NOT TO BE MISSED
"La septième vague", a novel by Anne PIETTE
Paris: L'Harmattan, 2010. (176p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
Some novels are so absorbing that readers regret having to turn the last page. La septième vague is one of those books. Explaining why is not easy, though. The story tells of the life of Madeleine discovering love and friendship in Senegal after running away from her abusive French family. Her story is a poignant reminder of life's endless string of hopes, disappointments, exhilarating moments and heartbreaking losses. Is it because everything sounds so genuine the situations, the characters, the way everyone behaves and the solidarity of women of various origins developing lifelong friendships that reading it is so captivating? Or, because it gives a personal dimension to the challenging issues of identity, freedom, social expectation, depression and human dignity? Perhaps.
Two interwoven periods of Madeleine's life are told in alternation and that provides the backbone of the narration. The first relates to her late teenage years. She lives in the French countryside with a brutal father and a loveless mother. The death of her oldest brother, domestic violence, and a deep sense of hopelessness drag her down, almost to despair. Her failing at the baccalaureate is the last straw and she decides to run away from home, just six months short of her majority. Stowing away on a ship bound for Senegal, her lucky star puts two friendly women passengers in her path, and what could have been a very short-lived attempt at freedom turns out to be the beginning of a new life.
When she arrives in Senegal, Madeleine spends some time in Thiès with a midwife and her collaborators. There she meets Coumba, Awa and she makes many friends. They all make her feel welcome and give her the first taste of true companionship. But she entered the country illegally and has to move on, ergo her departure for a hamlet in Casamance: one where it is easier to hide and elude the long arm of the law. Once there, she is welcomed as if she was a child of the village. She learns to speak Diola, helps out an elderly woman who has no one to care for her, makes some friends, and slowly becomes settled in the community. After a year, though, in spite of the much enriching experience she has lived, she feels it is time to move on again. As Madeleine tells the local restaurateur who is offering her a new job: "Chance led me here. It was not a deliberate choice... Now, I want to take destiny in my own hands. And there is one thing I know for sure, it is that in order to be completely free, I have to go back to study" (p.137). However, it is not only study that is awaiting her when she returns to Thiès, but love and a passionate affair with Issa. Unfortunately, the young man dies in a car crash. Madeleine's Senegalese dream is coming to a tragic end and her return to France seems inevitable.
Little do we know of the twenty years that follow, except that Madeleine never fully recovers from Issa's death. She falls victim to severe bouts of depression, lives for a decade with another man and raises the child born from her liaison with Issa. We also learn that she keeps an unswerving love of Senegal and a constant attachment to the many friends she made there, friends she does not really leave behind as she continues visiting them as often as she can.
The second period of Madeleine's life which is captured in the novel, also begins in difficult times. Her mother died, her partner of ten years has left her and her grown-up son is spreading his wings. Once again, she feels life is drifting away. Like all those years ago, she decides to head south in order to find an answer to her woes. Of course, she is now travelling by plane and close friends are awaiting her at Dakar's airport. Yet, beyond the practicality of her travel arrangements, her frame of mind, anguish and the urge to give a sense of purpose to her life are the same as before: the promise of future happiness too, when she meets Alioune. But, here again, all her hopes come crashing down.
It may seem contradictory that a book dominated by the desultory flight of a woman plagued with depression, haunted by bad dreams and tempted by suicide could provide such an uplifting take on life. But this is only an apparent paradox, for it is the strong sense of empathy and solidarity that grows between characters of various origins and creeds that are all-inspiring, rather than the nature of the demons Madeleine has to fight. She is psychologically bruised by unhappy childhood memories, but she is also determined to move on with her life in a meaningful way. Furthermore, her benevolence, goodwill and a strong sense of justice add strength to her quiet determination. The latter, one may argue, informs her every move: her decision to leave her dysfunctional home, to refuse dead-end jobs, to further her education and, much later, to turn down her suitor Alioune, because one does not marry the ex-husband of one's best friend. It also helps her to find out who she is. Tormented by her family antecedents, she would have loved being able to leave behind the "Madeleine" who had to flee Périgord and to become the "Kaguiélène" adopted by Akintomagne in Casamance. But as she finds out, people are the sum of their many complementary experiences. For better or worse, they have learned to live with that inheritance.
That is what she tries to impart to her son Christophe as he shows some reluctance to acknowledge his Senegalese heritage: "You are telling me that you are not keen on going back to Senegal", she writes to him, "you tell me that over there you are quite at sea with the local youth. Even so, I would like you to think about your double roots. Sometimes I get the impression that it is something you would like to refute. It is possibly my own fault as I did not ask myself sufficiently what it meant to you to be of mixed racial origin... To me, it is a bonus. It is a fortunate stroke of serendipity that gives you an opportunity to understand two worlds, a mediator linking different cultures, races, religions and values that are at the core of humanity" (p.45).
Madeleine is neither an heroic figure thriving on challenges, nor a submissive soul ready to compromise on everything. Rather, she is a fairly ordinary individual seeking solace in the company of significant others. No one is able to make up for the lost childhood that prevents her from enjoying life to the full, yet a great number of people are offering her genuine love and friendship. And by chance, rather than design, she has become the kind of mediator between different cultures she would like her son to be. Irrespective of race and creed, her attitude towards others is one based on mutual respect, collaboration and genuine interest in things different. Her comportment towards people speaking another language than her own provides a perfect example. When she works with Wolof-speaking Coumba after her arrival in Thiès, she begins to learn Wolof and, when she moves in with Akintomagne, it is Diola that allows her to break linguistic barriers and communicate. It is indeed telling that Madeleine eventually becomes a professional translator, a hyphenate who finds enjoyment in building bridges between cultures, rendering for example, "a collection of poetry by a young American author of Armenian origins" into French (p.10).
Another interesting feature of this novel is the way it supports the assumption that significant differences between individuals are linked to idiosyncratic perceptions of self and others, rather than an analytical realisation of otherness; thus an impression of homogeneity when it comes to Madeleine's circle of friends who hail from many places, but seem completely oblivious to each others' idiosyncratic racial makeup. True friendship, trustworthiness and mutual support are all that count. Madeleine is never too sure how the future will pan out and she doubts very much that peace of mind is awaiting her at the end of the road, but she knows she will always have a friend ready to help and a shoulder to cry on somewhere in the world.
On all accounts, this novel is a fine piece of work. The style, the plot, the originality of the structure, the credibility of the characters, the significance of the issues and the discernment of the narrator all deserve full marks: Definitely a book to read.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities