University of Exeter
In Maryse Condé's En attendant le bonheur  we are confronted with a heroine in crisis, in search of a modus vivendi denied her by her status as dispossessed exile. This figure of the exile is one which recurs throughout Condé's work, representative of the modern Caribbean identity she explores. The particular aspect of this exile on which Condé concentrates in this text (her first novel) is not disinheritance from physical homeland but more particularly the disinheritance from discourse created by physical exile.
Véronica, protagonist narrator of En attendant le bonheur, is in many respects an archetypal post-colonial Caribbean figure: alienated both by her status as object of discourse and by the effects of racism and colonialism. However Condé shows considerable originality in the particular predicament she presents. Véronica belongs to a generation already familiar with post-colonial descriptions of the colonial condition. Her disinheritance does not come about directly as a result of the alienation operating through colonial discourse, but rather through the inadequacy of the rhetorics intended to replace it. Although offered a variety of discourses to apprehend her condition, she fails to identify with any of these, and instead takes an ironic stand in relation to all of them. In En attendant le bonheur, Condé exposes the impossibility of this position.
The text traces the journey of self-discovery of Véronica, a young Caribbean intellectual, who, at a moment of psychological crisis, leaves the life she has created for herself in Paris to take up a teaching post in a West African state reminiscent of Sékou Touré's Guinea. Véronica had left her native Guadeloupe aged sixteen for Paris after her parents' disapproval of her first romance and has now incurred further reproof for her affair with white architect Jean-Michel. She is in flight both from the judgement of her own community and from her own sense that the comfortable middle-class existence she enjoys constitutes a genuine betrayal. At the heart of her flight is her unmitigated rejection of what she regards as the acutely insecure pro-Black propaganda she has grown up with, in a middle-class society that appears to her to be denying its own rhetoric by its western-style aspirations. Exile is the figure for her relationship to discourse and also its essential cause. Véronica is a modern exile, ideologically adrift and doubly dispossessed, both by her inability to return home, and by the rootlessness of that home.
Painfully lucid, and distrustful of all systems, Véronica refuses to confront the political issues of post-conlonial Africa. This will prove to be a fatal mistake, as she realises all too late that not to engage in political resistance is to place herself on the side of the oppressors. Drawn by her need for illusions about the real Africa to an affair with political leader Ibrahima Sory, and by the bond of a genuine friendship with activist colleague Saliou, Véronica gradually and tragically comes to the realisation that she has thrown in her lot with the wrong side. After a series of student uprisings and political action, Saliou is finally arrested and killed on the orders of Ibrahima Sory. In disarray, Véronica leaves Africa, knowing she has been following the wrong path, but apparently no closer to a resolution of her situation.
Véronica's predicament is to an extent the familiar one of the modern individual whose own consciousness is at odds with the discourse of a social group which fails to represent her specific situation. However, it is given its particular edge by the Caribbean context Condé chooses. In a Western context, the individual can identify, at least to an extent, with a group discourse which is shaped by history and tradition to transmit the experience of the community to which the individual belongs. The community from which Véronica stems cannot offer this type of discourse with which she might be able to identify through a sense of shared past. Consequently she must make her own choice, but it is precisely this that she is entirely unprepared to do, since doing so implies too close an identification with and acquiescence to any one position. Maryse Condé shows the importance of this predicament for the individual, but is not only concerned with the wounded internalised consciousness. She highlights the impact of this psychological condition on the relationship between the individual and her environment by placing her protagonist in a country in political crisis, where inaction is inadmissible.
