The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana: A murky past

Maryse Condé’s novel takes in slavery, colonialism, fundamentalism and migration

Maryse Condé. Photograph: Brice Toul/Gamma-Rapho via Getty

Maryse Condé. Photograph: Brice Toul/Gamma-Rapho via Getty

For a novel about a pair of twins, the singular “life” of the title of Alternative Nobel winner Maryse Condé’s latest novel is by no means an accident. The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana plunges the reader into the viscera of the twins’ birth as the novel opens in utero, through the birth canal and out into the world, where the “décor of their lives” takes shape in the author’s native Guadeloupe.

Ivan and Ivana are born to Simone, a sugar cane worker and member of a choir dealing in melodies that “dated back to the time of slaves when the slaves were in irons”, and their childhood is one of mournful poverty and desolation, which pervades their environment. This is conveyed in passages of portentous lyricism, including this one about Simone and her mother returning from choir practice at night: “Stumbling over the rough stones as they felt their way home the women got the impression of pushing open the doors of hell and following their own hearse.”

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