The Story of the Cannibal Woman: A Novel

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9780743271288: The Story of the Cannibal Woman: A Novel
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Rendered frightened and penniless by her husband's mysterious violent death, Rosalie reluctantly taps her clairvoyant skills in order to support herself in post-apartheid South Africa, an endeavor during which she pursues answers for the events in her life.

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About the Author:

Maryse Condé is the award-winning author of twelve novels, including Crossing the Mangrove, Segu, Who Slashed Celanire's Throat?, and I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem. She lives in New York and Montebello, Guadeloupe.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

Cape Town always slept in the same position, curled up in the muzzle of a gun. After hours of grim silence as heavy as a great fur coat of a former Soviet leader, the sound of engines began to sputter and roar throughout the city. In the distance, like the cries of cormorants, the horns of the first ferries split the clouds of mist grazing the sea as they left for Robben Island, once a concentration camp, now transformed into an international tourist attraction. Then the brakes of the overcrowded buses, arriving from the wretchedness of the shantytowns and converging on the splendors of the city center, screeched to a halt at the same stops. The feet of thousands of blacks in cheap shoes tramped toward the subaltern jobs that had always been their lot. All these sounds were preceded by the throbbing rounds of the police helicopters as their eyes pierced the dawn, searching to oust the criminals from their rat holes. For Cape Town at night oozed with all sorts of foulness and rottenness, a nightmare from which the city awoke completely drained, its storm channels churning bile and pus, its head of medlar trees and maritime pines bristling with fright.

Rosélie sat up in the bed she had now occupied alone for the past three months, curled up in a fetal position, her face hard against the wall, terrified by the void behind her back. I couldn't sleep last night. I can't sleep anymore. Did I grind my teeth? Sometimes they clatter together like logs of wood on the raging waters of a river. I bite my lips: they bleed. I moan. I loll and I moan.

She stumbled across to the dressing table, with its three opaque mirrors blurred in places by green spots drifting like water lilies on an Indian lake, and contemplated with a morose fascination her close-cropped hair, yellowing in patches, the charcoal lines on her forehead the color of burnt sienna, the bags of flabby skin under her slanting eyes, her mouth wedged between two deep furrows -- in other words a ravaged face showing signs of an already long passage that had been rough, so rough. Only the skin was not in keeping with the rest. As silky as when her mama, Rose, used to eat her up with kisses as a child:

"What a velvety, satiny skin!"

In Guadeloupe one usually exclaimed: "A skin as soft as a sapodilla!" But Rose loathed these Creole clichés and insisted on giving her own personal touch to things. That's how she forged the absurd name of Rosélie. Daughter of Rose and Elie. She worshiped her husband and wanted the whole world to know it. How far away those years seemed, almost as if they had never existed. It's true what they say, childhood is a myth, fabricated by senile grown-ups. As for me, I never was a child.

All around her the furniture chosen by Stephen shook itself and gradually cast off the disturbing animal shapes it took on in the dark, night after night. It had been her obsession ever since that weekend she had spent with Stephen two years earlier in the Kwa Maritane game park, close to the capital of a former Bantustan, Sun City, transformed into an international holiday resort including casino and hotels for stars. She hadn't expected the animals, so harmless during those three days, dozing in the shade of the bushes in the immensity of the veldt, to come alive at night as wild beasts and charge straight at her. What did frighten her were the men. White men. Guides, game wardens, local visitors, foreign tourists. All wearing boots and safari hats, sporting double-barreled guns, playing in a Western without a hint of a bison or Indian now massacred or defeated, herded toothless into their reservations. Stephen, on the contrary, loved dressing up in a bush jacket and canvas shorts in camouflage, a flask clipped to his waist and sunglasses perched on his nose.

"You don't know how to enjoy yourself," he reprimanded her, manly grabbing the wheel of a Land Rover.

Not her fault if she suffered from the complex of a victim and identified with those who are hunted.

Downstairs, the iron gate, armed with bolts, bars, and padlocks in an endeavor to keep out the ever-growing numbers of increasingly brazen nocturnal aggressors, creaked open. Deogratias, the night watchman, refreshed by six hours of sleep, was going home. Half an hour later, the gate creaked again. The hollow cough of a chain smoker, oblivious to the TV campaigns warning of the dangers of smoking, signaled the arrival of Dido, the coloured woman who cooked and did the housework, more friend in fact than servant, although paid a monthly wage. Soon she would climb the stairs to the bedroom, and in between the same old worries about her sleepless nights, her trials and tribulations -- husband carried off by a heart attack, a son by AIDS -- she would relate the agonies of the city down to the last detail. And it seemed to Rosélie she was imitating Rose, her mother, who, Lent come rainy season, conversed every morning with Meynalda, her servant, once a young girl from Anse-Bertrand who had never married but had grown up to be an old spinster alongside her. Both recounted their dreams and consulted The Key to Your Dreams, which Meynalda had inherited from one of her mother's employers (cooks ran in the family), translated from the Portuguese with an index and explanation of two hundred and fifty dreams.

