Maryse Condé’s works deal with themes considered central by many contemporary authors and critics. She writes in the aftermath of decolonization, in and of a realm increasingly globalized and interconnected. In the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, France had established a worldwide empire, exporting its culture and values into the Americas, Asia, the Pacific, and especially Africa, vast areas of which came under French control. French colonialism led to the building of hospitals and roads, and to the development of industry and trade. French colonialism also had a manifest “civilizing mission” (mission civilisatrice), not crude land-grabs but “beneficent” incursions into less developed or fortunate regions. This mission involved the export of the fruits of a high French culture; exposure to this new culture, it was believed, would benefit all, regardless of geographical or ethnic origin. France’s relationship with its colonies was often strained and sometimes bloody, but the mother country, too, imbued many of its colonized subjects with an occasionally ambiguous respect for and admiration of the art, customs, and political system of the French.
This cultural and imperialist tide, having flowed, would eventually ebb. Exhausted by the bloodletting of two world wars, France had to withdraw from nearly all of its colonial possessions, sometimes, as with Indochina (in Southeast Asia) and Algeria, in circumstances that were traumatic for colonizer and colonized alike. In former colonies as well, a more or less Gallicized elite found itself in a culturally ambivalent position: not fully French, occasionally exposed to racism or other forms of discrimination, but unable, too, to embrace unselfconsciously the indigenous culture, insofar as that culture had survived. In the case of female members of that elite, perceived gender inequalities added to the sense of a false position within the former colonies. Condé’s writing is a prolonged attempt to examine her position as a colonized woman of African origin situated in a world still culturally and economically dominated by Western Europe, including France, and the anglophone United States.
Hérémakhonon, published in Paris in 1976, is Condé’s first novel. The predicament of its central character is recognizably suggested by that of her creator, Condé. Veronica has spent her childhood in Guadeloupe and, after a period as a student in Paris, wants to escape that island’s respectable black bourgeoisie, which she regards as secretly afraid of its own inferiority. She travels to an unnamed West African state and, while there, seeks an authentically African past with which she will be able to identify.
However, Veronica comes to see that, despite a wish she acknowledges as sentimental, this newly independent country can no more return to a precolonial past than the Sahara can return to its condition before desertification. Furthermore, the state, which encourages its people to believe in “progress,” is facing political unrest: Students who demonstrate against the leader are hauled off by the army; one of Veronica’s colleagues, described as a militant member of a banned party, is arrested and maltreated; and her newfound lover is a government bureaucrat who lives in the sort of luxury that is almost obscenely beyond the reach of most of his countryfolk. Indeed, Veronica is chauffeured past mud huts to and from his villa, named Hérémakhonon (Mandingo for welcome house). His own wish to preserve the past leads to his being labeled a “reactionary” and a mystifier of the people. Unable to commit to any side, Veronica returns to Paris.
An incidental paragraph reveals the inextricable confluence of cultures brought about...
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