Nineteenth Century French Studies 33.3&4 (2005) 451-452
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Thanks to Stéphane Michaud, the original, unabridged version of Flora Tristan's 1838 travel narrative, Pérégrinations d'une paria is available at long last, complete with Tristan's three prefatory texts. Those of us who know, love, and teach Tristan's work have often wished that students and teachers could buy it in paperback instead of relying on photocopies. Michaud judiciously chose the bicentennial of Tristan's birth to publish anew both the travel narrative and the volume of Tristan's corres-pondence, La Paria et son rêve (first published by E.N.S. Editions in 1995; reviewed in this journal v. 24, nos. 3 & 4, 1996) to which a preface by Mario Vargas Llosa has been added.
This reviewer finds it lamentable that many nineteenth-centuryists are still unfamiliar with Pérégrinations d'une paria, a unique blend of autobiography, travel writing, and social criticism. Born in 1803, Tristan was the illegitimate daughter of a plebeian Frenchwoman and an aristocratic Spanish-Peruvian colonel. When Tristan's father died in 1807, she and her mother began a life of economic hardship. At 18, Tristan married her employer, a lithographer, whom Tristan found to be alcoholic and abusive. When she left him, she was socially ostracized, thus becoming a "pariah." In 1832, she journeyed to Peru hoping to obtain financial and emotional support from her late father's brother, Pio de Tristan. The events of this voyage are related in Pérégrinations.
Tristan's story is rife with the elements of melodrama, and the theatricality of many episodes is engaging, if somewhat overdone. In the scene of her confrontation with Pio, who refuses to recognize her as a legitimate heir, she recounts taking his hand and pressing it to her heart while looking at him with "une expression ineffable de tendresse, d'anxiété et de reconnaissance, attendant, en tremblant, la réponse qu'il paraissait méditer" (360). Yet melodrama is infused with political significance, for Tristan stages the incident as a confrontation between the dying patriarchal order, represented by Pio, and the new, socialist feminist order, represented by herself, which is struggling to be born.
Indeed, the entire narrative transforms sentimental or domestic plots into events of greater, political resonance. To this end, it would seem, Tristan moves back and forth, through a series of interwoven episodes, between scenes of private, sometimes intimate dialogue, and descriptions of slavery, the Peruvian civil war, and political intrigue. She simultaneously hints that her life mission (conferred upon her by God?) is to heal society of its ills.
For this reason, the three prefatory texts (which had been omitted from the 1970 Maspero edition) are especially illuminating, indeed essential. Consisting of a dedication [End Page 451] ("Aux Péruviens"), an introduction, and a forward, they help mediate the reception of Tristan's feminist narrative by a potentially hostile public. In the dedication, she professes great concern for Peruvians, yet subtly exposes their deficiencies with criticisms that could well apply to French society. In the introduction, she elaborates on Fourierist and Saint-Simonian themes in order to suggest that the act of writing about herself fulfills a religious and social "mission." In the forward, she relates the circumstances surrounding her decision to leave her husband and travel to Peru, carefully portraying herself as an unfortunate victim. She was indeed a victim; but the ensuing narrative is the work of an extremely audacious, rhetorically gifted, and formidable social critic.
Michaud's own preface helpfully situates Tristan's work within its historical context, and provides additional information about Tristan's life and writings. At the back of the book, a "Repères biographiques" has been added, which succinctly narrates...