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Note:  In 1982 Gabriel Garcia Marquez was WINNER of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

“On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on.  He’d dreamed he was going through a grove of timber trees where a gentle drizzle was falling, and for an instant he was happy in his dream, but when he awoke he felt completely spattered with bird shit.” – opening lines.

book coverWritten in 1981, Chronicle of a Death Foretold tells the story of a killing which took place twenty-seven years before the novel opens.  An unnamed narrator has returned to the unnamed town on the Caribbean coast of Colombia where he was a participant in actions which culminated in the killing of Santiago Nasar.  As the novel opens in flashback, Nasar, the twenty-one year-old victim of this old crime, has only about an hour left to live as he dreams happily of a grove of timber trees, then awakens to the fact that he is “completely spattered with bird shit,” a darkly humorous parallel to the action which is about to unfold.  He has awakened with a headache, a result of the “natural havoc of the wedding revels that had gone on until after midnight,” but he gets up to go to the harbor where he waits to see the bishop sailing into port early in the morning.  The narrator, too, is recovering from the wedding celebrations, “in the apostolic lap of Maria Alejandrina Cervantes.”  Shifting repeatedly from past to present and back again, the speaker’s recent return to the village almost three decades after the murder, is being done “to put the broken mirror of memory back together from so many scattered shards.”

Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982.

Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982.

Dealing simultaneously with past and present, Chronicle of a Death Foretold appears at first to be a fairly straightforward and unpretentious murder mystery, but it is far more complex than it seems.  First, it does not follow the traditional structure of a mystery story, instead shifting back and forth over the course of twenty-seven years as one person who was present at the time of the murder returns to the town many years later to re-examine his memories and those of others. Further, for those familiar with the work of Garcia Marquez, this novel is different from what one usually associates with this author – the action here is neither surreal nor fantastical.  Except for a few women who always look for auguries in their everyday lives, the characters all appear to be firmly grounded in reality, leading the reader to question all their actions, relationships, and motives to see what it was that could have inspired the murder at all.  With the murder taking place after a three-day wedding celebration, the author keeps the mood upbeat, even humorous in places, as Santiago prepares to go to the port, naively going out the back door while the two men who plan to kill him wait for him at the front.  He is in such a hurry that neither he nor anyone else in his house sees a message that has been shoved under the door warning him that he is going to be killed and telling him the place, the motive, and other precise details.  All this because the groom, Bayardo San Roman, has returned the bride to her family on their wedding night, and Santiago is thought to be involved.

A steamer with two smoke stacks is carrying the bishop whom Santiago Nasar awaits when he is killed.

A steamer with two smoke stacks is carrying the bishop whom Santiago Nasar awaits when he is killed. The bishop does not leave the cupola on the top deck.

Bayardo San Roman, the groom, is a newcomer to town, about thirty years old, who claimed originally that he had been “going from town to town looking for someone to marry.” No one knows if what he says is true, however, “because he had a way of speaking that served to conceal rather than to reveal.”  His background is so “reserved” that “even the most demented invention could have been true.”  Bayardo’s choice of Angela Vicario as his bride, leaves her unimpressed because, she says, “I detested conceited men, and I’d never seen one so stuck-up.”  The son of a general who was a hero of the civil wars of the past century, no one knows much about Bayardo, but somehow Angela is encouraged to change her mind, and the wedding takes place. Later that night, Bayardo carries her back to her house – he has discovered she is not a virgin.  Angela is so traumatized that when challenged to name her lover, she is able to do it only after “looking for it in the shadows…among many, many easily confused names from this world and the other.”  The next morning Angela’s two brothers – Pedro and Pablo – murder Santiago Nasar, the supposed secret lover, as he awaits the bishop’s arrival at the port.

Riohacha Prison, where Pablo and Pedro spend three years for their crime.

Riohacha Prison, where Pablo and Pedro spend three years for their crime.

