NOT TO BE MISSED
"A vol d'oiseau", a novel by Véronique TADJO
Paris: Nathan, 1986. (96 p.). ISBN 2-09-169020-1.
Translated by Wangui wa Goro "As the crow flies". Oxford: Heinemann, 2001, (106p.). ISBN 0-435-91203-8.
Ce compte rendu en français
I was definitely won over when I first read A vol d'oiseau at the time of its initial publication, and I found the same pleasure in leafing through this little gem twenty years on. It is indeed an interesting piece of writing that crosses over literary genres and offers a unique take on life that would still find an echo in many readers today. Like the author - Ivorian novelist and poet Véronique Tadjo - many of us could say: "Of course, I too would have loved to [live] one of these nice stories that have a beginning and an end. But as you know only too well, life never goes like that: people intermingle, they come together and part; and eventually their destinies fade out". (Foreword)
There are indeed two ways of telling a story. One follows clocks, calendars and chronologies. But there is another way that embraces past memories and present emotions as if they were contemporaneous. Past and present intermingle and moderate each other as if they were not separated by time. In his Eclaircissements (1992), Michel Serres suggested that "some things would look far apart on a line when they are in fact quite near, whereas other things that seem to be close are indeed far apart".(p.89) It is that non-linear conception of time that Véronique Tadjo choses to tell her story. Hence, a novel following the twists and turns of the narrator's thoughts wherein she "rearranges the puzzle of recollections, moves moments, recovers memories".(p.91) Love occupies the protagonist's heart and soul and "a thousand stories, a thousand seasons of the heart"(p.99) dissolve into her current being.
Her journey toward an understanding of self and others is based on disparate but synchronic elements that nurture her hopes and fears. Different time-scales are merged into one and she does not preoccupy herself with chronologies. Rather she concentrates her attention on atemporal feelings and experiences that have survived somewhere within her; some are barely alive; others still vivid as if time had suspended its flight; some are trivial, others "dreams made of rare pearls".(p.104) But all are competing with equal strength in their bid to tell her what to do with this failure of the heart she won't admit, that tears her apart and ruins her life.
"He was a magnificent man"(p.1) and she cannot forget the morning she wrote to him: "I'm desperately in love with you".(p.2) He had answered her with a laugh but loved her in return. However, like all fairytales, this one came crashing down when his wife discovered their affair. Eventually, he was free, but no longer the man he used to be and that could have been the end of their relationship. It was not: conflicting desires to leave him or to stay were dominating her life and lead her on a roller coaster of emotions. She was longing for his return when he was going away and falling to pieces when they were back living together.
She cannot understand what happened to her. "Our love is slipping away", she says. "Life is a trap. I am going crazy in this city that revolves around [him], where my life has taken on the allure of a promise. I am suffocating. Love brought me here and has left me comatose until daybreak".(p.63) Good sense might have told her that it was time to leave", that "she had to start all over again"(p.33) and "erase her memories" (p.33), but love often stands beyond the reach of reason; ergo her procrastination and decision to stay, unable to take stock of the regrets that flash through her mind and to move on.
The narrator's unease is compounded by the fact that her all-consuming passion has cut her off from her family and social network. Alone with her lover in a small apartment located thousands of kilometres from her country and separated from the people she loves, she finds it hard to cope. The returns of her unconditional commitment to love are elusive, but the measure of what she has lost in leaving everything behind is all too obvious: she has lost touch with the country to which she is deeply attached. A country which is poor, mismanaged and facing major difficulties, but also one that is rich in its humanity, memories, individual hopes and stories; a country she loves and which has become an obsession from the day she left.
Both the personal and public universe of the narrator are built around a scattered set of atemporal experiences randomly snatched from their historical and linear settings. However this set of experiences and memories does not lead to the same outcome in both cases. In the personal world of passion and desire "Other" only exists in an ephemeral moment that cannot be recaptured at will; in his singularity, "He" represents some kind of dream that comes from nowhere and fades before daybreak. Once he is gone, no amount of sacrifice, concession, effort or self-convincing could revive this chimerical "Other" in his intangible glory. Similar privileged moments are also occuring in the realm of social interactions, but these are of a different kind: they are not exclusive and contribute to build an endless pool of renewable connections that stand the test of time and link, rather than collapse, the past, the present and the future.
That possibly explains that the narrator's open-minded attitude towards her beloved country is in stark contrast with her inability to come to terms with the disintegration of her amorous relationship. Both matters would require the same candour, but she is unable to consider them with the same frankness, to follow the same logic that is telling her: "stand back and think about it properly"; "something has turned sour", thus "we must perform cleansing rites"(p.76), "stamping out bad habits, uprooting false theories".
A vol d'oiseau is built around the narrator's memories, elations and most distressing moments in her life. The journey through the fascinating collection of snapshots that come back to her consciousness proposes a poignant picture of the young woman's angst and woes, but it provides no clear answer as to what she should do with this elusive lover lodged in her heart. He stands in the way of her future and should be banished in order to make room for others, but she does not want him to become a bad memory and refuses to expel him from her heart forever. She wants to start all over again with "you", but she wants to keep the old "him" a bit longer, just a little bit longer; there is indeed no beginnings and no end to her story.
(This review is based on the French original of the novel)
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities