Friday, 23 October 2015

REVIEW: 'SAND DOLLARS' SHOWS POISONED PARADISE

By Dimitri Keramitas

Sand Dollars, directed by Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas, is an assured, lushly filmed story set in the Dominican Republic, and one can see why it won the Best Fiction Feature prize at the recent 2015 trinidad+tobago film festival, an annual event in the Caribbean.

Noeli and Anne - actors Mojica and Chaplin
But despite the cinematography, this is a story of inequality and sexual exploitation, even if the setting seems unspoiled.

The movie, loosely based on a book by French author Jean-Noël Pancrazi, portrays the taut relationship between a Western, cosmopolitan grandmother (one of those upper-class seniors who remain svelte and well-coiffed) and a young local woman who’s sensual, though still rather coltish.

The exploitation may seem mutual and consenting - the girl, Noeli (Yanet Mojica) can be manipulative, while the older woman Anne (Geraldine Chaplin) appears vulnerable and well meaning. But the power relationship framing the couple is one-sided: Anne is a wealthy French citizen who can afford a plush Caribbean vacation house and domestic, while Noeli’s one prized possession is a motor scooter. Her dream is to move to France, with the aid of her lover. 

Noeli and boyfriend Yeremi.
The movie spells things out even further: it opens with a scene in which Noeli parts from another Westerner, once more a gentle senior, but this time a man. He leaves her money, but also a necklace as a sentimental gift. The necklace promptly finds its way into a pawnshop. The directors also provide glimpses of her life with Yeremi (Ricardo Ariel Toribio), her young boyfriend. At first he seems to be little more than a pimp, but it turns out that Yeremi is an aspiring percussionist.

Despite what might seem like a stark situation, the movie is something of a pastoral. The Dominican setting doesn’t seem poverty-mired, but a tropical paradise by the sea. Even the poverty we do glimpse seems mellow, like exotic fruit (just as the Spanish spoken by the locals sounds oddly Brazilian with its languid phonemes).

Inequality summed up in a greathouse.
The classic pastoral typically featured innocent youths and animals such as sheep and goats. Here, adults including Anne are portrayed as childlike. (Geraldine Chaplin still does that funny eye thing - a half-yearning, half-empathetic gaze - that she’s been doing since Dr. Zhivago a half-century ago). There’s even a lovely shot of a pair of horses on the idyllic grounds of a beach house.

This dreamy, soft-focus approach is effective for showing the seductive nature of the local environment. Cárdenas and Guzmán film nature beautifully and imaginatively. But the theme is defanged in the process. We get the idea of sexual exploitation but there’s no actual sex to drive home what is at stake.

Geraldine Chaplin is an excellent actress who gives a knock-out performance, but we don’t really believe her as a lesbian. She seems to have more of a mentor relationship with Noeli. The directors shoot Chaplin’s body in a way that brings out her age, wrinkles and all, but is it plausible that such a worldly woman would never have recourse to make-up? It’s ultimately an affectation. It may be that Anne is a cunning manipulator, but this remains vague, like so much in the movie

Noeli and her prized possession - a scooter.
We never see Noeli making love with Yeremi, either. While Mojica and Toribio give marvellous natural performances in their first acting roles, both seem pre-sexual (except in the scenes where Noeli is dancing - but she’s most erotic when dancing alone). There’s no real electricity between them. When Noeli finds out that she’s pregnant we almost take it as a virgin birth. Even her boyfriend is surprised.

At least the pregnancy serves as a catalyst to upset the casual triangular romance that’s been playing out. Noeli decides that she will have the baby, and she gets serious about going to Europe, while her boyfriend wants to keep her at home. Anne, after temporarily rejecting Noeli when she sees her cavorting in a dance club, does all she can to help her. But though there’s talk about continuing their relationship in France, Anne seems more motherly and mentor-like than ever.

The movie poster, in French.
What’s particularly strange in the story of Noeli and Anne is that they’re supposed to have been together for three years. In the case of Noeli this would mean that at the beginning she was very young, with Anne’s attentions bordering on paedophilia. But again, we don’t have a sense of Anne as a genuinely sexual being. And we aren’t given any information about how the relationship has evolved, an inkling, perhaps, that all passion has been spent.

The story of this triangular relationship is interrupted by the arrival of an old friend of Anne’s, a man who brings along a young woman. They are both vaguely Eurotrash. The man seems to be American but speaks with finishing school intonations. The young woman speaks (and sings in one sequence) with just enough of an accent to be off (like Geraldine Chaplin trying to speak American), but not enough to identify her with a real place. From some of the talk, we get the idea of a seedy set that systematically exploits locals for sex (the word-play of the title has already given us the idea), but this is muffled with the usual vagueness.

A work that uses the pastoral form, but within the real world, should at least bring input from that real world, through exposition, description, flashback. Anne has had issues with her 42-year-old son, which has made them estranged. But we get no more than a teasing hint. It may be true that both exploiters and exploited use indirection as an emotional survival tool, or even a weapon. But we expect more from the filmmakers. The directors may think they’re being ambiguous and oblique, but in the end all that vagueness makes the film itself a kind of a tease.

Pancrazi and Chaplin in Paris. Photo: Espagnolas en Paris.
In explaining their aim, the directors have in fact said that they wanted to “depict a world full of contradictions: pay to have company, pay too for the happiness of those who accompany one … and feel the powerlessness that comes with always being a foreigner”. They refer to the story as one of “impossible love”.

Sand Dollars (Dólares de Arena / Les Dollars des Sables) doesn’t really begin or end, however. Like a pastoral, it just starts and stops. The directors frame the film with footage of an elderly singer named Ramon Cordero crooning about his mournful but passionate love. We feel the passion in his voice, and see the results on his face and in his eyes. It’s not pastoral fantasy but life, and this alone is worth the price of admission.

Photos are by courtesy of the filmmakers, unless otherwise indicated. Production: Canana Films/Rei Cine/Foprocine/Conaculta. Distribution: Tucuman Films. Pancrazi’s book (published by Gallimard) has been re-issued in French with a picture from the film on the front cover. 

Friday, 16 October 2015

A POSTHUMOUS CARIBBEAN NOVEL, AND TWO DIAPORAS

By Kathleen Gyssels

In 2006, the death of the French-Jewish author André Schwarz-Bart (born in 1928 in Metz) went by virtually unnoticed in the French media, which were much more preoccupied with the Goncourt Prize awarded to Jonathan Littell's Les Bienveillantes that year.

One of the reasons for this lack of coverage was the author’s retreat to the island of Guadeloupe, where he spent most of the year, alternating his time between his Parisian apartment and the plantation house in Goyave owned by his wife, Simone Schwarz-Bart.

The cover of the new book. 
The absence of obituaries for André Schwarz-Bart, who had been the 1959 Goncourt winner for a masterpiece on the Holocaust titled The Last of the Just, contrasted sharply with the enormous presence of Littell's Les Bienveillantes, whose content was strikingly similar to that of Schwarz-Bart’s book.

In 2015, readers who had long waited for a sequel to The Last of the Just, or another volume of the author’s works set in the French Antilles, received a happy surprise with L’Ancêtre en Solitude, a novel that has now gone on to win prizes in both the Caribbean and France.

This new historical work about three generations of Guadeloupean women is introduced by Simone who is listed as co-author. But this is ultimately a collaborative project started after André’s death, and Simone expresses gratitude to a couple of people who helped and encouraged her to get the files left by her late husband in order.

The novel begins with a historical portrait, and we recognize the distinct “plume” of André Schwarz-Bart. The protagonist is Louise, nicknamed Solite, whose dreadful experiences are related in third-person narrative, in a way that reminds us of the stream of consciousness that shaped La Mulâtresse Solitude (A Woman Named Solitude) with a fascinating power and kept the reader hooked until the tragic ending.

In many ways, Louise/Solite resembles Solitude, the protagonist of the 1972 novel which André described as his first “Caribbean novel”. Of this book, which almost was adapted into a movie by novelist Lisa de St Auban de Teran, critic Alan Friedman said: “Reading is believing. ["A Woman Named Solitude"] must be read to be believed. Surely it shouldn't be possible to tell the tortures of slavery in the manner of a fairy tale and still convey the extent of the atrocity.”

Simone Schwarz-Bart (© Hermance Triay)
L’Ancêtre en Solitude takes off where Un plat de porc aux bananes vertes (A Dish of Pork with Green Bananas / 1967, co-authored by husband and wife) ended: Mariotte is an elderly Martinican woman dying in Paris in the late Fifties. She appears to be the granddaughter of the unhappy and miserable Solitude of the earlier novel.

André Schwarz-Bart had planned a huge family chronicle that would span centuries of Guadeloupean, Caribbean, and even world history, as Mariotte is a world traveler. Africa and Latin America are some of the places mentioned in her diary full of blanks and abruptly finished with what the reader can only presume is Mariotte’s sudden death on a frozen square somewhere in Paris.

What is even more intriguing is the friendship between the only Black female character imprisoned in this “Trou” (Hole) and a certain Louise Duployé who gets hysterical each time some of the other characters make jokes about the Jews and their treatment during World War II. This leads us to believe that Louise might be Jewish herself, and we see the authors’ intertwining of both tragedies: French colonialism, with the slave trade and the terrible harrowing experiences on the plantations, and the deportation and extermination of Jews in the concentration camps.

