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