Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Heremakhonon: A Novel

Have you ever been assigned to read a book for class and enjoyed it so much you almost feel like you're cheating your professor? That is precisely how I feel about Maryse Condé's novel, Heremakhonon. Admittedly, my initial reaction to this particular text was that of frustration. The novel, originally written in French, was translated into English by Richard Philcox. Certainly, as with any translated text, much is lost through the process of translation. Also, Condé is well versed in history, English and philosophy, continually referencing Aphra Behn and Frantz Fanon.

What I really enjoy about this novel is its protagonist, Veronica Mercier, a woman from the Caribbean who returns to West Africa on a quest to discover and establish her identity. An unreliable narrator, Veronica is constantly misreading situations, misinterpreting interactions of other characters, and is misguided by her own poor judgment. But what is admirable about her is that she speaks through a sort of interior monologue, a stream of consciousness, if you will. What's stunning is that the reader cannot tell if she is talking or thinking, meshing the complexity of her unabridged, innermost thoughts with revealing what she deems appropriate to say out loud. There are no quotations used to indicate a response, leaving the reader with the problem of having to figure out which speech is dialogue and which speech is interior monologue.

I'm finding myself constantly enlightened by the social and political aspects Condé touches on in the text. More importantly, Veronica moves through the novel thinking the man she is sleeping with will give her the sense of identity she has been seeking. She falsely imagines that she is a free woman, to express herself sexually with the men she chooses--the problem however, is that all the men she mentions having slept with or is currently sleeping with--have instead, chosen her.

In class today, my professor mentioned the tradition of arranged marriages. Although it's not the most common form of partnering these days, many of us consider ourselves "free" in choosing our significant others, our sexual partners, and ultimately, the person we will marry. My professor mentioned Veronica's sexual relationship with Ibrahima as a kind of "trading up," because ideally, he is the West African's equivalent of a prominent white man.

She then brought to light the idea that we (most of us, anyway) sleep with people whom we think would maintain a sort of class consolidation, appropriately perpetuating the class we belong to, or with an aim to attain a higher status level, in conjunction with society's norms. On some level, I admit that yes, of course I choose who I date, who I sleep with, etc, but how much of what goes in to that decision making does that notion of class consolidation apply to? So, naturally, I begin to wonder about this concept and take into consideration men I've dated--and realize in the puzzled faces of students around me, that I am not the only one thinking about this. But that's another blog entry in itself...

I envy Veronica in the sense that she is so misguided yet is so clear in few, but certain significant observations. For example, on page 47, her interior monologue reads:

"In my opinion, it's not the first time you make love, but the second, that is the most delicate. You are no longer strangers, eager to get to know each other. Not yet intimate enough to stop at nothing."

It almost seems impossible that, for a character who stands in the way of her own answers, she is able to strip away the bullshit and get right to what matters, appealing to readers on levels previously unmatched. I really like the idea of the delicacy of the second time, it's true yet who, before reading this, already knew that? I mean, of course the first time with any new person is going to be tricky and awkward and sometimes pleasurable, but really, who stops to think about the second time? With it, there's still a fraction of the unknown that is attached, but it's nothing like the first time, going in without any prior knowledge. You're both hopefully at ease this time, not focusing on the pressures that come with the first time you have sex. There's no hesitation, no holding back, and simply no reservations. You "get to know" the other person through physical exploration, as if by kissing someone passionately unlocks their secrets, and by firmly framing their face in your hands as you do so, uncovers truths about the center of their very being. At the same time, the second sexual encounter is nothing like the tenth time you sleep with someone, when you already know full well what they enjoy, their preferences and quirks have been memorized time and time again. You are "not yet intimate to stop at nothing," she claims, and damn, isn't she right?

I could go on, but hell week has only just begun and I've spent nearly an hour blogging about this instead of being more productive. The bottom line is that this novel is certainly worth reading although I highly recommend doing some research and finding some secondary materials to better assist you in your understanding of the plot. There are a lot of literary and philosophical references, most of which were lost on me until I did some further research. I think Veronica, in not knowing herself, has the innate ability to reveal to ourselves a portion of our own identity, through her own exploratory experiences.

1 comment:

  1. Great entry! I have to read this book later in the semester for a grad English class, and you have just made me eager to do so. I already love Maryse Conde's writing, and I admire writer's versatility so this novel now promises to satisfy both these predilections.
    I, for one, appreciate the hour you've taken to blog instead :-)