As a second-generation American, Thanksgiving seemed to me a less-accessible holiday than, say, Halloween: my grandparents weren’t always available and, frankly, turkey and football still both seem pointless. After leaving the country of my birth behind, though, I’ve started to appreciate the impulse of a diaspora community to celebrate survival. In honour of Thanksgiving, I wanted to review not a recent book, but an African diaspora novel that I’m thankful for: Natasha Soobramanien’s Genie and Paul.
Following the success of Franco-Mauritian novelists Ananda Devi and Natacha Appanah, Britain has patiently anticipated its Anglo-Mauritian novelist. Natasha Soobramanien is of Mauritian descent and was born and raised in London. Her novel, Genie and Paul, hits all the Mauritian cultural references expected in the story of an immigrant returning to the homeland while telling a very original and specific story exploring the difference between love and dependence.
Its title leads the reader immediately to the quintessential Mauritian story. Bernardin de St. Pierre’s Paul et Virginie (1788), the story of doomed love in an Edenic paradise, has spawned operas (Kreutzer, 1791 and Massé, 1880), plays (le Sueur, 1794 and Debout, 1992), a film (Péguy, 1924), and a television series (Gaspard-Huit, 1974), along with countless works of visual art. Although through the story, the French St. Pierre grapples with the problems of inequality and exploitation in the plantation culture he saw on his visit to Mauritius, the story’s greatest legacy has been to establish Mauritius as an island of romance. Its recent translation into Hindi by Kalpana Lalji (2000), who migrated to Mauritius and undertook the work in order to better understand her new homeland, emphasises the romance to the exclusion of other themes such that the story seems to be the natural precursor to the Bollywood movies which are so popular in Mauritius today. Soobramanien’s revisiting of the story brings back the importance of the original’s multiple layers. The novel’s greatest surprise, for those familiar with St. Pierre’s tale, is that its Paul and (vir)Genie are not lovers, but siblings. This is not a drastic departure from the original, in which Paul and Virginie are as close as siblings, having been raised together with only their mothers and slaves for company, and it allows readers to hear echoes of this isolation in the immigrant life that Soobramanien’s Paul and, to a less obvious extent, Genie, find so hard to bear.
The novel contains stories within stories; some, like the second-generation white Mauritian Eloise’s, seem to echo St. Pierre’s message about the way money and status changes your fate. The story is, however, primarily Paul’s, told through Genie’s. Having migrated from Mauritius at age five, Genie views the island as simply the setting of her mother and brother’s memories. Neither she nor her beloved half-brother Paul has an easy time of it in London. When we first meet Genie, she is waking up in hospital after a drug-induced episode. Even though the narrative continues to follow Genie at this point, our insight into her character is always filtered through insights into Paul’s. Readers are left unclear as to how, specifically, Genie’s life turned to shambles, because in her thoughts and memories which follow, she is a young and innocent, idealising her troubled older brother. Her love for him is deep, but she is also sure that this love is reciprocated: when he does not come to the hospital, she knows something seriously wrong must have happened. When they were younger, Paul had run away—or, in his eyes, run home—to Mauritius, and the two are separated for the first time. When Genie makes her own friend during his absence, her new friend Eloise falls hard for Paul’s charming vulnerability upon his return. Instead of establishing her own identity, Genie’s world becomes further centred on Paul and his druggie lifestyle. Paul tries to protect her, but the night before she wakes up in the hospital, she’d taken ecstasy for the first time. Genie understands that Paul must have run away in shame, and she follows him not only to Mauritius, but to Rodrigues. If the forests of Mauritius were the epitome of isolation in St. Pierre’s society, Rodrigues is the epitome of isolation for mainland Mauritians today. A smaller, less developed island that is part of the country of Mauritius (which also includes the island of Mauritius and other smaller islands), it can only be reached via Mauritius. As Genie understands it, it is sister island to Mauritius, wholly dependent; through the metaphor of this unequal relationship she comes to realise that although she has tethered her life to Paul’s, he has tried, in running away, to untether his life from hers. As to whether she continues to search for him: I leave the ending to readers to discover for themselves.
Soobramanien does an excellent job of describing Genie and Paul’s experience as returning immigrants as both incredibly specific to the Mauritius—the smallness of it that makes Paul feel unnaturally powerful, the jarring realisation that so many others who cannot leave choose suicide—and as universal as the love which has made St. Pierre’s tale so powerful. Genie and Paul, while protecting each other, each try a different way of dealing with the isolation that immigration can bring: Paul searches outside of their bond for something to connect with, be it his other brother, the community of the nightclub, or a homeland in which he feels his relative presence to be much greater, while Genie uses their bond as a shield and a way to reduce London to a manageable size. It is a novel that is a fitting homage to Mauritian literature and a welcome addition to British literature.
What African novel are you thankful for, and why? Tweet your responses @AfricainWords by 1 December for a chance to win a copy of the recent Caine Prize anthology Lusaka Punk. (Winner/s will be chosen at random; contest open worldwide wherever books can be sent in the mail.)
Rashi Rohatgi has a PhD in Languages and Cultures from SOAS. Her fiction can be found in The Misty Review, her poetry in Allegro, and her academic writing in Matatu, Wasafiri, and other journals. Her recent monograph, Fighting Cane and Canon, is about World Literature in Mauritius.
Genie and Paul is published by Myriad Editions (Brighton, 2012). It is Natasha Soobramanien’s debut novel, and has appeared on the Guardian Books of the Year 2012 and Foyle’s Best Fiction of 2012 lists. Soobramanien is of Mauritian descent and was born and raised in London. Her most recent story, ‘If Not, Not’ appears in The White Review, and an upcoming novel looks at the Chagos archipelago.
Categories: Reviews - Books