Portrait of the artist as dreamer: Maryse Conde's 'Traversee de la Mangrove' and 'Les Derniers Rois Mages.'(Maryse Conde: A Special Issue)
The two novels Traversee de la Mangrove and Les Derniers Rois Mages will give me the opportunity to analyze the issues that are at stake "behind" these portraits as they are framed by the author. By examining these characters' places in society, their motivations and their dreams, I will try to show to what extent their discourse challenges other portraits and discourses; it constitutes an interrogation of art, representation and race, based on the constant confrontation of the desires and realities, past and present, of the Creole world in which they evolve.
Encounter with the artist
Francis Sancher, the writer in La Traversee and Spero, the painter in Les Derniers Rois Mages, share the status of "outsider" in their respective communities. Neither one of them grew up where they have now taken up residence. Sancher came from Cuba to Guadeloupe, where he has settled to write his novel; Spero, having started to paint in his native Guadeloupe, has followed his American wife to Charleston, a small town in the Southern United States. Although both characters remain on "Creole ground" and as such they have in common a diasporic culture - they nevertheless place themselves, at the outset, in the marginal position of the stranger.
Simultaneously artists and strangers, both of them erupt into the lives of the other characters on which they exercise an immediate fascination: in the same fashion that Sancher's mysterious and imposing bearing seduces the men, women, and children of the village, it will take Debbie, an African-American woman, one glance at Spero and his canvases for her to decide, though she has only just stepped off the cruise ship, that he is the love of her life. Very quickly though, the blindness and fascination of the first instances are replaced by a more nuanced appraisal. Thus we learn, upon hearing of the death of Sancher, that he was greatly despised in the village: "Car tous, a un moment donne, avaient traite Francis Sancher de vagabond et de chien" (M 18) [For all of them, at one time or another, had called Francis a vagabond and a cur, and isn't it the fate of a cur to die amid general indifference? (7)].(3) What is he accused of? It ultimately comes out that it is his laziness that is judged to be undignified in a world where physical labor is the norm. The writer, for his part, remains seated behind his typewriter and engages in an activity that in no way corresponds to their notion of work. His position and the definition of his activities appear as problematical in these two novels by Conde, but also in the works of other Francophone Caribbean writers, as well. Edouard Glissant, Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphael Confiant also develop writer-characters that question the very definition of writing as an occupation, in a culture that has traditionally been oral, thus opposing the spoken word to that which is written. But before the accusative, it is the interrogative mode that marks the reaction of the community when faced with the novelty of an occupation that involves no pain. The qualification of writer, itself, only elicits perplexity, before it turns to suspicion:
[What was Francis doing?
He set up a white deal table on the veranda, placed a typewriter on it and sat down in front of it. When the villagers, who were intrigued and itching to know what he was doing up there, stopped Moise's van they were told he was a writer.
Writer? What's a writer?
Was a writer then a do-nothing, sitting in the shade on his veranda, staring at the ridge of mountains for hours on end while the rest sweated it out under the Good Lord's hot sun? (21)]
In Les Derniers Rois Mages, questions have arisen since the arrival of the great-grandfather of the hero: what is a "Roi Mage?"(4) Later, Spero, and with him his father and grandfather, will be the butt of the community's criticism - the family has been ridiculed generation after generation through the application of this nickname, "Roi Mage." The expression serves at first to underscore the mystery that surrounds the origin of the protagonist, but ultimately it works to turn an attitude, which is considered arrogant and unproductive, to derision. It is not so much Djere's African ancestor as his attempt to prove that ancestry in his "cahiers" that is the source of the ridiculous nickname. In Traversee, the inhabitants of Riviere au Sel even ignore the reality behind the word "ecrivain." "Roi Mage" provokes the same interrogation and ridicule as the word "writer" for the villagers in Traversee. As is true with Francis, the grandfather, Djere does not participate in the common labors of the village, committing himself instead to the writing of his Cahiers (notebooks), thus becoming the "laughing stock of the Morne" and isolating himself in a marginality that he leaves as an unfortunate legacy to his son:
[Why did Djere just sit at his dining room table, dipping his pen into a glass ink well, scribbling and scratching from morning to late afternoon on pieces of paper and in the evening when he was drunk, telling stories that nobody could make either head or tail of?]
