The Tree of Life by Maryse Condé #WITMonth

Tree of Life_miniI’m beginning to wonder if I have an issue with multi-generational family sagas. They do tend to go on for far longer than the story can sustain – and my patience endure. Or perhaps Tree of Life by Maryse Condé had been on my ‘to read’ shelf for well past its ‘best before’ date and the initial impetus for buying it had long disappeared. Either way, this was my first read for Women in Translation month 2016, and I was disappointed.

Tree of Life is a very personal story of multiple generations of one family from poverty in Guadeloupe to a comfortable existence with the trappings of a middle class life. It’s told by one of the descendants Coco although it is not until the end does she understand why she is telling this story.  She is ‘the child of our tomorrows’ a family acquaintance tells her, the keeper of the flame of memory not just of her family but of her country’s history.

Coco begins by relating the history of her great grandfather Albert Louis,  a man of determination who resolves to be slave to no man and to forge a new life for himself.

..on that day, Albert Louis,  … looked at the handful of coins he had just received from the over-seer, raised his eyes to Heaven as if asking courage of the sun, and thundered:

It’s over. This is the last time I come here to get my pay like a dog.

And with that dramatic flourish he prepares to leave his  native island and head to to America where he’d heard there was money to be made building the Panama Canal. After years of hardship and a few personal setbacks he rises above the level of a drudge and in doing so lays the foundation of a dynasty  whose members travel far and wide from Guadeloupe. The lives, loves and tribulations of his descendants become the focus of the rest of the book  tracing their rise to wealth from around 1904 to the 1980s as they move variously between cane plantations in Guadeloupe, poor settlements in Harlem and Haiti and the excitement of the streets of Paris. They try their hand at commerce, experience the joy and heartache of love and dally with politics.

This sweeping narrative is appealing in part. Arthur Louis is very much the patriarch who rules his life and those of his children with passion and stubbornness. There is more than a tinge of moral ambiguity to this figure. He gets swept along by the teachings of the Jamaican nationalist Marcus Garvey, placing huge faith in Garvey’s statement “I shall teach the Black Man to see beauty in himself.” Yet back home in Guadeloupe the native workers he employs to run his import-export warehouse and business fare little better than Albert Louis did in his plantation days and he squeezes everything he can from the impoverished black families who rent his shoddy tenement houses.

Equally well drawn is the troubled relationship of Coco and her mother Thecla. The latter  sees herself as rather a free spirt, which seems to involve having a love affair and then ditching the resulting mixed race daughter in France, never to see or make contact with her for 10 years.Then when she’s shacked up with some other guy she drags the poor child first to Guadeloupe and then to Jamaica, exposing her to bulling and ridicule as not racially pure. If I had a mother like that I’d be hell bent on putting as much distance as possible between me and her.

Woven through the life stories of the generations is the emergence of black consciousness and the struggle for equality. Individuals within each generation develop their own approaches to the issue with varying degrees of success but despite the growth of mixed marriages, there is still a feeling of animosity between white and black populations. It’s left to Coco’s mother to make the most impassioned statement about discrimination that can ranges from verbal and physical attacks to prohibiting children playing together and forming friendships across colour. Yet what Thecla also sees is how racial attitudes may to always be stated – they just exist.

Thecla explains to her daughter that her origins as the child of a white family,  make it hard to relate to her daughter because all she sees is the whiteness of her father and

…  his mother …  on her high horse, asking me who my family was and sniffing in disgust at the salt-cod smell of our name. For no one ever said a word about my colour which fundamentally was the real problem. They never talk about colour even if its right there before their eyes: It’s not done. It’s dirtier, color is, than the green diarrohea of amoebic dysentery or the sulphurous yellow piss of incontinence! When I see you, yes, I can’t help it, it’s all that I see. … Filthy stupidity, stubborn arrogance, pettiness ….. Alas thats how it is and neither you nor I can do a thing about it.

Tree of Life is a meandering novel that starts well but then seems to get bogged down in detail when Arthur Louis returns to Guadeloupe and the next generation grow up. The detail is clearly important to Coco and to Condé herself but I don’t see them as interesting to us just as my family’s history is precious to me but I know few other people care what my great great grandfather did. So for all the references to the troubled history of Guadeloupe and its people, ultimately this felt like a very long story about a set of individuals who once inhabited the planet.

Footnotes

Author: Tree of Life by Marys Condé

Published: as La Vie Scélérate in 1987 by Editions Seghers

Translated: from French by Victotia Retter and published in English by Ballantine Books/Random House in 1992.

Length: 368 pages

My copy: bought second hand and sat on the shelf until Women in Translation Month 2016

 

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on August 12, 2016, in #20books of summer, Book Reviews, Guadeloupe, world literature and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 24 Comments.

