The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana by Maryse Condé

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The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana by Maryse Condé

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Alex Merrick
Reviewed by Alex Merrick
Summary: The desires of minorities in a post-colonial society are brought to the forefront of this passionate and thrilling novel. Maryse Condé, who won the Alternative Nobel Prize for this novel, writes with love and care and a real desire to see drastic change in our world.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: May 2020
Publisher: World Editions
ISBN: 978-1642860696

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We live in a post- world: post-colonialism, post-modernism, post truth. The list goes on. There are numerous works that utilise the prefix post- in their categorisation, but perhaps none more so than Maryse Condé. In her new novel, The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana, Condé writes with fervour about the scars left by colonialism on the countries to which it latched itself. Ivan and Ivana are twins born in Guadeloupe, a French overseas department. They grow up with intense and passionate feelings for each other. As they grow up and move overseas, the ravages of a post-colonial society drive them apart with tragic consequences.

Maryse Condé is a Guadeloupean novelist and playwright. Being born and raised in Guadeloupe gives her a unique insight into colonialism. Guadeloupe has been colonised by Europeans since the 1600s, mainly by the French. It has seen uprisings, the French Revolution and slavery and therefore shares a long and chequered relationship with its colonisers. As it continues to be a French territory, it is difficult to see how affected it is by post-colonialism. However, post-colonialism is more a concept than an actual state of being. It represents the aftermath of the European colonialist period and studies the effects of the colonialist period, of the colonisers and the colonised. Guadeloupeans are afforded all the rights and liberties of Metropolitan French citizens. There in lies the danger. Condé utilises these liberties to illustrate the fundamental differences between certain citizens in both Guadeloupe and, more importantly, throughout modern society. In The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana, She describes the consequences of colonialism and the post-colonial chaos in a language which is both precise and overwhelming.

Ivan and Ivana's story takes them from Guadeloupe to Mali, a former French colony, and finally to France itself. This path examines how colonialism has left its marks and how it can set two similar people on two very different paths.

Radicalisation, for some, is seen as the only escape from a future mired in post-colonial tensions. Both Guadeloupe and Mali are striving to reclaim their heritage. This is emphasised by the violent uprising in Mali, both in the novel and reality. Ivan becomes involved with radical jihadists in Mali who aim to reclaim their land as a Caliphate and, as a child he becomes the apprentice of a French radical Leftist. Condé shines a light on the everyday racism that can build to radicalisation. Racism stops those living in ex-colonies from truly finding their own place in the world. Ivan, after hitchhiking, is picked up by a young affluent white man. Ivan has just left a party where he was dressed in smart clothing, however, all the driver saw was his color. All he had memorized was the black man, the nigger, as they used to say, and in his eyes Ivan could only ever be a subaltern. Condé informs the reader that it is the small acts as well as the larger ones that lead to radicalisation. These enforce the differences between Ivan and the "white" French population.

It is this difference, the visualness of white and black that has coloured modern racial tensions. The French colonies created a term called Negritude which a reaction to French assimilation. It was a literary movement between the '30s and '50s that began among French-speaking African and Caribbean writers living in Paris. They argued for a pan-African sense of being among people of African descent worldwide. This movement began whilst France still had its colonies. It therefore made sense that these people would want a movement to unite all those struggling under the occupation of France. However, Condé writes about a post-colonialist world and in this world people of African and Caribbean descent can forge their own identities and have their own heritage. Using the characters of Ivan and Ivana, two people who, like Janus, are two faces of the same being, Condé explains that negritude does not matter anymore. The notion of race no longer implies the question of solidarity. How can race mean solidarity when race is such a nebulous concept and one that is so easy to fracture.

The idea of race has always been present, however, it has shifted depending on political whims. In Ancient Rome, the Celts and the Goths were considered a different race to the Romans. In the years preceding the American Civil War, The South tried to argue they were a different race to the North. Throughout history, humans have used race to delineate the other. It has been used to divide and it has done so effectively. Negritude, it would therefore stand to reason could never exist. In a post-colonial world, the overarching mother of the colonial power is a tenuous link between disparate people. It once held power over them but not anymore. Scars are now all that are left. The people of Guadeloupe and Mali are too different. They speak different languages, worship different religions and have different principles and beliefs. The idea that they have similar goals or desires no longer holds up anymore. Condé wants society to move to a post-racial world. The words, this reviewer believes, that are the most prescient are given to Ariel, a Jewish French man, ironic given how often the "Jewish race" has been reviled and prejudiced against. The words color and race should be banned… They have caused too much harm to mankind. Whole sections of the world have been plunged into obscurantism and servitude because of this vocabulary… I have never thought Ivana's color different from mine. For me, only her soul counted.

It is with this speech we approach the crux of Condé's meaning. Within this beautiful and tragic book, she wants to illustrate the dangers of colonialism and the horrors of arranging people into different races. Ivan and Ivana were the same race, they were almost the same person and yet they became two completely different people. Two people who were nothing alike except the pigmentation of their skin and some superficial facial features. We are living in a post- world. however, the one we really need to be, the one Condé strives for, and one in which she will finally be happy, is a post-racial world.

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