While the co-authors clearly made a statement by dedicating their 1967 novel to Elie Wiesel and Aimé Césaire, two of the most emblematic figures for both oppressed communities, the narrative itself in the books remains implicit.

One single element, however, clearly links this so-called Martinican novel to the Holocaust and the cycle of novels: in her wanderings Mariotte seems to recognize in the streets of the Latin Quarter a certain Moritz Levy, and those who’ve read The Last of the Just will remember him as the elder brother of Ernie, the character who seemed to have survived the Shoah.

The Schwarz-Barts as a young couple. (© D.R.)
Readers of the new novel, however, may find that this half-posthumous work does not always possess the coherence, poetic style, and historic density of both The Last of the Just and La Mulâtresse Solitude. So one could ask this question: why does Simone Schwarz-Bart continue to publish the material found in her husband’s library?

Simone clearly considers this project as the fulfillment of André’s secret desire. The intention of bringing to the public unpublished work is explained in several recent, yet short, interviews Simone has given. In these conversations, it is striking that the Guadeloupian novelist does not mention any of her own novels - the classic Bridge of Beyond and the epic Ti Jean L’Horizon  / Between Two Worlds, or her beautiful play Ton beau capitaine / Your Handsome Captain. It seems as if Simone deliberately situates herself as the author of a couple who takes satisfaction in completing the other’s work. One would hope that she has not given up her own imaginative and creative output.

But to come back to her late husband: by bridging the Caribbean “plantation universe” and the Jewish concentration camps, André Schwarz-Bart was first and foremost a pioneer. Today, authors such as the Algerian Boualem Sansal, the Canadian Nancy Huston, the American Toni Morrison, and so many others, can deal with the “dangerous parallels” between Shoah and slavery, between (French) colonialism in Algeria, apartheid and segregation in the States, and the Holocaust.

Simone receiving a literary prize in Guadeloupe, 2015.
But perennially excluded from the canon of Shoah-literature, at least in French criticism, André Schwarz-Bart would similarly be excluded from another literary canon, i.e. that of the Caribbean, and this in spite of his French-Caribbean novels La Mulâtresse Solitude and the co-authored Un plat de porc aux bananes vertes.


As a matter of fact, Simone’s own successful first novel Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle / A Bridge of Beyond is modeled on her husband’s prize-winning début. In her following novel, Ti Jean L’Horizon, echoes run so deep that one can think of a co-authorship once more.

André thus associated his wife to a large “opus” in which the “Black Atlantic” and the persecution and pogroms of Jews in the larger Europe are interwoven. For him, as he explained to the Parisian journalist Robert Kanters, the Africans deported to the New World were the Jews’, expelled from Egypt under Pharaoh, and so brethren.

Referring to reviews of the latest work, writer Paul West has this to say: "French reviewers (a predictable lot) haven't failed to point out how this new novel renews Schwarz-Bart's commitment to the walking wounded of history, to martyrs and victims, and how it supplies an overt analogy between the tragedy of deported slaves and that of persecuted Jews. All true; but the book's appeal (and major virtue) isn't historical, ideological, or even moral, but psychological."

The prize-winning debut.
West continues, "From Gabriel García Márquez we not so long ago had One Hundred Years of Solitude, and now we have 179 pages of what sounds like the same. I wish there had been more: as much of this one as of the other. Schwarz-Bart is the severer writer of the two, but his exoticism is just as compelling as that of [García] Márquez…"

This is an unbelievable comment since the Colombian Nobel Prize winner had in fact been inspired by The Last of the Just. His One Hundred Years of Solitude actually has an identical long sentence describing the massacre of poor banana-workers enslaved by the Yankees, and Garcia Marquez’s “magical realism” is very much indebted to André’s first Goncourt Prize-winning novel.

But while the Latin-American literary giant never mentioned this particular model, the intertextual play proves that instead of having Schwarz-Bart compared to Garcia Marquez, it is the reverse perspective one should adopt. This and many other examples, notably in the author’s French Caribbean fiction, could be given. It any case, the Schwarz-Barts have always remained discreet and have considered their texts as “shared knowledge” of the “lived experience of the Black” (to quote Frantz Fanon) as well as of the expelled Jew, both in the past and in modern times. 

L’Ancêtre en Solitude contradicts some of the previous conclusions in textbooks. While the earlier co-authorship resulted in more fame for Simone, as several critics have noticed, the new posthumous sequel might, despite some weaknesses, reverse the situation and put the emphasis back on André.

Prof. Dr. Kathleen Gyssels is a scholar at the University of Antwerp, Belgium, and the author of several books and articles on Black and Jewish Diasporas.

Edited / Copyright SWAN