The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana is a rollicking, rumbustious and slyly mischievous Candide for our times. Set in Guadeloupe, Mali and France, and written in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, Maryse Condé’s novel poses with mock solemnity as an investigative quest into how an accused jihadi named Ivan became “radicalised”. Yet the scattergun satire of this scurrilous picaresque takes no prisoners.
Published in French in 2017 as Condé turned 80, and now in Richard Philcox’s English translation, it marks a bold departure in an oeuvre that has roved the Atlantic triangle stealthily rewriting history – and won Condé the “Alternative Nobel” in 2018. Her novels range from the epic Segu (1984), about a west African kingdom doubly besieged by Islam and Europe, and I Tituba (1986), the true story of a West Indian obeah woman caught up in the Salem witch trials in Puritan New England, to Windward Heights (1995), which transposes Emily Brontë to Guadeloupe, where Condé was born.
This 21st-century novel begins with the birth of the twins Ivan and Ivana in Dos d’Âne, a “godforsaken hole” in Guadeloupe that resembles a toad “squashed by a car and thrown on the side of the road”. The twins’ only claim to finery is the “emerald green” of the sugarcane their mother cuts. Not really a country but an overseas department of France, the island, one jihadist notes, is “one more place to be liberated”.
The ingenuous picaro Ivan is a dropout “hoodlum” who quits a circus job in protest at the treatment of animals. Ivana, meanwhile, reads everything she can lay her hands on. On an island where 35% of people are jobless and newborns turn up in dustbins, “she was happy. She was lovely. She was top of her class.” Condé pricks her Panglossian optimism: “in order to be happy on this earth we need to shut our eyes to a good many things.”
The intrusive narrator tracks Ivan’s radicalisation by fate’s blows and life’s injustices. Joining their father, a Mandingo musician in Mali, the twins find a country under curfew, invaded by Islamist gangs who ban music and trash recording studios. Recruited into the Army of Shadows, Ivan converts to Islam and has his passport stolen. He is rescued and seduced into a ménage à trois by an expat couple whose professed colour blindness inevitably comes in for ribbing: “Black, white! What does that mean? … Colour doesn’t exist.” They unwittingly deliver Ivan back into the hands of the motorbiking people traffickers who robbed him.
After a series of scrapes, the twins settle in a grim Paris banlieue. Ivana enrols at the police academy, whose canteen culture fails to dampen her sanguinity. Ivan becomes a teacher of the Qur’an to French Arab teenagers whose nominal faith has foisted an identity on them: the “mumbo-jumbo on which they placed little value made them responsible for attacks committed in unknown lands”. When a friend dies in police custody, Ivan is dealt the final blows that culminate in a terrible bloodbath – and his eventual rehabilitation by the empathising writers of a book called The Reluctant Terrorist.
Condé spares no one. The rug is repeatedly jerked from under us with a mixture of awkward truths and ironic swipes
Condé spares no one. The rug is repeatedly jerked from under us with a mixture of awkward truths and ironic swipes. Targets range from a retired police officer (“aim for the head … so they’ll die and never come back to trouble you”) to parroted teachings (“of course the Arab sultans also practised slavery … but their slavery was not dehumanising”). As for a world “divided into two camps: the West and their lackeys, and the rest”, the novel objects: “The former claim they are victims … In actual fact, this is not true. Both camps are playing games of massacre and each is as savage and implacable as the other.”
With millions on the move (“what’s the difference between being killed by bombs that drop from the sky and starving to death?”), a Somali migrant named Ulysses would rather be pimped as a male escort than trapped in a migrant camp. That his new home is on the Rue Voltaire is one of numerous cultural references lost on the semi-educated Ivan.
Condé’s provocative fun cloaks a challenge: is there not more than a little bad faith in the way the west earnestly seeks the roots of jihadi radicalism while turning a blind eye to the flagrant ills that add rocket fuel to its meretricious allure? The novel’s parting shot, “you can take it or leave it”, leaves the ball squarely in our court.
• The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana is translated by Richard Philcox (World Editions, £12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.