From here the narrative becomes farcical as the characters must use a substitute to do the autopsy, which becomes more like a massacre, one so messed up that a “helper fainted,” another became a vegetarian on the spot, and body parts were thrown in the garbage pail.  Ironically, the person everyone feels sorry for is Bayardo San Román, who remains in an alcoholic stupor after the wedding night, his family so dramatically upset that the narrator suggests that “their [horror] could only be put on, in order to hide other, greater shames.”  The Vicario brothers for their crime end up spending three years in the Riohacha jail, and their family moves from Riohacha to Manaure, with its salt mines. Over the ensuing years, the bride, Angela Vicario, discusses the “incident,” but the overall feeling of the community has been that she “was protecting someone who really loved her and she had chosen Santiago Nasar’s name as the traitor because she thought her brothers would never dare go up against him.” 

Angela and family move to Manure, famed for its salt mines, after the wedding and murder. Photo by Maria Angeica Gomez.

Angela and family move to Manaure, famed for its salt mines, after the wedding and murder. Photo by Maria Angelica Gomez.

For years afterward, no one in the town can talk of anything else and it is obvious that they continue to talk because they all need some kind of exact knowledge of the place, its recent events, and the missions assigned to them by fate. All the uncertainties still remain decades after the events, affecting the lives of every member of the community.  Author Gabriel Garcia Marquez provides just enough hints to keep the reader attentive and imagining all the “what-ifs” about the events.  The one who learns most from this permanent exercise is the former bride herself, Angela Vicario, who discovers that hate and love are reciprocal passions, on which she herself chooses, finally, to act.   Her decision will remain a mystery to readers, however, just as all the other complications of this failed wedding will remain mysteries and guesses.  Power, one of Garcia Marquez’s major themes in other novels is more elusive and uncertain here, its sources unclear, and death, usually a big focus of his work, becomes one event among many that deserves more careful scrutiny.

Characters here sometimes refer to drinking cane liquor. Here a man is pressing the cane, to which he will add yeast for fermentation.

Characters here sometimes refer to drinking cane liquor. Here a man is pressing the cane, to which he will add yeast for fermentation. Note blue bucket catching the syrup.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://en.wikiquote.org/

This  paddlewheel steamer with two stacks resembles the one which murder victim Santiago Nasar awaited, hoping to meet the bishop. https://flydango.net

Riohacha Prison is where Pedro and Pablo spent three years in payment for their crime.  https://colombiareports.com/inside-colombias-ten-worst-prisons/

A house in Manaure, perhaps similar to the one where Angela Vicario’s family stayed after the murder of Santiago Nasar and the jailing of Pedro and Pablo Vicario for three years.  Photo by Maria Angelica Gomez,  https://www.expedia.com

Throughout the novel, characters often partake of cane liquor.  Here a man is pressing the cane.  Note the blue bucket beneath.  Some yeast added to the syrup creates the fermentation for this local drink.  https://www.smithsonianmag.com

Note:  This novel was WINNER 2013 Burt Award for First Nations, Metis and Inuit Literature, and was SHORTLISTED for the International Dublin Literary Award.

“They say that our cheekbones are cut from those granite ridges that rise above our homeland.  They say that the deep brown of our eyes seeped out of the fecund earth that surrounds the lakes and marshes.  The Old Ones say that our long straight hair comes from the waving grasses of our bays…”

Saul Indian HCover indian horseorse, who tells this story of his life as an Ojibwe living in a non-native society, is in his thirties as the novel opens, and he is at the New Dawn Center, an alcohol rehabilitation facility to which he has been sent by social workers at the hospital where he has been a patient for six weeks.  Now alcohol-free for thirty days, he admits that “My body feels stronger.  My head is clear.  I eat heartily.”  Now it is time for his hardest work to begin.  “If we want to live at peace with ourselves, we need to tell our stories,” the counselor says, a task Saul decides to address in writing.  By writing, he hopes he will regain the gift which he has “spent [his] entire life on a trek to rediscover.”  As the reader joins him on this trek, the reader, too, participates in his rediscovery, learning new ways of seeing and thinking and expanding the visions of the natural world which have slowly died for so many by the end of the twentieth century.  The result is a book unique in its perspective and its “cure.”

St. Jerome's Residential School, White River, Ontario

St. Jerome’s Residential School, White River, Ontario

Saul is just four years old in 1957, when his nine-year-old brother Benjamin disappears.  His sister vanished five years before.  These kidnappings are all part of a brutal program to separate aboriginal children from their families and their culture, send them to a school where they will live apart from everything and everyone they ever knew, and teach them English and the Canadian school curriculum.  Ultimately, the goal is to turn them all into “Canadians,” without connections to their aboriginal past.  With Benjamin’s’s disappearance, Saul’s mother has a complete breakdown, and when Saul’s father and uncle paddle downriver to sell berries, they return, “bringing the white man with them in brown bottles.” His parents grow to depend on these “spirits,” and when Benjamin, their “lost” son, finally manages to run away from the school and walk sixty miles to find them, three years later, he is thin, with a terrible cough – tuberculosis caught at “the school,” which will soon cost him his life.  Benjamin’s death, the alcoholism of the parents, and the lack of the family’s traditional cultural values spell the end of the family.  Before long, Saul too, is captured and enrolled at St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School.


Gods Lake, sacred place for the family of Saul Indian Horse.

Author Richard Wagamese, himself a member of the Objibwe tribe, details the grim lives of the abused young children forced to live in these schools. While he himself was not part of this schooling program, his parents were.  He ended up in foster care instead, the schools’ equivalent. Here he suffered beatings and abuse which were no different from the depiction here of the beatings and abuse at St. Jerome’s, all inspired by the national desire to wipe out native cultures and assimilate the residents into the Canadian mainstream.  At St. Jerome’s young children are beaten and confined to a small box in the basement called “the Iron Sister” for such crimes as wetting their beds. As Saul says, “I saw kids die of tuberculosis, influenza, pneumonia, and broken hearts.  I saw runaways carried back, frozen solid as boards.  I saw wrists slashed and, one time, a young boy impaled on the tines of a pitchfork that he’d shoved through himself.”  These children universally yearn for the freedom to be outdoors in nature, sharing the spirits of the earth and sky which have been so much a part of them until now.

Reggie Leach, of Ojibwe ancestry, made his hockey debut in 1971 with the Boston Bruins during the Bobby Orr era, then continued his career with the Philadelphia Flyers.

Reggie Leach, of Ojibwe ancestry, made his hockey debut in 1971 with the Boston Bruins during the Bobby Orr era, then continued his career with the Philadelphia Flyers.

Fortunately, Saul Indian Horse is able to find some salvation.  St. Jerome’s has a hockey team, and he, at age eight, is desperate to be part of it, though he has never played.  By volunteering to shovel off the ice on the outdoor rink every morning, he is able to be outside, early and alone, and he soon finds a hockey stick, which he hides, and some skates which he stuffs with straw so they fit, so that he can practice on the rink when no one is up.  For Saul, hockey becomes the equivalent of a natural religion. On the ice, he can feel the wind and the air, and he can imagine where the openings are as he skates through the “opposition” and then “passes” to a teammate.  He can “see” the results long before they actually happen.  When he begins to play on a team, his reputation as a hockey player grows quickly. Unfortunately, because of his excellence on the ice, the fact that he is two or three years younger than other players, and is still very small, he is constantly bullied. Eventually, Saul becomes the foster child of an Ojibwe family in which the father is a coach for an important youth team.  From there, he goes on to success in the competitive hockey leagues, some of them associated with the National Hockey League.  The bullying and name-calling over his heritage continue, however, no matter how hard he plays or how good he becomes, and he ultimately ends up at the New Dawn Center for Alcohol Rehabilitation in search of a new direction, new goals.

Ojibwe author Richard Wagamese, holding the symbolic eagle feathers

Ojibwe author Richard Wagamese, holding the symbolic eagle feathers

Author Richard Wagamese has dedicated his writing career to recreating the values and joys of aboriginal life, along with its problems, including the innate resentment felt by many “outsiders” toward those whose goals and ways of life may be different. As someone who has never played hockey, I never knew how liberating it might feel to be on the ice in total control, almost in a trance in which the game unfolds in one’s mind before it even begins to happen on the ice.  To have control over the action and to make it happen is described so powerfully here that I suddenly understood why, for Saul, hockey becomes the equivalent of a religious experience – one not unlike being in a trance, in the power of an outside force.  When Saul ultimately returns to God’s Lake, his family’s holiest place, deep in the Canadian bush, for affirmation of his plans, the reader understands, and when Saul returns to try out his newly resolved life in the city where he lives, the reader easily imagines him in “the white glory of a rink.”

