“A man’s country may be cramped or vast according to the size of his heart. I’ve never found my country too small, though that isn’t to say my heart is great. And if I could choose it’s here in Guadeloupe that I’d be born again, suffer and die. Yet not long back my ancestors were slaves on this volcanic, hurricane swept, mosquito-ridden, nasty-minded island. But I didn’t come into the world to weigh the world’s woe. I prefer to dream, on and on, standing on my garden, till death comes and takes me as I dream, me and all my joy.”
This is how Telumee “Miracle” Lougandor begins her story in the new edition of The Bridge of Beyond by Caribbean novelist Simone Schwarz-Bart. This introductory paragraph sums up her life: Despite the fact that fate has brought her life so much suffering from the time she was born, she finds happiness in it. In fact, Telumee is the last of a line of strong women who showed great strength during times of great adversity.
After being freed by an owner known for his cruelty, Telumee’s great grandmother, Minerva, works the land and raises her daughter with the help of another in a hamlet called L’Abandonee. Minerva’s daughter, Toussine, is not as lucky as her mother: Her house burns down, two of her children die, and her husband is murdered. Meanwhile, her third child, Victory, who is also Telumee’s mother, spends her time getting drunk and wandering the streets, unable to care for her two daughters. Despite the tragedies and the fact that she is isolated in a cabin in another village, she becomes venerated as “Queen Without a Name.”
After Victory finds “her god. . . . a great connoisseur of feminine flesh,” she sends Telumee to live with her grandmother. Toussine brings Telumee across “the bridge of beyond”—“a floating bridge over a strange river where huge locust trees grew along the banks, plunging everything into a blue semidarkness”—to her cabin. Despite the circumstances that brought the two together, they immediately bond with each other.
During their first years together, Toussine instills wisdom into her granddaughter through proverbs such as “life is not all meat soup” and “They’re only big whales left high and dry by the sea, and if the little fish listen to them, why, they’ll lose their fins.” She also tells stories such as “The Man Who Tried to Live on Air” to remind Telumee and her friend, Elie, about good and evil in the world. However, their relationship is not just filled with pithy expressions and mythical tales. As Telumee points out, “she was only waiting for me to pour forth the last floods of her tenderness, to revive the gleam in her worn-out eyes. There we were in the woods, supporting each other, tackling life as best we could and as we pleased.”
Toussine also introduces her to some colorful characters including the sorceress Ma Cia, who has been known to change into animals such as horses or birds. Of course, the folklore surrounding Ma Cia makes an impression on the young girl, and no one—not even the wise Toussine—tries to dispel any of the myths. During their visit to Ma Cia, though, Telumee learns about the island’s dark past. “For the first time, I realized that slavery was not some foreign country, some distant region from which a few very old people came . . . It had all happened here, in our hills and valleys, perhaps near this clump of bamboo, perhaps in the air I was breathing.”
In addition, it is around this time that Telumee learns that even though she is not a slave, she is not one of the fortunate ones, either. During a brief visit, Victory brags about her other child, Regina, who wears fancy dresses and can read and write. As if that isn’t bad enough, Telumee later becomes an employee of the Desaragnes, who are descendants of slave owners, in order to help her ailing grandmother. As their employee, Telumee not only has to put up with the insults of Madame Desaragnes, the lasciviousness Monsieur Desaragnes, and poor living conditions, but she is also not able to see her family and friends for long periods of time.
This is not to say that Telumee’s existence is completely miserable. There are moments of happiness, albeit brief. For example, she and Elie have the opportunity to go to school. She also escapes from the Desaragnes and later marries Elie, who becomes a logger and is a big dreamer like her. Later, she finds joy with Ely’s logging partner Amboise and the child Sonore.
Unfortunately, though, things do not turn out the way Telumee hoped. Those whom she thought she could depend on end up betraying her, and those who do not betray her die, leaving her alone. At one point, she even tries to unsuccessfully conjure a spell with Ma Cia’s help. Still, she remembers the lessons she learned from her upbringing with Toussine.
I see that heaven’s gift to us is that we should have our head thrust into, held down in, the murky water of scorn, cruelty, pettiness, and treachery. But I also see that we are not drowned in it. We have struggled to be born and we have struggled to be born again, and we have called the finest tree in our forests “resolute”—the strongest, the most sought after, the one that is cut down the most often.
Overall, The Bridge of Beyond, which was brilliantly translated by the late Barbara Bray in 1974, is a unique experience, a spiritual journey in a harsh place that employs the vibrant language of proverbs, legends, lore, and even songs. Even though there is no linear plot, the reader is compelled to stay with Telumee’s story until the very end because of the unbreakable bond with her ancestors from whom she learned about crossing the “bridge of beyond” over the “murky water of scorn.” Through this amazing journey, Schwarz-Bart conveys the message that these hardships are part of life, but they should not be enough to bring us down.
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