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Critical Review by Howard Frank Mosher
SOURCE: "Staying Alive," in The New York Times Book Review, October 25, 1992, pp. 11-12.
Mosher is an American novelist and short story writer whose works include Where the Rivers Flow North (1978) and A Stranger in the Kingdom (1989). In the following review of I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem and Tree of Life, he praises Condé's sense of history and compassion, stating that "it is impossible to read her novels and not come away from them with both a sadder and more exhilarating understanding of the human heart."
In the final chapter of Segu, Maryse Condé's historical novel of 19th-century tribal West Africa, the youthful Muhammad, scion of one of the great families along the Upper Niger, is about to take part in a huge and terrifying battle. As blue-turbaned horsemen gallop toward him brandishing lances, as sabers clash and iron balls whirl on chains, he thinks fleetingly of his mother. "Then," Ms. Condé writes, in the last sentence of the novel, "he set his teeth and didn't think of anything except staying alive."
The world's literature has always abounded with great survivors. And although contemporary American fiction may offer readers fewer heroes than the notable novels of earlier generations, there are still plenty of first-rate novelists, here and abroad, whose characters not only survive the worst that life can throw at them but also often prevail, on their own terms, against overwhelming odds. The brilliant and prolific Maryse Condé—born in Guadeloupe, a longtime resident of Paris and now a professor of French at the University of California, Berkeley—is just such a writer. And with the appearance this fall of uniformly excellent English translations of I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem and Tree of Life, readers in this country will have the considerable pleasure of acquainting themselves with more of her durable survivors.
Ms. Condé's Tituba is based loosely on the black slave woman who was tried for witchcraft in Salem, Mass., in 1692. In Ms. Condé's fictional rendition of the story, Tituba is born to an African mother who was raped by an English sailor on the deck of a slave ship called Christ the King. In Barbados, Tituba's childhood abruptly ends when, at the age of 7, she watches her mother try to fight off a rapist; the child hands her the cutlass with which she defends herself. Tituba's mother is hanged in the presence of all the other slaves. "I watched her body swing from the lower branches of a silk-cotton tree," Tituba says. "She had committed a crime for which there is no pardon. She had struck a white man."
Tituba's luck improves when she is driven off the plantation and adopted by an old woman who knows the secrets of spells and herbs and how to communicate with the dead. But although her years learning Mama Yaya's lore are happy ones, the teen-age Tituba succumbs to the temptations of the outside world and marries a happy-go-lucky slave named John Indian. Brought back into slavery by love, Tituba falls afoul of her new mistress and is sold to a tyrannical Puritan minister named Samuel Parris, who takes Tituba and her husband to New England.
What a fanatical sect Ms. Condé's Puritans turn out to be: sadists and murderers, rabid misogynists and racists who hang and torture women, imprison tiny children, burn Jewish families out of their homes and regularly accuse black slaves of being in league with Satan. Tituba offers an ingenuous appraisal of their doctrine of eternal damnation: "Perhaps it's because they have done so much harm to their fellow beings, to some because their skin is black, to others because their skin is red, that they have such a strong feeling of being damned?" At the same time, Tituba has a few shortcomings of her own—including a blindly passionate sexual dependence on the feckless John Indian—which make her a fully believable and very appealing character.
In less sure hands, this short, powerful novel, which won France's Grand Prix Littéraire de la Femme in 1986, might well have become merely an extended denunciation of a perverted and evil society. What makes it larger and richer are Ms. Condé's gift for storytelling and her unswerving focus on her characters, combined with her mordant sense of humor, (Hester Prynne, from The Scarlet Letter, makes a cameo appearance when she's imprisoned with Tituba, lamenting that her new friend will never be much of a feminist.)
Miraculously, Tituba manages to extricate herself from her tormentors and return to Barbados, where she becomes a legendary figure to the black population. However, in the final irony of the story, she is brought up for execution by an official eager to make an example of rebellious slaves. Her life seems about to end in martyrdom, just as her mother's did.
Or does it? With the help of some ghosts from Tituba's past, Maryse Condé has fashioned a marvelous final surprise for her readers. Part historical novel, part literary fable, part exploration of the clash of irreconcilable cultures I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem is most of all an affirmation of a courageous and resourceful woman's capacity for survival.
The forces of good and evil are not so sharply differentiated in Tree of Life, Ms. Condé's passionate, multigenerational novel (originally published in France in 1987) about the endlessly intriguing family of Albert Louis, born on Guadeloupe in the early 1870's, a patriarch as morally complex as he is simply stubborn. A devout disciple of the American black nationalist Marcus Garvey, Albert doesn't hesitate to wring every last cent from the impoverished black families who dwell in the wretched tenement houses he owns. He's a man of deep contradictions and still deeper gloom. Yet, in his own way, Albert is nearly as tough a survivor as Tituba.
As a young boy, Albert manages to escape harm after taking a long plunge "from the main limb of a breadfruit tree, for he had taken it into his head to fly." A few years later, he boldly strikes out from Guadeloupe to Panama, where the Americans are "tampering with the very structure of the world and cutting continents in two." As a member of a daring explosives team at work on the Panama Canal, he emerges relatively unscathed from all kinds of potential disasters, until the loss of his wife, Liza, in childbirth almost drives him mad. After taking his infant son home to his mother in Guadeloupe, Albert heads for San Francisco, hoping his luck will change. After all, aren't the mountains of California glittering with gold nuggets, free for anyone who wants to bend over and pick them up?
Like their forebear, many of Albert's descendants range out to far-flung destinations beyond their native country, including New York and Paris, both of which Ms. Condé renders with great vivacity. Best of all, though, are her vivid evocations of Guadeloupe. She can even make a cemetery seem enticing: "Situated at the town gates, the graveyards of Guadeloupe are cities of the dead, where the filau, the beautiful beefwood tree, keeps weeping watch over the departed. There marble, glass and carefully whitened concrete strive to outdo each other. Ornamental bowls, flowers, crosses or crowns of pearls are placed on the graves. Votive lamps are kept lit on each side of a picture of the deceased, their tenacious and fragile flames symbolizing the affection of the living."
The family of Albert Louis is haunted by suicide, as expatriates succumb to loneliness and desperation. They are also stricken with grief, retreating into prolonged and impenetrable states of despair. Somehow, though, most endure—occasionally as thoroughly appealing ghosts.
In one of the funniest episodes of this immensely entertaining novel, the fiercely jealous spirit of Albert's first wife, Liza, torments her son, Bert, with the most explicit sexual fantasies about his stepmother, Elaise. Only after Elaise dies and becomes a ghost herself do Albert's wives become friends—preparing breakfast together for their brooding old husband, chatting companionably with him on the veranda in the evening. They discreetly look the other way when Albert takes his early-morning nip. "A little rum never hurt anyone. It's even the best remedy for life."
Other memorable survivors in Tree of Life include Albert's son Jean, who spends seven and a half years writing a folk history entitled Unknown Guadeloupe, which eventually becomes a national classic after being virtually ignored in its author's lifetime; Thécla, Albert's scholarly, lovelorn granddaughter, and Coco, Thécla's troubled daughter, the narrator of the novel, whose destiny it is to recount the amazing story of her family.
From 18th-century Africa to the America of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Maryse Condé has chronicled in her wonderful fiction the lives of a series of remarkable individuals and the families that surround them. It is impossible to read her novels and not come away from them with both a sadder and more exhilarating understanding of the human heart, in all its secret intricacies, its contradictions and marvels.
This section contains 1,488 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)