Though Americans are well-acquainted with the novelists and poets of the English-speaking Caribbean islands, until now the works of Francophone authors have remained relatively unknown to us. Readily available and enthusiastically received in France, Maryse Conde’s novels have already earned major French literary awards; the 1986 Grand Prix Litteraire de la Femme for “I, Tituba” and the French Academy’s prestigious bronze medal for “Tree of Life” in 1988. A highly imaginative pair of earlier novels, “Segu” and its sequel, “Children of Segu,” both set in Africa, did appear in translation here to considerable acclaim, but the simultaneous publication of these more recent books will bring Conde to the attention of a far wider public.
Born in Guadeloupe and educated in France, Conde is currently a professor of French at Berkeley. “Tree of Life,” a multigenerational saga of a Guadeloupean family, is a potent mix of memory, legend and reality. Beginning with fragments retrieved from her own background, the author has enriched these fragile reminiscences with fact and fantasy garnered during a long sojourn on the island she left as a young girl.
The result is an impressionistic mural of French West Indian life in all its social, cultural and racial complexity, dense with detail and nuance but aerated by Conde’s non-linear technique. Just as the Impressonist painters created their effects with minute, separate brush strokes, Conde uses vignettes to produce a similar literary unity. From a distance, we see a cohesive fresco beginning with a great-grandfather who walked away from the legacy of slavery to found a dynasty of descendants who would live and work far from their island origins. Examined closely, the saga splinters into dozens of individual stories, all told by the single narrator, Coco, self-appointed heiress to the family’s intricate history.
Albert Louis, the patriarch, was a cane-cutter on the island to which his African ancestors had been brought as slaves. Strong and determined, at the age of 32 he flees that hopeless life to work on the Panama Canal, a project that drew thousands of desperate black men from all over the West Indies as well as from the American mainland.
Albert Louis was luckier than most. He escaped the fevers and accidents that killed hundreds of others, surviving to return to the island with enough money to set up as an undertaker and father one son by a Panamanian woman and four more by his Guadeloupean wife Elaise. The business prospers but the sons disdain it to seek other outlets for their energies.
Jean, the youngest, intellectual and idealistic, becomes a schoolmaster in a remote village where he writes and publishes books of island lore--labors of love dismissed when they appear and appreciated only after his death. Another son, Jacob, even stronger-willed than his father, becomes head of the family by default; a third is a casualty of the First World War; the fourth becomes a permanent exile abroad, deluded by the pathetic myth that France is a mother country to its black colonials.
Conde is particularly adept at chronicling the lives of the women in this remarkable family, concentrating special attention upon Thecla, a third-generation descendant of Albert Louis and both the beneficiary and the victim of the family’s growing prosperity and the unrealistic ambitions engendered in their progeny. Thecla is the mother of the narrator Coco, a neglected and inconvenient child shuttled from one alien environment to another as Thecla searches for an identity in the beds of a series of lovers of all colors and political persuasions. Finally, after a childhood and adolescence that is no more than an extended hegira, Coco returns to Guadeloupe to discover the anguished history of her origins, the mission that culminates in this tragi-comic and compelling chronicle.
Victoria Reiter’s translation is both graceful and subtle, capturing the rhythms of Guadeloupean speech as well as the stricter cadences of literary French, gliding smoothly between the two.
“I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem” contrasts starkly with “Tree of Life.” Furious where “Tree of Life” is affectionate; didactic, polemical and passionately feminist, it is a work of another order entirely. Intrigued by references to a West Indian slave accused of witchcraft during the hysteria that gripped Salem in the late 17th Century, Conde has fabricated a life for the elusive Tituba, of whom little is actually known except her name and her race.
Allowing her imagination free reign, the author endows Tituba with a powerful libido and the ability to commune with the dead, a heady combination enhanced by Tituba’s extraordinary abilities as a healer. Though bolstered by diligent research into the customs and personalities of Puritan New England, “I, Tituba” too often allows itself to slip into the cliches of Puritan life, a shortcoming bound to be more apparent to Americans than to the French.
Unaided by a purely functional translation, “Tituba” seems simplistic and without nuance, especially when read in conjunction with the marvelously rich and subtle “Tree of Life.” Tituba herself remains an enigma, perhaps because the author has permitted her to speak as if she were a 20th-Century radical feminist instead of the 17th-Century slave she actually was.
Though deliberate and intentional, neither the device nor the transformation is ever entirely convincing. Seized upon as a symbol of white cruelty to blacks and mens’ brutality to women, Tituba remains just that: a prisoner of the agenda that has been assigned to her. Even her emotional and physical passion for the man she loves, John Indian, and her later devotion to the bereaved Jewish merchant who buys her, cannot completely humanize her.
Despite these shortcomings, the simultaneous debut of these two books introduces a formidable and versatile talent.