kutome, he was at peace] (289). Spero doesn't care about the Ancestor, he's unmoved by myths and legends, he sees how they disguise the past and encumber the present, he's forgotten to perform the rites of December 10th - it's just that his way of forgetting is thoughtlessly to repeat.
3. "Koua, koua? La Vie du Foetus?" [What? What? The Life of the Fetus?]
- Queneau, Saint Glinglin
"Ecoute, recommencons la vie" [Listen, let's start life over]. This proposal, wistfully addressed to an absent Debbie, recurs with increasing frequency in Les Derniers Rois mages. Let's start life over - let's have another baby. The Ancestor used to enjoy each year a ritual bath in which he washed all his mistakes and misdeeds off on a young child, and emerged cleansed, ready to start again . . .
Bored, ultimately, in Kutome (satiated on peace), the Ancestor got the yen, we read, to go back where he came from, and start over from the beginning. He took to haunting the pregnant women of his tribe and eventually slipped into the womb of the wife of an army officer in Benin, a woman who, though of royal blood, had consented to marry this mere tough (so proud of his rank that he wore his uniform in bed) because, "comme le passe avait ete eradique et qu'il ne fallait plus chanter que le lieutenant-colonel" [since the past had been eradicated and it was required to sing only the praises of the lieutenant-colonel], she didn't care anything about her ancestors anymore. But she cared quite a lot about her Mercedes. The new baby arrived, a boy, a great source of pride to the military man: "Pas de doute, ce serait un fameux gaillard! On en ferait un militaire, un vrai de vrai. Comme cela se passait le 6 janvier 1980, il baptisa le nouveau-ne Melchior" [He was sure to be a strapping fellow! They'd make a soldier out of him, a real one. Since it took place on January 6, 1980, he baptised the newborn Melchior] (294). When will the last of the last Magi finally make a final exit? Is the future indefinitely the resurrection of an exhausted, zombie story, the return of a past which can - since it's always being liquidated in one way or another (since practically everyone is, after his or her own fashion, indifferent to it if not positively anxious not to understand it) - never end?
Spero's desire is to start over at the finish, to end again endlessly - which is to say never. He wants to be as naked and light as an unborn child, nothing yet behind him, and to have nothing more to undertake, nothing any more ahead of him. He shares with the Ancestor a longing to be received by a mother's body. More and more often, as he grows older, he acts like the child of the women he seduces, and at the end of Les Derniers Rois mages he is waiting for Debbie like a little boy whose mother is late coming to fetch him. He waits for her to come home and begin life anew, forgiving him the way she ought, receiving him "dans le pardon de son coeur et de son corps" [in the forgiveness of her heart and body] (288). God, Spero thinks, never gave men anything much in the way of character besides the helpless need to be surrounded with love "comme un foetus dans le ventre de sa mere" [like a fetus in its mother's womb] (300).
The Queen Fadjo, when her King lay dying - and when she'd duly consulted the gods of Dahomey, the gods of Martinique and the turbulent, ravenous gods of Haiti in order to help him find the road and the entrance to death - opened the Bible, too, for good measure, and fell by chance upon the lament of Job: "Why died I not from the womb?" Fadjo didn't know how to read, yet all unheard, this lament, cursingthe night that did not shut the doors of a mother's womb, echoes intermittently throughout Spero's ruminations in South Carolina on the uncommemorated anniversary of his Ancestor's death. He wishes for a permanent present, impinged upon by no past, opening onto no unknown - a womb that stays shut, a realm one never has to quit, banished.
In the bush, "ventre maternel" [maternal womb] where the Ancestor hid out for two years (dark, watery forest where the trees are "lourds comme des cercueils" [heavy as coffins]) and where he experienced his paradoxical happiness, the end and the beginning join: "La foret! Tout commence par la! Tout finit par la!" [The forest! Everything begins there! Everything ends there!] (244). For Spero, it is the sea that presents this junction of origin and finish: the ocean - womb which offers him a grave in the novel's last pages. Well into the rainy night and well into desolated middle age, waiting at the edge of a pier for Debbie's ferry to bring her home, Spero gazes into the black water just beneath him. The text seems to recall at this point his grandfather Djere's attempt to drown himself when he learned of his father's death in Algiers - when he knew, that is, that he'd been abandoned forever - and also the black water mixing with the black sky on a night in Spero's childhood when, coming home from a fishing trip with his drunkenly oblivious father, he was badly frightened by the blackness, by the lateness, by death. In the bottom of the boat there restlessly stirred a wounded sea tortoise which the small Spero was sure would crawl up onto him and crush him beneath its shell. This monster may well strike the reader as the source of the sea creatures in Spero's nightmares, especially the crabs crawling over his naked body and reaching into his heart with their claws in the recurring dream that opens the novel and repeats at the very beginning of its second half, marking its center. Thus the book seems to draw to its necessary close - revealing the rather severely elegant form it has after all (notwithstanding its erratic chronology, its disparate settings, its diverse, intersecting patterns) - as the last male descendent of the West Indian branch of the royal Huegbaja family brings an entire saga of defeat to its inexorable finish. This is not really quite the case, since Spero, too weak or else not weak enough to forego any of the life that may still remain to him, does not sink into the water and drown, but is still waiting when the lights of Debbie's ferry appear in the distance and the novel stops. Nothing is decided for sure. But in addition to this inconclusiveness, there is, to my mind, something else about Les Derniers Rois mages that somewhat attenuates its sadness.