ALSO by Wagamese:      MEDICINE WALK   and    STARLIGHT

Reggie Leach is now in retirement, working with indigenous youth as a motivational speaker.

Reggie Leach is now in retirement, working with indigenous youth as a motivational speaker.

Photos.  St. Jerome’s Residential School in White River Ontario.  http://jordangrade11english.blogspot.com

Gods Lake, the sacred place for Saul Indian Horse and his family.  https://www.winnipegfreepress.com

Reggie Leach, of Ojibwe ancestry, made his hockey debut in 1971 with the Boston Bruins and Bobby Orr, then continued his career with the Philadelphia Flyers.  He now works with indigenous youth.  https://www.ebay.com

Author Richard Wagamese, holding the symbolic eagle feathers:  https://www.theglobeandmail.com

Reggie Leach, now in retirement.  He is a motivational speaker and worker with indigenous youth: https://brocku.ca/


REVIEW. PHOTOS. Aboriginal nations, Canada, Coming-of-age, Historical, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Richard Wagamese
Published by: Milkweed Editions.
Date Published: 04/10/2018
ISBN: 978-1571311306
Available in: Ebook Paperback


“We do not impose discipline: the children impose it on themselves.  Rigorous, not rigid.  Firm, not harsh.  Personalities are sculpted, polished until they shine...We know how to shape the best.” – the Headmaster.

cover 4x4In this finely written and often subtle literary thriller, debut author Sara Mesa focuses on an elite boarding school in rural northeast Spain.  The school, Wybrany College, has been built in a man-made meadow on the road from Cardenas to the now defunct city of Vado.  No signs along the road indicate any access to the property, and the school’s website does not provide an exact location for it. 

Said to have been founded in 1943 by Andrzej Wybrany, a wealthy, exiled Polish businessman, the school was intended to educate and care for orphans “with all the resources they would have enjoyed had the destinies of their families remained unaltered.”  Built in the style of the 1940s, the school buildings are arranged in the shape of a traditional “C,” and even the golf course, helipad, tennis courts, and four swimming pools reflect the designs of the 1940s.  All this is an illusion, however.  The reader learns in the first ten pages that “naturally” the school was not really founded in 1943, and “rumors” suggest that it is no more than fifteen years old.  For the unnamed narrator, “A hidden outline betrays the present in the past, tracing the lines drawn by fear,” but why there may be “lines drawn by fear” is not further explained, at this point.

Cardenas, the nearest community to Wybrany, in rural northeast Spain.

Cardenas, the nearest community to Wybrany, in rural northeast Spain.

Interspersed with this historical information in the early pages of Part One are brief character sketches of a few students – including several teenage girls who are hurrying as they climb through the landscape, trying to reach the river.  When they are caught by someone driving the school’s 4 x 4 and brought back to Wybrany, several of the girls blame Celia, the leader of their off-campus “escape” for organizing it. Celia, a “special” student, grew up locally and comes from a poor background, and may be an easy victim.  Among the boys, whom the author introduces in separate chapters, is Ignacio, a young casualty of constant bullying who is hoping that a new student, Hector, will become his first friend at the school.  Hector has just been admitted as an “exception” by parents who insist that “it won’t be easy getting rid of the boy,” though they are paying extra in order to do so.  Several administrators are also shown in action.  As the problems of the school and its residents become further developed in Part One, the tension increases and the reader begins to “trace the lines drawn by fear” mentioned in the opening pages.

Running free at the school is a huge mastiff, which appears throughout.

Running free at the school is a huge mastiff, which appears throughout.

Part II, A Substitute’s Diary, shifts the focus to a young man who has just arrived at the school to work as a substitute writing teacher, but even he is not exactly who or what he seems.  Calling himself Isidro Bedragare, he has obtained his teaching job by using the name of another man. Through the personal diary Isidro keeps, the author is able to develop plots within plots at Wybrany.  The new teacher does not know, for example, why his predecessor is on leave or when he is coming back, and he has yet to discover the relationships among the administration, faculty, and students. He learns the hard way when he disciplines a boy who has been rude, only to discover that this boy has special privileges granted by an administrator.  Another administrator questions his “pedagogical methods.”  Ultimately, he has to admit that “my free time in the afternoon doesn’t compensate for the stress of every morning, the continual shifting between pretense and mockery, appearance and uncertainty,” with everyone speaking in code – both students and faculty.  Christmas vacation and New Year’s Eve present Isidro with some “quiet time,” but he becomes ill, has fevers and nightmares, and begins to connect psychically on a different level with some of the real horrors of Wybrany which he had not known or suspected.  Then another faculty member disappears.