"The shock woke me up," mused Rose. "It was in the gray hours of the dawn. Like the Good Samaritan, I was sitting on the edge of a well. People were hurrying past and throwing rocks at me. Gradually I was covered in blood."

"Blood means victory," Meynalda reassured her.

Victory over what? Certainly not over life. She had never been able to come to terms with life. She had never been able to get a firm grip on the reins of that wretched Arab stallion that rears and bucks as it likes. After six years of being madly in love, Elie, her husband, joined the ranks of womanizers and squandered his wages as clerk of the court on those bòbò women in the Carénage district. He had a good excuse. As soon as she was married Rose began to grow plump, no, rather inflate, no, rather swell up, and any diet, however strict, including the latest prescribed by a Greek dietician who had cured American movie stars, did as much good as a Band-Aid on a wooden leg. She had always been a "handsome Negress." In Guadeloupe the expression means what it means. It means a black woman, neither red nor quadroon nor yellow of skin, but black, with a full head of hair and thirty-two pearly teeth, tall, and buxom. Elie had fought to marry her -- for you know how men are in our islands. He was what you'd call a mulatto, light-skinned in any case, with hair he flattened, oiled, and pomaded, making him look like Rudolph Valentino without the sheikh's headdress. Folks say that Rose bewitched him with her enchanting mezzo-soprano voice, for with a little training she could have made it as a professional singer. She had murmured in his ear the famous refrain from Carmen, preferring French melodies, even Spanish, over the Creole songs she considered too vulgar:

L'amour est enfant de Bohême

Il n' a jamais, jamais connu de loi,

Si tu ne m'aimes pas, je t'aime,

Si je t'aime, prends garde à toi.

Then on the birth of her daughter at the age of twenty-six, a perfidious sickness spread triumphant. Fat unrelentingly slid its adipose tissues between her and affection, love, and sex, all those things that humans desperately need in order not to end up going mad. Gradually her precious organ was reduced incongruously to a pathetic mouse's squeak. One scorching-hot day in March her voice finally gave up with a squawk while she was singing Adios, pampas mias. For sixteen years she was condemned to a wheelchair and for twenty-three to her bed from which her flesh seeped out like the uncontrollable floodwaters of a river. When deliverance finally came at the age of sixty-five, Roro Désir, of Doratour the undertakers ("Give us your departed and you'll have no regrets"), made a coffin four meters by four. Some people are not blessed by good fortune. At their birth comets zigzag furiously across the sky, collide, crash, and straddle each other. As a result this cosmic disorder influences their destiny and nothing goes right for them.

At seven in the morning the sun was well in control and came knocking stubbornly on the thick wooden shutters. Dido pushed open the door and tenderly kissed Rosélie, then set down the tray containing the newspaper and the first cups of coffee on the dressing table. In a rustle of paper she opened the Cape Tribune and went through it page by page, licking her lips, exclaiming greedily whenever a crime was much too juicy, while sipping her brew of "bull's blood," the jet-black coffee that she flavored with vanilla sugar and lemon peel.

Every morning therefore Rosélie wallowed in happiness at being served in bed like a sultana in a harem or a princess in a fairy tale:

"You can't call that coffee," she loved to grumble. "All that stuff you put in it loses the real taste, takes out the bitterness."

Raised on watered-down coffee, she then added:

"So I would like it less strong."

Used to her complaints, Dido made no reply and folded the paper. She was now ready for the day, cheered up by the coffee and her fill of horrors. A father had raped his daughter; a brother his younger sister; some intruders a chubby eight-month-old baby in its stroller. A man had slit his concubine's throat. Masked thieves had robbed four streets of houses. Dido tied a beige scarf around her salt-and-pepper mane of hair and slipped on a pair of shapeless gray overalls. But her mauve flowery skirt flared out a good ten inches underneath, her eyelids were daubed mauve and green, and her mouth dribbled with red lipstick. She looked like a transvestite, a drag queen! Out of the two women she was the one who corresponded most to people's idea of a pythoness, a sorceress, a soothsayer, or a healer, call her what you like.

"Rosélie Thiba...

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