Fiction: The review of “Palmares” by Gayl Jones

The first writing I can find related to Gayl Jones’ “Palmares” is a prose play called “D’Almeyda” which was published in a literary journal in the fall of 1975. historical novel which has now arrived 46 years later : a black woman named Almeyda recounts the destruction of Palmares – a 17th century colony in the mountains of Brazil, a “free African state” founded by runaway slaves – and mourns the disappearance of her husband, Anninho. When so much time elapses between conception and completion – if, indeed, this book is finished – then the usual expectations must be set aside, for we are faced with something much more difficult, and perhaps more. rewarding, than a typical novel. “Palmarès” is that rare thing, the work of a lifetime.

prize list

By Gayl Jones

Beacon press

512 pages

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The publication of this novel is a major event in the career of Mrs. Jones, who was heralded as a prodigy with the publication of her first book, “Corregidora”, in 1975, only a few months before this preliminary study by Almeyda. Ms Jones was 26 and was part of a group of bright young black women edited at Random House by Toni Morrison (herself early in her career as a novelist). The theme of hereditary or intergenerational trauma is now so common that it’s easy to take it for granted, but with Ms. Jones’ early days, it was both new and surprisingly self-explanatory. Ursa Corregidora, the blues singer who narrates the book, is named after the Portuguese slave breeder who is both her grandfather and great-grandfather. The evils of her lineage – “my veins have met for centuries,” she thinks – make her a sort of walking historical wound and irrevocably distort her relationship to love and sex.

The 1976 novel “Eva’s Man” continued these explorations of psychic alienation, replacing the harsh and fiery melancholy of “Corregidora” with unchecked Gothic violence. But as she developed the characters of Almeyda and Anninho, Ms. Jones changed her register, finding a more upbeat and romantic tone, if not less beset by obscurity. “Song for Anninho”, a long narrative poem published in 1981, illustrates the change. Almeyda is recovering after Palmares was sacked by Portuguese colonial soldiers who left her horribly mutilated. Yet his traumatized memories did not weaken his desire to reunite with Anninho, nor deny the commitment he made when they last met: “That was the question, Almeyda, / how we could maintain our love / to. a time of cruelty. / How we could continue to love / at such a time. How we could / have looked at each other with tenderness. / And keep it, even with everything.

“Palmares” is also a love story, but which takes place through the stations of an epic journey. The siege of the Free African State occurs roughly in the middle of the narrative. In the previous chapters, Almeyda recalls her childhood in slavery and the events that brought her to Palmares, where she married Anninho. Their violent separation is the cause of his Odyssian wanderings in the second half of the novel.

It is the first half which is clearer and more accessible, and which offers much more of the traditional pleasures of historical fiction. From the age of 7, Almeyda opens her doors in a plantation in the State of Bahia, in the northeast of Brazil. The owner of the plantation, Entralgo, is vindictive but his powers are not totally out of control. A Jesuit priest, famous for having “experimented” with the education of slaves, taught Almeyda to read. And from her mother and grandmother the girl learned ancient forms of medicine and magic. Like them, Almeyda has daydreams and clairvoyance spells. Visitors to the plantation shape his education. Some are purely mean, but others – an artist, a traveling writer, a lexicographer – are there for more conflicting purposes of voyeurism. From the European painter who forces Almeyda and her mother to sit down for him (“He wanted your face and your eyes, but my body”, explains Almeyda’s mother), she gleans a first lesson on sexual possession, whose novel will develop latent violence but also attempt to counter it.

Almeyda is sold to a new owner and the chapters become episodic, describing varieties of slavery, until guerrillas from Palmares bring her to the colony. Even here, society is harsh and punitive, and freedom is tightly constructed (“You … think you are a free woman,” she is told. “Free to resist slavery. Free only to resist it.” ), but when she is married to Anninho, a free black man with an engineering background, her eyes open to a richer emotional life as well as a “grander view” of her place in the world.

Ms. Jones has always sought to imbue her writing with musicality, and while previous first-person vocals were inspired by blues vocals and jazz riffs, Almeyda’s reminiscences are mellow and subdued, almost whispered, commanding attention. of the reader not by the emphasis but a sort of incantatory rhythm determination. There are no dramatic ups and downs here, only the solemn aggregation of events, like knowledge, and this is especially evident in Mrs. Jones’ choice to eliminate the destruction of Palmares entirely, do l ‘explaining that after a time jump until the moment when Almeyda is injured and alone.

From there, history, which has always oscillated on the verge of abstraction, decisively enters the realm of symbolism. Although Almeyda, disguised as an old woman, sets out to find Anninho, the book is more interested in the different people who harass her and who all have different views on freedom and how to pursue it. “Keep your feelings,” advises a woman-medicine for whom Almeyda becomes an apprentice, learning, with the arts of healing, a way to internally transcend the material struggle. His journey is also moving inward, becoming more spiritual than physical.

As he does, the novel’s momentum pretty much stops. There is a feeling that each separate episode, clearly the product of years of contemplation, is meant to be read and studied independently rather than experienced in the flow of a narrative. “Palmarès” comes to resemble a sort of wisdom book, trading intrigue for parables.

Could that explain his abrupt, exhausted and completely anticlimactic end? One poses “Palmares” with the feeling that this book is not only unfinished (and Mrs. Jones wrote poems imagining Almeyda’s children, so maybe there is more story to come) but unfinished , one of those works whose questions and mysteries will be occupying its creator until the end of his life. Whether one is attracted or warned by the challenges of the book, this is certain: it is unlike anything else to be released this year.

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