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[The only traces of "genesis" identifiable in the Caribbean folk-tale are satirical and mocking. These parodies of genesis do not seriously claim, in any case, to offer an explanation for origins; they imply a satirical attitude to any notion of a transcendental Genesis.](1)
- Glissant, Le Discours antillais [Caribbean Discourse]
The cloudy introspective musings, the troubled dreams and recollections of Spero Jules-Juliette which fill the pages of Les Derniers Rois mages(2) last from breakfast time to late evening on a rainy Sunday, a 10th of December at the end of the 1980s in South Carolina. It has been 25 years since Spero first came from Guadeloupe to live on swampy Crocker Island near Charleston in the house belonging to his American bride Debbie Middleton, and in all that time - a quarter century - this is the first December 10th upon which he forgets to observe the anniversary of his royal African ancestor's death, December 10, 1906.
When Spero was growing up with his two brothers in his parents' house in La Pointe, his father had a requiem mass said every 10th of December in memory of the King of Abomey whose realm (in what is now Benin) the French took over in 1892. They exiled him to Martinique in 1894; six years later they finally allowed him to return to Africa - but only to die, and not in his own country but in Algeria. Between 1894 and 1900, however, while living in a rather luxurious colonial villa in Bellevue, a suburb of Fort-de-France in Martinique - with his five favorite wives, his favorite son Ouanilo, his daughter the Princess Kpotasse and his honton [alter ego] Prince Adandejan - the fallen monarch had a child by a local girl: a boy, whom he named Djere. Or, so it is said. So goes the lore in Spero's family. It is true that there is no actual document attesting to the existence of this royal offspring: Ouanilo, who recorded his father's last years in detail, makes no mention of Djere's birth. Perhaps he didn't consider the event worthy to figure in a royal chronicle. But there exists a photograph of the King and his family taken in Fort-de-France in 1896, and in it a one year-old boy - Djere himself - can be seen in the arms of the King's chief wife Queen Fadjo. Unfortunately, there is no dependable evidence that the King ever even thought of taking Djere with him when he left Martinique, and no word ever came from him after his departure; he never answered any of the boy's letters or any of the boy's mother's requests for a little money: "Roi africain ou pas, le papa de Djere s'etait comporte comme tous les autres negres de la terre. Il ne s'etait pas occupe de son enfant" [African king or not, Djere's Daddy behaved like all the other no account Niggers in the world. He didn't take care of his child] (18). Such was ever the point of view of the women in Spero's family. In any event, Djere's mother, Hosannah Jules-Juliette, eventually married and moved with her new husband and her bastard son to Guadeloupe, where Djere grew up, married and had a son of his own - Justin, Spero's father.
It was Hosannah who inaugurated the December 10th ritual upon hearing - indirectly and about four years after the fact - of her son's father's demise far off in Algiers. Not that she seemed to have felt any particular grief: "on aurait dit que tout cela ne la concernait meme pas" [You wouldn't have thought it had anything to do with her] (77). Nonetheless, she ordered a mass and prepared a traditional funeral meal. Thereafter, it is the men in the family who, from generation to generation and always to the mild exasperation of the women, preserve the memory of royalty. They keep the noble African heritage alive in the household, and the consciousness of their own uncommon stature, for - as Djere recounts in the Notebooks wherein he inscribed his memories of his father and of his father's memories - they descend from Tengisu, founder of the Huegbaja dynasty in Dahomey, first and favorite son of Posu Adewene, jungle princess, and of Agasu the panther.
Neither Djere nor Justin, his son (Spero's father), ever gets around to making a living. They leave such concerns to their wives, while they send off to France for books on Africa, which no one else has ever bothered to read, and search through the bookshops and libraries of La Pointe for information which they can only locate in scraps, the better to honor a figure their compatriots consider a mere curiosity if not an aberration ("Un roi africain! Ka sa ye sa?" [An African king? Ka sa ye sa?](3)), lest they be reduced to acknowledging that they actually inhabit - as opposed to having been exiled there by a tragic injustice - "une miserable krazur(4) de terre" [a miserable scrap of earth] few people can locate on a map, and that they are nobody's favorite child nor in anybody's eyes the son of a panther. Like the Ancestor, who spent his years of exile in Martinique talking about his father, his high priest and his prophet, his palace, his betrayal by the French and by his own brother in league with the French - until this past faded from his mind and he believed he was once more Kondo the Shark, merciless warrior, proud conqueror, receiver of rich gifts from the French - so Justin eventually sinks into a half-asleep existence, muttering incomprehensible speeches about ritual offerings and other exotic customs, just as Djere before him, his mind similarly blurred by drink, had regularly amused clients at a local bar with muddled recitations from his Notebooks and thus - a figure of both pity and contempt - earned the sobriquet Wa Maj (Roi Mage): every year on January 6th, the Church holiday commemorating the Three Kings' arrival at Bethlehem, the inhabitants of La Pointe put a cardboard crown on Djere's head and made him pay for everybody's drinks.
Spero, for his part, appears to have taken the side of women in general and of Marisia his mother in particular, who thinks the African Ancestor is just an excuse for Justin's idleness and for his father's before him; that men unlike women are always inventing fantastical ideas and ambitions which only end up making life (for women) harder, and that it is wisest to forget the past and look the present straight in the eye. Spero prefers an anchor in the here and now to hazily glorious memories of le tan lontan(5): as Les Derniers Rois mages opens, …