“Behind one pain there is another. Sorrow is a wave without end. But the horse mustn’t ride you, you must ride it.”
New York Review Books is an imprint I’ve never really gotten to grips with. They publish or republish what you might call “forgotten classics”, things that perhaps never got their moment in the sun, or little cult gems. JL Carr’s A Month In the Country is published by them, for instance, as is Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. They also produce a lot of translated literature, towards which I am frequently ambivalent; even my first Haruki Murakami inspired feelings of “is this him or his translator?” which I can’t quite resolve. The Bridge of Beyond, by Simone Schwarz-Bart, ticks almost all of these boxes: originally published in French in the 1970s, it is concerned with the lives of several generations of women of the Lougandor family, on the island of Guadeloupe, and of how they face tribulation, find happiness, and endure. The concept is appealing, but I might never have heard of it or picked it up without this review from Laura at Reading In Bed (link to be posted when I’m using a different computer; this one won’t let me access it…). I asked for The Bridge of Beyond on the strength of that review alone–a testament to the power of recommendation, kids!–and I am so glad that I did.
One of the things that Laura mentioned in her review was that she wasn’t quite sure how to engage with the novel’s exploration of race, before realizing that she didn’t have to; you can choose what to leave in or out of any review. It’s a good point to make, but I think it also bears a corollary: it’s not easy to write on the “racial themes” of Schwarz-Bart’s novel because they’re very subtly conveyed, and they’re subtly conveyed because the book doesn’t make itself all about white people. It’s a book about black women, interacting within black communities, and written by a black woman, and so the sort of racial interactions that we look to see in “ethnic” or “diverse” books (see, e.g. The Help or Black Boy or Beloved, both of which are much better books than The Help in every way) aren’t foregrounded. This isn’t a book about “race” because it’s not a book about black people coexisting with white people, learning to make concessions to them and being treated badly. It’s a book about black people living amongst black people, which makes the whole idea of it being “about race” sort of irrelevant. (Which is not to say that there are no white people in the novel, or that their actions don’t have a huge impact on the lives of the black Guadeloupeans. The narrator, Telumee, works for a singularly narrow-minded white woman as a house maid, and later, her second husband Amboise takes part in a demonstration against working conditions at a sugarcane factory–owned by whites, of course–which is suppressed with simple and absolute brutality. What I mean is that the white people aren’t the point of the story, which is incredibly refreshing.)
The book is divided into two parts, of unequal length. The first part, by far the shortest, is entitled “The Story of My People.” It runs through the potted biographies of Telumee’s matriarchal forebears: from her great-grandmother, Minerva, a freed slave, descends Toussine, who becomes known as Queen Without A Name and who bears three daughters, of whom the third is Telumee’s biological mother, Mama Victory. Mama Victory falls victim, unfortunately, to the blandishments of a thoroughly unscrupulous man (not Telumee’s father), and leaves her daughter in the hands of Toussine, Queen Without A Name, who by now lives several hours away in the village of Fond-Zombi. As Telumee’s childhood goes on, she makes friends with Elie, the boy whose grandfather Old Abel runs the village store; the beginnings of a romance are visible from miles away.
One of the most wonderful things about the book is its prose. Jamaica Kincaid describes it in her introduction as “incantatory” and that’s exactly how it feels, that rhythmic sway of syllables like a folk song, like Bible verses recited, like a chant at night. Here is Telumee on the subject of growing up:
All rivers, even the most dazzling, those that catch the sun in their streams, all rivers go down to and are drowned in the sea. And life awaits man as the sea awaits the river. You can make meander after meander, twist, turn, seep into the earth–your meanders are your own affair. But life is there, patient, without beginning or end, waiting for you, like the ocean…And while school was leading us toward the light, up there on the hills of Fond-Zombi, the waters were intersecting, jostling, foaming, the rivers were changing their courses, overflowing, drying up, going down as best they could to be drowned in the sea.
