- Conflicting Origins: Memory in the Invention of Guadeloupean Genealogy
In Maryse Condé’s most recent novel, Desirada, the question of origins, a catalyst in the unfolding quest of self, is articulated within the shifting parameters of memory. The quest, a dominant motif in Condé’s previous work as well as in Caribbean writing of French expression, is often characterized by a prolonged search resulting in a revelatory ending. However, it is precisely because of the discrepant nature of both [End Page 249] individual and collective memory that Desirada offers no conclusive answers to the quest. In this work, the question of origins is rendered even more complex by the experiences of sexual violence that constitute the troubling genealogy of the two generations of Guadeloupean women. The novel’s unveiling of the multiple and conflicting truths of women’s experiences relies on an insistent questioning of memory—memory in all of its inconsistent, partial, flawed forms. Desirada is both thematically and stylistically compatible with the larger body of Maryse Condé’s œuvre yet proposes an original remise en cause of the complex legacy of sexual violence for Caribbean women.
It is telling that the novel’s only epigraph—A part le bonheur, il n’est rien d’essentiel—from a Martinican song, refers specifically to happiness and implicitly to the search for happiness. Clearly, it prefigures the questions that are at the center of the narrative: How is an accurate genealogy constituted when both the oral and written sources necessarily betray human shortcomings? What are the ways in which the individual quest for knowledge contradicts the collective understanding of history? To what extent do experiences of sexual violence circumscribe the mapping of genealogy? How is collective history remembered within the context of an engaged re-membering and reconstruction of individual women’s lives? Not only does Desirada explore the fraught relationship between memory and the invention of individual and collective histories, but it most importantly questions the conventional ways of approaching the often fragmented testimony of the lives of women and men in this Guadeloupean narrative.
Divided into three sections, the last two of which are interrupted by first-person narratives, the novel interweaves Marie-Noëlle’s testimony with that of her mother Reynalda, her grandmother Nina, her stepfather Ludovic, and her “adopted” mother Ranélise. It is through this multiplicity of voices and perspectives that Marie-Noëlle, the young narrator, comes to articulate her story and from which she constructs the memories of her birth, the abandonment by her mother and the subsequent years she spends in France, Guadeloupe and the United States. In this first section of the text, Marie-Noëlle is able to recount the story of her birth with the help of Ranélise, the woman who prevents her mother Reynalda from committing suicide when the latter discovers her pregnancy. As soon as Reynalda relinquishes the care of her newborn infant to Ranélise, who names her Marie-Noëlle, she escapes to France where she obtains employment as a live-in nanny for a French family. After spending the first ten years of her life in Guadeloupe with Ranélise, a period she describes as “magical”(19), Marie-Noëlle is summoned by her biological mother to come live with her in France, which represents a major turning point in her life, one which will inaugurate her search for answers to questions about her birth, her father’s identity, and the reasons for her mother’s abandonment.
Given her mother’s sustained physical absence and emotional distance, Marie-Noëlle remains extremely curious about the circumstances of Reynalda’s life before her own birth. The stories told to her by Ranélise, at the outset, haunt her and underlie the unspoken and unknown conditions which led to her mother’s hasty departure from the island, and which only exarcerbate her longing for an end to Reynalda’s prolonged silence. Once in France, Marie-Noëlle engages in a rare intimate conversation [End Page 250] with Reynalda, who relates the separation from the island of Désirade, the desired island, with her mother...