We’ve reached August in a year that seems to be both dragging on and racing by, and that means that it’s again time for some quality work from female authors not writing in English, as we plunge once more into Women in Translation Month! Meytal Radzinski’s small blogging event has morphed into a major literary phenomenon, and I’m always happy to play my little part in raising the profile of more great writers (and not just in August, too). Hopefully, this year’s choices will prompt a few of you out there to pick up a book or two and discover a whole new world of literature – no flying carpet required 😉
We kick off this year’s #WITMonth proceedings today, then, with the first of two trips this week to islands in the Indian Ocean. While that may evoke images of lazy days on sandy beaches, we’re not there to play tourist, instead spending our time with the locals. You see, it’s not all fun in the sun in the tropics, especially when you’ve been marked out as different right from the day you were born…
Nathacha Appanah’s Tropic of Violence (translated by Geoffrey Strachan, review copy courtesy of Maclehose Press) takes us to Mayotte, an overseas region of France consisting of a few small islands in the Indian Ocean. It’s here that Marie, a young French nurse, finds herself after falling in love with a charming young Mahoran back in France, starting out on a new life on the island of Grand-Terre. Unfortunately, when she’s unable to get pregnant, her husband looks elsewhere, and she’s left alone in a foreign land, a stranger on an island that’s not as paradisiacal as it seems.
Having almost given up on the idea of children, Marie receives a chance at motherhood when a refugee appears at her hospital with a child, leaving it in the nurse’s care before disappearing into the night. Baby Moïse, as Marie dubs the child, has one green eye, which is why the superstitious mother abandoned him, but Marie is only too happy to take him into her care, pulling in a favour from the man who left her to make it legal. Moïse is to have a happy childhood, but when he reaches his teens and starts to wonder about his origins, we’ll see just how lucky, or unlucky, the foundling really is.
Appanah, who grew up in Mauritius before moving to France as an adult, is a well-regarded writer with several books available in English, and Tropic of Violence is an excellent introduction to her work. The juxtaposition of the title befits a work which has a beautiful setting, but also tells of a rather troubled paradise. Much of the focus in the novel is on the boy with one green eye (which in local tradition hints at the influence of a djinn), a stranger to the island in both blood and upbringing. However, there’s just as much here about the island itself and the troubles caused by its unique situation and location.
While the first section tells of Marie’s life and how she got her son, the bulk of the story covers a relatively short period after her sudden death. Moïse goes into shock and abandons their home, and like many boys from relatively comfortable backgrounds, he becomes intrigued by what’s happening in the streets, deciding to follow a friend to the part of town called Gaza:
I don’t know who it was who gave that nickname to Kaweni, the run-down neighbourhood on the outskirts of Mamoudzou, but it hit the nail on the head. Gaza is a shanty town, a ghetto, a dump, a bottomless pit, a favela, a vast encampment of illegal immigrants, open to the skies. It’s a vast steaming rubbish tip that can be seen from a long way off. Gaza is a violent no-man’s land where gangs of kids high on drugs make the law. Gaza is Cape Town, it’s Calcutta, it’s Rio. Gaza is Mayotte, Gaza is France.
p.45 (MacLehose Press, 2018)
It’s here that he meets the king of the street kids, Bruce, a mean street-fighter who even the adults are scared of, and while Moïse is initially tolerated for his money and quiet intelligence, when he crosses the line one day, he’s put in his place in a sickening fashion.
In this part of the story, the focus is just as much on the place as on the people. Mayotte is a part of France, but not really France at all, leading to a schizophrenic split in the department’s consciousness. On her arrival, Marie feels a genuine love for her new home:
I have such a longing for this country, a longing to take it all in, gulping down the sea in long draughts, consuming the sky mouthful after mouthful. (pp.11/12)
Even she eventually realises that the beauty is merely skin deep. In reality, Mayotte is a land of poverty, inequality and violence:
This is Mayotte here and you say it’s France. Fuck off! Is France like this? In France do you see children hanging around the streets from dawn to dusk, do you? In France are there scores of kwassa-kwassas arriving with people landing on the beaches, some of them already half dead? In France are there people who live all their lives in the woods? In France do people cover their windows with iron grilles like here? In France do people shit and sling their rubbish into gullies like they do here? (pp.84/5)
Poor Moïse realises too late that the Mayotte he grew up in is only one part of the island. As he struggles to come to terms with the consequences of leaving his comfortable home, we see how the shadowy side of Mahoran life that fascinated him turns into a chilling nightmare.
Throughout Tropic of Violence, there are mentions of the geopolitcial issues at play. Mayotte is part of the Comoros archipelago and ‘owned’ by France (although claimed by the Comoros Islands); in effect, it’s another European border, over which poor refugees are determined to cross, and a hangover from the colonial era. Moïse is the child of one of these stateless people, but fortunate enough to have been ‘saved’ by Marie. The other boys, those down in Gaza, aren’t as lucky, living in squalor as undocumented residents with few rights. Unsurprisingly, the result is a cycle of poverty, anger and violence.
Another major feature of Appanah’s novel is the variety of voices narrating the tale. We have the dazed and confused Moïse (whose tragic fate is the main focus), along with the ghost of his dead mother, as well as two French men, the policeman Olivier and the volunteer worker Stéphane. These are representatives of the mother country, lost in an unfamiliar territory which is technically part of France, struggling to cope with the violence they see around them. Of course, we mustn’t forget Bruce, the last of these voices, an angry young man used to getting what he wants. It’s his conflict with Moïse, and the aftermath, that will tear the whole island apart.
Tropic of Violence is a wonderful description of a divided society just waiting to explode. The inevitable violence is unleashed by one catastrophic event, and we get to see the build up, the causes and the devastating consequences. It makes for a fascinating story of the consequences of being born on the right side of the law and a reminder that even on a beautiful tropical island, there’s more to life than clear waters and cocktails by the beach. Yes, there’s plenty of sunshine in the tropics, but there are also many, many storms…