If Spero's activity as a painter doesn't trigger the reactions that we encounter in Traversee concerning literature - to the extent that his art, as a mode of representation, is not novel, and thus is not questioned - he nevertheless is subject to accusations of laziness. But is this simply a reproach which rests on the opposition between the production of manual labor and the apparent gratuity - notably in the seated position of the artist - of intellectual activity? In fact, the most frequent criticism is articulated in both cases with the saying" ne rien faire de ses dix doigts" [to do nothing with one's fingers]. Later, however, it is clarified as "raconter des histoire sans queue ni tete" [to tell stories with neither a head nor a tail] or "deparler": to talk about them, to unravel their stories and their secrets, in a rather foolish way. By the same token, the mysterious activity of the artist becomes threatening to them when they realize that he is representing their reality. It is the story of their more or less significant lives that is being told. Spero is, then, menacing to the community inasmuch as he is an outside observer; he refuses a blind adherence to their language and values, and instead he substitutes a critical eye in the place of unconditional admiration. He notes that it is not only as a "faiseur de croutes" that he is rejected, but primarily as an outsider's gaze that threatens the group's cohesiveness. In this, what Sancher says in Traversee could just as easily have been uttered by Spero: "Des que j'ai refuse de m'accommoder de slogan, on m'a eu a l'oeil, et au bon. Rien n'est plus dangereux qu'un homme qui essaie de comprendre" (M 181) [As soon as I refused to go along with the slogans, they kept a serious eye on me. Nothing more dangerous than a man who tries to understand (139)]. Francis Sancher becomes more worrisome as his relationship to History and the inhabitants of this place becomes more apparent. This stated, even if their characters differ in detail, both of these characters serve the same narrative function, namely to reveal the dynamic of a community that, thanks to them, Conde can circumscribe as such: the gaze of a Spero is necessary to the denunciation of the bourgeois-intellectual African-American world of Debbie. Similarly, Sancher's death serves to simultaneously bring the inhabitants of a Guadeloupean village together and disrupt its apparent harmony. It is precisely because the artist is seen as "un fou qui deparlait, deparlait!" (M 241) [He was crazy and talked out the top of his head, out the top of his head! (192)] that he is, at the same time, a force of coherence and a debunker of collective myths.
In Traversee de la Mangrove, the community is composed of peasants from a Guadeloupean village gathered around the corpse of Francis Sancher. Upon hearing/reading the tale that each character imparts on this occasion, we realize that despite his apparent place of solitude in a forest adjacent to the village, Sancher has managed to touch everyone. Young and old, woman or child, each finds something to say about the deceased and about his or her own life at the same time. It is the death of this stranger that permits the speech of each individual, each of which serves as a vignette that transforms the global picture of the community. The collection of these successive portraits re-shapes the narrative into a legible Mangrove swamp for us to read. The presence of the artist allows for a portrait of the world, the world of the peasants watching (over) the stranger attempting to represent this very same mangrove swamp: the book that Sancher has set out to write bears the same title as Conde's: Traversee de la Mangrove.
