Maryse Condé, desire, return

If you’re familiar with Guadeloupian writer  Maryse Condé, you might also be familiar with the striking similarities between the female protagonists in both En attendant le Bonheur (originally published as Heremakhonon, 1976) and Histoire de la femme cannibale (2005). Both Véronica of the former title and Rosélie of the latter travel an uprooted Pan-African non-trajectory, originally beginning in Guadeloupe. Both maintain a complicated relationship to their ‘roots‘ – searching for them while simultaneously rejecting any notion of belonging as being essentializing. And both tend to overemphasize their sexual relationships in the making of important decisions. (Girl, please.)

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And seemingly superficially but perhaps most importantly, both women like to inwardly scoff at people who could not locate Guadeloupe on a map, while also consistently portraying their homeland as a place that wouldn’t really be worth the effort of finding it on a map. Véronica uses the phrase “poussière d’îles” to describe the Caribbean, but it would appear this phrase is not used ironically (even though it references its own irony), and that they are, as DeGaulle claimed, only a little dusting of islands for her. She finally submits that this dust is the only viable “chez moi” she could hope to find. But she’s not happy about it. And neither Véronica nor Rosélie return to Guadeloupe.

The main difference in the novels seems to be whether the main character’s geographical displacement is self-motivated or not. Both Veronica and Rosélie bounce around the globe from Guadeloupe to France to Africa to Guadeloupe to France to Africa to France (to Japan) to Africa. (To France.) However, Véronica has an interesting pattern of moving somewhere to get away from a man (before promptly adopting another one) whereas Rosélie tends to fall in with someone, get dragged across the globe, and then dumped. Or larguée as she likes to repeat.

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To start with the case of Véronica, it is fairly explicit that what she is looking for in the men she chooses for companionship is some kind of reconciliation with self. She leaves for France after a failed relationship with another member of the Guadeloupian bourgeoisie. She leaves France after tiring of her French boyfriend. She’s on a quest.  And rather quickly into the book, she begins a relationship with the somewhat unsavory dictatorial character of Ibrahima Sory. Referring to him as man ‘with ancestry,’ she develops a logic by which she can return to the ‘womb of Africa’ through a sexual relationship. Why? Because he belongs to a privileged class of Africans and has therefore never been ‘stamped’ by slavery. Right. Yes. That’s the logic. She has a poor sense of self-worth due to the passage of her family lineage through the trauma of the slave trade, and to cure her of this lack of self-worth she merely needs to find the right partner in bed. Unfortunately, this also translates into being treated as an object by a ruthless and unkind man. It is somewhat painful to witness this failed experiment. (Because, obviously, it fails.) Thought it is easy to understand why she would try this osmotic approach. The first part of her logic makes sense, because it precisely the postcolonial “nervous conditions” with which we are familiar. It’s the second part – the sexual objectification part – that is rather maddening. Furthermore, the unquestioning acceptance of Ibrahima Sory into both her psychic and physical space, goes along with an unquestioning rejection of her entire surroundings. She is not searching for “Africa” as the long lost motherland, but for an African king as her long lost father figure.

Then there is Rosélie. She is living in France when she meets Salama Salama, a reggae superstar from West Africa. She goes to his homeland, though remaining unmarried and refusing to have children – both of which irritate his family until he eventually leaves her. She remains there until meeting Stephen, a (white) professor of English literature who takes her first to New York before settling in South Africa and then he dies – also leaving her. Throughout the book, various friends and acquaintances address the question of return to Guadeloupe, which she seemingly does not comprehend. Return, but to what?. And to serve what purpose? She does not see Africa as a homeland or in any way connected to her personally, though Salama Salama’s family continually regarded her as a daughter returning home. Desire also plays an interesting role in that there are various forms of prostitution throughout the novel. (Actually this is a big thing in both novels – who is selling her/himself and how and what constitute the rules of exchange?) But is this not the complete absence of desire in the face of the total presence of desire in another. That is to say, a complete inequality of feeling. While a relationship between desire and return is harder to trace in this second novel, one way to broach them would be the absolute rejection of either. Both play major roles as important topics which are quite obviously presented around Rosélie, and they seem to inform her general worldview, but both desire and return (and the desire of return) are invalidated and ignored.

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Are you reading either of these novels? Have you read either of these novels? Care to discuss? I’m all ears.

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