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I’ve been in two minds about The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana, written by preeminent Guadeloupean author Maryse Condé in the aftermath of 2015’s Charlie Hebdo attacks and translated into English by her husband Richard Philcox. Why? Because while my first foray into Condé’s work had me revelling in her smart prose, I ultimately felt ambivalent to the plot.
Originally published in French in 2017, The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana is a picaresque novel about our titular twins’ trans-continental (mis)adventures, from their birth and childhood in Guadeloupe, to their time in Mali with their formerly absent father, and through into present(ish)-day Paris, as the former is radicalized and the latter bears the brunt of the fallout. Ivan and Ivana is ultimately a wry take on the self-perpetuating cycle of colonialism, radicalization, migration, and exploitation, none of which can be extricated from the other, a consideration mirrored by the novel’s circular structure. Doesn’t the novel begin and end in the womb, after all?
Let’s start with Ivan and Ivana – they’re both given top billing in the title, after all, and it’s their semi-incestuous relationship which drives many of the main plot points and motivations. The former literature student in me feels compelled to read the twins as representative of France and Guadeloupe themselves (the latter being a territory of the former, a fact Condé repeats throughout the novel). One (Ivan) takes precedence over the other (Ivana), the former is radicalized and the latter saintly; yet, their seemingly natural, normal relationship is always, at some level, twisted.
It’s interesting then, given this reading, that one key conceit in the novel is the near-constant absence of Ivana (something which, if I’m honest, irritated me at first). However, Condé repeatedly provides ‘nod to the camera’-esque updates about her: “And what about Ivana, you are asking? What has become of her?”, she writes on one occasion, one which we’ve been primed for from the opening pages when “Ivana took refuge behind her brother as if he were destined to be forever and wherever in command.” This is Ivan’s tale, but without Ivana there is no Ivan.
Another element which left me dissatisfied (at first) was the storytelling style which led to characters arriving rather conveniently out of the blue, having their backstories explained, and then disappearing again, often without a trace. How pedestrian and not at all smart, I thought, before eventually coming to appreciate Condé’s clever riff on the oral traditions of Mali and Guadeloupe.
Ultimately, this was a book that left me feeling both charmed and foolish in equal measure, mostly because I was only able to appreciate the mastery of Condé on reflection rather than in real time. Although her character conceits sometimes seemed confounding and the plot (while deeply complex and masterful in the way it unspools) didn’t have me head over heels, if Ivan and Ivana left one thing clear, it’s that Condé is an excellent writer. Her deft and playful prose – at turns witty and warm, tender and self-aware – captured my attention and I’m keen to read my way through her back catalogue.
Buy Le fabuleux et triste destin d’Ivan et d’Ivana: Hachette (France)
Note: I requested and was provided with a review copy of The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana from World Editions.
About Maryse Condé
Maryse Condé (Pointe-à-Pitre) is a former professor emerita in French at Columbia University and the foremost Guadeloupean writer with more than two dozen novels to her name. Born in Guadeloupe, she’s lived in Ghana, Mali, and Guinea, although she’s currently based in the south of France.