In Les Derniers Rois Mages, when Spero is not painting portraits, he shares with the reader his reflections concerning the world into which he has found himself projected: a certain bourgeoisie of the southern United States, his wife Debbie's milieu. What is striking about the description of this setting is the profusion of emblems that recall the portrait of the African Ancestor that reigns over Debbie and Spero's dining room: the world is one of coats-of-arms, photographs, albums, and trophies that leave the reader with the impression of wandering through a museum of reconstituted history - the (glorious) history of the Black race. Interestingly, it is with this kind of worship that Maryse Conde grew up in Guadeloupe. In an interview where she talks about growing up in a bourgeois family, her mother's aspirations appear very close to Debbie's:
[my parents] showed an admiration for Black America. They never knew anything about it save what they read in magazines like Ebony. You know that kind of photographs you find only in Black American magazines? A family that has succeeded in some way.... My mother had hung a picture like that in her room and would point to it and say: "I want my children to grow up just like that."(5)
Spero's reflection on images and other means of representation such as dance, music, literature or even tape recordings, undermine the superficiality of a painted decor made up of selective illustrations. Throughout the book, his efforts as an artist will be to break these frames and escape their rigidity. When he realizes, later in the book, that he may have been "transported" from Guadeloupe, along with his glorious African past, only to fulfill Debbie's desire for a "living" postcard, he begins, instead, to hope that Debbie will continue to need him as long as he maintains the illusion. Through Spero's eyes, Maryse Conde gives us a glimpse of a world in constant representation in which the systematic attempt to erect a Pantheon of black culture, to rebuild the museum as a monument, denotes the avowal of a lack, and denounces the fetishistic attitude that some black people assume in their quest for an identity.
The moment the world is reconstructed and presented as such, it is, in the same gesture, blown apart by the presence of this cynical non-American; it is as if the community could be recognized as coherent only if it is simultaneously put into question when faced with its fissures and self-contradictions. When, in Les Derniers Rois Mages, Spero depicts the core of this African-American bourgeoisie, it is to reveal the collective fantasy which girds this apparent cohesion. Edouard Glissant calls this a "desire historique," in other words, an attempt to rediscover a common origin, which appears, ironically, as just another sign of alienation, and which Spero reads as borrowings, assimilation or copies of an inaccessible, overstepped, or displaced original.
Within the communal space of Traversee de la Mangrove, between the community's shared past and the individual's family ties, the act of taking the floor during Sancher's wake reveals not only the absence of communication but also the specificity of each individual's claims. The cohabitation in the limited space of the village, which is shared in a manner bordering on incest, is only maintained at the price of frustration and a brooding: that is, until Sancher's arrival. In both cases, the artist functions as a transgressor who uncovers structural weaknesses; his function in the narrative is to force conflicts - conscious and unconscious - to become known, and to illustrate frustrations and failure. Ultimately, it is the fictitious writer who provides an analysis of the dynamics of the collective mind.
If, however, the gaze of the artist on the community can be qualified as clairvoyant, the capacity for lucid analysis appears shattered when one considers the more restricted space of the artist himself, characterized by Sancher's house or Spero's studio; or, more private yet, their bedrooms, where their troubled sleep reveals even more complex subconscious conflicts.
Both of these artists, one a painter and the other a writer, also struggle against their respective phantasms. Sancher, like Spero, is tormented by nightmares that wake him up in the middle of the night, thus demonstrating that, despite the apparent strength of their convictions, both characters fail to escape the clutches of fantasy on their own respective realities. By focusing on the obsessions voiced in these nightmares we can locate the nature of their desires, inasmuch as these disturbing dreams are indicative of both characters' preoccupations as strangers, artists, and men.
Throughout the text, Spero's frustration is revealed by the bitterness of his comments concerning his surroundings and his own life, but most strikingly, in the force of the nightmare which begins the tale and which returns to haunt him halfway through the story. Spero sees himself overrun by a swarm of crabs which assault him as they work their way up his legs to the center of his body. One senses that this dream, interrupted in midcourse by his abrupt return to consciousness, unveils a conflict that he is unconsciously trying to resolve: given the writhing and monstrous aspect of these "creatures," we might read this insidious mass trying to blanket him as the manifestation of a desire which cannot find its expression in daylight. Given what we know of him, what might be revealed, in this dream, of Spero's desires and frustrations?
