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The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2021

All Issues
SEPT 2021 Issue
Fiction

from Waiting for the Waters to Rise

Maryse Condé’s Waiting for the Waters to Rise begins in her native Guadeloupe but is ultimately a novel that centers on statelessness. The three characters at the novel’s heart—Babakar, Movar, and Fouad from Mali, Haiti, and Palestine respectively—are all migrants driven from their homelands. Condé is a master storyteller capable of traversing multiple countries with their own histories of colonialism and political violence so that we come to know each character more intimately and why the friendship they forge is so vital to their survival.



*



Babakar was woken out of the warmth of his sleep in a daze, stunned by the clamor and din of a stormy night, roused by the rumble of thunder and the grating of the corrugated iron roof. The branches of the trees snapped and crashed to earth while the mangoes dropped thick and fast like rocks. During his sleep he had seen his mother, beaming radiantly, the cornflower blue of her eyes glistening, bright and refreshed, as if amid the war of the elements she were bringing an olive branch. She had come to tell him a new leaf had been turned on the pages of mourning and that finally there was the promise of happiness on the horizon.

The clock indicated 11:15 p.m. His mind turned to the men who at this time of night were drinking rum, playing dice or dominoes, and caressing the hardened breasts of the women they were about to screw. Babakar was already in bed in a pair of striped cotton pajamas.

This year’s rainy season was beyond comprehension. It should have ended weeks ago. Yet the rain continued to lash Nature and cause even the most secluded gullies to burst their banks. Shivering from the damp, Babakar slipped on his dressing gown and slid barefoot through the series of rooms in his house, haphazardly furnished in poor taste. Houses have their own way of expressing themselves. This one oozed solitude and exclusion. In the kitchen he poured himself a glass of milk, which he drank too quickly, milk dribbling down his chin. He never touched alcohol, not for religious reasons but because it tasted bitter and merely added to the already bitter taste of his life.

He was filling his glass again when the doorbell rang violently, pressed by a frenzied hand.

Babakar went out onto the veranda, oblivious to the rain, and ran across the lawn, his bare feet sinking in and out of the mud with a sucking sound. A man was standing behind the front gate, sheltering under a banana leaf. He was young. Handsome. In a panic. Black. Very black. Dressed in old clothes, wearing, oddly, a pair of red Converse sneakers that squelched with water. It was obvious he was Haitian; one of many in the region, despite the arrests and violent deportations by the police.

Fô li vini kounyé-a. Li pral mouri!” he stammered.

Babakar was not mistaken: he recognized the Haitian Creole, which he understood even less than the Guadeloupean, and asked him in French, “What’s the problem? Is it about one of my patients?”

The man merely repeated, even more vehemently, that it was a question of life or death. “Li pral mouri!

Babakar went back inside to get dressed and collect his medical kit. Then he went and joined the Haitian, who was crouching in the garage with his head between his hands. They sat down in the old Mercedes bought for next to nothing from a military intern who had finished his contract and was returning home to Angoulême. It was one of those nights ripe for the unknown or the unusual. On just such a night God must have created man with all his consequent trials and tribulations.

After driving round a bend in the road they arrived at a hamlet tucked under a tangle of greenery.

Nou rivé,” the Haitian said.

He pointed to a shack sheltering under a canopy of majestic ebony trees that stood straight as an arrow. An old man with graying hair and a plump woman in tears were standing at the front door. As Babakar and the Haitian drew closer, the old man made the sign of the cross and said, “I pati, Movar. I pa atan ou.

He crossed himself again while the woman sobbed even louder, and the young Haitian also burst into tears.

“She’s at peace,” the man concluded, staring at Babakar theatrically.

Babakar thought he recognized this solemn-looking man, sedately squeezed into a threadbare suit with a prewar cut.

“Doctor,” he said, holding out his hand, “my name is Cyprien Aristophane, principal of the Pierpont III village school.”

He introduced his companions. “This is Yvelise Dentu and this young man is Movar Pompilius, Haitian like the deceased—Reinette Ovide.”

Suddenly he continued in Creole, “Pran kouwaj, Movar.

Indeed, the unfortunate Movar needed all the courage he could get since he had collapsed on the ground in an apparent state of lethargy. Babakar sympathized with his grief. He knew from experience what it meant to lose a loved one.

He stepped inside.

