This book is engaging from the outset, and deceptively simple. It takes us into the world of a young Sengalese student, Ousmane Gueye, the son of a devout Muslim. Ousmane is more devoted to his mother, Yahe Khady, than to religion or tradition. The first chapters use the framing device of Ousmane’s walk to the university to tell his backstory, how he helped his mother and developed a thirst for knowledge, which was only strengthened after he was snubbed by his flirtatious childhood friend Ouleymatou. Ousmane becomes an academic success, determined to get out of his poor working class district on the outskirts of Dakar. So we are introduced to Ousmane as a disciplined young intellectual, respectful to his family and background, but eager to use his education to make something out of himself.
When the narrative catches up to itself Ousmane, whose progress is based on his self-discipline and rejection of romance, makes the acquaintance of Mireille, a white teenager who comes to school in a limosine, the daughter of a French diplomat. Over time, in a well-told story, they fall in love. This romance seems to answer Ousmane’s ambition, as he is respectful and reticent, only succumbing to Mireille when he discovers she loves him. After a brief idyll, Mireille’s father, a liberal politician, discovers the relationship, which is abhorrent to him and shows his hypocrisy. He puts Mireille on the first plane back to Paris, and it seems at this point as if the novel is going to be the story of thwarted interracial lovers. Mireille returns to Paris in time to take part in the student demonstrations of 1968, and Ousmane participates in student unrest back in Dakar, a brief section of the story that actually goes a long way to grounding the characters and showing us the nature of their consciousness and political commitment, especially Mireille; she seems authentic to her time through this section, identifiable as a late-60s French teenager. Still separated, Ousmane and Mireille both become graduate students and teachers, and continue a clandestine correspondence while patiently waiting for Mireille to come of age–21?–at which point Ousmane travels to France and marries Mireille, about halfway through the book. Ousmane presents the marriage to his parents as a fait accompli. His father is philosophical, but Ousmane’s mother Yahe Khadi believes that Mireille has bewitched her son.
At this point, after the intriguing introduction of the determined young academic and the black-white romance and devoted long secret engagement, the story becomes more complex and Ousmane’s character is carefully examined as it makes a gradual major turn, going from that of an eager, earnest, and completely sympathetic young man to a complex, ambivalent, successful and self-interested adult. Ousmane tries to live a middle class academic life with Mireille, but he insists on being respectful to his parents and his customs as well. Mireille, completely rejecting family and friends, has sacrificed everything and is trying to fit in, but she brings a full set of bourgeois assumptions about how they should live. And nothing she can do is good enough for Yahe Khady. Ousmane is increasingly drawn to the prerogatives and privileges of a successful man in his original society, and he isolates and begins to reject Mireille.
And then Ouleymaton reenters the picture, the portrait of a determined, romantic, traditional African woman. Suddenly the quick glimpse of her capricious childhood character at the beginning of the book takes on more meaning. Her pursuit of Ousmane is carefully and richly described–in his situation and pre-existing ambivalence, he doesn’t stand a chance. We don’t really blame Ouleymaton, who knows what she wants and how to get it, but we never lose our sympathy for poor Mireille. Ouleymaton seems justified in part because the Muslim society is polygamous, but we’re alerted to the dangers of this in the very first chapter, where Ousmane’s strength and seriousness is said to be partly the result of the monogamous marriage of his parents. The story plays with time and the details of the two ongoing relationships, such as both women having children, as it relates the larger thrust of Ousmane’s second marriage and family, and Yahe Khady’s pride at the traditional ceremonies of a successful son. Towards the end of this deep, but rapidly told (166 pp.) tale, writer Ba picks up a tiny note of how one of Ousmane’s siters had befriended Mireille, who has become isoolated and despondent. Although Mireille is suspicious and she knows that Ousmane must have a lover because he is never at home, Ousmane’s second life is completely unknown in its depth and details to Mireille. She has no idea that he has effectively returned to his home society, but as the end approaches all is revealed to her. She goes mad, and kills her son with sleeping pills, and stabs Ousmane–the scarlet song of the title–when he returns home. At the end Ousmane is said to recover, while Mireille has lost her mind.
This story was rich and compelling, with great characters who slowly became emblematic of much larger social and political issues, but they were always very real and accessible. Ba builds so much sympathy for Ousmane, and presents his romance with Mireille in a powerful, unadorned way, with no violins and just dedication, respect, and mutual understanding, so that we really don’t see the second half of the book coming. And Ousmane’s fatal choices are emblematic, they are presented as just those of one individual–the writer makes it clear that there are happy people and couples living on both sides of the edge walked by Ousmane. The point of the novel seems to be that it interracial relationships in this particular society are easier if the man adapts western ways and values, but something is lost–and what is lost is portrayed in the strong, sexy, intoxicating character of Ouleymaton. A man like Ousmane can’t have it both ways, and the cost of his love of the west and a white woman will ultimately be paid in madness and blood.
I found this book some time ago at the University bookstore on the course shelves, where I sometimes look for interesting things I haven’t read or even heard about. Looking around at home it seemed like a promising book for the Africa Reading Challenge, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The book itself says that author Mariama Ba was dying as she wrote it, after achieving a great success with her first book “So Long a Letter,” which must be worth reading. Scarlet Song was published in French in 1981 and in the “Longman African Writers” series in 1994, where it has been reprinted 8 times.
Now I’m trying to get officially signed up for the African Reading Challenge, and I already see So Long a Letter a couple of places. Gives me lots of catching up to do, but I would think that anyone who has enjoyed So Long a Letter might very much like Scarlet Song.