At the very beginning of the text, Spero evinces a manifest desire to be rid of the weight that the African "Ancestor" represents for him: the figure of the latter, immortalized by him in a portrait and made sacred in the celebrations that occur on the 10th of December, is repeatedly viewed as the origin of all his troubles; as if, having executed this first portrait, this first painting - the canvas which he offers to his father - Spero had committed the first mistake and created the first "frame" into which Debbie will throw him and imprison them both. Through the portrait, he first claims vis-a-vis his father, and later in his relationship to his wife Debbie, an illustrious descendance from the Roi Mage that projects him irremediably into the realm of the symbolic and places his talent as an artist, despite his reluctance, at the service of iconography. By this initial act, through which he is desperately seeking recognition, Spero simultaneously becomes an accomplice to, and the victim of, the collective fantasy of the reconstruction of a glorious African past in which he no longer believes - in which he may never have believed. By supplying Debbie, the American woman who desperately needs an object of veneration, the icon - the portrait of the Ancestor - Spero has imprisoned himself with her in a world where the signifier is venerated: while Debbie is expending her energies in the mise-en-scene of a family and communal History, Spero's talent is increasingly attenuated in the "prison of race," in an aesthetic system where a visible tribute to the black race has the priority over any creative impulse. Despite the general impression with which Conde leaves us, as an artist, Spero is neither lazy nor a complete failure. It is because he has let himself be trapped in the notion of a political engagement through art, thus repressing his own creative impulse, that he is being reduced to being "rien qu'un faussaire" [nothing but a counterfeiter] (RM 225). So as to satisfy Debbie and the "desir americain," Spero adapts his painting to a mode which goes against the grain of his own desires,
[For he had obeyed her and silenced his inner inclinations. It was obvious: He was not made for these symbolic and signifying oils she encouraged him to paint. His field was watercolors. The play of light, air and sun.]
If Spero is not a loser, a failure, it is also clear that his "gouts profonds" have been baffled and relegated to the wings to the extent that they do not correspond in any explicitly engaged manner to the struggle of the black race, and in its quest for an aesthetic of the African Diaspora. If Spero is not a Jacob Lawrence, he is by no means an artistic misfit either, but a frustrated artist who guiltily buries his most cherished productions in the depth of his unconscious:
[He kept hidden away in his portfolio like a shameful secret the series of watercolors he had accomplished, in which he had celebrated Charleston with his eyes and heart.]
Spero's favorite paintings, those that incur Debbie's derision, are inevitably aquarelles, watercolors, paintings of water, of nature, images of women, which go contrary to his austere - and botched - productions, which are nothing but mediocre copies of Haitian masterpieces. In his dreams it is once again water and the creatures of the sea (37) which surround him; to that symbolic oil which fixes color and in which masterpieces are produced, to substantiality, is opposed the gauziness of aquarelles, of haziness, of femininity, of a nostalgia for the mother: Marisia, the mother who never loved him. To "be himself," Spero dreams of detaching himself from the burden/canvas/language of the father. But it is by remaining in the domain of the father, the domain of History and the intellect, that he can hope to be loved by Debbie, or that he can at least hope to communicate with her. Spero's seeming languidness should be understood as a reaction to the "laborious" mode of the community, a refusal to engage himself to the extent that that mode is a stumbling block in his quest for the artistic freedom that he seeks. Thus, we learn that:
[He painted because he hated everything else and didn't want to become an elementary school teacher to help out his parents. When he stood in front of his easel, wings grew out of his shoulders. He thought of nothing. Nothing that would make him think about how to spend the time we have to spend on this earth.]
This remark makes the artistic process both a reaction to political engagement and a deliberate reinscription of existential preoccupations which are nevertheless not scorned. Spero's dream suggests the impossibility of reconciling an effective communication with Debbie and artistic satisfaction. It represents the fantasy of a reuniting of the imaginary with the symbolic, by which the artist would express himself in the language of the mother without renouncing the power of the symbolic, namely the fantasy of keeping Debbie's admiration while being himself. He seeks to understand without choking in the stifling atmosphere of the intellectuals: "Il se moquait bien des Langston Hughes, quant a lui, et autres lumieres du monde noir. Il cherchait a decouvrir l'envers du decor; celui qu'on cache et qui est tout autant signifiant" (RM 143) [He didn't care two hoots for Langston Hughes and other luminaries of the Black world. He tried to discover the other side of the coin: the hidden side that is just as significant]. Of all the women that he has encountered, only one has let him glimpse the possibility of such a reconciliation, and it is precisely because she lets him speak of the maternal side of his family:
[She had given Spero the most precious thing Debbie had always denied him: the freedom to be himself . . . In her company, he had, for once, forgotten the Ancestor, and talked of Jean Boyer d'Etterville, the Beke in his mother's family.]
