- Caribbean Insularization of Identities in Maryse Conde’s Work From En attendant le bonheur to Les derniers rois mages
Désormais, ma vie ne sera qu’une quête.
Je retracerai les chemins du monde.
[From now on, my life will be but a quest.
I will retrace the paths of the world.] 1—(La traversée de la Mangrove 245)
L’errant, n’est plus le voyageur,
ni le découvreur, ni le conquérant.
[The wanderer is no longer a traveler
nor a discoverer, nor a conqueror.]—(Poétique de la Relation 33)
“Ecrire n’a rien à voir avec signifier, mais avec arpenter, cartographier, même des contrées à venir” [Writing has nothing to do with meaning, it has to do with surveys and cartography, including the mapping of countries yet to come] (Mille plateaux 11). And (to adopt or parody Deleuze and Guattari’s aphoristic style), writing about writing has nothing to do with interpretation but with a reassessment of how writers make sense of the relationship between constructed bodies and constructed spaces, identities and “habitus” (Bourdieu). When the construction in question involves the Caribbean area, the previous proposition needs to be rephrased in a less universalistic tone: when I read the work of a francophone woman author such as Maryse Condé, I find myself powerfully drawn to systems of explanation that metaphorize the connection between geography and identity. A look at the titles of critical studies written about her work in the last decade makes me wonder why geographical and geometrical categories seem so relevant. From Puis’s “L’Afrique en pointillé” [“Africa, On and Off”], Smith’s “A Triangular Structure of Alienation,” Mouralis’s “Thriller Immobile,” to the most recent attempts at “Mapping the Mangrove” (Munley), Condé’s work seems to elicit a critical discourse saturated with spatial metaphors or reflections on the theme of space and travel. Like other critics, I find it difficult to separate Condé’s biographical narrative as a traveler from her literary representations of displacement, from her imaginary redefinitions of home, homeland, exile, belonging, ancestors, etc. As Vèvè Clark puts it:
Raised in Guadeloupe, having lived for many years in Guinea [End Page 565] and Ghana, for periods in France and the United States, Maryse Condé has written extensively on the literature and socio-political culture issuing from four hemispheres of the African Diaspora.(304)
Even more characteristic of this recurrent spatial narrative is the underlying opposition between two geo-political entities: the island (Guadeloupe) and the Continent (especially Africa). I would argue that our attraction to such an opposition belongs to a historical episteme which is on the brink of being displaced by the most recent literary production of Caribbean authors. And since the category of identity is inextricably linked with one’s relationship to institutionalized constructions of space (imagined nations, official maps), re-examining the Relation between the is-land and the land may provide some interesting insights into the evolving imaginary function of the “Caribbean” at the end of the 20th-century, within a context that some scholars define as transnational, post-industrial or post-colonial. In this article, I would like to suggest that Condé’s latest novels, La traversée de la Mangrove (1989) and Les derniers rois mages (1992), could help us question some of our apparently most innocent assumptions about the relative identity of the island and its other (the continent?), the islander and his or her other (the powerful and integrated self?).
The Myth of the Return
Of course, it is still extremely tempting to account for Condé’s novels in terms of identity-travel narratives. One could claim that her first three novels, Hérémakhonon (1976), Une saison à Rihata (1981) and Ségou (1984) represent an African phase, a search for some authentic (essentialized) Blackness, a return to the “Dark Continent,” that is re- or mis-appropriated as legitimate origin. One could then interpret Moi, Tituba sorcière noire de Salem (1986) as a movement away from Africa and back to the New World, movement which could be said to prefigure a “reconciliation” with the alienated native island (Clark and Daheny). Although it may seem naive...