Book Review: “The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana” — A Caribbean Hamlet

By Lucas Spiro

Told from the perspective of the Global South, this novel enthralls as it explores the urgent economic and cultural contradictions of post-colonialism, globalization, class, and alienation.

The Wondrous  and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana, by Maryse Condé. Translated by Richard Philcox. World Editions, 272 pages,

The decision to grant the 2018 “Alternative Nobel” to Maryse Condé could be seen as a salient act of artistic justice. That year a sexual assault scandal undercut the Swedish Academy’s legitimacy and the customary prize was postponed. Honoring Condé suggests a refreshing reorientation toward recognizing “a most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” If nothing else, it is a rebuttal to the  moral failing on the part of Eurocentric gatekeepers who have fallen in step with shortcomings of conventional liberalism. Condé is a writer whose literary/social ideas have long been firmly rooted in the material conditions of human struggle. Her many works, dealing with the African Diaspora and the legacies of colonialism, have also earned her a place among the world’s most accomplished artists. Not because she rejects the political for the aesthetic, but because she has cut a singular path toward fusing the impossible — politics and art.

2017’s The Wondrous  and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana exemplifies Condé’s habitual themes. The novel centers on a pair of twins from Condé’s native Guadeloupe, following their intense, borderline incestuous relationship. The sweeping narrative retraces the African Diaspora from the Caribbean to West Africa, and then back to the seat of colonial power, France. This route revisits Condé’s personal and literary history, but recontextualizes its themes for the period following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. Condé’s scope is expansive: cosmic, global, and deeply personal. The result is a story from the perspective of the Global South that enthralls as it explores the urgent economic and cultural contradictions of postcolonialism, globalization, class, and alienation.

Ivan and Ivana are born to Simone, a single mother who works in the sugarcane fields of Guadeloupe. She also sings in a respected choir. Their father, Lansana, is a traveling musician from Mali who leaves Simone to raise the children on her own. French colonialism has classified Guadeloupe as a “special” overseas French territory. This administrative designation simultaneously denies the country nationhood while claiming that the people of Guadeloupe are members of the French nation. This “in-between” vision of inclusive exclusion — a state of being in a nonstate — shapes how Ivan and Ivana look at the world.

As children, they feel as if they are one person, living in a state of paradisaical bliss and innocence. Over the course of the novel, this bond is constantly challenged. Fissures appear under the strain of debilitating economic and social conditions. Ivan is powerful and intelligent, but uninterested in school. He is also moody and impressionable, easily influenced by surrogate fathers and headstrong friends. Ivana is bright, beautiful, and cheerful. She has a singing voice like an angel’s and wants to grow up to be either a police officer or a nurse, acting on her instinct to protect and heal.

Ivan’s waywardness gets him into trouble. After a couple of stints in jail, he and his sister realize that they must go elsewhere if they’re to have a better life. Instead of going to France to pursue an education or career, they go to Mali to live with their father. Ivan gets a position in the national militia, which has been fighting against radical Islamist groups. Ivana is employed at an orphanage for children whose parents have been killed by the fighting. Ivan converts to Islam, mostly as a means of assimilation, but he quickly becomes wrapped up in a jihadist plot. At first, he is not particularly interested in Islam as a religion, but he also rejects the hypocritical “moderates,” including his womanizing father.

Author Maryse Condé. She no longer considers herself an ideological writer.

Ivan is consumed by his love for his sister and the impossibility of consummating that desire, as well as his growing realization of his own powerlessness. Islam instills in him a forceful sense of meaning and purpose; it replaces traditional authorities like the nation and patriarchy. For him, there is no sufficiently compelling moral, spiritual, or material counterweight to radical Islam. Eventually, the twins find their way to France, living in a poor, immigrant neighborhood in a Parisian suburb. Ivana enrolls in the police academy, while Ivan briefly becomes involved in the criminal underground, before he finds his way back to Islam. Their story ends with an act of violence. But, as Condé’s narrator reminds us, the label “radicalization” cannot serve to  simply and concisely diagnose how and why Ivan’s life concludes as it does. Ivan and Ivana are at once fated — and free. And that is The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana’s admirable imaginative strength: the story embraces these contradictory realities, it does not run away from them.

In an interview with BOMB magazine, Condé admits that most of her political life has ended in failure. Guadeloupe’s independence has been paralyzed between the desire for self-rule and the reality of being a small, poor nation adrift on the oceans of global capital. The government has been vulnerable to myriad forms of rule and misrule. The liberation of many African nations from their European colonizers has seen forms of historical oppression reproduce themselves and instability leads to endless violence. The liberation politics of the Left have either been horribly abused by its leaders or successfully destroyed by the wealthy classes.

At this point, Condé no longer considers herself an ideological writer, meaning she doesn’t write to cause anything political. Instead, she has grown to understand “the distinction between the private person, the private things we do, and the political person.” She says that she “fought sincerely, bravely, and that nothing happened and [now] we have to face it.” That doesn’t mean giving up, but turning to a process of reorientation and renewed action. The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana is a splendid example of this kind of sharp-eyed analysis; it deals with the fluid pursuit of meaning and identity in a postcolonial period, the bedeviling clash between the abstract claims of historical justice and the concrete pressures of personal choice.

About the people of the Caribbean, Condé writes, “you have the African coming through you because of the science of the magic, the respect for the invisible. But you have been trained by Europeans, so you adopt some of their values. You realize that faith in magical realism is faith in social realism, socialist realism.” A colonized person, Condé claims, has “all these different influences [which means] your inner self is always in a kind of turmoil.” Ivan embodies this very turmoil. He is a Caribbean Hamlet, a divided, tortured figure who seeks vengeance on those powers that have robbed him of his right to a peaceful, self-determined life. He lashes out in every direction in confused and confusing ways, before turning his ungovernable fury on himself.

Lucas Spiro is a writer living in Dublin.

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1 Comment

  1. Alicia Lamitie Spiro on May 17, 2020 at 8:41 pm

    Thank you again for bringing another important book to my attention. Here’s hoping libraries open soon as I prefer the three dimensional version of a good read.

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