BORN IN MAURITIUS, Ananda Devi has published 12 novels as well as short-story collections and poetry, and has been translated into several languages. In 2010, she was made Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government.
Mauritius, an island nation 1000 miles off the southeastern coast of Africa, is omnipresent in Devi’s work — both the Mauritius of tourism brochures, with its startling blue waters and its verdant mountaintop, and the other Mauritius with its dirty back roads, its aging factories, its laborers making the island’s tropical fantasies a reality for tourists. This darker side of the island gives life to Devi’s arresting 2006 novel Ève de ses décombres, which depicts the story of four teenagers desperate to escape the island for a better life. The very first words of the slim book set the tone perfectly:
Walking is hard. I limp, I hobble ahead on the steaming asphalt.
With each step a monster rises, fully formed.
The urban night swells elastic around me. The dirty air from Caudan scrapes my wounds and my skin, but I go on.
I can only follow my own logic. That thing gone from me, this slow drip of life that has been yanked away and turned me into a bloodless being, sucking the lifeblood out of the night, no longer matters. Quietness has entered me, has taken away my breath.
Translating the novel meant not only creating a kind of English that mirrored Devi’s own poetic prose, but also scouring through maps of Mauritius, which is only the size of Maui, and reading endless pages about the colonial history and multilingual culture of this stunning locale. It was my pleasure to publish a portion of my translation of Eve Out of Her Ruins with The Offing, the LA Review of Books’s newest offshoot, and in parallel Ananda and I sat down for a thoughtful interview by email about her book, her passions, and her relationship to the island she was born on.
JEFFREY ZUCKERMAN: Eve Out of Her Ruins is set in Mauritius and brings the island far more vividly to life than I ever could have imagined. Through the novel’s four characters — Sadiq, Clélio, Savita, and Ève herself — we come to understand the universe that’s nearly hidden behind those picturesque beachfronts and mountains. Could you tell us about your own relationship to Mauritius?
ANANDA DEVI: I began writing in childhood. Around the time I started to take it seriously, as a teenager, Mauritius itself became a source of inspiration. I have always been contemplative, someone who observes rather than participates, and the people and the places of Mauritius became the two mainstays of all my work.
The places that drew me most strongly were those that were beautiful but dangerous — not the usual vistas of the tropical island but everything that was hidden and secret, that held the whiff of death and the promise of rebirth. The sea has always been a kind of monstrous presence for me (I’ve actually had recurring dreams of tsunamis since my childhood), because it is the ultimate barrier between the island and the world, and the island itself is both a raft and a prison. Port-Louis, the capital city where the story of Ève de ses décombres takes place, is an amazing city, a sensorial storm of smells, sights, tastes, both pleasant and unpleasant. In particular, this novel turns its back on the sun and the beachfronts. It is a world of concrete and poverty, it starts in the night and ends in the night — dark in every way.
Do you feel an obligation to be an ambassador or representative of sorts for Mauritius, especially now that you live elsewhere?
I don’t think writers should be ambassadors or representatives of sorts. They do not give answers, they ask questions. Yes, people do associate me with Mauritius, but whenever I was signing my books and someone would tell me that they were going on holiday to Mauritius and planned to buy my books, I would tell them to enjoy their holidays first and then buy the books, otherwise they might not want to go anymore!
Although the stories are mostly based in Mauritius, I do want them to have a wider meaning and impact. I am not only talking about Mauritius in my books, I am talking about human beings who happen to live in Mauritius and who could be from anywhere in the world. This is particularly so for Ève, whose four young people could be from anywhere — a Parisian suburb or a South American city.
Speaking of Ève, I was struck by the sheer poetry of Sadiq and Ève’s voices. They may be teenagers, but they speak with such intelligence that they almost seem otherworldly. How did you dream them up?
