“Ivana found herself like a driver in a car traveling at full speed along a rough road, knowing full well the outcome will be fatal. She too, like Ivan, was well aware that the feelings they both shared were not natural. But she had always done everything in her power to control them.”
Maryse Condé’s The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana tells the story of a pair of twins who are born in the French-speaking Guadeloupe archipelago. Their poor, young, unmarried mother works at exploitative jobs and clings to the fantasy that her babies’ musician father will return one day. Ivana is the top student in her class, popular, and respected by her teachers: happy, wide-eyed, and unrealistic. Ivan struggles in school and spars with authority figures: an intelligent underachiever who rarely shows much interest in book learning.
As reflected in the passage that opened this review, both twins have always been aware of an intense passion for each other: incest. Even as babies, they sensed an acute physical connection that breached the societal conventions of sibling affection. They themselves spend much of the novel denying these feelings while simultaneously seeking consummation opportunities. Ivan admits: “She is both the light of my life and my damnation.”
Although the incest theme teases the readers with its comic salaciousness, Ivan’s radicalisation is the novel’s central theme. Although he was exposed in school to political rhetoric, his radicalisation was initially nurtured by bosses: “He understood that the world was far different from what he had imagined; . . . not round but full of fissures and faults in which a defenceless individual without a foothold, such as himself, could lose his life.” Ivan experiences more of the world’s “monstrousness” after he is accused of rape. Although the woman recants the next day, Ivan is confused and disappointed: “Is this how the world works? Friends who abandon you without warning? Girls who slander you? . . . If so, give me a load of explosives for me to destroy it.” He will meet a man who plans to “strike the heart of capitalism” in Europe as well as a Muslim imam who provides comforting radical rhetoric.
The twins are brought to Mali by their father where they meet his extended family before eventually landing in France. Ivana goes to college and is recruited for the French police academy. Ivan accumulates a multitude of employment and life experiences before being inexorably drawn to radical politics.
This novel is an episodic ballad about star-crossed lovers. Condé’s narrator tells her loosely plotted story in a folksy, informal manner. Sometimes she apologises for neglecting Ivana. “”And what about Ivana, you are asking? Forgive me, dear reader. It’s because she is not involved in this business as much as her brother.” Another time the narrator admits that she is not omniscient: “You are probably wondering why Ivan wasn’t arrested as well. We have no idea.” Her narratorial intrusions are often ironic political jabs that focus on its underlying feminist perspective: “What! You can no longer beat up your wife nowadays? From time immemorial our ancestors were used to practicing this little game. Is the world about to change?” She offers maternal consolation when Ivan is cheated and left for dead: “What do you do when you find yourself without ID, without money, and without friends, miles from home? You cry. That’s all you can do.” When Ivan learns of the violent deaths of two friends, the narrator chimes in with her appraisal of this moment of crystallization: “I would say that it was at this precise moment that Ivan became radicalized. All the horror of the world was revealed to him.”
The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana is much less a realistic depiction of Ivan’s involvement in terrorism than a broader denunciation of the structural problems faced by the poor in colonial societies. The seeds of its denouement are planted in the tragic part of its title as well as the arc of Ivan’s revolutionary activities. Early in the novel after Ivana and her mother are evicted, the narrator offers a rudimentary lesson in political theory:
“For it’s well-known that there are two types of Guadeloupeans: those who are without a job on the island, and those who just get by in metropolitan France. There are a lucky few who are an exception to the rule and take refuge abroad, but such privileged individuals are few and far between.”
Any Cop?: Maryse Condé, 83, has written many plays and novels, including Windward Heights, an homage to Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and Tree of Life, a multigenerational novel about middle-class life in the Caribbean. I first became aware of her when she received the Alternative Nobel Prize in 2018. The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana is an enjoyable introduction to her writing. I plan to read more.