I’ve been having a good run with NYRB Classics this year. I liked Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel (which I did not review) and loved Helen Weinzweig’s Basic Black With Pearls, Dorothy B. Hughes’ The Expendable Man, and Lesley Blanch’s Journey into the Mind’s Eye (all of which I did review). Being on the mood for some more NYRB, I settled on Simone Schwarz-Bart’s The Bridge of Beyond, drawn by both the cover and the blurb. And by the time I had gulped the first couple of pages, I knew this book was going to be special.
The Bridge of Beyond is a luminous, lyrical and vivid tale of three generations of Lougandor women set in the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe.
The story is narrated by Telumee, and here the book is divided into two parts. In the first one, we learn about Telumee’s grandparents (Minerva and Xango), her grandmother Toussine (called Queen Without A Name) in her youth and her marriage to Jeremiah, and her mother Victory. The second part is the story of Telumee’s life as told by her.
Here’s how it opens:
A man’s country may be cramped or vast according to the size of his heart. I’ve never found my country too small, though that isn’t to say my heart is great. And if I could choose it’s here in Guadeloupe that I’d be born again, suffer and die.
As much as this is Telumee’s story, it is also that of her grandmother Toussine, a proud woman and a force to reckon with, to whom her mother Victory sends her to stay.
Toussine was a woman who helped you hold your head up, and people with this gift are rare. My mother’s reverence for Toussine was such I came to regard her as some mythical being not of this world, so that for me she was legendary even while still alive.
Toussine finds great happiness in her marriage to Jeremiah. She bears him two daughters and they build a home for their family that is the envy of their neighbours. But this happiness does not last for long. Tragedy strikes the family, testing Toussine’s mettle. She overcomes this suffering, and it is this strength that she passes on down the generations especially to Telumee.
When Toussine’s husband Jeremiah passes away, she chooses to live a quiet life in a village deliciously named Fond-Zombi – one has to cross the Bridge of Beyond (the title of this novel) to get there.
Telumee’s life changes from the moment her mother Victory decides to spend her life with a man from Dominica. It is then that she is sent to live with Toussine, who greatly relishes the prospect.
Toward the middle of the day we left the little white road to its struggle against the sun, and turned off into a beaten track all red and cracked with drought. Then we came to a floating bridge over a strange river where huge locust trees grew along the banks, plunging everything into an eternal blue semidarkness. My grandmother, bending over her small charge, breathed contentment: “Keep it up, my little poppet, we’re at the Bridge of Beyond.” And suddenly we were on the other bank, Beyond: the landscape of Fond-Zombi unfolding before my eyes…
Telumee, meanwhile, will find her own happiness interspersed with periods of suffering. She will go to work in the kitchen of a wealthy white family owning sugar plantations, she will marry, build a home of her own, only later have a brush with madness. But it’s once again her grandmother Queen Without A Name’s wisdom that will pull her through.
In her view a human back was the strongest, toughest, most flexible thing in the world, an unchanging reality stretching far beyond the eye’s reach. On it descended all the ravages, all the furies, all the eddies of human misery. For a long time the human back had been so, and it would be so for a long time still. The main thing, after all the changes and chances, the traps and surprises – the main thing was just to get your breath back and go on…
The novel also touches upon the harsh reality of slavery, what it means to be a Negro, how Negroes are perceived outside of their surroundings.
Elie railed and swore by all the gods the cane (sugarcane) would never get him, he was never going to buy a knife to go to work on the land of the white men. He’d rather use it to cut his own hands off, he’d hack the air and cleave the wind but he wouldn’t accept that fate.
The Bridge of Beyond is a gorgeous novel overflowing with lush descriptions and storytelling that is slow, sensual, hypnotic and rhythmic and beautifully translated from the French by Barbara Bray. Every page pulses with the energy and vitality of these three generations of women. They are strong, unbroken and fiery. There is tragedy and suffering, but there is also hope and happiness. There is beauty to be found in the landscape; warmth and solace to be found in family and its traditions.
Sway like a filao, shine like a flame tree, creak and groan like a bamboo, but find your woman’s walk and change to a valiant step, my beauty. And when you creak like the bamboo, when you sigh with weariness and disgust, when you groan and despair for yourself alone, never forget that somewhere, somewhere on the earth, there’s a woman glad to be alive.
The descriptions are stunning – whether its the land or its people.
For instance, here’s Telumee describing her mother Victory:
When she sat in the sun the black lacquer of her skin had glints the color of rosewood, like those you see in old rocking chairs. When she moved, the blood rose near the surface and mingled in the blackness, and glints the color of wine appeared in her cheeks. When she was in the shade she at once colored the air surrounding her, as if her presence created a smoky halo.
As Jamaica Kincaid expresses very well in her introduction – Schwarz-Bart’s prose awakens the senses and enlarges the imagination; her sentences, rooted in creole experience and filled with surprising insights and proverbs, resonate in my head and heart.
As if from out of the blue, from the Great Beyond, from the margins, a woman from Guadeloupe has given us an unforgettable hymn to the resilience and power of women.