Sep 16 2016

Eve Out of Her Ruins by Ananda Devi

Anjuli Raza Kolb

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Eve Out of Her Ruins

by Ananda Devi

translation by Jeffrey Zuckerman

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The Mauritian writer Ananda Devi’s 2006 novel Ève de ses décombres, just released in an arresting and beautiful translation by Jeffrey Zuckerman as Eve Out of Her Ruins, starts with an image of Eve, a twig-thin girl of seventeen, limping out of the ruined edges of a city, school bag slung across her shoulder. “Walking is hard,” the book begins, “I limp, I hobble along on the steaming asphalt. With each step a monster rises, fully formed. The urban night swells, elastic, around me. The salty air from the Caudan waterfront scrapes my wounds and my skin, but I go on. I clear my own path…. The lack of hair makes me feel more naked than ever. Then I remember: my mother sheared it off. When I saw myself in the mirror, I saw that I had a lioness’s head. I had a mane of hunger. ”

Why is she limping? What is in the bag? Where is Eve lurching to? Why has her mother sheared off her hair? These questions swim eel-like through the surf of four different narrators: Eve, the vengeful schoolgirl, lonely and hard; Saadiq, the soppy boy-poet who loves Eve and tries to save her from prowling men and her own impulsive wrath; Clélio, the macho troubadour turned murder suspect who waits for his brother to whisk him away to a better life in France; and Savita, Eve’s lover, whose body turns up in a dumpster the night after she witnesses Eve being manhandled by a sticky, love-struck teacher. These four young people roam Mauritius’s capital Port Louis, a city that, by Saadiq’s description, “looks like oil and smells like an armpit.” They tumble in and out of classrooms and apartment buildings, off of bikes and through shuttered clothing factories where their mothers once worked, and stare out at the sea, dreaming of life beyond the dead-end neighborhood of Troumaron. Half-answers shimmer here and there, but we don’t know until the end where Eve is going with her gun tucked into her backpack, freshly shorn by her mother in mourning and sympathy, her lover gone. “My father says: They said you set a bad example for her. I answer: Do you know any good examples around here? He immediately gets up and slaps my face.” He beats her so badly she can hardly walk.

The novel’s voices are distinct, but they all flash with the hot mirages of adolescence—all four kids see with the hard certainty of desire things that are and aren’t there. “I am your double. I am your single,” says Saadiq. “Her laugh is so rare, but when it comes it’s like a hurricane,” says Savita, of Eve. “Midnight burns. Noon burns. Every hour burns,” says Clélio.

There’s also an unindentified voice set off in italics, a semi-omniscient second-person that seems to begin as Saadiq writing Eve’s life: “You are not from here, you tell yourself. You repeat that until everything ends.” In the second part of the novel, this fifth voice seems to shift into Eve writing herself, snatching the “you” back from Saad: “...you steel yourself: he never felt the least pity himself. Cowardly, humiliated, selfish: all the more reason for him to disappear. He attempts to get up, but he doesn’t have the strength. In his uneven breath, you can see he’s afraid. He says: Don’t hurt me.” The battle over this voice—over who gets to tell this story—captures Eve’s sad, aerial desire to own herself, even as she gives every bit of her body away in trade for pencils, rulers, tutoring, protection. Getting out at all costs, limping, clearing her own path—this is the oldest, least original, most essential arc in the story of womanhood, and Devi gives her heroine the Old Testament name to match.

The book begins and ends with Eve leaving Troumaron to avenge Savita’s death—a spent, adamant, lion-headed girl on her way to an act of irrevocable violence. This journey calls to mind many other books about island girls, stories in which the limits of experience are reflected in the constant visibility of the edges of land, boundaries that seem to both invite departure and foreclose it. Eve recalls the protagonist of Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy, a harder character and book than anyone remembers; Michelle Cliff’s Clare Savage, of Abeng and No Telephone to Heaven, who departs in reverse, back to Jamaica from Brooklyn; Derek Walcott’s Helen, whose only recourse is to depart again and again from those who love her, repurposing the come-and-go of servitude as an act of freedom; and Bhanu Kapil’s Ban, marooned on an archipelago of ancestors’ chalk outlines. Devi’s novel is of a piece with an important strand in postcolonial feminist writing that locates the central tragedy of survival in the necessity of repeated leave-takings, which are always acts of betrayal—betrayal of home, of history, of nation, of those who stayed.