At several junctures the narration refers to prophets and diviners: they are included in the Ancestor's retinue, for example; also, Debbie's mother Margaret was possessed by the Spirit at the age of ten - at fourteen she could read the sex of unborn babies and point out people who were soon to die violent deaths. A woman in Martinique named Chechelle la Folle, moreover, who'd predicted the great fire of 1890 and the hurricane of 1891 (though no one believed her when she spoke because her breath was so bad), foresaw, when Hosannah Jules-Juliette was a tiny child, that a King from across the ocean, son of a panther, would mount her. The amused neighbors, since it was early January at the time, made up a story according to which Hosannah was going to marry Balthasar, the King who brought myrrh to the Baby Jesus. Thus Les Derniers Rois mages - sometimes playfully, sometimes mockingly, sometimes without any discernible comment but never, unless I am mistaken, with reverence - refers to inspired speech: the speech of conteurs, seers, magicians, crazies. And every so often the same narrative voice that gives us the rather jaundiced account of the everyday life of Charleston's Black bourgeoisie, and the knowing observations about American academics, and the precise description of "le quartier des miserables" [the poor neighborhood] where Djere spent his early childhood, launches - at the turning of a page, without explanation - upon a story about the Ancestor's ghost, the story of how it found its way to the city limits of Algiers and took its first halting steps in the desert on the way to Kutome, and we learn how babies in Algiers felt on the day of his death - babies at their mothers' breast and babies in their mothers' belly. . . . This narrative voice shares a register, then, with conteurs and seers; it can sound like Spero's friend Linton's saxophone, "parole magique" [magic word] which makes Spero feel like the son of a panther, just the way Djere used to feel when his father held him in his arms and described to him the African forest - "les perroquets macaw a tete de plumes rouges et bleues, les oiseaux quetzel qui mettent le feu aux branches, les singes hurleurs suspendus tete en bas par la liane de leurs queues, les macaques a poil vieilli d'Anciens, les gorilles a figures barbouilles de noir . . ." [the macaws with red and blue feathered heads, the quetzel birds that set the branches on fire, the shrieking monkeys hanging upside down by their vine-like tails, the apes with the aged fur of Ancients, the gorillas, their faces smeared with black] (87).
In three long passages from Djere's Notebooks, we learn of Posu Adewene, bride of the panther, of Tengisu her monster child, of Tadju the brave who was killed by a tiny fly because he failed to respect his animal brothers and of how the Ancestor set fire to his own great palace and watched it burn in November, 1882, upon learning that General Dodds and his army had massacred every single person in the neighboring town of Kana. These Notebooks, notwithstanding their beautiful echoes of a storytelling tradition, are perhaps not utterly compelling as a link to the African past; perhaps they are not allowed, by Maryse Conde who wrote them, to be compelling in that way, for she also wrote the setting for them, and created Djere as their author, a tragic and muddled man who had never been to Africa. Any prestige the Notebooks enjoy among the novel's characters is mildly silly: for example, Debbie holds hushed evening Readings from their pages for friends and family (Spero cringes). Much to her disappointment, no publisher will ever accept her translations of the Notebooks. Spero thinks of them affectionately as fantastical tales that enchanted his childhood and also grimly, as they appeared to him later, after he grew up: a long story of defeat, still not over. It's in a book, then, which won't make any claims for the Notebooks, which won't let any weighty political significance or moral authority or cultural aura attach to Djere's writing, or to art at all, any more than to Chechelle la Folle who nevertheless speaks the truth! - it's in such a book, Les Derniers Rois mages, that Djere's Notebooks resound memorably. They resonate with all the other pages in the novel, recalling the quality (the timbre, one might say) that language can have when someone breathes into it and, inspired, it speaks, instead of serving any of the other purposes (that of bludgeon, say, or soporific, or ad for Self) to which people are inclined to put it.
1. From Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays, by Edouard Glissant, Caraf Books, trans. J. Michael Dash (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1989), 141-42.
2. Les Derniers Rois mages (Paris: Mercure de France, 1992).
3. Qu-est-ce que c'est?
5. le temps d'antan.
6. Segou (Paris: Editions Robert Laffont, 1984).
7. La Vie scelerate (Paris: Editions Seghers, 1987).
8. La Traversee de la Mangrove (Paris: Mercure de France, 1989).
9. Roland Barthes, La Chambre claire (Paris: Gallimard, 1980).
ANN SMOCK is author of Double Dealing. She has translated the poetry of Samuel Wood and texts by M. Blanchot and Michel Leiris.
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|Date:||Jun 22, 1995|
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