A Failed Promise

Maryse Condé, trans. Richard Philcox, The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana

World Editions, 368pp, £12.99, ISBN 9781642860696

reviewed by Mersiha Bruncevic

Early one morning in Paris, I stood at the crossing between Rue des Barres and Pont Louis-Philippe. Halfway between one side of the road and the other, on one of those small paved islands, I waited for the morning traffic to roll by. I was on my way to work in a café, because the Wi-Fi at home was down, annoyingly. Less troubling were the three young guys standing next to me. Their hair was dutifully short, their eyes indifferent but vigilant, and their hands were clutching machine guns. On a bit of pavement, no wider than two metres across, there was only me and three soldiers. After the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan terror attacks, this was part of the daily scene. Especially in my neighbourhood, the Marais, a historically Jewish area. In this part of town, the same young guys with machine guns would watch school entrances in the morning and afternoon, keeping a sensible distance, so as not to unsettle the school run.

How things got to the point where patrolling soldiers are needed daily to ward off terrorists in Paris and elsewhere is the question that drives Maryse Condé’s The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana. The novel was originally published in French in 2017, and the English translation came out in May 2020.

Set in Guadeloupe, Mali and France, Condé’s novel recounts the lives of the twins Ivan and Ivana, from being born black and poor in the Caribbean to seeking a better life in Europe. The anchoring point is their relationship, which begins with an intimate love and develops into a full-blown incestuous passion.

Much of the story hinges on a will they-won’t they tension. Their attempts at stifling these inappropriate feelings lead Ivan and Ivana in opposite directions. Ivan goes the route of youthful rebellion followed by petty delinquency and graduates into crime and terrorism. Ivana becomes hyper-compliant, a perfect student, a lover of the arts and a singer in the church choir. Despite being opposites, they share an undiminished intimacy. Later they will be thrown into a wild and unlikely series of violent and wondrous events. Magical and social realism collide in a family saga spanning three continents.

One reviewer has said of the plot: ‘It’s a ride.’ And it certainly is, with generational trauma, militia coups, forbidden love, and clairvoyant visions of the future. At one point there is even a pair of sexually virtuosic acrobats who come to save the day. But beyond the unlikely plot – and it’s quite unlikely that holy war terrorists sit around reading Frantz Fanon and Oscar Wilde or invite radical leftist women to give them lectures on post-colonialism – there lies a host of global problems which shape our everyday reality. With this novel, Condé is seeking to confront and understand the misfortune which springs from racism and terrorism.


When Toni Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye (1970), she had two ambitions. One was that she would not explain or contextualise the black experience to the white reader. The other was that she would reveal the denouement in the first sentence of the book. This was a brave challenge to the reader: will you read on, even when I’ve told you what happens, in order to understand how and why it happened? Condé poses a similar challenge to her reader and does so successfully. From page one, the twins’ existence is described as tragic. Their birth is depicted as a literal fall out of their mother’s body that undoes their blissful symbiosis. This separation leaves them irrevocably traumatised.

From the outset, there is no doubt that Ivan is bad and Ivana is good. Their grandmother, a clairvoyant, keeps seeing them in waves of blood. The twins are destined for misfortune. An unhappy ending seems ever looming: even the book’s title includes the word ‘tragedy.’ But you do read on, wanting to know how and why Ivan and Ivana succumb to their fate.

This is a powerful way of indicating that the story you are reading is merely the shadow of something more disquieting that remains out of sight. But Condé’s narrative wavers a bit in its explanations and contextualizations. Some have billed The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana as a reimagining of Candide and a ‘scurrilous picaresque’. But the irony never penetrates the characters sufficiently. What is intended as naiveté ends up reading like an attempt to enlighten some anodyne Other, a person seemingly meant to know nothing of violence and radicalisation or disenfranchisement. There is a lack of texture here, a lack of truly ironic punch.

When Ivan reflects on what makes Ivana good, the narrator says, ‘his sister was independent and cultivated’ because ‘she had read André Breton, Paul Éluard, and René Char’. Her goodness and independence is based on her affinity for white Frenchmen; her sophistication is mediated through a European perception of what it means to be cultured. There is little nuanced examination of the role of these authors or the perceived refinement they attest to, and what might have been an occasion for skewering racist or nationalist assumptions hems uncomfortably close to promoting them. The Francophile erudition that promises to solve the problem of being a poor black girl is hardly called into question, and brings to mind what Fanon would refer to as lactification: a cultural translation aiming to make the black person more passable to a white person. Breton, Éluard and Char signal intellectualism and enlightenment to European readers, and Ivana’s appreciation of their work reads as an appeal to such readers when a questioning of their assumptions might have been more apt.

