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The novels of Maryse Conde take root in a double, paradoxical movement: on the one hand, they posit the distinctiveness of Antillean culture (and its value); on the other, they open a forum for questioning dogmatic positions and ready-made values. Conde's critical inquiry reconsiders political assumptions and cultural identities, what is taken for granted on all sides of cultural, racial and sexual divides. This means dismantling or at least complicating we/they oppositions, reevaluating one's own beliefs, and unraveling hegemonic arguments that leave little room for exchange or variety. This kind of critical examination is a healthy challenge to overly comfortable, self-satisfied positions: "politically correct" smugness is always a target for Conde's playfully satirical pen. She is a risk-taker who delights in challenging those whom the French sarcastically call "les gens bien pensants," that is, "right thinking" people - any self-congratulatory crowd. Her thematics most often mark sure origins or unassailable histories as mythic or illusory.(1) Her social portraits emphasize the jarring juxtapositions of old and new, of spiritual and material values in battle. In her role as black Antillean woman writer, Conde is an iconoclast who picks apart the cliches of the communities she has lived in, preferring to question what it might mean to be a black woman than to offer a set of fixed answers. In her novels' hall of mirrors there are no ideal positions for "les gens bien pensants," whatever their doctrine might be.
Conde's novels are also family affairs that explore physical and psychical movements across several generations of the African diaspora. Her casts of related characters travel back and forth among Africa, the Caribbean, Europe and the U.S. This seesaw motion is borne out in three other forms of the Condean text. First, past and present are constantly juxtaposed - within chapters, paragraphs and sometimes even within a sentence. The narrative thus jumps between different historical moments as characters try to establish their self-worth and identifications in a dialectic of past and present.(2)
Second, Conde's novels move back and forth between contemporary culture and myth, between fiction and history, eventually harmonizing them so that the reader often wonders where historical facts leave off and story-making takes over. But Conde's networks of historical periods and geographical points do not serve a single-minded purpose that would reaffirm the solidarity of oppressed peoples of the diapora. Instead, she beckons us to explore the differences as much as the commonalities among their experiences and to recognize the potential conflicts among oppressed groups. This can be the painful side of the Antillean woman's crosscultural explorations, but Conde always manages to infuse her portrait with a dose of humor.
The last kind of oscillation in Conde's texts is a structural one that seems to dictate and elucidate all the others: through narrative ploys that cause the reader to shift back and forth between points of view, Conde avoids presenting any stance or voice as the "correct" one to adopt. No political or cultural position within the ethnically diverse communities Conde depicts ever completely escapes critical attention.
Conde has had to pay a certain price for the boldness of her critiques. When her first novel Heremakhonon was published in 1976, her controversial heroine, Veronica Mercier, raised eyebrows for a number of reasons: first because she openly exhibits her sexual desire, but also because she shows a great deal of ambivalence toward her Guadeloupean background as well as toward political involvement in postcolonial Africa where the novel takes place. Some critics were quick to fuse author and character into one persona to criticize Conde for her character's less than perfect behavior and thought. Others had doubts about Conde's political commitments to Africa or to Guadeloupe. In one sense, they were right: always wary of idealized or homogenized depictions of the diaspora, Conde shows in Heremakhonon the tensions between Africa and the Antilles concerning questions of cultural identity. Militant propaganda is alien to her conception of literature.
In a recent article, Conde has reaffirmed her critical independence as an Antillean novelist. At a time when many Antillean writers now proclaim the cause of Creole and "creolite" over and against an encroaching French (colonial) language, Conde refuses such prescriptions and agendas and advocates a literature free to create or invent itself at every turn.(3) Instead of setting the reader at ease (including the Antillean reader) by choosing "reassuring images of himself and his land," Conde sets out to disconcert and to challenge.(4) This sometimes means going against the current of accepted positions, even those that carry a certain moral weight.(5) Clearly, this is risky business.
In what follows I would like to concentrate on a reading of this critical quality of Condean narrative in her 1992 novel, Les derniers rois mages [The Last Wise Kings].(6) Ultimately, I think that Conde uses satire, humor and a general critical approach to the social trends her characters represent in order to show that the historical ties between Africa and the New World are neither simply the key to the present nor a cultural burden to …