Maryse Condé – Les Belles Ténébreuses
Just finished the most recent Maryse Condé novel, Les Belles Tenebreuses*. I have admired Condé’s style and work since studying her in graduate school. She’s a masterful, interesting, and thoughtful writer. But something’s gone wrong in Les Belles Tenebreuses. This new novel appears to be navigating many of contemporary society’s uglinesses. So in that sense, it has something to say. But I felt that several of the pieces didn’t seem to fit together and I think she cut some corners in her narrative.
Les Belles Tenebreuses is the story of Kassem, a perfect example of our fractured society. He comes from a Guadeloupean father and a Romanian mother, but he was born in France, in relative poverty, in a violent and dysfunctional family. When the novel opens, Kassem has been working at a kind of tourist wonderland in northern Africa as a chef. The complex where he lives and works is destroyed by a terrorist bombing and he is left without a job, without any money, without a girlfriend (she was killed in the bombing), and without any chance of going home. Kassem, because of his strange cultural background, and undoubtedly his name, is at first suspected in the bombing. This works itself out, but he is left adrift in a culture of which he knows nothing. He ends up going to a local mosque, because it’s the only place that will let him in.
At the mosque he meets a man named Ramzi, who is a famous doctor and political figure. Ramzi hires him and the two begin working together, although it is never quite explained what Ramzi sees in the young, awkward Kassem. At this point, the book begins to read like a grotesque fairytale involving a mass epidemic, embalming techniques, despotism, social and political displacement. I don’t mind grotesque and I think fairytales have much to offer a reader. But. Well. Ramzi and Kassem move from Africa, to France and eventually to America. Where much the same things happen over and over again. Kassem falls in love, people die, Ramzi becomes involved with political insiders, people become suspicious of Ramzi, confide their suspicious to Kassem, who then tells Ramzi (being mysteriously unable to lie to Ramzi) and so on and so forth, more people die.
Kassem is an antihero, with no real character or will of his own. He lets himself be sort of blown from situation to situation, never addressing what it is that he wants, aside from a good screw. That isn’t quite fair. There is some feeling that Kassem is a stand-in for the “youth of today” – adrift in the world, without a sense of heritage or self. But he is a witness to a staggering number of heinous crimes, and each one revolts him or scares him, but he never does anything. I would like to give Condé more credit for what she’s doing, in the sense that she is investigating the difficulties and violence in modern society, perhaps caused by globalization, perhaps caused by our increasing distance from our families and our roots. These are all issues she mentions. But where she could go into detail and carefully work the psychology of her characters, instead she blasts from event to event with little more than cursory narrative.
Take Kassem’s spiritual transformation, for example. Throughout the course of the novel, he becomes a Muslim. And a fairly devout one, Condé tells us. Yet Kassem’s journey to Islam does nothing to change his character, does not affect his fate or the events of the story in any way. It’s just one of the things he does. He meets some people he might not have met otherwise, but they do not alter him.
Essentially, I am criticizing this book because, despite its clear ambitions and worthy subject, the writing felt rushed and patchy – Kassem sobs, he cries, he stands around dumbfounded. Events are larger-than-life with no attempt to persuade the reader of their meaning. Ideas are introduced and then never dealt with again, making the story inconsistent. And the characters are all types. I won’t even go near the ending, which was baffling to say the least.
Whatever the issue, I feel the book wasn’t successful. I will go back and soothe myself with Condé’s other work that I have so loved… Crossing the Mangrove and Segu and Tree of Life.
*The book hasn’t been translated into English but I’m sure it will, and it will be excellent (the translation, I mean). Condé’s husband Richard Philcox has been her translator for just about ever now. And his translations are beautifully, wonderfully done.