Review of Maryse Condé’s Desirada
by Matt Jones

ALTHOUGH the young woman at the center of Maryse Condé's latest novel, Desirada, is of Caribbean birth and perhaps a third of the story is set down in the regions of emerald waters and swaying palm fronds, this book does not offer much in the way of a dreamy escapist retreat.

It is a brooding French soul who steams off this narrative, one full of huffs, sighs, and, at the cheeriest moments, sullen acquiescent shrugs. It is in her descriptions of Boston, with its frozen Charles River and run-down ethnic neighborhoods, and of Paris, always cramped and gray, where she conveys her sad, serendipitous fatalism. These chapters reflect the inner life of Mari-Noelle, a heroine who prefers to let the clouds hang over the sunnier aspects of her tropical inheritance.

Through the course of the story, which follows Mari-Noelle from an impoverished yet happily ignorant childhood in the small, bustling city of La Pointe, our heads, like Mari-Noelle's, are set to spinning by the series of faces that blur by in quick succession. Although Condé's character portraits are smartly detailed we hardly get to know them. Ranelise, Mari-Noelle's unofficial foster mother, whisks the girl off to Paris in her adolescence to join a birth mother scarcely before we meet her. In France we are introduced to Reynalda, Mari-Noelle's new common law husband, and their son. These numbers increase quickly after the arrival of a family from Kouroussa; a father, a mother, and daughter.

If this cast of characters sounds confusing, well, Condé is just hitting her stride, for by the time we've discerned just who is who in this bustling apartment Marie-Noelle is taken to the south of France, to a sanatorium for girls - it is discovered that she is tuberculin. The years in France pass quickly as Mari-Noelle is disassociated, detached, and haunted by memories of her former life. She's plagued with curiosity about her illegitimacy and her mother, who is busy working her way up from being a maid to achieving her doctorate in social sciences. She pays her daughter no attention, and perhaps worse, claims that she is hiding some horrible secret. She will not tell Mari-Noelle who her father is.

It is in this Paris-to-Provence era when boys arrive in Mari-Noelle's life, and for a while, divert her mind from the nagging emptiness of her illegitimate life and lost father. It is also about this point that male readers will probably give up on getting a remotely fair shake as a gender from Condé. It seems that no one has yet alerted her that men do have the capacity, now and then, to rise above their loins. It may also come as a surprise to her to discover that men, whether they like it or not, spend quite a bit of downtime engaging in excursive pursuits besides "mounting" one female, "laying" another, and then moving on mechanistically to the next. Men, it appears, to Condé, spend their lives hopping bed to bed and disclaiming paternity while women spend much of their time burying the emotional refuse these careless lovers leave in their wake.

The exception is Ludovic, who takes Mari-Noelle as his own daughter. Here is a man who -- despite his renaissance qualities, cosmopolitan history, commitment to social work, caring for the community, and devotion to his children -- is disrespected by the mother and daughter duo as if he amounted to no more than any other boneheaded stud. After the years he spends keeping up with the children, Reynalda leaves him and Mari-Noelle responds to his kindness by suddenly making a pass at him. When he refuses she writes him off as "another womanizer like all the rest." Not only is this girl seriously troubled, she is serious trouble. All the men who try to love her are rewarded with disrespect, philandering, and cool detachment.

Yet in this spiritually destitute life she manages to advance herself quite well. In Provence she takes her baccalaureate then takes a renegade saxophonist for a husband, and takes off with him for Boston, "the capital of winter and prejudice." Not long after his jazz career stalls on a prematurely low plateau, the musician takes his life by jumping in the icy Charles.

By this point Marie-Noelle has, as did her mother, worked her way up from a nanny job and is well on her way to her own doctorate in, no surprise here, French literature. She feels little of the appropriate guilt which one would expect from the young widow of a suicide, particularly a woman who had for some time been bedding down her husband's best friend. She thinks of him rarely, and his grave stays bare of flowers. She plunges ahead vacantly on her dissertation on Jean Genet, a writer who, she feels, black intellectuals have too quickly forgotten. What does possess her, however, is the sense that she must answer the question: Who was her father?

She then goes on something of a search for her father's name, back to Guadalupe, back to Paris. It is common in this sort of a story, wherein one is revisiting the places of the past and looking for roots, that readers tend to cheer for their heroines to discover, no matter what answers they do or do not find, something about who they are along the way. Something, we hope, will come along strong enough to jerk them into the here and now and they will learn how to define themselves on their own terms.

But that would be an American fable and, although Mari-Noelle by this point has grown to feel somewhat at home in Boston, it is her French Lit predilections toward despair which keep her from seeing small salvations, which she passes by like unnoticed road signs. She does meet a decent guy, lets him fall in love with her, and then leaves him behind without bothering to answer his letters. She finds an ancestor in her grandmother, yet she leaves her behind too, alone and impoverished.

Mari-Noelle is a black woman who has little contact with white America. Her French side keeps her from fitting in with African-Americans. The American qualities she adopts in Boston keep her from belonging when she returns to the Caribbean. Her ennui regarding her academic life keeps her distant from the intellectual crowd. An inability to love maintains a status quo in which men are just a succession of bodies flowing through her bed.

She may be alone as alone can be, but listening to her steady refrain one begins to hear laments harmonize with larger themes in a contemporary world full of broken families, of transient children born to transient parents, generations away from any inherited home. Mari-Noelle may indeed be hung up with hindrances, a poor, black, almost-French woman in America, but -- and perhaps this is the saddest part of this story -- she is neither unique, nor alone in her aloneness.

[Editor’s Note: Myrse Condé is a writer from Martinique, West Indies.]          printed from
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