‘Full Frontal’ by Maryse Condé, translated by Richard Philcox

Assuming it’s a mission in your life, how do you find your way to new writers? One thing I do is follow the Nobel Prize scene. Not necessarily those who win (another white European, yawn) but those whose names are frequently mentioned yet never land that big Swedish gong. One of whom is Maryse Condé from Guadeloupe. As a black woman from a small Francophone island, Condé hasn’t made much headway in our dreary Anglo-Saxon world with its weather eye always on America. Which is a shame because she’s the most terrific writer. Every story in this collection, Tales from the Heart:True Stories from My Childhood, is superb. (And when we read, in the account of her own birth, that “The colours and lights of the word around me were no consolation for the nine months in the dark where I had swum blind and happy with catfish fins,” we might feel inclined to treat one or two of these ‘true’ stories with a sprinkling of salt.)

Sometimes gently, sometimes violently, the veils of childhood innocence are removed. One of the most striking stories in the collection is ‘Full Frontal’. Born the youngest child of a large family, with a vigorous mother – “the success story of her generation”, Condé calls her – and a wealthy but ageing father, the young Maryse is the spoiled baby of the family. Having decided one day to pay a spontaneous visit to a cousin, Madame Condé packs Maryse into their Citroen (that’s how successful they are) and off they set across the island. When they arrive the house is a pigsty and a woman’s screaming. Right there and then the cousin’s wife, Charlotte, is giving birth – and no midwife to be found as it’s a Sunday. Shooing Maryse away, Madame Condé delivers the baby with the help of a servant dressed in a butcher’s apron, all the while speaking in forbidden Creole. Maryse, meanwhile, banished to the room next door, hasn’t (for once) sought companionship in a book. Through a hole in the wall she and host of other children compete to watch the birth from start to finish.

As bloated as a blimp, Charlotte was lying spread-eagled on the bed. Her centre, gaping open like a drainpipe, was spurting blood… I who lived with blinkers on my eyes with a mother who never told me anything, not a word about periods or menstruation… was intent on seeing everything. I saw the head of the baby appear. I saw its entire body sticky with mucus and faecal matter.

Afterwards she faints, then dashes off to tell her brother Sandrino: “For once his little sister had got the better of him. I had been enriched by an experience he would have trouble bettering.” From page 1 of this collection you know you’re in the hands of a master. Simple sentences with bite, vivid images, compressed events. Alas, Maryse Condé is now 84 years old and not in the best of health, but I hope to read, in the newspapers, that story about her collecting the big Swedish gong.

First published in French in Le coeur à rire et à pleurer: souvenirs de mon enfance, Editions Robert Laffont, 1998. Published in English in Tales from the Heart: True Stories from my Childhood, Soho Press, 2001

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