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By Raphael Contiant
Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000
ISBN: 0-374-19932-9
169 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
February 2014

Mamzelle Dragonfly is set in the Creole/French speaking island of Martinique. The early parts of the novel set in first a remote village in the countryside and then in a horrible slum of the capital were both very familiar to me from my many visits to the country of Haiti. I found the author’s descriptions so vivid and authentic that they brought back many memories of my days in Haiti.

Also, his description of much of the culture – the comfort with exotic religious beliefs and strange and harmful spirits and the terrible slums and violence of the capital were also very familiar to me.

What did surprise me was the seemingly dreamy, out of touch, shy young woman having such an attitude of sophistication and resignation to her status at such a young age.

Adelise is 16 when we meet her. She lives with her mother in a remote village in the countryside, and her best friend is a tree. She loves this tree, it is her security blanket. Her mother on the other hand hates and fears the tree. There is not much hope for her in that rural area so her mother sends her to the capitol of Fort-au-France to live with her Aunt Philomene.

Her aunt is a prostitute, but recognizing the beauty of Adelise and her youth (and her falsely claimed virginity), her aunt first makes her a prostitute to selected rich men, but eventually gets her a job as a waitress, seemingly to really want respectability for her niece.

The novel follows the life of Adelise in the next 10 years in which she continues her work as a high priced prostitute, but continues with her waitressing job. She meets and falls in love with a real loser of a fellow about her own age.

There was strangeness about Adelise which bothered me thorough much of the novel. On the one had she appears to be such a decent young woman, kind, without much ambition, but ready to work and even to seek respectability. But she seemed completely oblivious that her work as a prostitute might in any way be odd or counterproductive to a decent life long-term.

Eventually it becomes clear that this attitude has roots in her very young days when he mother had taken her to work with her in the cane fields and she was routinely raped by overseers and even regular workers in the fields. In order to maintain her sanity she simply had to utterly disregard her body and she developed the idea that it was in no way odd that her body, like something separate from her person, was a use tool for men.

Much in the novel was quite familiar to me. For more than 20 years I used to visit Haiti at least twice a year, some years even more. I had worked both in the rural areas and the city of Port-au-Prince, so the description of both rural and city life in Martinique were quite familiar to me.

However, Martinique is in no way identical to Haiti. Martinique is a part of France and all citizens are French citizens. However, within the pecking order of the island a major difference is seen between the whites who are from France, and the families of “settlers” who are from the families who settled Martinique in the 18th century. The former, the “white-French” are despised and the families of the early settlers are taken as very decent and respectable people. They are called “beke” and tend to be land-owing aristocrats who, in this period just after WWII, seem to do little harm.

What really brought home the major radical difference between Haiti and Martinique is the fact that Martinicans are French citizens. At the very end of the novel, when life seems utterly hopeless for Adalise, she is able to just plan to go to Paris to get a job and live with a cousin who will help her with this resettlement. I was just finishing this novel when a major news story broke of yet another Haitian boat of refugees sank and many died in the process. Haitians are citizens only of Haiti and a people no one on earth seems to want and they have no options such as that which faced Adalise in her moment of reaching the end of the possibility of life for her in Martinique.

I have read other novels which are a mix of third person narrative of an omniscient author, and first person accounts. However, I was never comfortable with the manner in which author Raphael Confiant used that mix of two different narration formats. Further I came away from the novel not satisfied with the character development, especially of Adalise, the central character, and even less so with her husband, Homere, who remains an unsatisfactorily developed character to the end. Despite these complaints, it was an interesting and very quick read. I’m in no way unhappy I read it and I did learn a good deal about Martinique, a place about which I knew almost nothing.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett