Is it wise to hail books with words like masterpiece? By what standards can one declare a writer a genius, incomparable, an artist whose tools alchemize words into biodomes that exert a pull on perception more powerful than what a reader sees when they take a breath, lift their head, and blink. The Belle Créole is only the third Maryse Condé novel I’ve read, yet from the first one, I wanted to climb the world’s peak to let loose the proclamation that if Condé was not ranked among your greatest 20th century writers, you were wrong. (My first was Windward Heights (1998), translated by Richard Philcox. If you love Wuthering Heights, read it. If you hate Wuthering Heights, read it. If you know or care nothing about Wuthering Heights, read it.) With The Belle Créole, first published in French in 2001, she claimed the 21st.
This twelfth novel is set at the turn of the century in Guadeloupe, a Caribbean country composed of an island archipelago in the eastern Caribbean sea. It has been under French colonial rule since the early 17th century, qualified with the usual territorial warfare in which they kicked out the Spanish, did their best to eliminate the Caribs, and fought the British who managed to wrest control three times, handing it over to Sweden who, as part of a resolution in the Napoleonic wars, handed it back to France. (True high culture!) There have been various independent movements throughout the 20th century but in the pivotal 1940s it was Aimé Cesairé, the so-called founder of the Negritude movement, who successfully pushed for the grand status of an overseas department in 1946. Condé came to the main island in 2001 with the country stuck in an extremely unfavourable import/export deficit with France, with goods priced several times higher than in France, gas is wickedly expensive, and the agricultural sector still reels from the loss of trade protections. Inspired by the 1999 Port-Mahault strikes in Point-a-Pitre, Condé narratively poses challenging questions about how much of the country sees itself in relation to their past, present, and future; questions which strongly implicate the writer herself, not only as a citizen but as someone once politically active in the independent movement that she described as “waging a losing battle”. (“Giving Voice to Guadeloupe”, NYRB Daily, February 6, 2019.)
“The country was suffocating.”
So begins this intense, polyphonic narrative, in which the cynosure is Dieudonné, a young Black gardener recently acquitted of murdering Loraine Féréol de Brémont, his rich White Creole employer and lover, with a few months community service the remaining legal consequence. (No one is sure what it will be.) Nothing about this is a joyful occasion as he leaves the courtroom to witness the country “in its death throes, spilling its lifeblood on all sides” with the essential services “shutting down, like organs of a body in failing health. Heart, liver, lungs, spleen.” Local journalists, nurses, doctors, and garbage collectors are on strike. Garbage is everywhere, the morgues are overflowing, and the strikes are not that popular with the general populace. This scene setting of societal disruption may be evocative enough for some but not Condé. In what I am growing to view as her signature style, most strongly reminiscent of Windward Heights set a full century earlier, the very earth is attuned to and a player in the disorder. Not only is there extreme weather conditions—hurricanes, tumultuous rain storms, a record breaking dry season—Condé animates the natural world with a generous use of pathetic fallacy and animalistic imagery/metaphorical language where clouds scurry across the night sky, a “dominating wind” whips the sea, and night climbs through windows, crawls under doors, to snatch and knead characters “into its voracious gullet.”
Like a phantom, Dieudonné is a haunted figure. In the novel’s 24 hour span—each section named “Afternoon,” “Dusk,” and “Night,” its longest section, ending in an epilogue—he moves amongst relatives, friends, strangers, former lovers dead and alive, in search of...what? Perhaps love. Perhaps someone who will really see him. Perhaps someone with whom he can feel safe enough to begin to see himself and process his traumatic personal history up to this point. On the first page the reader first sees him through a juror “whose languid eyes hadn’t left Dieudonné for a second” in an oppressive pattern, whether it is through the cameras he tries to dodge as he leaves the courtroom, the regional newspaper reports, or societal biases and stereotypes about dissolute poor black youth entangled with fraught connected familial histories all under the macrohistorical influence. Who would not feel powerless to counter what very few seemed willing to question, at least in his presence? His only constant companions are the dogs that he views as hellish spirits. They run replete in private and public space from the pedigreed specimens armed private security use to patrol and protect the wealthy in their homes, the mixed local and foreign breeds barking in the suburbs, to the vicious strays free to roam and attack those in poorer communities, and who are hurt in turn, performing macabre ballet after eating poisoned meat.
Clearer still is class discerned through Condé’s diverse, multitudinous cast of characters. Dieudonné’s journey from the courthouse starts with a Matthias Serbulon, Esq, the defence lawyer who achieved victory in court by creating a plantation drama out of Dieudonné’s relationship with Loraine. The son of a once notable political activist in the independence movement, Serbulon is more in tune with what materialistic pleasures life can afford (to his communist father’s disappointment) although dissatisfaction tinges both his sea view at his home in the hills and the simplistic well-worn tropes he coruscated for the jurors. Matthias leaves his client with his grandmother, Arbella, who had moved from a “hovel” to a government apartment with a courtyard that, at night, “lit up like a concentration camp or a South African township.” She was not close to her daughter Marine, who died when Dieudonné was 15, nor the grandson. Unable to feel comfortable amongst relatives who had previously kicked him out of their homes, he leaves them at dusk. So we meet the poet Boris, a once homeless divorcé newly established as a political radio commentator partnered with a white Italian journalist in the suburbs, whose character and principles are tested when his newly released friend shows up at the door. Ana is a German-American who settled in Guadeloupe via a love affair with a “Caribbean man” and a newfound interest in the local oral culture which she views as the work of fairies. There are many more—friend, family, stranger—and in every encounter through Dieudonné’s memories, the dead Loraine speaks. The last of a long line of plantation owning Creoles who once “managed most of the country’s land” she was known for her philanthropy and enthusiastic interest in and support for the arts and black male artists. None are presented in isolation as Condé, in her role as artist and cartographer, in a few pages details convincing portraits of individuals within communities, positioned to allow readers to discern how her literary surveys map past and current political realities. She may even be described as prophet as Dawn Fulton, who wrote the afterword, astutely observed how close the novel’s proceedings appear to foresee the 2009 strikes which started in Guadeloupe and spread to much of the French Caribbean.
What is the reader to make of it all? Condé is critical of characters whose go-to explanation for Guadeloupe’s current difficulties is slavery. Yet those that offer alternative takes have simply exchanged them for new tropes and stereotypes. Loraine mocks those who cannot fathom real love existing in a black and white interracial relationship while much of the relationship dynamic with Dieudonné is reminiscent of a master-servant relationship in Windward Heights. National independence may seem like the right answer except that those who preach it no longer seem to believe in nor know how to make it resonate with the average citizen. Condé weaves in themes of race, gender, class, disabilities, and shifting global realities to reorient the reader to this magnetic literary pole at which Guadeloupe is the centre. There has never been a better time to read The Belle Créole—this novel will not make you search for a travel website but a history book about this fascinatingly complex archipelago. For this reader, Maryse Condé succeeded at giving voice to Guadeloupe.