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Testing the Boundaries

By Emily Wilder

The Living Days

Ananda Devi, Les Fugitives, 2020

Eve Out of Her Ruins

Ananda Devi, Les Fugitives, 2016

Mauritian Francophone writer Ananda Devi has numerous literary prizes under her belt and yet remains sadly little known in the Anglophone literary world. Her 2013 novel Les Jours Vivants, or The Living Days, has been belatedly published this year by nano-press ‘Les Fugitives’. This and her earlier novel Eve Out of Her Ruins (2016) wrestle with the impact of colonialism and sexual abuse through subtle retellings of biblical stories, ultimately aiming to perplex the reader’s sympathetic inclinations. Re-reading, connecting the dots and teasing out the complex symbolism of Devi’s work reveals her as an author who tests the boundaries of literary convention.

The mountain blocks our view of other things

The story of Eve out of Her Ruins is that of a girl whose first word was ‘no’, but who was raised in a society where ‘no’ carried no meaning. Set in Mauritius, Devi builds a holistic picture of life in the ghetto of Troumaron through five interweaved voices. Much like Sartre’s Bouville, the name of the town hints at its character before you even begin reading: un trou marron translates as ‘a brown hole’. As the name suggests, this slum near the capital of Mauritius becomes a kind of trap for many of the young people growing up there, who have neither an education nor a means of escape. Devi characterises this town as a place of violence, stirring social unrest, and, with the mountain looming over the town, a slum that is geographically as well as economically confining.

Employing English, French and Mauritian Creole, Devi neatly captures the uncertain mix of cultures and languages that Mauritius has been forced to inherit. The battle between the identities of the colonisers (the Dutch, the French, and then the English), which have been imposed onto the country and its indigenous identity, is one which plays out constantly in the book: from the language the characters choose to speak down to the décor of their homes, the identity of the colonised is often subsumed. One character, Saadiq, allies himself to the French identity through his adoption of Rimbaud’s poetry, finding in him a ‘brother’. Devi hints to us more than once that this will likely be his ticket out of Troumaron.

The man, in his uselessness, prevails

Much like the country of Mauritius, our protagonist Eve also finds herself colonised and overpowered by outside forces: in this case, men. This occurs to the point of losing all sense of self. From a painfully young age, her male peers begin to see her in terms of what they can take from her and take they do. At the beginning of the novel, we notice that she is 17 and yet has already formed a second skin of hatred and apathy as a means of self-protection. She feels safe in the knowledge that she has buried any gentle, vulnerable part of herself deep beneath an ‘armour of thorns’, and so uses her body as currency. She convinces herself that, more often than not, she is the one overseeing and controlling what is really her abuse, that she gives up to these men only ‘a shadow of a body’ and gets what she needs in return. Should they turn violent (which they often do), she waits serenely for it to end, all the while drawing the reader’s attention to the utter cowardice of a man who would beat a young girl. ‘I play the game’, she states, bitterly parodying the sense of a childhood she has lost.

It eventually dawns on Eve, however, that the space, or even the soul, that she has preserved deep inside herself is now desolate. The reader sees that she could never survive years of sexual violence and come out unscathed: this is no longer the girl who once stated, ‘I’m the predator here’, but a woman who has scrubbed away everything demanded of her, until nothing remains underneath. Given Eve’s self-preserving detachment from these men, the reader is left to seethe quietly on her behalf, particularly when confronted with characters such as her schoolteacher, who she agrees can use her for sex in return for tutoring for her exams. Her description that ‘he charges for what he knows’ and ‘that knowledge is painful and hard-won’, is crushing for us to read. To see Eve fighting to give herself a better education and future, but doing so through prostitution, marks her out as someone you are desperate to see win, but know will lose. The book’s depiction of Eve’s abuse by her teacher, and its whip-smart biblical allegory, encapsulates Devi’s prowess as a writer: she is one who probes and interrogates the taboos that most authors would run a mile from.

A little, lizardly, spineless thing

This layering of religious motif and metaphor within Devi’s novel is masterfully done. With an Eve, the reader expects an Adam: yet Devi offers no obvious candidate. We have three other narrative voices to choose from: Savita, Saadiq and Clélio, who all live in the same housing block as Eve. The characters each seem to have a say in which biblical figures they’re playing. But while Saadiq may think himself the Adam of the story—perhaps even the God, given his self-centred delusion that he has the power to resurrect Eve from her ruins—there is at times the suggestion of Savita as a surrogate for Adam. Savita and Eve’s lesbian relationship is undoubtedly the beating heart of the story, as Devi describes them as ‘the two sides of the moon’. Devi casts Eve’s schoolteacher as the serpent, who is ‘lizardly’ and spineless’ and betrays Eve repeatedly in numerous ways, just as the snake encourages the biblical Eve to eat the fruit.

The fruit itself has its own, thoughtfully crafted parallel. At the crucial moment that seals Savita’s fate, describing how she arrives to sees Eve’s blood on her teacher’s face, Devi offers us an image of ‘a child with lips reddened by guava juice’. The guilt associated with eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge is undeniably present: in abusing his pupil, Eve’s teacher is smeared with the blood of Eve’s period. However, the subtlety of Devi’s metaphor also allows for a reading where Savita herself is the forbidden fruit. Eve talks of gathering up all her pieces and eating them so that she’ll ‘always be in me’, and Savita desires that Eve ‘leave teeth marks on [her] skin’. Reading Devi requires a look-don’t-touch approach: scrutinising her characters without trying to impose one definite understanding uncovers a far more interesting message in her story than a prescriptive approach allows.

