Waves, Emanations: The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart

This, my friends, is a book that will pull back a curtain and show you something incomparably lovely, and then while you are gazing at it in awe, punch you in the stomach.

NYRB Classics, 2013
translated by Barbara Bray
Editions Du Seuil, 1980

Is that a recommendation? You bet it is. Originally published in French in 1972 as Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle (Rain and Wind on Télumée Miracle), The Bridge of Beyond is the story of four generations of women from Guadaloupe, an archipelago between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. It is narrated by Telumee, and it is primarily the story of her life and the relationship she has with her remarkable grandmother, Toussine—known to the locals as Queen Without a Name.

When Telumee’s mother meets a man, she packs her ten-year-old daughter off to live with Queen Without a Name. For Telumee, it is almost like entering a different world.

Then we came to a floating bridge over a strange river where huge locust trees grew along the banks, plunging everything into an eternal blue semidarkness. My grandmother, bending over her small charge, breathed contentment: “Keep it up, my little poppet, we’re at the Bridge of Beyond.” And taking me by one hand and holding on with the other to the rusty cable, she led me slowly across that deathtrap of disintegrating planks with the river boiling below. And suddenly we were on the other bank; Beyond: the landscape of Fond-Zombi unfolded before my eyes, a fantastic plain with bluff after bluff, field after field stretching into the distance, up to the gash in the sky that was the mountain itself, Balata Bel Bois. Little houses could be seen scattered about, either huddled together around a common yard or closed in on their own solitude, given over to themselves, to the mystery of the forest, to spirits, and to the grace of God.”

— Chapter 4

As much as Telumee loves Fond-Zombi, life there is hard. Moments of joy and belonging are more than paid for by long stretches of suffering and despair. The Guadaloupe that Telumee lives in has been shaped by generations of slavery, built atop a foundation of violent colonialism (to this day the archipelago is claimed by the French, despite movements for independence). Likewise, those who inhabit this place are shaped by intergenerational trauma and internalized torment.

Make no mistake: parts of this book are hard to read. As Telumee makes her way through life, contending with poverty, hunger, racism, assault, horrific abuse, and the whims of a community that is not always good at taking care of its own, she has moments of questioning her very existence. At times she finds ways to escape her own mind, something that some readers of the book, as well as Telumee’s own narration, describe as “madness.” But to me, this is not madness. This is survival.

No consolation came, and I stared at myself intently, and the sun set and the night fell, and the same sun rose next day, and I saw there was no longer any thread linking my cabin to the others. Then I would lie on the ground and try to dissolve my flesh: I would fill myself with bubbles and suddenly go light—a leg would be no longer there, then an arm, my head and my whole body faded into the air, and I was floating so high over Fond-Zombi it looked no bigger to me than a speck of pollen in space.”

— Chapter 9

Reading this book was like being borne along on waves that sometimes lifted you up with the transcendence of their beauty and sometimes plunged you under with their equally expressive horrors. It was both sobering and thought-provoking to consciously try to shed my modern and privileged sensibilities while reading this.

Outrage at the abuse that Telumee endures made a part of me want to shake her and tell her to get out of there, to save herself. But another part of me realized that it is not that simple—there are many factors at play. The women of Guadaloupe sometimes have to do things that damage their humanity—they might have to submit to white employers who treat them as less than human; to work long days in the canefields, tearing their hands amid the cane splinters in the blazing heat; even to stay tethered to sadism and abuse far longer than they should for the lack of any other options—and to weigh the pain of staying against the pain of walking away from a fellow, beloved, struggling soul. These things are part of the legacy of slavery and dispossession.

For the first time in my life I realized that slavery was not some foreign country, some distant region from which a few very old people came, like the two or three who still survived in Fond-Zombi. It had all happened here, in our hills and valleys, perhaps near this clump of bamboo, perhaps in the air I was breathing. And I thought of the laughter of certain men and women, and their little fits of coughing echoed in me, and a heart-rending music arose in my bosom.”

— Chapter 2

But in among the pain there is love and there is a sense of something greater than oneself. Faint traces of magic, or witchcraft, are present, particularly in the character of Ma Cia, who is Queen Without a Name’s friend, and who it is said shapeshifts at will. Ma Cia is the one to whom people go for healing and for cures, and she eventually passes down some of her knowledge to Telumee, who takes up this mantle herself later in life. Queen Without a Name, too, is always ready with a story or a parable to teach her young granddaughter about life—and about that which goes deeper than what we can see.

Her loving and warm relationships with Queen Without a Name and Ma Cia teach Telumee never to give up, never to give in, never to succumb to despair, no matter how hard things get. Queen Without a Name had decided, Telumee tells us early on, that “life was not going to lead her up the garden path”:

In her view a human back was the strongest, toughest, most flexible thing in the world, an unchanging reality stretching far beyond the eye’s reach…Nothing made her rejoice, or feel sorry for herself, or complain, and no one knew what she had boiling in her pot, meat soup or a stone from the river.”

— Chapter 3

It is with this strength that Telumee continues to survive and to carry out her days on Guadaloupe. The story follows her all the way to old age, when she is a village matriarch herself, crowned “Telumee Miracle” by her community. Right to the end, the waves ebb and flow, now content, now uncertain.

Jamaica Kincaid wrote the introduction to the New York Review of Books 2013 edition. She wrote, “Literature like this does no offer the comfort of an already digested plot. It seeks out the truth of history, which turns out to be most powerfully and effectively conveyed through fiction.” It’s true that this book is a chronicle of a life rather than a story that fits a proscribed narrative arc. It’s also true that you can sense Guadaloupe, its landscape and its people, their lives and the way they live them. The Bridge of Beyond draws you in and shows you astonishing things, for better or for worse. It’s worth the trip.

The sky seemed alive, swept by waves, emanations, and you had the feeling it was a realm that excluded men but whose mere existence was enough to comfort them.”

— Chapter 10
André and Simone Schwarz-Bart, 1967.
Photo: Georges Kelaïdites
Simone Schwarz-Bart, 2017
Photo: Phillipe Triay

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