A reconciliation with Debbie seems as doomed to fail as is the attempt to mix oil and water. In asking the fatal question: "L'art a-t-il aussi une couleur?" (213) [Does art also have a color?], Spiro seems to come to terms with the impossibility of escaping the History of the African Diaspora and the political necessities of the moment. While he realizes that his aspiration - to paint to forget his misery, to paint without engagement - makes him a failure and a coward, he begins to ask himself if his whole relation to Debbie hadn't, at the outset, begun with a shared fantasy:
[And why did he go into exile and follow her to Charleston? Had either of them ever believed in a glorious future in painting? Had she perhaps merely made him dream of another place, of another land, less irksome and mean of his own?]
The only hope that Spero has left is to start anew, in other words, to wait. And to continue to dream. The initial fantasy is replaced by that of a new beginning, of a new life with Debbie; he hopes that they might even have a second child together. Thus Conde tells us towards the end of the novel: "Il vivait dans une idee fixe, une seule esperance: que Debbie mette un terme a son exil et le reprenne contre lui" (RM 299) [He realized he was living with the sole hope that Debbie would put an end to his exile and take him back]. But to a certain extent the beginning of this exile was Debbie's arrival in Spero's life. Ultimately, it is only by leaving her, in proclaiming himself the last of the "Rois Mages," that Spiro can persist in the conviction of any possible satisfaction for the artist in a world in which creativity and desire are subjected to the urgencies of constructing a cultural identity. The only words which seduced Spero during his sojourn in the United States were those of another immigrant, a Mexican woman, an admirer of Frieda Kahlo, who explained to him that the politico-economic circumstances of the artist necessarily hindered the creativity of the artist:
[The creators of the Third World had their hands tied because their societies were intent on controlling their vision of things. No room here for the wandering artist enamoured of love, flowers and bird songs . . . While Debbie listened with a little pout of contempt, Spero was captivated.]
At the end of the novel, Spero has arrived at a moment where he has relinquished the possibility of art itself, whether for himself or for those yet to come. His son - should he and Debbie have one - would be neither a "Roi Mage" nor an artist; nor would Spero promote his son's sterile fantasies. That is his final resolution:
[He would not fill his head with stories about a Royal Ancestor. He would not read him the Notebooks of Djere. No! He would teach him straightway to look the present in the eye . . . He would give his son a down to earth career. No dreaming of becoming an artist. Painter. Writer. Musician. He would teach him to keep both feet on the ground and not try and change the world. For all those who have tried have killed themselves on the job.]
In this passage, Maryse Conde not only questions Spero's fantasy as it has appeared throughout the story but also directs an ironic gaze to her own methodology, to the extent that it is she herself who is the artist, the writer, who has led us to read the "Cahiers de Djere" - that work that is so closely scrutinized by her character and centered on the mythical figure of Behanzin. Though this does not permit us to confuse the identity of the artist-character Spero with the writer-artist Conde, the question remains: to what extent can we consider the author, despite the constant irony with which she treats the "histoire d'Ancetre royal," as projecting herself into Spero's dreams? Does she hope that at the conclusion of her tale, as at the end of a runway, there will occur an artistic epiphany that will make the abyss more approachable?