It’s a well-known fact that life begins with a butchery. But what he saw now was particularly bloody. It was as if the deceased had been grappling with a hostile force more powerful than herself, and in this unequal combat she had lost all her blood. The pillows, sheets, and mattress were soaked in red. Terry towels had been thrown on the floor or rolled up in an enameled basin. A bitter smell floated over the massacre. Babakar walked over to the bed and stopped in amazement. No doubt about it, he recognized the girl that death had just mowed down as the one he had seen several days earlier at the dispensary. He had noticed her not simply because she was pretty but because of her unusual bearing, striking for someone with the stature of a young girl. Her eyes had gleamed, mockingly. Her lips were curled up, ripe for poking fun and playful kissing. Her swollen belly pushed up the front of her skirt a good twenty centimeters, revealing a pair of smooth, slender legs ending in delicate ankles and tiny feet fitted with horrible Nike sneakers. Despite this ungainly getup she exuded an undeniable charm. She had looked him in the eye insolently as if to say: “What are you ogling me for, young man? You’re wasting your time. You’re not my type.”

Babakar had been shattered. Not by her silent rebuff, but by the feeling that for the first time he had betrayed Azélia. If only for an instant, he had desired and dreamed of possessing another woman. Ashamed, he had lowered his gaze and beat a retreat.

And now here was this same woman dead. She too: yet another of fate’s cruel tricks that had sworn never to leave him in peace. On closer examination of the body he noticed that the fingers on the right hand had been twisted and broken, and one snapped off. In the crook of the left elbow he discovered an ugly-looking mark that resembled a bite. The same was apparent at the base of her neck. Something was not right. Shouldn’t he request an autopsy?

Yvelise knelt down beside him, making another sign of the cross, and his suspicions seemed absurd. Yvelise was now wiping the dried blood off the newborn baby whom everyone seemed to have forgotten till then. The baby didn’t seem at all frightened by the world in which she had landed. She was a lovely, very lovely little baby girl, the triangle of her genitals bulblike between her chubby legs.

“Who is the father?” Babakar whispered, standing up and going over to Aristophane. “Him? Movar?”

Aristophane shook his head and lowered his voice. “No! It’s a somewhat complicated story. The father must have stayed behind in Haiti. Reinette, the mother, arrived pregnant a few months ago. Despite her condition, Movar moved in with her. Apparently they traveled on the same boat. Both of them worked for the Model Farm, which, moreover, only hires undocumented Haitians—illegal workers, in other words. I’m surprised the dispensary, or the local authorities for that matter, even took care of her. She was paid maternity benefits too, you know.”

The tone was indignant. Lock up all these illegal foreigners who’ve come to receive medical care free of charge!

Babakar leaned over to look at the baby again. Virtually unscathed by her traumatic birth, she really was adorable with her chubby cheeks and a head of thick black downy hair. He stroked the tiny fist and the child opened her eyes.

It was at this precise moment that he made up his mind. While she seemed to be staring straight into his eyes, he was touched by a poignant emotion and an idea dawned on him. It was no coincidence he had been called to Reinette’s deathbed.

“Who’s going to look after the child?” he asked urgently.

Aristophane shook his head. “With his miserable job at the Model Farm I can’t see Movar feeding another extra mouth. It’ll probably be Yvelise. She’s already mother to a swarm of children: something like six or seven, each with a different father of course. One more or one less won’t make much difference.”

Once again, the tone of voice was decidedly one of disapproval. He, Aristophane, wanted nothing to do with the matter. He was a respectable citizen, who voted right wing and was legitimately married to a nurse who had her own office down in the village and who rode a bicycle to do her rounds of home care.

She’s mine, she came for me, Babakar suddenly realized, totally convinced.

This vague idea, which had wormed its way into his head, burst out.

“I’m going to take her with me,” he said, determined. “When I go to the town hall tomorrow morning for her mother’s death certificate, I’ll ask for her to be registered. I’ll take care of it.”

“Take care of what?” Aristophane asked, drawing himself up importantly, quite unlike his usual way of groveling in front of his superiors. “You’re going to take her? What are you talking about?”

Babakar didn’t want to say anything further as he was gripped with excitement. Here was the child he had searched for in vain and who had come back to him. This was the miracle his mother, radiant with joy, had come to predict in his dream. His soul thundered out a Magnificat worthy of Johann Sebastian Bach. Babakar, who had not prayed in years, whose heart was as good as dead, was tempted to prostrate himself to thank the Almighty.

“Are you thinking of adopting her?” Aristophane insisted, increasingly aggressive.

“You’re quite right!” Babakar said to shake off the irksome individual.

