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Desormais, ma vie ne sera qu'une quete. Je retracerai les chemins du monde. [From now on, my life will be but a quest. I will retrace the paths of the world.](1)
(La traversee de la Mangrove 245)
L'errant, n'est plus le voyageur, ni le decouvreur, ni le conquerant. [The wanderer is no longer a traveler nor a discoverer, nor a conqueror.]
(Poetique de la Relation 33)
"Ecrire n'a rien a voir avec signifier, mais avec arpenter, cartographier, meme des contrees a venir" [Writing has nothing to do with meaning, it has to do with surveys and cartography, including the mapping of countries yet to come] (Mille plateaux 11). And (to adopt or parody Deleuze and Guattari's aphoristic style), writing about writing has nothing to do with interpretation but with a reassessment of how writers make sense of the relationship between constructed bodies and constructed spaces, identities and "habitus" (Bourdieu). When the construction in question involves the Caribbean area, the previous proposition needs to be rephrased in a less universalistic tone: when I read the work of a francophone woman author such as Maryse Conde, I find myself powerfully drawn to systems of explanation that metaphorize the connection between geography and identity. A look at the titles of critical studies written about her work in the last decade makes me wonder why geographical and geometrical categories seem so relevant. From Puis's "L'Afrique en pointille" ["Africa, On and Off"], Smith's "A Triangular Structure of Alienation," Mouralis's "Thriller Immobile," to the most recent attempts at "Mapping the Mangrove" (Munley), Conde's work seems to elicit a critical discourse saturated with spatial metaphors or reflections on the theme of space and travel. Like other critics, I find it difficult to separate Conde's biographical narrative as a traveler from her literary representations of displacement, from her imaginary redefinitions of home, homeland, exile, belonging, ancestors, etc. As Veve Clark puts it:
Raised in Guadeloupe, having lived for many years in Guinea and Ghana, for periods in France and the United States, Maryse Conde has written extensively on the literature and socio-political culture issuing from four hemispheres of the African Diaspora. (304)
Even more characteristic of this recurrent spatial narrative is the underlying opposition between two geo-political entities: the island (Guadeloupe) and the Continent (especially Africa). I would argue that our attraction to such an opposition belongs to a historical episteme which is on the brink of being displaced by the most recent literary production of Caribbean authors. And since the category of identity is inextricably linked with one's relationship to institutionalized constructions of space (imagined nations, official maps), re-examining the Relation between the island and the land may provide some interesting insights into the evolving imaginary function of the "Caribbean" at the end of the 20th-century, within a context that some scholars define as transnational, post-industrial or post-colonial. In this article, I would like to suggest that Conde's latest novels, La traversee de la Mangrove (1989) and Les derniers rois mages (1992), could help us question some of our apparently most innocent assumptions about the relative identity of the island and its other (the continent?), the islander and his or her other (the powerful and integrated self?).
The Myth of the Return
Of course, it is still extremely tempting to account for Conde's novels in terms of identity-travel narratives. One could claim that her first three novels, Heremakhonon (1976), Une saison a Rihata (1981) and Segou (1984) represent an African phase, a search for some authentic (essentialized) Blackness, a return to the "Dark Continent," that is re- or mis-appropriated as legitimate origin. One could then interpret Moi, Tituba sorciere noire de Salem (1986) as a movement away from Africa and back to the New World, movement which could be said to prefigure a "reconciliation" with the alienated native island (Clark and Daheny). Although it may seem naive to draw conclusions from fictional plots and narrative setting, the public image of the author who went back home is also tied to literary issues, such as the reception and circulation of Conde's books. For example, the blurb on the cover of La vie scelerate (1987) triumphantly claims: "voici enfin le roman qui marque le retour de la grande romanciere a son pays natal, la Guadeloupe" [Finally, here is the novel that marks the famous novelist's return to her native land, Guadeloupe]. La traversee de la Mangrove (1989) could be seen as a confirmation that the author has finally come full circle and that her biographical narrative and fictional source of inspiration are now harmoniously blended. Responding to an emerging creole coalition, Conde's Caribbean novels seem to be answering Eloge de la Creolite's rallying cry: "Ni Europeens, ni Africains, ni Asiatiques, nous nous proclamons creoles" [Neither Europeans, nor Africans, nor Asians, we proclaim ourselves creole] (Bernabe 13).
I am not objecting to such a characterization of Conde's work on the ground that this would be a "mere" biographical sketch or a thematic reading of her novels. Given the complexity of racial, gender and literary issues involved, stories about the end of a physical exile should not be dismissed as a biographical detail: while keeping in mind the proliferation of sophisticated definitions of (discursive) exile and nationalism produced in the past decade, I cannot help thinking that the author's physical return to the native land does participate in a celebratory rhetoric of self-realization, it signifies the discovery of a Caribbean identity, the forceful affirmation of a Caribbean literature or "discourse" (Glissant, Discours). When Maryse Conde remarks that "Les iles, une a une, recuperent leurs ecrivains vivant a l'etranger" [one by one, the islands reclaim their writers in exile], she concludes that "le paysage litteraire des petites Antilles de langue francaise est loin d'etre sombre" [the literary landscape of the French speaking lesser Antilles is far from gloomy].(2) Landscape and literature are thus associated in what turns out to be a complex definition of the relationship between a Caribbean author's identity and her (literary, geographic, racial and economic) island.
The problem with such narratives, however, is that …