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Maryse Condé: Les derniers rois mages (The Last of the African Kings)

This a wonderful and complex novel about being black in today’s world. It is primarily set in three places – the Caribbean (specifically Guadeloupe and Martinique), Africa, (specifically what is now Benin) and the Unites States (specifically Charleston, North Carolina). Condé’s style is to jump around, both in place and time, so that we get a more impressionistic rather than linear picture of what is going on.

What is happening is that Spéro, a painter and a not very successful father or husband, is the last in line in descent from an African king, specifically a king of Dahomey (now Benin). The king resisted the French and was deported to Martinique. Spéro, his father and grandfather (all of whom have their story told) find a certain amount of difficulty adapting to life as ordinary people, for the citizens of Martinique and Guadeloupe are naturally indifferent to the royal heritage of their neighbours. Spéro moves away from the islands when Debbie, a black American woman on a black heritage tour meets him, falls in love with him and takes him back with her to Charleston. Their marriage is not particularly happy. Spéro is unfaithful and then Debbie is too. They have a daughter, Anita, who, at the first opportunity leaves home and goes off to Benin, cutting off all communications with her parents, though Debbie does manage to find out that she is successfully involved in development work. Finally, they end up living in the same house with little communication.

But this is not the story of a relationship between a man and a woman or, rather, that is only a part of the story. Both Debbie and Spéro, as well as many of the other characters, are concerned – both consciously and subconsciously – about what it means to be black, in terms of their relationships, their activities, their art, their politics, their lives. They don’t come to any easy answers – this is not what this book is about – but they and Condé do ask the questions. Is Africa the answer? How does black art fit in a white man’s world? Is a black man inherently polygamous and does a black woman have to accept this? Condé puts these questions as intelligently as anyone writing today.

Publishing history

First published by Mercure 1992
First published in English 1997 by University of Nebraska Press