Véronica is a narrator whose essential condition is to be robbed of discourse. The text itself bears the marks of her aphasia. One often disconcerting characteristic of the first person narrative is the narrator's concerted decision to avoid explanation and analysis of her actions and experiences . She evades a clear definition of what it is she is searching for on her journey, ironising the possibility of a return to her roots as being too glib a definition, whilst clearly wanting to find a link to the African origin, and thus slave ancestry, that Guadaloupean milieu to which she belongs attempts to deny. However, occasional moments of self-irony allow her to let slip what it is she secretly dreams of finding. This is always expressed in terms of a possible discourse, of wanting to be able to describe reality in a particular way:
This humorous vision is characterised by borrowed language. Véronica quotes Oumou Hawa's description of herself as 'née dans le Nord', and a stylised version of the discourse of tribal chieftains, associating herself with them through the 'nôtre', whilst keeping at a distance through the stylisation reminiscent of the colonial account. This complex interplay of styles and narrative perspectives is typical of the text, reflecting the conflict between the desire which draws Véronica to search for an appropriate discourse and the ironic distance that is the inevitable result of the rift created between the narrator and her reality by language itself. The text uses a subversive style, a sort of anti-discourse based on irony, pointing up the inadequacy of language to express reality.
Whilst Véronica is conscious of the loss of subjecthood brought about by the imposition of a Westernised discourse, this is not the only, nor even the most immediately felt alienation. The discourse which she most frequently cites, always ironically, is that used by her parents to attempt to construct the appearance of a reality which conforms to their wishes:
Véronica suffers from being all too painfully aware of how this discourse fails to correspond to a reality; it serves primarily to try to order reality rather than reflect it, this being made the more evident by the gap between the rhetoric indulged in by her parents and their actual perception of an acute sense of racial inferiority. Véronica's community is trying to validate an intrinsically empty identity through emulating models to which they cannot belong, and asserting a secure identity in which they do not participate. Véronica transfers this awareness to all modes of discourse, finding them all suspect, and the text deploys a vast range of discourses to subvert them, showing their inadequacy. Véronica is acutely conscious of the system which both orders and is created by any particular discourse: as such she is the victim of the self-consciousness of the post-modern era. Not able to accept any one system, she rejects all, and thus is left unable to formulate a response to her environment, responding in a fragmentary way only.
Lack of discourse alienates Véronica from her own experience as she recognises too readily the set patterns on which she draws to understand her surroundings. The existence of discourses which she rejects interferes with her own perceptions, being stronger than they are. She repeatedly and compulsively reviews her impressions of the country in which she has just arrived to expunge anything that resembles travel brochure cliché.
Véronica does not know how to engage with what she sees, only how not to. This inability to engage with her experience on her own terms affects catastrophically her own vision of herself. Her ability to understand herself is suppressed by the interference of discourses of which she is the object, and from this lack of internal bearings springs an inability to order her perception of the world external to her. Her consequent relationship with her environment is always to be at one remove:
La ville et le pays, c'est cela pour moi. Un cadre, un décor dont le dénuement même convient à mon humeur. (89)
Actual space has no reality and experience becomes internalised. However, since Véronica is similarly alienated from her self, her response comes from a void, and thus is no more than 'humeur'.
This individual incapacity is not only disastrous for Véronica's own psyche, it has a fundamental impact on her as a social being. The discourse offered to Véronica by the Caribbean community from which she originates is inadequate, a borrowed one based on reaction against the previously destructive colonial pattern, seeking only to deny a false discourse, not to create a possible one. This apprehension of the nature of language as an ideological tool, unrelated to reality, is what causes Véronica to refuse to accept the political analysis offered by Saliou and his activist group. She recognises their discourse as that of European Marxism and cannot see how this can connect with an African reality. Assuming that discourse serves only to misrepresent, she fails to believe in the reality of the abuses of power around her. At her most lucid, she realises that she is incapable of action because of her ideological aphasia:
This inability to relate to her environment is figured in the text by the spaces which Véronica inhabits. Her own villa is appropriately situated: 'moi, on me donne asile dans cette espèce de no man's land des assistants techniques français et américains'. However, she is in fact rarely there, moving instead in an aimless circuit between a number of locations: Heremakhonon, villa of her politician lover, the Institute where she teaches, the surgery where she helps intermittently and the house of Saliou, activist friend. This wandering is symbolic of her outsider status. Whilst the town contains clear social divisions, as an outsider Véronica is able to move between social strata, and thus is not hindered in her wandering from the villas of the city's wealthiest to disreputable night clubs. Similarly, thanks to her influential contacts, she can move about the town with impunity even when curfews are imposed at times of unrest. Véronica is shown not to benefit from this ease of movement, but rather to be condemned not to inhabit the common space of shared discourse.