The beautiful, seemingly untouchable relationship between Eve and Savita is what lies at the heart of the religious motif; it seems to offer the only kind of Eden in the novel. ‘The poetry of women is laughter in this lost place,’ Devi writes, ‘laughter that opens up a small part of paradise so we don’t drown ourselves.’ Savita and Eve, when placed together, are able to unlock a secret haven, uncontaminated by male violence. In a society where women are hounded, pursued and so often raped by men, this is a lesbian first love which feels tender and real.

Devi’s vivid sense of place through Eve Out of Her Ruins also runs throughout her other novel, The Living Days, which is now available in English. A huge departure from Mauritius, The Living Days is set at first in the English countryside (in the humorously named ‘Benton-on-Bent, on the river Bent’, an ‘every-village’ metonym much like Troumaron), quickly moving to London (namely Brixton and Portobello Road) where Ananda Devi spent some time as a student. The novel follows the life of Mary Grimes, whose life seems to have peaked at the age of 15 after meeting Howard, a young soldier who is about to leave to fight in the Second World War. She inherits a flat on Portobello Road and spends the rest of her days sinking into a winter of poverty, illness, and sexual abuse. As she ages and declines, she fills her life with people of her own invention: from the clay statuettes she makes for a living, to apparitions and illusions who curiously end up inhabiting more space than she does. A young Jamaican boy of 13, Cub, enters her life under the premise of helping with odd jobs and is the only other flesh and blood character to have a proper role.

For many readers, The Living Days will be a far more unsettling novel than Eve. The latter, although an incredibly powerful story, does not challenge the reader as to whose side they are on: we are undoubtedly and inextricably connected to Eve. The Living Days, by contrast, has Mary Grimes for a protagonist: a selfish, cowardly old woman, who sexually abuses a child. Her dementia, however, makes it difficult to regard her as always responsible for her own actions. Mary, we realise, is incredibly unreliable as a narrator, and the line between delusion and reality is always blurred. Devi’s writing, like all the best literature, creates as many new questions as it provides answers.

The sense of never quite knowing what is real or imagined is often manipulated by Devi’s writing. Sometimes, Devi will let us know that a conversation with a dead person is taking place in Mary's head, but it is often unclear when Devi writes from the perspective of a deceased character whether this is Mary’s imagination or not.

The magical realism style further loosens the reader's grip on what is real. Devi politicises this medium and turns it into an issue of class and wealth: those who are poorer, living in much less safe and salubrious areas cannot afford to live in the same land of make-believe and miracle. To cross from Portobello Road back to Brixton, as Cub often does, is to move between worlds. But yet again, one explanation will eat its own tail: Devi describes how, in Cub's mother's Brixton apartment one morning, ‘his mother had burst out laughing when she saw the grey living-room carpet covered in mushrooms which had sprouted overnight’. The reader is left to wonder if it is naïve to call this a work of magical realism. Perhaps this scene, depicting the characters’ uncomfortably poor living conditions, is not magical at all.

The past was burning

In The Living Days, the concept of ageing is central. Devi explores how age is treated both in literature and society though the dichotomy of Mary and Cub. Mary, for the bulk of the novel, is a young woman in an old woman's body. Cub, conversely, has an old soul in the body of a 13-year-old. This odd dynamic is partly what makes the novel so challenging. Mary is a highly unlikeable protagonist, not just for her egotism and cowardliness, but for her paedophilia and predation. Her dementia means that she is entirely unaware of what she is doing. Yet preconceived concepts of linear time and age are highly contested in the story. Decades slip around and overlap; Cub walks down the street and sees someone who looks exactly like Mary at 15. When he leaves Brixton to return to Mary’s Portobello Road, time and reality become pliable. Ultimately, rightly or wrongly, we are left with the impression that time and age are just more barriers to be crossed, like the worlds of class and poverty in Eve. Paradoxically, youthfulness is not something that we are born with, but something that comes with wisdom and experience.

This was the face of the era

Social responsibility drives this novel. Unlike Eve, The Living Days is firmly tethered to the global cultural context of its early 2000s setting. Devi uses the opportunity to comment upon the sickness of the age – the dissolution of family, the neglect of those worst off, poverty, existential disappointment, and how these things all contribute to the putrefaction of modern life. We are a society, she says, that can ‘cry for the death of a princess the same way they learned to forget her after’, and where ‘two ten-year-old children could kill a three-year-old for no reason’. Where Eve is a microcosmic look at the lasting effects of colonialism in Mauritius, The Living Days draws on events from all corners of the globe to depict the slow decline of modern life.

The difficulty of The Living Days is not to be underestimated. Devi writes candidly about matters most authors would not dare to. The result is a long, hard look at the human psyche which will produce disgust in a reader at times, however it is also admirably honest, even ground-breaking. While Ananda Devi’s work is not for the faint-hearted, she is no doubt a writer whose voice is as prescient as it is underappreciated on the global literary stage.

EMILY WILDER reads French and Spanish at Magdalen. Being 900 miles away won't stop her contributing to the Oxford literary scene.

Artwork by Isabella Lill


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