Devi also invokes, through Saadiq’s love of French poetry, studied at school and written all over the walls of his room, the postcolonial writer’s confrontation with the canon. Saad wrestles with his compulsion to cage himself in the horizontal bars of copied verse, trying to stretch and bend Rimbaud to fit the winds and fruits of Mauritius, to fit Eve, the keeper of his heart. “I want both:” he confesses, “to write and to have Eve. Eve and writing. Hand in hand.”

The challenges of getting Devi’s tropical-guttural-teenage mood right are considerable, but Zuckerman’s translation is confident and accomplished, capturing the marine clarity of the prose without losing any of its poetic heat. There is much pleasure here for the bilingual reader, since the translator handles the novel’s punning élan cleverly by echoing English phrases in the original with French in the translation, and preserves moments of song and lyricism in totally gleanable Mauritian Creole. For those who don’t get the wordplay, there’s a generous translator’s note at the end that explains a lot, including, more delicately than I will, how the name of the impoverished neighborhood of Troumaron is a butthole joke. Life in Port Louis, the backside of tourist paradise, crumbles into dust inside the Ralph Lauren factory, and keeps growing like weeds.

After being assaulted by a gang of men and left for dead—before she’s met Savita, before Savita’s body is found in the trash—Eve thinks, “Life goes on and I’m so indifferent to myself that I don’t resist. I’m trying to figure out where life’s limit must be. What color it would be. What exactly the point of no return would be, that would tell me what I am.” At the end of the novel, Eve is seen colluding with a cop in full view of every window in Troumaron, while Clélio rots in prison, suspected of Savita’s murder. Clélio and Saadiq’s boys are out for blood—cop blood, and now Eve’s blood. They gather for a riot amid their mothers’ erstwhile sewing machines in the abandoned factory, “ready to devour, ready to disembowel,” while Eve limps for her limit.

Devi writes these scenes of violence with cool nonchalance: Eve’s body lying naked on the splintering biology lab bench under her teacher’s panting abuse; Eve unveiling Savita’s purple face in the morgue; keening under a low wall in the arms of a boy whose love will never meet her measure. After completing her gruesome task, the one she’s headed for in the opening scene, Eve finds Saad waiting to fetch her away from the boys coming after her with their broken bottles. She chastises him, “I don’t want you to take the blame for me.... I forbid you from doing it. I don’t need you at all.”

Kincaid’s Lucy, animated by a similar combination of historical injustice and the teenage girl’s lacerating perception, is a textual foremother of Eve. Lucy speaks in the same flat, ferocious tone: “I wanted to have a powerful odor and would not care if it gave offense.” Although Lucy’s overwhelming love is for her mother, she, like Eve, cleaves herself from her love in crushing, cruel scenes of refusal. She won’t open the letters from home: “I knew that if I read only one, I would die from longing for her.” Kincaid’s novel ends with Lucy writing a single line in a new notebook: “I wish I could love someone so much I would die from it.” The perfect symmetry of these two moments crystallizes Eve’s fugitive ending. Lucy does love someone so much she “would die from longing,” but she can look at her loss, at the letters from home, and not die. Likewise with Eve, who cannot countenance surviving the grief of Savita’s death, and so must kill and wait for what comes. She is out of her ruins, but we don’t know where she’s limping.

Is there anything for the postcolonial heroine to do in the face of these hells—being from somewhere, having a mother, losing a lover—apart from razing her hair and stalking through the night with Molotov cocktails aimed at her back like a lioness, a cannibal, a newborn monster? Calmly, chillingly, Devi’s novel says no. Every Eve is born in writing: this is how we betray our origins, how we make and leave our ruins.

Anjuli Raza Kolb is Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Williams College.

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