Véronica's relationship with her environment is also figured by absence. In fact the whole political action of the novel takes place off stage, beyond the scope of the narrator. Absence is not just used as a figure of Véronica's alienation; it is also the result of Véronica's dispossession. Because of her rejection of pre-determined systems, she exhibits an intense desire to isolate self and actions from any meaning to avoid their reinsertion into a discourse to which they do not belong. The tragic discovery she makes is that there are in fact no neutral spaces, a revelation made the more devastating by the African setting: 'Les sujets neutres, indifférents n'existent pas dans ce pays' (124)
The particularity of Condé's response to Véronica's alienated condition is that whilst seeing it as inevitable, and thus that Véronica is victim of this state, she also associates Véronica with guilt. She is shown to be guilty not just because of the actions that result from her dispossessed condition, but because of the nature of that condition itself. Her absence and statelessness are seen as malign, despite the ironic humour used to express this:
Véronica offers this unspoken response to Saliou's question 'où étiez-vous?' when she has been absent during the arrest of Birame III, a favourite pupil. Her absence is the more culpable since the reason for it is her choice to follow her lover Ibrahima Sory on a visit to the notorious military camp of Samiana. The timing is not coincidental. Ibrahima Sory is eager to keep her away from the town at moments of political action, and thus her absence becomes the badge of her guilt. The question 'où étiez-vous?' recurs as Saliou's favoured reproach.
Condé clearly condemns Véronica's failure to apprehend her complicity with the oppressive regime. Her distance from reality is show unequivocally to be ideologically irresponsible. Arrested for not carrying her identity papers, she knows that her status gives her immunity, but her reaction is shockingly impassive:
Véronica's state of pathological nostalgia is shown in terms of a longing for a lost innocence. She is in fact in search of a pre-lapsarian Africa. Her dream of Africa is of one which takes possession of its own identity through self-assertion:
In contrast Véronica sees herself as 'un Vendredi à qui l'Occident n'a plus rien à apprendre. Un Vendredi déjà trafiqué' (188), compromised by the contact with the West through colonisation and the esclavagiste history of the Caribbean. 'Trafiquée', she is both a victim of circumstance and unable to retrieve her ideological innocence. Post-colonial consciousness is the knowledge which has expelled Véronica from this Eden.
This nostalgia for a state preceding the complexities of post-colonial consciousness is the direct cause of her transgressive action. The attraction she feels towards Ibrahima Sory is precisely that he is representative of this old Africa, a 'nègre avec aieux' as she identifies him. One of the fundamental ironies of the text is that for all her tremedous lucidity, Véronica suspends all critical faculties when it comes to the search for a link with this Africa of her own imagining. She is undeterred by Sory's indifference to her quest and his part in it, just as she is undeterred by the knowledge she readily ignores that it is his ancestors who sold her own into slavery. That the creation of this fantasy is an essentially important need, and not simply part of a nostalgia for the picturesque, is clearly indicated in the text by the profound and otherwise inexplicable sense of peace which Véronica finds in his villa Heremakhonon. The fact that she feels this in the house of the notorious upholder of a bloody regime, who is planning the death of her friends, shows just how dangerous Véronica's wilful delusion is. Consequently Heremakhonon proves an impossible idyll: more and more the villa becomes a trap which intensifies Véronica's distance, as Ibrahima Sory keeps her there to remove her from the scene of events.
