Commentary Magazine


A Woman Named Solitude, by Andr\'e Schwarz-Bart

History's Victims

A Woman Named Solitude.
by Andre Schwarz-Bart.
Translated by Ralph Manheim. Atheneum. 179 pp. $5.95.

After the shattering conclusion of The Last of the Just (1959), it was hard to imagine what more . . . if anything, André Schwarz-Bart would be able to write. In the mid-60's, he announced that he and his West Indian wife, Simone, were planning to collaborate on a seven-volume series of novels about the blacks of Guadeloupe and Martinique from the late 18th century to the present (the project as a whole has since been abandoned). One jointly written novel, Un plat de porc aux bananes vertes, was published in France in 1967, and though it has a certain gritty persuasiveness in rendering the retrospective life-experience of a West Indian woman in a French home for the aged, it seems static and imaginatively circumscribed after Schwarz-Bart's powerful novel on the Holocaust. Now Schwarz-Bart has written alone a short novel about a mulatto slave-woman (a historical personage) who was executed after a slave uprising in Guadeloupe in 1802, and it is, quite simply, an astonishing book.

A Woman Named Solitude manages to be simultaneously one of the most exquisitely wrought lyric novels of recent years and an utterly convincing representation of the reality of historical suffering. The two achievements, which may sound contradictory, are in fact inseparably linked. The texture of Schwarz-Bart's prose, beautifully rendered in Ralph Manheim's translation, is “poetic” throughout but never merely decorative, which is to say that it performs one of the primary functions of poetry, to make the strange familiar, to enable us to feel the imponderable experience of another on our own pulses. A Woman Named Solitude might be described as the study of a violated but heroically persistent perspective, that of black Africans torn from the organic wholeness of their traditional world by the white enslaver; and the novel's vivid metaphorical language, constantly rearranging the elements of experience in unexpected patterns, makes this perspective ours as we read.

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Solitude's story, in a wonderfully effective strategy, is preceded by a kind of prologue in which the novelist portrays the life in Africa of Bayangumay, Solitude's mother, up to the time she is seized by whites, transported from her native village, and flung into the stinking airless hell of a slave ship. Before the irruption of these horrors, Bayangumay lives an African idyll which is a strange mixture of magic and song, finely etched in figurative language, where wind-bent trees lean “like groups of dancing girls frozen in mid-flight,” where children speak to each other “under a little green moon as taut as a bow,” where words shared are cast negligently into the air and fall “with the imponderable precision of a dream, like those long flat stones that skip so well, rising and falling on still water.” The imponderable precision of a dream is just the quality Schwarz-Bart's striking similes give this narrative that meditates on the wavering borders between dream and reality as the dream is invaded by a historical nightmare. Bayangumay's uncomprehending perception of the murder of her husband before her eyes by the slave-traders is not just an adroit trick in narrative viewpoint but a demonstration that will be continued to the end of the novel of how a mind shaped by the cyclical rhythms of agricultural life and tribal custom is endlessly baffled by the implements, values, motives of the white man's alien world: “Then came a shattering sound like the sound of thunder in the dry season, when the sky cracks like a kernel of maize in the coals. Falling down on his knees, old Dyadyu thrust his spear forward and lay down on the ground to sleep, resting his head on the crook of his elbow as men do by the fire-side after days of plowing, sowing, circumcision, marriage or funeral, when everything that was to be done has been done.”

