The short story “Secret Love” (published in Histoire du pied et autres fantaisies, 2011) takes place on the island of Mauritius, not far from Vacoas. The story is narrated from the point of view of a teacher, Andréa, an elderly lady who teaches the girls at the Bonne Terre convent where she lives. She also makes up stories, first oral and then written, for the young female inmates of the Beau Bassin prison. Furthermore, there are two interwoven stories: on the one hand, there is that of Andréa who succeeds in gaining the confidence of the prisoners of Beau Bassin and in particular that of Crystal de Bambous, a dangerous yet lovable girl whom Andréa succeeds in persuading not to commit suicide by setting fire to herself within the prison. On the other hand, there is ‘Starless’, a story written by Andréa describing the miserable existence of the Indian Maya who dies after a life of endless toil, the victim of a violent attack by her son. However, just before dying, and for the first time in her life, she is able to gaze at the shining splendour of a star and undergo an experience of spiritual transcendence.
The story is structured around two alternating narratives: the principal narrative, that of Andréa and the inserted narrative, that of the ‘Starless”, signaled by a change in typography. However, the structure of the story is more complex than that of simple linear alternating voices: both narratives contain flashbacks and anticipated events. There are also resonances between the two: the life of Maya is largely superimposed on that of the prisoners of Beau Bassin.
The story explores a common theme in Le Clézio’s writing, that of the struggle of the poor to survive against of all odds within a hostile universe. The social aspect is highlighted in the text: the prisoners of Beau Bassin are from the fringes of society and have been placed under the tyrannical authority of the notables of the island of Mauritius.
At the same time, an engagement with the theme of writing and with the stance of the writer is equally in evidence. Indeed, the story communicates a positive vision of literature, one that is capable of saving a life: Andrea’s stories deter Crystal from committing suicide. Besides, in the very choice of the short story, literature offers us the possibility of sharing, both in terms of the audience for whom Andrea is writing and in those of the prisoners who make their own contribution through suggesting to their teacher possible ways of continuing the stories. Andrea can be viewed as the prototype of the postcolonial writer who succeeds in going further than disillusionment with the African historical situation, further than the dreams that this could harbour: the writers’ goal is now to transform their writing by remaining clear-sighted as to the evils and difficulties of contemporary society without however renouncing a specific form of magic realism.
In addition, the very choice of the island of Mauritius suggests the presence of a multi-cultural community, the space par excellence of cultural cross-fertilization: there are references to cooking (the rice, dal and faratas that the prisoners eat) and to Indian dance (conveyed by the word “payal” which designates the foot bangles decorated with bells worn by women in India). There is also the presence of the “Chinese boutique” where Andrea buys her exercise books as well as a mention of creole, …all of which points to a intermingling of peoples and cultures. Finally, Andrea may live in a convent but she is happy to listen to the call to prayer by the muezzin.
Translated by Bronwen Martin
BEDRANE, Sabrinelle, « Histoire du pied et autres fantaisies. Déplacements génériques » in Roman 20-50, numéro consacré à J.-M.G. Le Clézio, La Fièvre, Printemps et autres saisons, Histoire du pied et autres fantaisies, ‘La Prom’, n° 55, juin 2013, p. 25-33 ; CAVALLERO, Claude, « L’espoir en filigrane », in Roman 20-50, op. cit., p. 65-76 ; COLIN, Claire, « Écrire, un jeu joyeux et nécessaire », in Roman 20-50, op. cit., p. 77-87 ; LE CLÉZIO, J.-M.G, Histoire du pied et autres fantaisies, Paris, Gallimard, 2011 (p. 217-233) ; THIBAULT, Bruno, « Trois femmes puissantes. La vision de l’Afrique contemporaine dans Histoire du pied et autres fantaisies », in Roman 20-50, op. cit., p. 37-47.