The diary of the former teacher at Wybrany forms the brief Part III of this novel.

The personal notes of Garcia Medrano, the teacher Isidro is replacing at Wybrany, form the brief Part III of this novel.

Part III, Garcia Medrano’s Papers, written by the Wybrany teacher whom Isidro Bedragare replaced, are papers Isidro acquires late in the novel.  This metaphysical tract focuses on the lives of young girls living in spaces four by four meters (approximately 13 feet by 13 feet) in a community of cells in which “changing the rules [is] the way the world works.”  Men are divided into Heroes and Mercenaries, as in an allegory, and women and girls are prisoners in a grim reality which they cannot question. Throughout, Medrano’s papers confirm some of the discoveries that Isidro and the reader have made about Wybrany and its people, and while this brief section may suggest Medrano’s state of mind and serve as an obvious warning about tyranny, I personally found it unnecessary and artificial. Its stark conclusions regarding the future – especially for women – appear in simplistic metaphysical commentary quite different from the clear story-telling and dramatic imagery throughout the rest of the novel.

author sara mesa

Author Sara Mesa

Sara Mesa is an author of immense talent, and this “literary thriller,” is certain to gain her many readers.  Four by Four reflects the author’s concern with the human condition, using an elite school as the setting, containing all the hierarchies one finds in sociological and political studies of communities, real or imagined. Her themes of appearance vs. reality, power vs. weakness, and compassion vs. cruelty, fully developed, are shown through characters whose behaviors and anxieties feel real within the context of the pathetic lives they allow themselves to live, and her literary style of keeping things simple, both within the action and in her language make the suspense develop quickly and the themes come alive.  Translator Katie Whittemore aids in this, keeping the language vibrant and the images real, and she also deserves congratulations.

Translator Katie Whittemore

Translator Katie Whittemore

Photos.  The community of Cardenas is the nearest town to Wybrany, which keeps itself off the maps in northeast Spain.  https://commons.wikimedia.org   Photo by Pigmentoazul

A huge English mastiff runs free on the campus of Wybrany, appearing in scenes throughout.  https://www.pinterest.com

Debut author Sara Mesa is shown on https://worldvoices.pen.org

The teacher Isidro is replacing has left behind notes on the school, and Isidro acquires them.  https://today.umd.edu

Debut author Sara Mesa:  https://worldvoices.pen.org

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Allegory, Literary, Mystery, Thriller, Noir, Social and Political Issues, Spain
Written by: Sara Mesa
Published by: Open Letter
Date Published: 05/05/2020
ISBN: 978-1948830140
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Note:  Author Maryse Condé was WINNER of the Alternative Nobel Prize for Literature for 2018, also known as the New Academy Prize.  This prize was granted by an independent group after the Nobel Prize Committee was unable to select a winner that year due to its internal conflicts.

“The life that you are about to embark on, and from which you will not get out alive, is not a bowl of arrowroot.  Some even call it wicked…But who cares!  I’ll grab a pillow of clouds that I’ll put under your heads and I’ll fill them with dreams.” –  Simone Némélé, new mother of twins.

conde cover.Giving birth alone in Guadeloupe after her lover, Lansana Diarra, returned to his home in Mali, Simone Némélé waited in vain for the ticket he had promised to send her so that she and their newborn twins, Ivan and Ivana, could join him in Mali.  Poor, but with a supportive family, Simone works in the sugarcane fields, but she tries hard to ensure that her children will have an education and be able to pursue their own interests during their lives.  Though they are very different in personality, Ivan and Ivana dearly love each other – to the point of having incestuous feelings which they have to fight constantly – but as they grow up, responding to the political and philosophical movements to which they are exposed, they begin to move in different directions.  As author Maryse Condé tells their stories, she creates two young people and their friends who feel real to the reader – characters who have many unique personal characteristics – but she clearly wants to tell a bigger story than a simple family saga set in exotic parts of the world.  Here Ivan and Ivana ultimately become examples of a broader population of twenty-first century youth who must deal with displacement, racial and gender issues, and political and social issues.  Some disaffected youth, as we see here, are often open to radicalization to solve social problems, while some others remain open to change and are willing to help bring it about through more peaceful means.