There’s a sense, too, of the proverbial, not in a sententious way but in a manner undeniable: the repeated truths that the past has proved. They can be melancholy–as the header quote to this post suggests–but they can be full of joy, too:
I laughed to myself, remembering that when a woman loves a man she sees a field and says it’s a mule. There’s air, water, sky, and the earth we walk on–and there’s love. That’s what keeps us alive. And if a man doesn’t give you a belly full of food but gives you a heart full of love, that’s enough to live on. That’s what I’d always heard people saying around me, and that’s what I believed.
That kind of conviction leaves you vulnerable, though, and Telumee isn’t always so blithe. Her husband, Elie, slowly turns sour; bad harvests and lack of money see him devolving into a drunkard, then a wife-beater and (by inference) a rapist. Although Telumee is comforted by Queen Without A Name, no one else seems to think it’s any of their business, and her constant bruises are met with sympathy but no concrete assistance on the part of her fellow villagers. Schwarz-Bart doesn’t dwell on any of this. There’s a certain tranquility to the book that cannot be shaken by mere events. If I say that Telumee and the narration itself are both passive, it will sound as though they’re soulless, lifeless automatons; that’s not what I mean at all, but I do want to gesture towards that passivity. Perhaps it’s more like acceptance, although that doesn’t mean that Telumee ever believes she deserves her ill-treatment. She simply loves her husband, is hurt by him, and waits for things to change. It’s unjust, but it has the air of truth about it: this is, by and large, how we respond to the injuries inflicted upon us by the people we love.
Eventually, the situation does change for Telumee: she’s forced out of her own home by her husband’s acquisition of a new wife. (Or concubine. The novel is a little unclear on how adult relationships are formalized in this community, but given the history of slavery in Guadeloupe and the general failure of slaveholders to recognize marriages between members of the black population, “marriage” in this context appears to mean a publicly recognized state of affairs between two cohabiting adults.) What this means for Telumee is that when her husband turns up with another woman and tells her to get out, she hasn’t got much in the way of legal recourse. Not that she wants to fight it, at this point; she returns to Queen Without A Name, and slowly, very slowly, begins to rejoin the land of the living. Her second marriage to an older man, Amboise–her first husband’s mentor, in fact–is much happier. There is a sort of gentle sensuality to the descriptions of their daily life together which is infectious:
At the end of the afternoon, when the animals had been brought in, Amboise would strip off his thick, rough, ragged clothes, the color of our soil, fold them up, and put them on the dome-shaped top of a young orange tree. Then, naked in the light of the setting sun, he waited for me. And that was another hour I loved, for his muscles at rest hoped for me, and I came and poured over him the citronella-scented water I always remembered to put to warm in the sun in the morning. The water flowed over his body with a murmur, its scent saturating the air as if it were sap, while Amboise splashed about making long spurts of water that soaked and drenched and carried me away.
This relationship, too, is cut short, and Telumee grieves, but she is not lost. She never again loses interest in life. Her friendship with the elderly hedgewitch Ma Cia keeps her afloat when her grandmother dies, and the strength of the little community where she lives with Amboise supports her in her widowhood. That is the overwhelming impression of the book, in fact: a sense of support and endurance. It’s not “poverty porn” in the sense of gleefully exhibiting a parade of one individual’s misfortunes; it’s an even-tempered, sometimes wistful account of the absolute triumphs and absolute despairs of a perfectly ordinary Guadeloupean woman. To say that The Bridge of Beyond valorizes “strong women” would be to stereotype it; it’s much braver and more unusual than that. What it does is demonstrate the human capacity not merely to endure, but to make choices about our reactions to things we can’t control. At the very end of the book, Telumee meets her abusive former husband, Elie, once more. I shan’t tell you what she does; I shall only leave you with her final words: “Sun risen, sun set, the days slip past and the sand blown by the wind will engulf my boat. But I shall die here, where I am, standing in my little garden. What happiness!”