3 February 2012

Véronique Ovaldé: Ce que je sais de Vera Candida (2009)

Women are the key characters in Ce que je sait de Vera Candida (lit. 'What I Know of Vera Candida') – which was originally to be called Vies amazones – although men are often central to the action. Rosa Bustamente lives in Vatapuna – a village on an island and part of an unnamed country in South America – and made her living as a prostitute up to the age of forty, when she turns to catching flying fish to sell at the market. When a conman named Jeronimo begins to build a palatial house near her cabin, where she lives alone, she partly persuades herself, partly is persuaded, into visiting him with a view to selling her property. It doesn't take the lecherous Jeronimo long to get her into bed, but his callous reaction to her pregnancy means she immediately finishes with him.

Violette is the result of the relationship, but she's a very slow girl who soon grows up addicted to the local firewater, gets pregnant (probably by the mayor's son) at fifteen, and soon dies under mysterious circumstances very early in the book.

Violette's daughter is Vera Candida, who is brought up by Rosa and firmly taught to avoid the mistakes of previous generations of women, to avoid succumbing to men, but at fifteen Vera is raped by Jeronimo, and the pregnant girl flees to mainland Lahomeria without telling anyone.

Then begins the second (and longest) section of the book, dealing with Vera and her daughter Monica Rose as they move from a home for single mothers (run by a woman who was married to a Nazi) to a crummy flat, and then to longterm security and warmth with the journalist Itxaga, who's the only decent male in the book, and who's been in love with Vera for some time.

And then, at nearly forty and after eighteen years with Itxaga, she learns she has terminal stomach cancer and returns to Vatapuna, where if he's alive she'll kill the man who made her life a nightmare, who thrust his cock into her mouth and then raped her. But just as she's missed seeing her grandmother alive again, Jeronimo has already hanged himself.

This is a book of love and hate, of beauty and the beast, of strength and weakness, of sickness and health, of tenderness and brutality, enhanced by a strange hypnotic power that often – breathlessly but rhythmically – sweeps through the novel in very long sentences punctuated by many commas, translating thoughts and actions. Compelling.

(Addendum: see below for Robert Hughes's comment on me missing the obvious: Voltaire's Candide.)

My review of another book of Ovaldé's:

Véronique Ovaldé: Les Hommes en général me plaisent beaucoup (2003)


Snatch51 said...

Just a thought here, as it's been more than 40 years since I read Candide.

But didn't Candide and his paramour Mlle Cunégonde have multiple adventures centred on degradation and humiliation, many of them centred on the South American continent, as we call it today?

So is not this the "Real Candide"? Of course, put into feminine form to signify an update for the cause of women?

Tony may have meant to mention it, or I may have missed his comment, if so forgive me.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

This is a brilliant comment, Robert. In fact it's so brilliant that I didn't even see the obvious: can I make the excuse that it's been a long time since I too read Voltaire's Candide?. No. And yet as far as I know, no review of the novel seems to pick up on it either. But how about this from an open online interview in which Ovaldé answers questions:

"Lancelot. Y a-t-il un rapport entre votre Candida et le Candide de Voltaire?

Véronique Ovaldé.'Oui, sans doute que Vera Candida n'a pas un nom anodin. Sans doute est-elle, d'une certaine façon, une merveilleuse candide qui retourne à son petit jardin.'"

So 'Candida' isn't a name plucked from a hat? She's a 'wonderful Candide returning to her little garden'? I'd love to know if even Ovaldé had consciously thought of Voltaire before Lancelot asked the question.

In one place, I thought of DSK:)

And thinking of Voltaire, no everyone can have seen my post here on philistinism and Frédéric Lefebvre: http://tonyshaw3.blogspot.com/search?q=zadig

Snatch51 said...

It looks like she's teasing us.

Even when met head-on, she speaks in Delphic terms. There is a code here: 'le jardin', is it the pubic bush? Does she still think we don't know what she was doing?

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Note: Interestingly though, a few people seem to have made a slip up and called the novel Ce que je sais de Vera Candide!

Snatch51 said...

Well in that case how could they have missed the allusion?

The statistical chances of the name Vera Candida being used for such a novel, and given the content(!) the writer not being aware of what she was doing are literally vanishingly small.

This lady knows what she is about!

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Yeah, Robert, I think she does know what she's about. From what I can see, some people making the mistake are selling the book, although I suppose in this case it might be one seller duplicated several times.

Nevertheless, others have made the error. I think the main reason is that it's too obvious to the French: 'candide' is a much more common adjective than the English equivalent, so I think allegorical implications would just go out the window.