Before Ivan and Ivana leave Guadeloupe, they visit the Jacques Cousteau Marine Reservewhere they see this underwater statue of Cousteau

Before Ivan and Ivana leave Guadeloupe, they visit the Jacques Cousteau Marine Reserve where they see this underwater statue of Cousteau

From the outset, Ivan and Ivana are in many ways opposites.  Ivana, a dreamer and romantic, loves nature, and everyone adores her, a student at the top of her class.  Ivan, named for the Ivan who was Czar of all the Russias, is called a “hoodlum,” and by his teen years he is stealing and pilfering.  An activist school teacher begins to “plant strange ideas” into Ivan’s head, inspiring the Deputy Mayor to warn Simone about him, and she sets out to find Ivan a job to keep him busy.  It is not enough.  Soon afterward Ivan, in a rage, leaves a male friend of Ivana so badly stabbed on the beach that he is barely alive.  Ivan is sentenced to two years imprisonment, during which time he is exposed to more radical ideas.  As their lives become more fraught, Ivan and Ivana plan to leave Guadeloupe for Paris. Then, unexpectedly, two tickets from Mali arrive at the house for Ivan and Ivana, and they take off to stay with their father.

Timbuktu, where this Mosque of Djenne, is the largest mud building in the world.

Timbuktu, Mali, where this Mosque of Djenné is the largest mud building in the world.

From this point on, the action picks up dramatically, as Ivan becomes a member of the militia in Mali.  When Madiou, “El Cobra,” becomes chief of the national militia, he chooses Ivan for the most dangerous and singular missions.  While Ivana loves her work at an orphanage where she takes care of twenty children, Ivan is ready to leave.  A new terrorist attack which kills thirty men, women, and children, leads to the arrest of Ivan’s only friend, and El Cobra insists that Ivan be intimately involved in claiming the friend’s body after he watches his friend being been tortured to death. A trip to Timbuktu for a concert involving Lansana, Ivan’s father, leads to another disaster, and Ivan ends up running for his life as he tries to get out of Mali and into France. 

Though Ivan was supposed to work in a chocolate factory, he quickly found another riskier job that was more fun.

Though Ivan was supposed to work in a chocolate factory in France, he quickly found another, riskier job that was more profitable.

Ivan becomes even more radicalized in France. While Ivana is chosen for the municipal police force, Ivan decides not to work in the chocolate factory where he was supposed to work, instead becoming involved in drug sales and gambling.  Eventually, he is chosen by jihadists to participate in a particularly dangerous, large-scale attack.  Ivan and Ivana meet during this event, and as the two opposite sides contend with each other, there can be no compromise. 

Filled with many characters, changing locations, and the gradual radicalization of Ivan, the first half of the book moves slowly, but once the characters get to Mali the action picks up.  The author was apparently aware of this difficulty, as she inserts herself into the narrative unexpectedly with messages to the reader on several occasions.  At one point, for example, she comments that the reader might be wondering why so much time is being spent on the life of Ivan, instead of Ivana, then corrects that by adding a section on Ivana.  At another point, she comments that a new chapter of the book is not reliable because there is no proof of what really happened – that someone has died but how is not certain, listing all the possibilities but no conclusions.

Author Maryse Conde

Author Maryse Condé

Author of fourteen novels and many plays, Maryse Condé is a feminist and a self-described radical activist, but as her characters’ deal with major social issues, there is no sense that the author is being propagandistic or pushing an agenda.  Instead, she depicts, through the lives of her characters, some of the movements in which she herself may have participated (or not) during her teaching career in Guinea, Ghana, Senegal, Paris, and the US, providing great realism for the reader.  Her insights into some of the forces at work in Mali, after Ivan and Ivana finish school and go there to live with their father, make Mali’s political situation come alive.  The conclusion of the book, in which issues of immigration and religious extremism overlap in Paris, is particularly powerful, as a jihadist attack draws in all the characters and permanently affects them and their families.  The Epilogue gives the author’s commentary on the book:  “We have done the best we can and have verified the exactitude of the facts down to the slightest detail.”   Ultimately, she addresses the love between the brother and sister, declaring “Love is pureness of the heart which does not necessarily imply physical consummation.  We have decided not to change a single word of [the] story.  You can take it or leave it.”

Photos.  The statue of marine biologist Jacques Cousteau, an underwater site, is from https://kineticsail.com

The Mosque of Djenné in Timbuktu is the largest mud building in the world.  https://www.trover.com

Ivan was not interested in the job he had as a chocolate maker and quickly found something else, much riskier and more profitable for  him.  https://www.funkidslive.com

The author’s photo may be found on https://repeatingislands.com

REVIEW. PHOTOS. Coming-of-age, France, Guadeloupe, Literary, Mali, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Maryse Conde
Published by: World Editions
Date Published: 05/05/2020
ISBN: 978-1642860696
Available in: Ebook Paperback

“Unlike my father’s life, Frida Kahlo’s is widely known and her work provides considerable information about her personality and experiences.  I wagered with myself that as I researched what she was doing in the months before they met, I would then have access to my father’s world.  The one would bring to light the other…” – Author Marc Petitjohn

coverWhen author Marc Petitjean was contacted in Paris by a Mexican writer named Oscar, who wanted to meet him to talk about Marc Petitjean’s father Michel, the author’s interest was piqued.  His father, a “left-wing militant” journalist, and associate of avant-garde artists and writers, had been dead for twenty years. When they met, Oscar pulled out a short manuscript he had written with information acquired from the archives of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, indicating that she had had an affair with Michel Petitjean during the three months she had been in Paris from early January to late March, 1939.  An affair between the author’s  father and Kahlo was new information to son Marc Petitjohn, who almost dismissed it as  “overblown.” Still, Frida Kahlo had given his father one of her best paintings when she returned to Mexico after that three-month visit in 1939.  Ultimately, “Oscar’s curiosity kindled my own, and I in turn embarked on researching the lovers’ lives.” 

"The Heart," a painting given to Michel Petitjean by Frida Kahlo during the three months she was his lover in Paris in 1939.

“The Heart,” a painting given to Michel Petitjean by Frida Kahlo during the three months she was his lover in Paris in 1939.

In the earliest pages of this book, the author is concerned about his faded memories of his father, whose relationship with Frida Kahlo took place twelve years before Marc Petitjean was born.   As he presents his own discoveries about this period in the life of his father, including his father’s relationship with Frida Kahlo, however, Marc Petitjean cannot help but allow his personal feelings to shine through the narrative, making it come alive in ways unusual for non-fiction.  One of his most vivid memories from childhood is of the painting Frida Kahlo gave to his father, one called “The Heart,” or “Memory,” which hung in the living room of the house where the author grew up. This painting disturbed him as a small child, with its “stark depiction of a huge, bleeding heart lying on the sand, and a woman with no hands whose body is pierced by a metal rod and whose eyes seemed to stare at me,” an image not unlike an accident Frida Kahlo herself had suffered as a teen.  “The pain is so intense that the central figure is derealized and dismembered: her hands no longer belong to her, and her heart – a vital organ that is usually hidden and is the symbolic seat of emotions – is starkly exposed for all to see, and disconnected from her body.”

"Girl with Death Mask," a painting that may have been of Frida as a child celebrating the Day of the Dead, a theme throughout her work.

“Girl with Death Mask,” a painting that may have been of Frida as a child celebrating the Day of the Dead, a theme throughout her work.

From this startling beginning, the author develops a sensitive and insightful portrayal of Frida Kahlo’s first real love affair in Paris, following her husband Diego Rivera’s sudden declaration in Mexico, earlier that year, that he wanted a divorce.  This was to be Frida Kahlo’s only trip to France, a three-month visit during which her friend Andre Breton had promised her a show of her paintings there, and a new focus to her life.   Upon her arrival in Paris, she is greeted by Andre Breton’s wife, Jacqueline Lamba; Dora Maar, Pablo Picasso’s partner; and Andre Breton, who guide her to his house, where she will stay.  Breton and Jacqueline Lamba live in a small, two-room apartment, however, and Frida Kahlo is to sleep in the tiny bed belonging to their four-year-old daughter, who will share the room. Unfortunately, Breton has not thought far ahead in other respects regarding the visit.  He has not bothered to claim all Frida’s  paintings for the “show,”  which are still languishing at Customs, and he has not yet found a gallery in which to exhibit her work.  He has promised to write an introduction to her work for her show, but that has not been started yet, his callous treatment of his guest giving new meaning to the word “surreal.” Ultimately, it is Michel Petitjean, the author’s father, who pays to retrieve Frida’s paintings from Customs and who helps to set up a display of her paintings.

Michel Petitjean as a young man - and lover of Frida Kahlo

Michel Petitjean as a young man – and lover of Frida Kahlo

The developing love story of Frida Kahlo and Michel Petitjean is inextricably connected with the fraught pre-war political atmosphere of Paris in 1939, the boiling artistic and philosophical ferment of the period, and the close, interconnected friendships among Andre Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Man Ray, and others.  Even designer Elsa Schiaparelli, “the queen of Paris fashion,” promises to create a dress for Frida based on the Mexican designs she loves, though there is no record that Schiaparelli ever completed such a dress.  Somehow, perhaps through celebratory parties connected to the eventual showing of some of Frida’s paintings, she and Michel Petitjean become especially friendly, and Michel ultimately pauses his relationship with another woman, with whom he had been having an affair for three years.  He has stated in interviews that he remembers “his first night with Frida because it was the day Barcelona fell, ” January 26, 1939, a prelude to the inevitable fall of Franco’s Spain and the political and social crisis that results throughout Europe.

Author and cinematographer Marc Petitjean, who tells the story of his father's relationship with Frida Kahlo in this book.

Author and cinematographer Marc Petitjean, who tells the story of his father’s relationship with Frida Kahlo in this book.

A childhood victim of polio, a paralyzed foot, loss of toes, and long convalescences – including one in which she had to recover from a broken pelvis and vertebrae after being speared by a metal handrail, when she was struck by a trolley as a teenager – Frida Kahlo suffers pain for most of her life.  Death seems ever present to her, and she uses all her energy to ward it off with “a stream of drinking binges, love affairs of varying durations, passionate friendships, and political fervor.”  She spends time in the hospital in Paris, and her “idyll” with Michel Petitjean is affected by her health.  Still, she is moved and excited by the eventual showing of her work and the compliments she receives from Joan Miro, Kandinsky, Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and “other big cacas of Surrealism.” When she finally departs from France after three months, Michel Petitjean has thought ahead to have letters and notes delivered to her along the way.  As he says, “Frida was a lady on an extraordinary scale in terms of dignity, and precision.  She was naturally distinguished, it wasn’t something she could have learned.  She had great nobility, she was a real princess.”  Author Marc Petitjean has guaranteed through the personal details he includes that readers of this book will also see her in that same regard, perhaps one of the few times that words like “nobility,” “lady,” “dignity,” and “princess” are highlighted in Frida’s unconventional and tumultuous life.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, her estranged husband during her trip to Paris.

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, her estranged husband, just before her trip to Paris.

Photos.  The painting of “The Heart” (1937) was given to Michel Petitjean and was in the living room of the house where author Marc Petitjean grew up.  He was afraid of this painting for much of his childhood.  https://www.fridakahlo.org

“The Girl with the Death Mask,” which may have been Frida’s interpretation of herself as a young girl celebrating the Day of the Dead, appears on https://www.fridakahlo.org

Michel Petitjean, 1937, at about the time of his affair with Frida Kahlo in Paris.  https://www.abc.es

Author and cinematographer Marc Petitjean, who tells the story of his father’s relationship with Frida Kahlo in this book.  https://otherpress.com

Frida Kahlo with her estranged husband Diego Rivera, during the time that she was in Paris. Estate of Martin Munkacsi, courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery.  https://www.christies.com

THE HEART: Frida Kahlo in Paris
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Biography, Book Club Suggestions, France, Historical, Literary, Mexico, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Marc Petitjean
Published by: Other Press
Date Published: 04/09/2020
ISBN: 978-1590519905
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

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