Mamzelle Dragonfly

by Raphaël Confiant

translated by Linda Coverdale

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

161 pages, 2000








Mamzelle Chestnut

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


With the bold, economic strokes of a master storyteller, Raphaël Confiant evokes the terrible beauty of Martinique at the middle of the 20th century. The warm, golden light. The racial unrest. The riches and the poverty: All are delivered to us in the slender story of Adelise, a young woman who is sent from her rural home at Gros-Morne to live "In-City" with her aunt, Philomène, in Fort-de-France.

On the surface, this doesn't seem a bad plan. Adelise had recently been enlisted to work in the cane fields with her mother. Here the field boss forces sex on the 14-year-old and, then:

...when the men learned I'd become a real woman, they all asked me if they might climb up on my belly, and I had no way to refuse. Sometimes I wondered why Rosalie claimed that making love was a thing as sweet as honey-dipped sugar. I didn't understand because I felt absolutely nothing. Nothing at all.

Surely, In-City will be an improvement?

It's not to be, however, though the talent Adelise has developed for disassociating herself from her body proves handy once she's settled in with her aunt at Fort-de-France. In the connecting years between hopeful youth and middle age, Philomène has turned to a kind of casual prostitution to keep herself in the basics she requires in the corrugated tin shanty she calls home. "Adelise," she tells her niece, "just because I'm a whore doesn't mean you have to become one too... I didn't choose this trade, I was dragged into it by poverty and bad luck -- they're what brought me to the life." She tells Adelise that, "We'll find you a good job. My sister will never be able to say that she sent me her child, the only child left her by the Goodlord, and I turned her into a slut."

Yet, there is a dearth of jobs available for an unskilled teenage girl In-City and Adelise's aunt gets the idea of marketing her niece to a very small and select clientele: one that will pay well to lie with a virgin câpresse. Arriving at the home of the wealthy bourgeois, her aunt tells her that she's, "one brave girl, huh... Got to have courage to open your legs to some guy you don't know flap-all about, I'm telling you. There's some who imagine it's as easy as snap!"

Despite their sometime calling, both Adelise and Philomène are strong feminine characters: both are chestnuts, which we learn in translator Linda Coverdale's excellent and thoughtful glossary, is "An allusion to the Creole proverb that says a woman knocked down will get up again, like the fallen chestnut that always sprouts, whereas a man in the same situation is a breadfruit that stays rotting on the ground."

Coverdale's translation does Confiant's text brilliant justice. The cadences of the islands are captured perfectly, something that is especially important in this work: Confiant writes in Creole, then translates his own works into French. Obviously, further translation requires a delicate touch and Coverdale would be the only choice for such a job, as her expertise in translating Creole-based French texts into English is unparalleled. (Among others, Coverdale has done all of the English translations of Confiant's fellow Martinique writer, Patrick Chamoiseau with whom Confiant and Jean Bernabe wrote L'Eloge de la Creolite in 1989, the seminal work that has become the anthem of the Creolite movement.)

Mamzelle Dragonfly takes us on an unexpected island tour: political unrest and movement towards change as well as an intimate visitation with an unlikely heroine. The first of Confiant's works to be translated into English, Mamzelle Dragonfly is a triumph of understatement; its major characters not easily forgotten. | August 2000


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.