The turbulent narrative unfolds in a deceptively relaxed manner; incidents happen with the abrupt motivelessness of fairytale, but the novel is all the more powerful for those effects. Now 83, Condé was born in Guadeloupe, and, though now resident in France, spent many years living in western Africa. In 2018, when the Nobel prize was suspended, Condé was awarded its replacement, the New Academy prize in literature.
The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana is a rollicking, rumbustious and slyly mischievous Candide for our times. Set in Guadeloupe, Mali and France, and written in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, Maryse Condé’s novel poses with mock solemnity as an investigative quest into how an accused jihadi named Ivan became “radicalised”. Yet the scattergun satire of this scurrilous picaresque takes no prisoners... Condé’s provocative fun cloaks a challenge: is there not more than a little bad faith in the way the west earnestly seeks the roots of jihadi radicalism while turning a blind eye to the flagrant ills that add rocket fuel to its meretricious allure? The novel’s parting shot, “you can take it or leave it”, leaves the ball squarely in our court.
The novel gives voice to the countless lives buried by the fleeting news cycle, reminding us that behind the bombings, shootings and boat capsizings are real people in desperate straits. It’s a pity, then, that the tale is told in such lumpen prose. Some sentences have all the zip of cold porridge slouching from a spoon. Amorous Ivan is ‘built like a young bull capable of satisfying the entire human race’. Elsewhere we’re informed that ‘unfortunately, colonisation destroys everything in its path’. Perhaps something has been lost in translation.