En attendant le bonheur stresses the essential links between discourse, perception and action. Discourse dictates perception, and Véronica's state of dispossession leaves her unable to interpret her world. This inability to engage with her environment inevitably leads to inaction and a distance which Maryse Condé views as inherently guilty, the more so in a situation which demands action. Consequently, not possessing a discourse is seen in the text as a guilty condition. To abscond from discourse is to refuse to order reality and thus to opt out. Maryse Condé makes it quite clear that Véronica's obsession with her quest for identity has led her astray, and that she has made the wrong choices. The book ends with Véronica's return to France, having reached an impasse from which she can only retreat. The difficulty though, lies in the fact that Véronica's response is the only intellectually satisfactory solution. Her reservations about the systems of thought presented to her are entirely sincere. The internal psychological effects of this disinheritance are as serious as the moral impossibility of her situation. It is precisely because of her inability to engage with the world around her that Véronica is 'une femme paumée'. Véronica's actions become a series of unconnected responses whose most consistent motivation is the desire for an impossible primitive state. Véronica's predicament highlights how discourse ownership affects not simply the psychological condition of the subject, but also how this has a direct impact on action.
So what are we to think of the conclusions reached in the text? Is Maryse Condé purely offering a pessimistic appraisal on an impossible situation? is she advocating the creation of an individual discourse at the expense of collective action? should we understand that any collective discourse is destructive and alienating to the individual? En attendant le bonheur is a text which in its original form attracted considerable criticism for the attitudes expressed by its narrator. Véronica expresses her alienation in terms which are often unpalatable precisely because Condé faces squarely the fact that for the alienated post-colonial consciousness no satisfactory discourse has been created. She is courageous enough to reject borrowed discourse and to admit that the crisis is not solved by the recognition of its existence. The book has been criticised because of the lucidity with which Condé endows Véronica, but in fact her text also offers severe indictment of the consequences of this lucidity and reveals the tragic condition of her protagonist.
Maryse Condé has been accused of being politically incorrect in the same manner as her heroine, privileging the individual at the expense of political achievement in a society that still needs solidarity and group struggle before the individual can afford to opt out. However, the dilemma Condé presents through Véronica belongs precisely to the post-colonial condition, and, Condé suggests, must be addressed before political and social engagement is possible. Véronica is bereft of discourse because of the alienated condition of the society, indeed race, to which she belongs. The text suggests that to accept this aphasic state is inappropriate, but does not offer any actual solutions to its protagonist's predicament.
What it does offer is a particular view of the relationship between identity and discourse from which it is possible to draw certain conclusions. In her affair with Ibrahima Sory, Véronica is trying to do the precisely that which has made Caribbean society insupportable to her: to buy her way into a tradition and lineage that cannot possibly be her own. She differs only in her choice of old Africa over New World Black culture. This strategy fails because discourse gains its legitimacy from a communality, reflecting the society from which it arises. Discourse exists within a historical continuum: the discourse Véronica yearns for can no longer exist and her mistake is to try to resurrect it in the corporeal form of Ibrahima Sory. It is necessarily an organic creation. Véronica perceives this, and thus rejects artificially created or borrowed discourses, highlighting their inadequacy. However, by rejecting possible systems of expression Véronica puts herself outside a community and thus makes the creation of a communal expression impossible. Her critical stance is born of the search for an individual discourse corresponding to her particular reality, yet this is shown by the text not to be viable, leading to personal and collective disaster. The way forward for communities who have been deprived of discourse is not to be found in the individual's quest for self, but rather in the slow and difficult creation of a genuine community and communality. Perhaps more than any other Caribbean writer Condé has the humility to see that the individual writer cannot create that discourse, but must promote and reflect the creation of a culture from which a genuine identity can eventually evolve.
 Maryse Condé. En attendant le bonheur. Paris: Laffont, 1997. The book was first published by as Heremakhonon (Paris: Union Générale d'Editions, 1976). The re-edition has undergone minor reworkings.
 In Françoise Pfaff's Entretiens avec Maryse Condé Paris: Karthala, 1993, Maryse Condé tells how she initially wrote Heremakhonon with a third person narrative, but decided that the text worked better as a first person narrative. This suggests quite how difficult the author found it to assign a discourse to her narrator.
Dr Jane Lee lectures at the University of Exeter. Her thesis was a critical edition of Gide's Thesee, and she is currently co-editing a volume on the relationship between religion and literature in the context of French literature post 1789, (Un)Faithful Texts. In the field of Francophone literature, she is studying representations of and attitudes towards the past, concentrating for the moment on women writers.