Poetry and dreams are the origin of the entire novel. I write poetry as well as prose, and often inspiration for poems comes to me just at the moment when I am falling asleep at night. It’s as if once the rational mind gives way to the subconscious, words and sentences begin to form and assemble with a strangeness and a freshness that are at the very core of poetic writing. I have become used to listening to these sentences and to remembering them when writing poetry. It so happened that one night, as I was falling asleep, the phrase “Ève de ses décombres” came to me without prompting, and with it, as in a half-dream, the image of a young girl with a school satchel on her shoulder, limping in a dark city, surrounded by rubble. When I woke up the next morning, I remembered this very clearly and thought of writing a poem about this. I was traveling to Italy on a book tour that day, and while waiting in the airport, I was scribbling away, thinking that this would turn out to be a kind of long, narrative poem. But then, the questions surrounding this phrase and the image became too insistent — who is this girl? Why is she limping? What is this city in ruins? — and I realized that these were questions that would lead to a novel and not to a poem.
The character of Sad, the poet, also appeared quickly. I spent a fortnight writing whenever and wherever I could, including in a beautiful library in Rome. But despite it becoming a novel, the poetic origin of the story remained, and stylistically, I did write it as if I was writing a poem. I could have tried to have the four protagonists speak with a more contemporary youth jargon, but somehow I knew that it wouldn’t fit the tone of the novel. So I retained the poetry of their voices, which was the voice of their thoughts, the voice that no one ever hears from them because there is no one to listen.
There’s astonishing violence within this book — prostitution, bloodshed, prison — and yet it’s so easy, almost dangerously easy, to sympathize with all four narrators. Did you ever struggle with the idea that we readers might feel complicity here?
My heart was with them from the start because I felt that, whatever they did, they suited King Lear’s statement that they had been “more sinned against than sinning.” In any case, the concept of sin does not enter this story. Whoever they are, the reader has to take them as they are. We are all creatures of ambiguity, we all do wrong and right all the time. The choices that are offered to us on the way are “possibilities.” The choices that we make reveal who we are.
Now, has Ève chosen to become a prostitute? No, because when she started out as a child, asking for school materials, she didn’t even know what it meant. Then her body became her only “monnaie d’échange,” i.e., the only thing she had to sell. Clélio is a little thug angry at the entire world, but when he goes to prison, it is because of a false accusation. Even the teacher, with all his heavy guilt, is described with some sympathy because of his loneliness and weakness and desperate desire for Ève.
I guess I want the readers to understand and not to judge. Judgment is all too easy. What would we have done in their place? I believe we all have a threshold. We could say that we would never kill someone. But suppose our children are attacked. Would we not kill? As I said before, I want to ask questions and I want my readers to ask themselves these questions. It is all too easy to look at the world from behind a huge wall of prejudice. But to make informed choices about ourselves, we need first to understand these “others” who have to face different circumstances. In the book, we have to understand how, one day, a 17-year-old girl finds herself with a gun in her hand and a life-and-death decision in her mind.
After the book won the Prix des cinq continents de la Francophonie, you adapted it into a screenplay for a 2012 French-language film, Les Enfants de Troumaron. What was most important for you to keep from the book as you brought it into a new medium?
I’ll start by stating what I couldn’t keep, which was the most difficult part of the process: the poetry of the words. I could not write the dialogues in this style, because they would not sound true or genuine. I sat in front of the computer and thought that I would have to sacrifice my words! Finally, I stopped referring to the book and rewrote the story in this different medium. The story itself is strong, and it helped me get through the process. I tried to keep some of the original writing in the voice-over parts that introduce each character in the film, and that worked.
During the shooting, there was one moment, toward the end, when I felt that my book was truly present in the film: the actor playing Sad spent a whole day writing on the wall, and I gave him short extracts from the book to write on the wall. When he had finished, I saw my writing there, and it was a wonderful feeling. But I am happy that I did not try to “reproduce” the book. We treated them as two different works, which is why I feel that even those who have read the book will not necessarily feel betrayed or disappointed, because they will be in another place altogether. For example: the book never describes a sunny day with blue skies. But in the film, you can’t help seeing the blue skies and, even amidst poverty, some of the beauty of the landscape manages to seep through!