THE WRITING in A Woman Named Solitude is so surely tied to the psyches of its characters that this chronicle of slave revolt in 18th century Guadeloupe is nothing like a parade of piteous horrors. Andre Schwarz-Bart, a French Jew who survived Nazi camps and Resistance fighting and has already given us one masterpiece, gets into the mindscape of each French colonial and transplanted African tribesman. He dramatizes their religious and political tensions with precise evocations of war and ritual, and he compresses his narrative to unsentimental essentials. The book is both poem and protest; more than a simple howl against oppression, it is a dirge for all the human values which oppression destroys.
Schwarz-Bart sets the foundations for his novel far away from Guadeloupe, in the West Africa of the Diolas. They live "in a calm and intricate estuary landscape, where the clean water of a river, the green water of an ocean, and the black water of a delta channel mingled -- and where, so it is said, the soul was still immortal." Their culture is joined to the elements of nature which allow them to live, and their history follows a seasonal cycle. Ancestors are perpetually reborn, and the traditions they established are honored. The community is so constant and so small that all the necessary functions of hunting, fishing or farming are effortlessly fulfilled by clans, and punishment is meted out by customs in no way legalistic. Schwarz-Bart not only creates a pastoral dream -- indeed, the more chastening aspects of the culture may strike his audience harshly -- but a dream of a culture with a communal definition of humanity. When a would-be bride is thought unfaithful, the target of revenge is the poor girl's family; but rival clan followers merely prick each other, priests perceive the correct music in the maiden's body, and propriety has been restored.
THE SLAVE-GIRL Rosalie is the daughter of the Diola Bayangumay, a self-willed tribeswoman. Through the mother's eyes we glimpse both the glory of the culture bound by ties of survival and love and its swift, callous destruction by agents who are only understood by the tribe as evil spirits of the night. Bayangumay, who even on the slave-ship wants to swallow her tongue and sings "tomorrow I will cease to be an animal," is the prime source of her daughter's intransigence. The product of a drunken orgy of sailors and their black cargo, Rosalie, born with one blue and one green eye, is trained by her master as a pampered house-servant -- but she accepts no breast but Bayangumay's.
Bayangumay cannot cope with her slavery. Although she stubbornly retains the dignity of her native culture, she responds to the tortures of the French masters of Guadeloupe with mere surliness and escape. She realizes, as only a few of her fellow sufferers initially do, that there is no cause for her plight beyond the power of the slave-drivers. But Schwarz-Bart leaves to her daughter the ability to retaliate significantly.
While still dependent on her mother, Rosalie witnesses an execution which alters her perception of the world:
...the public execution of the Bambara wild-woman who had thrust a needle into the skull of her newborn baby. They had tied her to the doorpost of one of the huts and coated her naked body with molasses. It took the manioc ants several hours to finish her off, and all that time, her eyes blazing like torches, she had screamed insults at the masters.
Rosalie remembers the eyes which seemed to hurl accusations at the world, and she remembers that her mother and her mother's peg-legged friend also watched the execution with a darting glare. The girl realizes that seemingly placid slaves have made the bearing of their lives into an outcry. When Bayangumay flees the plantation, Rosalie lapses into madness--an epileptic state in which the slave-child first takes for herself the name of Solitude. She survives a pair of doting masters, the initial freedoms gained by the French Revolution, the forced-labor corvees which are then resumed, and a subsequent revolt. She joins other fugitives slaves almost by accident; Solitude becomes a figure of legend only in their final battle, fighting against French armies who hope to re-establish slave trade. Violent revolt is the final, inevitable, heroic support of the meager life she is left with.
ALTHOUGH Schwarz-Bart is dealing with an epic subject at minimal length, telescoping action and using primitively direct means to etch his characters, he nowhere descends to type. The various slaves and Frenchmen are distinct individuals as well as symbols; a major reason for the purity of Solitude's anger is her heritage, developed beyond that of most other slaves. The fantasies of slave-owners are indictment enough without the glaze of the author's own rancor, and one of the oppressors is almost sympathetic, with strong psychological motivations for his actions as a slave-owner (his father had been a white slave), and an occasional charitable impulse. Schwarz-Bart indicts the stupid, parasitic values of a colonial culture; it is not necessary for him to deny the humanity which makes any kind of culture, no matter how reprehensible, possible.
The Last of the Just, Schwarz-Bart's fictional history of Jewish martyrdom, ended poignantly with a lament for the destruction of such communities as the Hasidic shtetls of eastern Europe -- where social rules were joyously, religiously infused with a belief that beneath the moral law lay some ineffable grace. That novel was a sad and bitter tribute to Messianic faith, and its tone was mourning. A Woman Named Solitude is dedicated to fighters, like those people who revolted in the Warsaw ghetto; fighters whose ghosts, we are told, still rise up before the eyes of travelers amidst the ruins.
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