“We’re not in Darfur here, you know!” the irksome individual protested, taking umbrage as if his honor were at stake. “We are in Guadeloupe. And that’s not how things are done here. Guadeloupe’s no different from France. We have laws. You can’t adopt a child just like that. You fill out a request, you’re put on a list, and you wait your turn.”

Babakar was no longer listening. He wrapped the baby in a terry towel as there was nothing warmer—no woolen garment, no blanket—and the night air was cool for someone emerging from the warmth of a womb. He stood up while Yvelise stared at him, open-mouthed.

“Here, take this,” he murmured, slipping the few bank notes left in his pocket into the palm of her hand. “If you need more for the funeral or anything else, you know where to find me. You know where my surgery is? Down on the high street. Or else I’ll be in my office at the dispensary.”

Yvelise nodded while Movar made no objection either. Without shaking anyone’s hand, Babakar fled like a thief.

Outside, the wind in its growing fury was shaking the tops of the ebony trees and shouldering away the clouds. This meant the rain would end up getting lost elsewhere, over by Dominica for instance. Babakar laid his precious load on the back seat of the car. His hands moved clumsily in his frenzied exuberance. At last his agony was drawing to a close. He had found again his treasured possession and at the same time given purpose to his life. Under the car’s dim interior light, he deciphered Reinette’s health card, the only piece of identification she seemed to possess.


Maternity and Child Care Center
Name: Reinette Ovide
Sex: Female
Date of Birth: June 6, 1980
Nationality: Haitian
Weight: 50 kilos
Height: 1 m 58 cm
Blood group: A

He leafed through the pages feverishly. All the medical exams she had undertaken were negative: no aids; no tuberculosis; no issues with albumin or cholesterol. No detectable diseases. She seemed healthy. And yet she had been snuffed out like a candle in next to no time. What mysterious illness hid behind her apparent youth and good health? It shouldn’t be surprising really, since death always triumphs over life. As Babakar was about to reverse out, he noticed Movar standing on the veranda looking at him. Babakar waved him goodbye but got no response from the ill-mannered individual. Once he arrived on the main road, he drove straight ahead at full speed.

A woman’s misfortune is that she has to furnish proof of her motherhood. For nine months she has to brandish her belly for all to see. A man’s superiority is that he is master of his seed and can plant it anywhere he likes. Who would be smart enough to claim he had nothing to do with Reinette? Even if it were only a one-night stand. Who would be bold enough to contradict Babakar’s affirmation as a doctor that the baby was born prematurely or not?

Babakar drove home at top speed along the winding fifteen kilometers. When his house emerged out of the dark, it looked to him desolate, almost sinister, hardly fit to serve as a nest for a baby who had been miraculously lost and found. It was one of the constructions built by the Sogema company, whose deceitful and misleading slogan Our Houses Are Beautiful lined the roads and motorways. It was built in a fake traditional style in which angelique hardwood, pine, and logwood were replaced by cement. The roofs were no longer painted red but blue, for some reason or other.

Just as he was driving in, the newborn suddenly began to shriek blue murder, as the saying goes. Babakar realized that although he knew the workings of a woman’s belly by heart, he knew nothing about a baby’s behavior.

“Don’t cry,” he murmured as if she could hear him. “I’m so thankful I’ve found you again.”

She paid no attention to his advice and screamed even louder. He drove into the garage noticing for the first time the mess and the filth. Nestling the baby inside his jacket, he ran across the garden and, once in the living room, he attempted to calm the little body that was tensed with a mysterious anger, reveling in her inimitable smell of humus. The knot that had been tied fast in his breast for so long unraveled and he was overcome with happiness. He embraced the baby impulsively.

“I shall call you Anaïs, for that was the name of the first Haitian I knew, and the first woman I loved, excepting my mother. I was thirteen when my mother gave me that book which had such a poetic title: Masters of the Dew. I read it over and over again. It made me dream. You are the newfound spring that will irrigate my arid existence.”

Babakar was an impassioned individual, unsociable, and a man who kept to himself. Ever since he had taken over the surgery of Dr. Martial, a native son they called “Papa Martial” just as the Martinicans called Aimé Césaire “Papa Césaire,” he had lived in total isolation. He kept company with nobody and nobody kept company with him. He had just one friend, Hugo Moreno, an old Colombian married to a native daughter he had come to bury under the casuarinas. After she died, he had a bad fall and was paralyzed on one side. Every evening, therefore, Babakar came to push his wheelchair along the cliffs. He never went inside the big house built of pinewood daubed in green, instead removing the wheelchair from a corner on the veranda where Bobette the servant would park it and which was level with the lawn. What did the two men talk about? the neighbors wondered.

