[Deep Vellum; 2016]
Tr. by Jeffrey Zuckerman
Eve Out of Her Ruins is the English translation of Mauritian writer Ananda Devi’s 2006 novel, Ève de ses décombres. Not knowing French, I only have translator Jeffrey Zuckerman’s English version to rely on, and the language is compelling and exquisite, with words to savor and highlight and reread on every page. The sentences are poetic and dreamy, given to sensory descriptions of place and people while also maintaining the characters’ sense of rage and desolation in considering their social position as teenagers growing up on the edges of society in Port Louis.
The book is structured into a series of alternating monologues by teenagers, who include the titular Eve, as well as Saad (Saadiq), Savita, and Clélio. These are internal conversations, thoughts, reveries, and thus lack the conventional structures of dialogue. In this way, Devi allows deep interiority to bloom on the page, unhampered by constraints of contemporary slang and diction. The book begins with Saad; Saad the burgeoning poet whose self was split in two the first time he heard Rimbaud in class, who sees in Eve the possibilities of his own creative flowering: “I know this, that I’m only a simulacrum. But a drop of blue ink has gotten into me.” Infected by the ink, Saad is compelled to write to transform his material situation into something else: an aesthetic experience that provides the distance necessary to negotiate, if also accept, a life. “I write in order not to go crazy,” Saad writes, and the shifting narrative strands in Eve Out of Her Ruins might be Saad’s first written work.
Eve begins: “Walking is hard. I limp, I hobble along on the steaming asphalt. With each step a monster rises, fully formed.” This novel is a telling about how the monster came to be formed. Saad gives us a clue: “One day we wake up and the future has disappeared. The sky hides the windows. Night makes its way into our bodies and refuses to leave.” Saad and his gang of boys roam the streets, policing women, trying to incur fear in the eyes of those who see them. They are trying to approximate power, to keep some of it for themselves. “Mothers disappear in a resigned haze,” Saad explains. “Fathers find in alcohol the virtue of authority. But they don’t have that anymore, authority. Authority, that’s us, the boys. We’ve recruited our troops like military leaders . . . And now nobody can look us in the eyes without shivering.” But Saad stands a little bit to the side; he loves Eve, he is undone a little by tenderness. Masculinity offers only so much respite. His writing is, a little, his refusal: “I learn to be quiet. I learn to talk to myself. I learn to put myself together and to take myself apart.”
They live in a place called Troumaron, “a sort of funnel; where the island’s wastewaters ultimately flow.” They are deep in shit. Reading this in Kuala Lumpur, which translates from the Malay to “muddy confluence,” where two of the main rivers in Klang Valley meet, I feel some recognition with these kids. The humidity so thick the air feels weighed down, like water is seeping through the walls. The long history of colonization, imperialism that have rendered some countries invisible and on the margins, “lower income,” and floating on the sea of failed promises of free trade and globalization. Faced with this no-future, these kids try to carve out their own space. Mauritius is a small island country off the African continent that was said to have been discovered by Arabs and later subjected to several European conquests: Dutch, French, and British, the latter which lasted from 1810 to 1968. Indentured labor was brought into Mauritius to work the sugar plantations after slavery was abolished on the island in 1835. While the majority of the laborers were brought in by the British from India, a good portion of Chinese and Malay laborers were brought from Malaya, which came formally under British rule after 1867.
Clélio says, “Things are swirling around in my head. Port Louis is sucking something out of me. Too many people, too many cars, too many buildings, too much smoked glass, too many nouveaux-riches, too much dust, too much heat, too many wild dogs, too many rats.” I looked up from the fever dream of this Troumaron world to recognize myself in Kuala Lumpur, feeling like something is being sucked out of me. Too much dust, too much heat, too much development, too many profit-makers. This no-future is a state of normal for so many of us. This future comes from a parallel past, where the Malay kingdoms that went on to form Malaya, and then Malaysia, were also subjected to Dutch and British power grabs. The long arc of colonial history bends towards displaced peoples and stolen labor. Clélio sums up his condition, seeing no way out of history that keeps repeating itself: “over the centuries we’ve been enemies, slaves, coolies, it’s a nasty history, for sure, which is why it keeps happening again and again.”
Eve is in a state of constant refusal. Her father beats her because of her inability to say yes, to surrender. What does she refuse to surrender to? The acceptance of her place in society; as a brown person, but also a woman. “I refused to be small or weak,” Eve says, so she finds a way to gain power in small ways: by accepting money or things in exchange for sexual favors. “For the first time my bag was no longer empty,” Eve says. “I had something I could pay with: myself.” Her mother has long since surrendered, and in Eve’s eyes she is barely a woman; she is, as Eve refers to her, “a larva of a mother.” She does not care for Eve in the way parents should care for their children and nurture them. I feel a strong impulse to protect young, impulsive Eve when she says, “I know how to protect myself from men.” Violent masculinity is an unstoppable force if you’re one woman alone, I want to warn her. “It’s just a body. It can be fixed,” Eve tells us, but I know this bravado is a form of self-protection. I dread to think what male power, when denied its right to property, would enact.
Turns out, misogyny kills, and this time it comes for Savita. Eve loves Savita, a fellow student who is beautiful, thoughtful, and Eve’s saving grace. If there is any criticism I have of this novel, it’s that Savita’s character is the least full; the time the reader has with her is brief, and she appears too idealized, a vision of perfection and beauty who is quite suddenly dead. But she has an idea of the future, and it’s not a happy one: “The guys from the neighborhood are becoming men, with all their hatred. Soon they’ll take it out on us.” The quest to find out Savita’s killer fuels the narrative for the rest of the novel, but in the meantime Clélio, who runs with the wrong crowd and gets into trouble one too many times is wrongfully arrested for the murder. Clélio, who idolizes his older brother who moved to France and didn’t come back to get him out of this shithole. “I’m leaving this place with handcuffs on my wrists,” Clélio says. No one is looking out for boys like Clélio.
Sliced between the voices of Eve, Savita, Saad and Clélio is a fifth strand of narrative, pulled taut in a menacing, all-seeing second person. This second-person voice seems to shift from Saad to Eve writing her own story, a discreet war over who gets to tell. This voice reveals the machinations of older male power. Once again, these girls are disposable; they appear as vessel. In this case, it is a male teacher’s desire for Eve and his capability, as a man, to act on that desire while wanting to control the shape of that desire and ignore what Eve wants or feels. Eve asks and answers, “What do men give in exchange for a body? They don’t give their own body; a man has to take. They protect themselves.”
It’s only understandable that Eve must take something in return. An eye for an eye, for Savita who has been taken away from her, for the many times Eve herself has had to vacate her body so that some stranger could enjoy it without having to give his own body in return. Eve is not sure how the rest of the story goes. She lets the writer, Saad, deal with that. It is raining when the denouement occurs, a full-blown tropical storm, and Saad says “Even under the low wall, the water is drowning us.” Will they be thrown a lifeline? This book is ferocious and unforgettable because it suggests that once again, despite the brief moments of beauty and love that allow one to forget the past and the impending no-future, the answer is likely no.