"Mamzelle Dragonfly" by Raphael Confiant. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 169 pages. $22.
With this literate and honest novel, Raphael Confiant gives us the perfect antidote to all those Caribbean fantasies of easy love, rum punch and smiling black faces saying, "No problem, mon."
"Mamzelle Dragonfly" is a bittersweet story of Martinique's black poor in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the time of colonialism's passing and the early struggles for autonomy. It is not a political novel, nor does it romanticize the poor. Thankfully, Confiant is more concerned with telling a story of life's joys and sorrows.
Originally published in Creole in 1987, the novel was translated into French by Confiant and has just now been translated into English. At times I wished I read Creole, or at least French, so I could savor the story in the original with all its unique idioms and turns of phrase. The glossary in back helps and Confiant does not go overboard retaining the Creole vernacular in the translation.
His central character, Adelise, is a capresse from the countryside. She is one-quarter white. Color consciousness is as much a part of life in Martinique as it is in the United States. No surprise.
Yet light skin offers no refuge for Adelise. Hers is a hard life, coming at a time when for punishment school children are forced to write 200 times, "I must not speak Creole in class."
When she is old enough, Adelise joins her mother in the sugar cane fields, a place of dual terror and hardship. Anyone who has ever seen sugar cane workers in the field knows that that back-breaking labor is one of the hardest under the sun. For the young girls of "Mamzelle Dragonfly" there is the added brutality of rape at the hands of the commandeur, the plantation field boss who acts with casual impunity.
Adelise, already hardened by life at age 17, leaves the harsh countryside for Fort-de-France. She goes with a hint of hope, but is merely exchanging one dead-end world for another. Yet Morne Pichevin, a neighborhood of tin-roofed shanties, is not wholly bleak. It is full of life's exuberance. There are seedy characters and great souls, opportunists and women like Philomene, Adelise's streetwise aunt.
A prostitute in the full bloom of her womanhood, Philomene is acutely aware that time is not on her side. "Firm breasts only last so long," she warns Adelise, whom she has introduced to the whore's life. In this world sex is a passionless rut done for a few francs. Love is a longed-for dream.
Philomene yearns for love, for tender arms to take her away before her charms fade. Adelise has no use for such dreams, thinking, "She didn't realize that in my eyes men were as worthless as the stones lying in the gutters or the rainwater sluicing down the roofs ..."
There is revolution and pain and, as it should be, enough good times to make the people of Morne Pichevin forget their bad times until the next disappointment comes along. For Adelise, aka "Mamzelle Dragonfly," the trick is to keep from going under.
M. Dion Thompson covers City Hall for The Sun. Before, he was a features reporter and an assistant bureau chief in the Anne Arundel bureau. He has been writing for newspapers for 12 years. Besides The Sun, he worked at the Miami Herald and before that, the Hartford (Conn.) Courant.