The ocean-crossing is then represented as a nightmare of radical disorientation so extreme that Bayangumay begins to lose her sense of herself as a human being, almost convinced in the dark hold that she has turned into some kind of odious worm. The daughter she gives birth to on the plantation in Guadeloupe will grow up to share her terror of the annihilation of self. Solitude, barely an adolescent, becomes what the other slaves call a zombie, alternating between catatonic passivity and outbursts of animal ferocity. Her insanity, however, presented in its own immanent logic, becomes a paradoxical form of sanity, a strategy of inner survival historically justified by the madness of the white man's world in which she is captive. In any case, it is seen less as insanity than as a permanent condition of dépaysment, that French concept that suggests both disorientation and being cut off from one's homeland. Again and again, images of floating in space, of shimmering and spinning, are used to render Solitude's experience. She feels herself “falling into the sky like a dead fish”; she is “like a soap bubble, revolving in the mansions of the sky, silently mirroring everything about her”; even the words that come out of her mouth—she speaks, after all, the language of the enslaver—seem detached from her, “mirrors that fell at her feet, shattering her reflection.” The most embracing image of dépaysment is given to Solitude by the leader of a group of runaway slaves she joins: the real curse, he says, is the terrible mystery of white thought; those who enter into it are lost forever, reduced to “shadows, puppets in the white man's dream.”

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The paradox of lyric beauty in an imaginative confrontation with slavery makes particular sense because Schwarz-Bart has chosen to represent the moral outrage of enslavement as a drama of consciousness. The artistic tact of this choice is admirable. I suspect that over the last few years our collective sensibilities have simply been numbed by the deluge in film and fiction of what Stanley Kaufmann once called “the pornography of violence.” In A Woman Named Solitude, the chains and whips, the sundry instruments of maiming and torture, the sexual despoliations, are merely alluded to quickly in passing, in a matter-of-fact tone that is far more shocking than the conventional wallowing in gore of other contemporary writers. In any case, what one feels more poignantly than the references to physical torture is the continuous presence in the novel of a consciousness pitifully deformed by slavery yet doggedly persisting in its effort to be itself, something other than a shadow in the white man's dream.

In this regard, Solitude achieves a kind of confirmation in the last third of the novel, when she is hiding out in the mountains with a guerrilla band of runaways after the French Republic has revoked the short-lived decree of emancipation. The luminous days and nights, the silvery mountain crags, the living flow of the River Goyave, the visual beauty of the natural world “rising and falling in multicolored droplets that caressed the back of your eyes,” all give her a sense of being intensely alive and human outside the inscrutable strangeness of white thought. The imagery of shimmering reflection, which had earlier been used to convey Solitude's unstable sense of self, is now part of her perception of the beauty of the world around her that nothing can take from her. When she is led to her execution, she pauses to drink at a fountain, and it is here, in the last full moments of her life, and not in her death, that the narrative fittingly concludes. About to die, Solitude takes in the brilliant sunlight, the bright colors of the soldiers' uniforms, the yellow house fronts, and in being at the last so acutely alive, she has clearly transcended the crowd of white faces around her with their alien oppressor's dream: “The things of this world were shrouded in a luminous veil, as fragile and beautiful as the reflections in the water of the Goyave, and even the living bodies seemed clothed in this soft, silken transparency.”

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In a 1967 interview, Schwarz-Bart said that after the war he had felt that the Holocaust radically isolated the Jews from the rest of mankind in an experience of suffering so profound that it could not be communicated to others. Only after his encounter with West Indians, he went on, did he realize that there might be bridges over the abyss to other islands of suffering, that with all differences recognized, there might still be a universal community of history's victims. The reader of A Woman Named Solitude marvels, and wonders, at Schwarz-Bart's unfaltering ability to project himself into another race, another sex, another age. It is only in the last words of the Epilogue that the author of The Last of the Just calls attention to his identity. The imaginative visitor, we are told, to the site of the slave rebellion's last stand might almost see human figures arise from the long-moldering ruins—just as other phantoms are said to rise before other travelers at the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto. This last gesture is, I think, a psychologically necessary one for the novelist, and with a little shock it throws a whole added perspective on the story that has been told. Schwarz-Bart in this book has brilliantly solved the problem of writing a novel after the great novel of the Holocaust by using Jewish suffering as a window of perception to the suffering of others. And perhaps by moving from the experience of Jews to that of blacks, he also has notably moved beyond the theologization of victimhood of The Last of the Just to the imaginative evocation of how the victim resists, how he survives. It is hard to think of many living novelists who are able to use the novel so convincingly to bear witness for humanity in its harshest historical trials.

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