The latest novel from the grande dame of Caribbean literature
Born in Guadeloupe, Ivan and Ivana are twins with a bond so strong they become afraid of their feelings for one another. When their mother sends them off to live with their father in Mali they begin to grow apart, until, as young adults in Paris, Ivana’s youthful altruism compels her to join the police academy, while Ivan walks the path of radicalization. The twins, unable to live either with or without each other, become perpetrator and victim in a wave of violent attacks. In The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana, her most modern novel to date, Maryse Condé, winner of the New Academy Prize (the “Alternative Nobel”) in Literature in 2018, offers an impressive picture of a colorful yet turbulent 21st century.
May 5, 2020
1. How do you interpret the reference to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet on the very first page of the novel?
2. What role does gender play in determining the fates of Ivan and Ivana?
3. How much control do Ivan and Ivana have over their lives, and how much rests in the hands of other forces—their mother, their father, society, racism, etc?
4. What do you think of the character of the dibia? How does he influence the characters and plot of the novel? Do you have a sort of dibia in your own life?
5. What role does religion play in the forces of radicalization? What role does gender play?
6. How do you interpret the first-person plural narrator that appears throughout?
7. How does oral tradition inform the novel in terms of structure, plot, etc?
8. On page 161, the narrator admits, “Once again we have very little reliable information as to what happened next.” From where do you think the narrator has gotten this story? How many iterations of the story must there be, and what version of it do you think this is?
9. How does the presence of an unreliable narrator change the way you absorb the story?
10. What is the role of geography in the novel? How does it affect the fates of the twins? In what ways is it its own character?
Praise for Marysé Conde
“She describes the ravages of colonialism and the post-colonial chaos in a language which is both precise and overwhelming. In her stories the dead live close to the living in a world where gender, race, and class are constantly turned over in new constellations.”
ANN PÅLSSON, Jury, New Academy Prize in Literature
“Condé is a born storyteller.”
“Maryse Condé is a treasure of world literature, writing from the center of the African diaspora with brilliance and a profound understanding of all humanity.”
“Maryse Condé is the grande dame of Caribbean literature.”
Praise for The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana
“The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana is a rollicking, rumbustious and slyly mischievous Candide for our times.”
Maya Jaggi, The Guardian
“Condé is at her signature best: offering complex, polyphonic and ultimately shattering stories whose provocations linger long after the final pages…The book is a reflection on the dangers of binary thinking…One is never on steady ground with Condé; she is not an ideologue, and hers is not the kind of liberal, safe, down-the-line morality that leaves the reader unimplicated.”
Justin Torres, The New York Times
“The turbulent narrative unfolds in a deceptively relaxed manner; incidents happen with the abrupt motivelessness of fairytale, but the novel is all the more powerful for those effects.”
The Sunday Times
“The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana is a searing literary portrait of the exploitation of immigrants, the corruption of governments, and the powerful emergence of radicalism, with astute commentary on how these elements breed trauma, generation after generation.”
“Set during the Charlie Hedbo attacks, this is a fast-paced saga that reveals a seldom-addressed period of African history. Condé’s writing is both lyrical and textured, and showcases her tremendous talents.”
“Condé’s scope is expansive: cosmic, global, and deeply personal. The result is a story from the perspective of the Global South that enthralls as it explores the urgent economic and cultural contradictions of post-colonialism, globalization, class, and alienation.”
The Arts Fuse
“Told by a charming, lively third-person narrator, the novel evokes its various settings beautifully and takes a penetrating, wide-ranging look at the effects of racism, colonialism, and inequality.”
“What an astounding novel. Never have I read anything so wild and loving, so tender and ruthless. Condé is one of our greatest writers, a literary sorcerer but here she has outdone even herself, summoned a storm from out of the world’s troubled heart. Ivan and Ivana, in their love, in their Attic fates, mirror our species’ terrible brokenness and it’s improbable grace.”
“The breadth, depth, and power of Maryse Condé’s majestic work is exceptionally remarkable. The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana is a superb addition to this incomparable oeuvre, and is one of Condé’s most timely, virtuoso, and breathtaking novels.”
“Brilliantly imagined, Maryse Condé’s new novel presents a dual bildungsroman of twins born into poverty in the African diaspora and follows their global travels to its shocking ending. Once again, Condé transmutes contemporary political traumas into a mesmerizing family fable.”
HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.
“Maryse Condé offers us with The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana yet another ambitious, continent-crossing whirlwind of a literary journey. The marvelous siblings at the heart of her tale are inspiring and unsettling in equal measure, richly drawn incarnations of the contemporary postcolonial individual in perpetual geographic and cultural movement. It is a remarkable story from start to finish.”
KAIAMA L. GLOVER
“Maryse Condé’s prodigious fictional universes are founded on a radical and generative disregard for boundaries based on geography, religion, history, race, and gender. In The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana, the most intimate human relationships acquire meaning only on the scale of the world-historical, and as we follow the twins in their fated journey from the Caribbean to Africa and Europe, we learn about love, happiness, calamity, and, at last, the survival of hope.”
ANGELA Y. DAVIS
“Beating in the novel’s heart is orality, carrying with it the breath of histories, literatures and languages of Africa and the Caribbean…The truth is not only murky and complex, it is often elusive. All we have is interpretation.”
The Irish Times
“With this story of a young man from Guadeloupe who finds himself persuaded by the pull of jihad, Condé has written one of her most impressive novels to date, one that seamlessly resonates with the problems of our time.”
“Condé’s latest novel is a beautiful and dramatic story with its origins in the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Masterly.”
“Maryse Condé addresses very contemporary issues in her latest novel: racism, jihadi terrorism, political corruption and violence, economic inequality in Guadeloupe and metropolitan France, globalization and immigration.”
World Literature Today
“An exploration of contemporary chaos”
“This new novel, written in an almost exuberant style, contains many typical Condé elements, in particular the mix of a small family with global events, and the nuances of existing images.”