  1. Hmm.. I am trying to think which family sagas I’ve read, but I cannot think of any except The Forsyte saga. I’ve read it some fifteen years ago and, as far as I remember, I loved it.
    I am not sure what I would think of it now..

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    • That would be one that I definitely enjoyed though like most of the family sagas I’ve experienced the interest did tail off with the later generations. But the early ones around Soames and his wife were brilliant. Another saga that started with great promise was the Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh.

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      • Will note it down!

        I remembered another three -I knew I’d read something besides ‘The Forsyte Saga’. First, there was Lajos Zilahy’s ‘The Dukays’ of which I have a positive memory, although as you said, the first generation was the most interesting one; then there was Trygve Gulbranssen’s trilogy (called ‘Norwegian trillogy’) which I adored; and then ‘The People of Juvik’ by Olav Duun which is excellent. I wrote about it couple of years ago (some impressions only) if you’re interested: https://inkstainsonareadersblog.wordpress.com/2013/11/15/olav-duun/.

        Maybe there were more…

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  2. It almost seems like the point of the book is to watch the change in racist attitude instead of following characters. I think the same way about A Raisin in the Sun, except all those generations live under the same house! The father testing workers the same way he was treated also interests me. It’s a topic woven into ZZ Packer’s famous story, “Brownies.”

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  3. I think multi-generational things can be hard for a reader if they’re all in one book. For example, The Forsyte Saga is spread over 9 books so you can take breaks, readjust to the next generation etc. Shoving it all into one book book overwhelm and lose the reader – I think it takes a special author to succeed with this.

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    • Good point about the need for a breathing space. The books that don’t do this feel to me like spending too much time with my own family members. I mean you love them and enjoy having them around but sometimes you feel you’ve had enough and isn’t it time they left?

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  4. I’ve never read this author, but she’s cropping up a fair bit across various blogs, especially with the current focus on WIT. It’s a shame this one turned out to be a disappointment. As others have said, it’s a challenge to sustain momentum in this type of multi-generational story..

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  5. I know what you mean about inter-generational family sagas. I usually struggle with them and avoid them. If you’re interested though one family saga I did like was the Jane Smiley books about the Langdon family starting out on an Iowa farm at start of 20th Century. I’ve read first two books in the trilogy Some Luck and Early Warning and thought they were both really good.

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    • I’ve been studiously avoiding these sagas spread over several books – though as Karen points out that’s better than lumping everything into one volume – just in case I find I don’t want to spend time with that one family! But I did get the first of the Smiley one so will give it a go….

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  6. Oh dear, you have to have some interest to hold an external reader otherwise it loses its power and is only interesting to family or people in the exact same situation.

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  7. A Guadeloupean author you might prefer is Simone Schwarz-Bart; I’ve only read one of her books, The Bridge of Beyond, but its focus is much tighter and although it doesn’t pretend that hardship doesn’t happen (especially to women and even more so to lower-class women), it’s a surprisingly tranquil book – trials are moved through and dealt with in a way that felt realistic. You might like it better!

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    • Thank you for that recommendation – it does sound rather interesting.

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    • The Bridge of Beyond is fantastic, one of my favourite reads this year, it briefly reflects the generations but sticks to one point of view, the grand-daughter in a strong line of women, the prose is lyrical and it has been deservedly recognised, being reissued as a NYRB classic.

      I’ve really enjoyed the books by Maryse Condé I’ve read, in particular Tales of the Heart (he essays of childhood) and Victoire:My Mother’s Mother which the publishers call a novel but which the author calls a true story and her sweeping, historical novel Segu.

      For #WITMonth I’m reading A Season in Rihata and The Story of the Cannibal Woman (which the author said at a library talk recently is her personal favourite).

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  8. I think it’s tough to maintain interest in a multi-generational saga. It can be done, but more often not…

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    • I had a similar experience when I read The Glass Palace by Ghosh. it started off brilliantly with the founder of the dynasty and the troubles in Burma but by the time we got to generation 4 I didnt care who these people were.

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  9. I know what you mean about intergenerational sagas. If tightly controlled they can work very well but if not they tend to sprawl and it seems that this one’s a sprawler. I like your last line!

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  10. That last passage is certainly evocative. Poetic but difficult. She is a writer whose works I’ve meant to explore for years as well. My copy of Tituba, Black Witch of Salem has probably been on my shelf for at least 20 years. Funny how some of them linger, isn’t it *looks innocent, as though this rarely happens instead of mostly happens*

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    • I know it isn’t considered her best work but I was still expecting rather more. Oh yes I have lots of books that have lingered – and likely will still be there in a few years time wondering what sin they had committed that I would treat them with such disdain….

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