Simone Schwartz-Bart, Between Two Worlds [translated from the French by Barbara Bray]
Crossing genre boundaries with ease, Between
Two Worlds, originally published as Ti Jean
L'Horizon in 1979, seductively blends elements of realism and
magic, love and adventure, rural tranquility and global chaos. Here are
the elements of a folk tale—the familiar characters Ti-Jean and Anancy,
his sidekick, the rural island landscape clearly recognizable as Guadeloupe,
the humility and wisdom of country folk—as embodied in Ti-Jean's
stoic mother Ma Eloise, and the small animals, in this case a crow called
the "winged spirit," who befriends young Ti-Jean and his friends.
Here are all the beguiling charms of a fairy tale filled with poignant love stories and beautiful maidens: there's Awa, Ti-Jean's mother before time and hardship transform her into Ma Eloise; the "beautiful and shining" Egea, Ti-Jean's first love, who is swallowed by the evil monster; and Onjali, Ti-Jean's African wife, who conceives life but never gives birth.
Here too, as the story progresses, are all the monumental trials of an epic. Ti-Jean is armed for battle with a mystical name— Abunasanga, "He Who Moves in the Depths," three talismanic objects: a musket, a bracelet of knowledge, and a belt of strength all bequeathed to him by his grandfather Wademba, "The Immortal One." His "somber prophecy" grimly foreshadows our young hero's fate: "Your path among men, remember, is among those Down Below, and its name is sadness, darkness, misfortune and blood." Ti-Jean's monstrous foe is the allegorical Beast, a gigantic and invincible white cow, that consumes all in its path, including Egea, and, eventually, the sun.
The plot becomes episodic once Ti-Jean himself enters the body of the Beast and emerges, miraculously, in Africa, where he "lives"—at this point he is more dead than alive—for thirty years. In fact, the very title of the filth segment of the book reminds us of a picaresque novel, albeit a fantastic one: "Which contains the life and adventures of Ti-Jean in Africa up to his descent into the Kingdom of Shades: a true and complete account, with many hitherto unknown details about the loves of our hero, his hates, his births and his bereavements, his celebrations and his wars, not forgetting his dreams of another world." With Ti-Jean's eventual return to Guadeloupe and the conquest of the Beast, the narrative regains its power and intensity.
The impulse to compare Between Two Worlds to The Bridge Of Beyond , Simone Schwarz-Bart's 1972 novel also set in Guadeloupe, is irresistible, for though there are striking differences—The Bridge Of Beyond is more firmly anchored in island reality with a female character, Telumee, who remains in Guadeloupe, narrating a tribute to her grandmother, Tousine, the "Queen Without a Name"—there are pervasive similarities. For one thing there is the same mix of fictional and actual locales from Fond-Zombie, a valley inhabited by spirits, the Bridge of Beyond, and the Blue Pond (or pool) to La Ramee and Pointe-a-Pitre. Also apparent is the representation of island culture through oral traditions: creole proverbs, stories and songs are woven into the rich prose text which itself has been described by an earlier reviewer as "beautifully composed and almost too beautifully told." As in the earlier novel, here too we find elements of the African heritage in peasant life Wademba marks his last words with a libation ritual of millet beer; an uneven time line-while the courtship of Awa and Jean L'Horizon is described in fine detail, their more prosaic marriage in summed up by saying, "Ten years went by like this;" and one dimensional characters such as Egea. In this more fabulous novel, though, this lack of psychological depth and the arbitrary narrative focus seem more fitting.
Critics have been intrigued by Simone Schwarz-Bart's works, including her 1987 play "Ton beau capitaine," exploring the place of storytelling in her fiction. In an interview recorded in Presence Francophone 36 (1990), the author reveals her perception of herself as a member of a family of female storytellers of the Antilles—the influence of Cesaire and the negritude poets on the mixture of oral and written elements such as we see here, her treatment of women, of the Ti-Jean figure, of space, and of genre boundaries. Typical of the critical acclaim for Between Two Worlds is Marie-Denise Shelton's remark, in Caribbean Women Writers (1990), that in this novel, "Schwarz-Bart executes one of the most accomplished Caribbean literary compositions."
Roberta Q. Knowles
Copyright © Simone Schwartz-Bart