If Sancher, in Traversee de la Mangrove, adamantly refuses paternity, he also imagines putting a radical end to a cursed heredity. Although the modes and implications of his desire are different from Spero's, in Les Derniers Rois Mages, it is by having us share her character's dreams that Conde underscores the tormented nature of this person who returns to his native land, not to start over but to attempt to write his own story and thus end his life. Sancher's nights are tortured by the interruption of invisible forces that torture his spirit. Moise le Maragoin, who was present, as he tells us, during a few of these nocturnal bouts, tells us:
[His sleep was not filled with voyages to paradise, but struggles with invisible spirits who, judging from his shouts, stuck their red-hot irons into every corner of his soul. (23)]
As opposed to the visual description that Conde uses for Spero's nightmares, when speaking of Francis she relies on a literal rendition of his ranting: it is in relatively coherent speech that the conflict is expressed, one that outlines the battle that is being waged and the account of his defeat:
[One can't lie to one's own flesh and blood! One can't change sides! Swap one role for another. Break the chain of misery. (24)]
In this fashion, Sancher reassesses his past - that same past that the villagers admire so much. Whether this dream is about a putative trip to Cuba, some love affair, or his career as a doctor, it suggests that his past is not an accumulation of glorious experiences such as might have been imagined, but rather the articulation of an attempted fantasy. What fantasy? Or more specifically, to what impossibility is Francis Sancher alluding when he screams: "On ne peut pas . . . mentir . . . changer . . . troquer . . . rompre?" [One cannot . . . lie . . . change . . . swap . . . break (24)]. We also learn that he is a mulatto, the descendant of rich island land owners who are, in all likelihood, implicated in some mysterious tragedy. Sancher's first dream was to have believed in departure as a means of consummating the rupture from this abhorred ancestry. In other words, he imagined that, beyond simple geographical distanciation, it would be possible to forget and cause to be forgotten his white heritage - to him one that is foul and cursed - by proclaiming his "negritude." By allying himself to the cause of the oppressed, by emigrating to and being reborn in Cuba, Sancher believed that he would escape his destiny as the "tragic mulatto." One could see, here, an interesting intertextuality with Jacques Roumain's Haitian novel, Masters of the Dew (1944), which opposes, in the very name of the character, Manuel, another definition of non-literary engagement. A more physical engagement would have allowed Sancher to erase the mark of horror that haunts him, the mark of his forefathers: in the larger sense of slavery and colonialism, and in the more personal sense of the "Riviere au Sel" massacre.
The text, however, does not leave us with sufficient evidence to decode Sancher's past. There is no testimony that would permit us to discern what is true or false: the only document that we have is supplied by Francis himself and translated from English. Is he not, then, just interpreting his own story and that of his ancestors? Is he not simply expressing the fantasy of a rebirth in some other place while attesting to its failure? To this fantasy to which we are made privy in the dream is superadded the present fantasy, not of a rupture/departure but that of a return to the origin. And in fact, if the impossibility of any severing of ties is conceded at the outset, if the battle against alienation is accepted as lost, "je n'ai plus d'armes," it is nevertheless a final battle which Francis has opted to wage by returning to the land of his forefathers. But it turns out that this return - his decision to settle at Riviere au Sel - coincides with another decision, that of a "venue a l'ecriture" [a coming to writing]. Sancher states that he has returned on a mission:" . . . en finir. Boucler la boucle. Tirer le trait final, tu comprends. Revenir a la case depart et tout arreter" (M 115) [to end it all. To come full circle. To put the finishing touches, you understand. Return to square one and stop everything (83)]. Once again, Sancher's desire is articulated in terms of a rupture: to finish, to break away, to get rid of a [hi-]story. In front of one of the characters he announces, "Moi, l'Histoire c'est mon cauchemar" (M 249) [Me? History's my nightmare (196)]. Writing would then be a way to be done with "tragic" issues of race: to write and to die. At the outset, the act of writing, like that of departing, is similar to the need for a separation that is linked to his waiting for death - death as a deliverance and a confirmation of the curse that clings to him. Thus, he claims this as his connection to writing, "Moi, presque zombie, j'essaie de fixer la vie que je vais perdre avec des mots. Pour moi ecrire, c'est le contraire de vivre. C'est mon aveu de senilite" (M 233) [I'm more or less a zombie trying to capture with words the life that I'm about to lose. For me, writing is the opposite of living. I confess to impotence (183)].
