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Marie Darrieussecq: Le Pays [The Country]
The theme of nationality and belonging has always been key in literature but probably more so in the last hundred years or so than before, thanks to increased travel and the issues arising out of colonialism and post-colonialism. Marie Rivière, the heroine/narrator of this novel. is from Yuoangui. Yuoangui is a fictitious country. Like Hispaniola, it was colonised partially by the French and partially by the Spanish. Marie is from the French-speaking part. However, it is in Europe and consists of a few islands. It has a culture of the dead, which attracts tourists, particularly the Americans, despite its gruesome nature. Marie has not lived there since she was a child, having made a successful career abroad, primarily in London and Paris, as a novelist. She is married to Diego, an Argentinean, and they have a son, Tiot. For much of the novel, she is pregnant with Epiphanie, whom she has always known will be a girl. Both her parents are still alive, living on the island, but divorced. Her mother is a famous sculptor. Though born and bred in Yuoangui, she does not speak the old language. She really becomes exposed to it when, in this post-independence period, her son learns it at school and she is unable to communicate with him in it, so she starts taking classes.
Much of the novel is about how she and, of course, others can relate to a country in which they have not lived, do not speak the language and which, for much of recent times, has been under the control of a foreign country. Coupled with this are her pregnancy and her feelings of responsibility towards her yet unborn daughter. Darrieussecq raises many questions. Can a country exist which has never been a fully functioning state and which remains divided by language? Can literature help, particularly when, as in the case of Marie, it is essentially written in a foreign language? And what is the role of the family? Her husband clearly likes the country. Her son soon adapts to his new surroundings. Her adopted brother, Pablo, however, had gone insane and believed that he was de Gaulle’s son (he was born well after de Gaulle’s death) and Marie thinks about him a lot.
The two Maries, Rivière and Darrieussecq, think a lot about nationality and belonging, not just in relation to Yuoangui but in a wider context, ranging from Halldór Laxness to Palestine. She concentrates on what it means, in this day and age, to be from a minority culture with a minority language and how they can relate to the Americans and British and French and Germans, whether as former colonisers, economic exploiters or tourists but also what it means to be a mother, particularly a mother of a baby who will grow up in this strange world. Once again, Darrieussecq has given us a wonderfully thought out and conceived novel, which raises challenging ideas on what the world is and will be in the twenty-first century.
First published in French 2005 by P.O.L