“Throughout the twentieth century,” Hugo, a former weatherman, explained, “the level of the ocean has risen ten or so centimeters. If this goes on, one day everything will disappear. This island will soon be underwater like all the others in the region. First of all, fleeing the low-lying valleys, the population will take refuge on top of the hills and mountains. But it won’t be enough. The sea will catch up with them and swallow them whole. The Caribbean will be nothing but a memory. All that remains will be a sea of purple-colored waves with crests of white foam.”

As far as love was concerned, or sex if you prefer, Babakar had a mistress by the name of Carmen, a hairdresser from Santo Domingo, where all the hairdressers came from. Two or three times a week she came to lovingly prepare succulent dishes, wash and iron his clothes, and sleep beside him, not at all deterred by his mutism and the nightmares which racked his nights.

In a moment such as this, Babakar had no other option but to call for help, hoping she had not switched off her phone and, despite the ungodly hour, would answer his call.

The next morning the sun dawned bright again after weeks of exuding a pale and puny light. As the popular saying goes: after the rain comes the sunshine. Babakar’s full name was Babakar Traoré Jr. People agreed he was good-looking, handsome even according to some women, despite the jet black of his skin and a scar caused by an unidentified blunt instrument. A machete? A dagger? A broken bottle? The scar began at the corner of his left eye, then stretched down his cheek and disappeared into the bushy hairs of his chin. He spoke little and smiled even less, looking as mournful as if he had buried his father, mother, and grandmother, all of which was true. He parked his car in the public garage that had recently been built. Then he set off for the town hall. Lucien Lucius, the town sweeper, gave him a threatening look; he didn’t like foreigners.

Likewise, Firmin Théolade, an employee at the registry office on the first floor (down the corridor on the right), made no attempt to hide his antipathy when Babakar approached him. After a quick check of the file, he shoved it back and in an arrogant tone of voice said, “The papers of this Reinette Ovide are not in order. There’s no residency permit. Another undocumented alien.”

Babakar summoned up his patience. “Undocumented or not, she’s dead. Yesterday. At ten in the evening. I’m an obstetrician. Here’s the burial permit I’ve written. I’ve come about the child, who is very much alive and kicking: Anaïs Traoré, my daughter, our daughter.”

Firmin stared at Babakar in amazement. “You mean that you’re the father of her child?”

“Yes,” Babakar stated resolutely. “I am.”

Twenty years scribbling away at the same place facing the same window that opened onto the two scraggy royal palms on the square with the green, neon-lit cross of the Danikal pharmacy in the background had endowed Firmin with an incomparable flair. The entire business smelt fishy.

“In that case,” he said with a sneer, “if this is your child, get a birth certificate from your consulate like all foreigners!”

Babakar shrugged his shoulders. “I’m not a foreigner. I’m as French as you are. And if you really want to know, I belong to this island through my mother: a Minerve. Have you heard the name?”

Firmin shook his head in exasperation.

When Babakar emerged from the town hall one hour later, Lucien Lucius had finished sweeping every nook and cranny outside and was smoking, seated on an overturned dustbin. Babakar was still laughing at the way he had turned the tables by saying the child was his—he who seldom laughed.


Excerpted from Waiting for the Waters to Rise by Maryse Condé, translated by Richard Philcox. Excerpted with the permission of World Editions. English translation © Richard Philcox, 2021 .

Contributors

Maryse Condé

Maryse Condé was born in Guadeloupe in 1937 as the youngest of eight siblings. She earned her MA and PhD in Comparative Literature at ParisSorbonne University and went on to have a distinguished academic career, receiving the title of Professor Emerita of French at Columbia University in New York, where she taught and lived for many years. She has also lived in various West African countries, most notably in Mali, where she gained inspiration for her worldwide bestseller Segu, for which she was awarded the African Literature Prize and several other respected French awards. Condé was awarded the 2018 New Academy Prize (or “Alternative Nobel”) in Literature as well as the 2021 Prix Mondial Cino del Duca for her oeuvre. She also received the Grand-Croix de l’Ordre national du Mérite from President Emmanuel Macron in 2020.

Richard Philcox

Richard Philcoxis Maryse Condé’s husband and translator. He has also published new translations of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin, White Masks. He has taught translation on various American campuses and won grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts for the translation of Condé’s works.

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The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2021

All Issues