If living means engaging oneself in a militant struggle, writing would then be to renounce such a struggle, to "faire aveu de senilite" to the extent that we accept writing as an approach to death. This conception of literature is radically opposed to the idea of the politically engaged writer. During a conversation with the character that serves as his double within the novel, the Historian, Sancher confirms the fact that his return has nothing to do with that of a Cesaire: on the contrary, writing is what is left when all the battles have been fought and nothing remains but to struggle with the self-evidence of death. Nevertheless, a certain faith in literature persists, since Sancher proposes to "fixer la vie avec des mots" (M 234) [capture life with words (183)]. On several occasions throughout the novel, he claims to have faced death. His position is that of one who waits: He sits on a rock or crouches in front of his typewriter, as if writing were the same as waiting to die, as if the book were death's waiting-room. It is as if writing could be the anticipation of the inscription of death as a sign, rather than a falling prey to the fatality of that sign. As Louis Marin states, the desire to write death can be understood as the attempt to have it enter into a system of signifiers in which the sign would attest at the same time to permanence and "differance."(6)
The desire to write manifests the desire to maintain oneself in expectation of death - to remain on the edge of death: it is the search for a speech that will allow one to live "on the edge." This desire would then no longer rest in the attempt to encode death, but rather in considering writing as the means of slowing the inevitability of death. As the novel progresses and the fateful day approaches, Sancher's fantasy increasingly becomes that of continuing to conceive of death as yet-to-come while always leaving it in suspense, much as the book he is supposed to be writing.
And, in fact, Sancher admits that his book, the one of his life, the one which signals the end of his search, consists of nothing more than a title: it was already doomed before being written because the very act of giving it a title had signified that doom. He confesses:
[Besides, I'll never finish this book because before I've even written the first line and known what I'm going to put in the way of blood, laughter, tears, fears and hope, well, everything that makes a book a book and not a boring dissertation by a half-cracked individual, I've already found the title: "Crossing the Mangrove." (158)]
To Vilma's remark, "On ne traverse pas la mangrove. On s'empale sur les racines des paletuviers. On s'enterre et on etouffe dans la boue saumatre" (M 202), Francis Sancher readily agrees, thereby demonstrating that he wants to make of his book, which he knows already will remain uncompleted, a suicidal crossing in which he who begins writing is conscious of creating a space where one is "impaled," "buried," and where one "suffocates." Simultaneously, to confess a desire to cross the mangrove swamp is to admit its impossibility; writing would remain a project in which the writer posits the end of the book as impossibility, thus retarding both the book and death to the extent that they are "executed." The mangrove swamp can then be understood as the mystery of that untraverseable and unresolvable space - just as the book cannot be completed and is impossible to write. Sancher's desire to remain inside the riddle demonstrates his need to inscribe himself in that space, the mangrove - rather than crossing it - and to approach the swamp at the risk of losing himself. Writing becomes the only viable way of participating in the evolution of the community without taking on that cursed heredity; it is the only way in which Sancher can start over. Each character's story that is triggered by Sancher's death ends inevitably with the firm decision, expressed by each speaker, to radically alter the course of his or her own life. To that extent, Sancher's death takes on the appearance of a sacrifice since it is by inscribing his death in that particular space that he allows the other members of the community to undergo a rebirth in the trace left by the unfinished book. For most of the characters, this rebirth takes the shape of a resolution: a departure, a new beginning, or, as in the case of the Historian (252-53), or more specifically the aspiring writer, Lucien Evariste, this will mean taking the risk, daring to write, to begin the composition of a novel which may be entitled, in another mise-en-abyme, Traversee de la Mangrove. Thus he will ask himself, as he gathers his thoughts in the face of death:
[And to write this book, wouldn't he have to track down his hero? Check the footprints he left along the paths of life? Put himself in Sancher's shoes? (189)]
To the image of the mangrove swamp as a surface of quicksands which swallow up anyone who attempts to cross it, is substituted that of a terra firma criss-crossed by paths where the trace of Sancher will be visible as a sign clearing the way for others to follow. Finally, the only healthy ancestry which Sancher can acknowledge is that of writing as opposed to paternity. Writing becomes the only way to mark a path for the self, without passing the curse on to others.
Using the portraits of artists in different "Creole settings," Maryse Conde has introduced us to two characters gripped by the terror and anxiety of their respective pasts. Whether we are speaking of Spero in Les Derniers Rois Mages or Sancher in Traversee de la Mangrove, each reveals certain conflicts, both historical and individual, while simultaneously serving as a meditation on the status of the artist face to face with a community whose heritage he shares. Despite the apparent lucidity of the writer or painter who rests a critical gaze on certain illusions and struggles from which he claims to be divorced, neither of these two novels claims a superior role for the artist, who in neither case will produce anything resembling a masterpiece: neither Spero nor Sancher will resolve the contradictions which they denounce in a work of art; they, like the others they encounter, are prisoners of their own pasts and dreams.
Beginning with the question that is posed during the encounter with the artist - "what is a Roi Mage?" and/or "what is a writer?" - Maryse Conde investigates, as she had already sketched out in La Vie Scelerate with the character Jean, the possibility or the mission of art as a means of representation of a historical and cultural Creole reality. These questions are formulated in terms of a possible connection between History and lived experience, of a possible involvement beyond ideologies - notably that of Negritude - and finally one that would not exclude dreams. Through a process of mise-en-abyme, of infinite regress of the Creole art work, whether written or painted, through the accumulation of characters who serve as the artist's possible "double" - for example, the Historian, the intellectual, the alienated bourgeois - Conde reformulates the essential question "what and/or who is a black artist?" to finally arrive instead at the formulation "how can one be an artist and be black?" The fact that in her last novel to date, Les Derniers Rois Mages, the protagonist-artist is a painter rather than a writer suggests that the "Creole problematic" cannot be reduced to the question of language, as it would be in a discussion of the relationship of writing to orality, but is a quest for a freedom of representation which goes beyond the frontiers of the Antilles. The irony with which these portraits are sketched, and the deliberate choice of a painter rather than a writer, confirms the distance that the author wants to maintain between herself and her characters. Thus she warns us on several occasions in Traversee de la Mangrove, "don't believe what people say about you behind your back. They will say anything." They mispeak and spin yarns or dream out loud. In Les Derniers Rois Mages the narrator implores us: "L'imagination est souveraine. C'est elle qui nourrit les reves qui a leur tour nourrissent le coeur et guident la vie" (RM 188) [Imagination is sovereign: she nurtures our dreams which in turn nurture our hearts and guide our lives]. Perhaps it is that liberty that constitutes the final fantasy: that the artist can have the liberty of playing with images, words of "Rois Mages," mirrors of mirages, and swamps to be traversed, making it possible for reality to be transformed.
Translated by Francis Higginson
1. Maryse Conde, La Vie Scelerate (Paris: Seghers, 1978); Traversee de la Mangrove (Paris: Mercure de France, 1989); Les Derniers Rois Mages (Paris: Mercure de France, 1992). For reasons of practicality, all references to the last two novels will be respectively abbreviated to (M) and (RM) and will appear parenthetically within the text.
2. See Lucien Dallenbach, Le Recit Speculaire: Essai sur la mise-en-abyme (Paris: Seuil, 1977).
3. All quotes from Traversee de la Mangrove are from the English translation by Richard Philcox, Crossing the Mangrove (New York: Anchor Books, 1995). I thank Richard Philcox for providing the translations of Les Derniers Rois Mages.
4. Spero's family, the Jules-Juliette, believe themselves to be descendants of King Behazin, a historical character. Behanzin was King of the realm Dahomey until the French exiled him to Martinique in 1894. He stayed in Martinique for six years.
5. See Veve Clark, "Maryse Conde: An Interview and A Short Story," Callaloo (1988): 88.
6. See Louis Marin, La Voix Excommuniee (Paris: Galilee, 1981), 149.
LYDIE MOUDILENO is a candidate for the Ph. D. degree in French at the University of California at Berkeley.
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|Date:||Jun 22, 1995|
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