In an interview, Condé says one of the main inspirations for the novel was the murder of a Martinican female police officer by a terrorist from Mali during the Charlie Hebdo attack. It troubled Condé that a black man could kill a black woman like that, and challenged her belief in Aimé Césaire’s idea of négritude. Césaire had argued that black people are brothers and sisters and that their bond should transcend national and religious divides, but this didn’t seem to hold anymore. Condé’s story springs from this sense of a failed promise, when an idealistic, spiritual community rooted in négritude ceased to be possible.

Césaire is referred to frequently throughout the novel: he shows up in the conversations and thoughts of the characters and in the reflections of the omniscient narrator. Césaire’s poem Notebook of a Return to My Native Land (1939), where he coined the term négritude, opens with the speaker of the poem being banished from paradise, just as Ivan and Ivana are banished through birth. These biblical overtones inevitably touch on sex, as well, which typically offers both corruption and release. These twin temptations, embodied in Ivan and Ivana’s forbidden desire, drive their descent into tragedy.

For those who are virtuous, like Ivana, nothing good can come from submitting to desire. Anytime Ivana has a love interest in the book something bad happens. As for the wretched, those that Ivan aligns with, their suffering can only be redeemed through the pleasures of the flesh – that’s all they can possess in this world.

Ivan is hardly an Antillean Heathcliff who loves his sister but falls prey to dark forces (though curiously, Condé did write a Caribbean retelling of Wuthering Heights, entitled Windward Heights, in 1995). He rather calls to mind an incel with a raging sense of entitlement to admiration and sex. Ivan wants to be respected and he wants to sleep with his sister, and if he doesn’t get that he will beat, rape and kill anyone in his way.

In this sense, Ivan is a successful incarnation of the terrorists who marauded through Charlie Hebdo’s offices, the Bataclan, and the cafés of Paris. Sexual entitlement and alienation have played a key role in the radicalisation of these soi-disant holy warriors, beginning the myth of the seventy-odd virgins supposedly waiting for martyrs on the other side. Many have eschewed more orthodox paths in pursuing worldly satisfaction for the promise of some new, radical world order on earth where guys who have felt small their entire life might rise to the rank of Big Shots once they destroy some ill-defined hegemony of infidels.

Ivan sees oppression everywhere, not merely because of his race, but also because of his poverty and general disenfranchisement. He latches on to anyone who will give him a sense of community and belonging, regardless of religion, sexuality, nationality or race. This makes him surprisingly openminded, at least until he isn’t. Ivana, in contrast, doesn’t see racism anywhere, because she is sweet and beautiful and everyone treats her well. She enjoys life in France and integrates easily. But, as she asserts in no uncertain terms, she doesn’t like Arabs or Islam. Her blindness to racism in France and elsewhere insulates her from radicalisation, but not from tragedy.


I must admit I was a bit slow to understand the point of the proliferation of twins in the novel: apart from Ivan and Ivana, there are the aforementioned acrobats, two lesbian Turkish twin sisters, a Frenchman named Aldo who loathes his twin sister, and even a pair of nameless twins conceived one fateful night in the book. At first I thought of Cain and Abel, who could be read as Biblical prototypes for Ivan and Ivana, but the Bible offers no unambiguous evidence that they were twins, stating only that Cain, the wicked one, was the first-born, much like Ivan in the novel. Then it struck me that the emphasis on twins might refer to a more recent Fall – that of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. Perhaps that is not the precise moment we fell into a world that seems undone by terrorism, racism, and closing borders; but it seems a good marker for an ongoing expulsion from the putative Eden of an open and democratic, global community. It could be that a whole generation has been falling from that illusory garden ever since the Towers were hit. Once I started thinking about it, I even saw the Towers in the parallel, tower-like capital letters of the names Ivan and Ivana; maybe that’s overdoing it, but still. These two plummeting twins, these ill-starred I’s, are wonderful ciphers for an exploration of the hows and whys of the ideological conflicts that underlie Condé’s novel.
Mersiha Bruncevic is a writer and literary scholar based in Paris and Gothenburg.