Wednesday, August 17, 2022

WITMonth Day 17 | The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana | Review

Note: I actually read (and reviewed) this book last year (in 2021), but hesitated to publish this critical review. This year, I've decided to let my blog go back to being just that - MY blog. Promotional work and such can have a different home. So. Critical review ahoy.

I rather suspect I am in the minority when it comes to this book, but ouch. What a painful, unpleasant read. Intentionally so? No doubt. Intelligently crafted? In many places. An absolute torture to read? 100%. Maryse Condé's The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana (translated from French by Richard Philcox) is like one of those TV shows about a deeply unpleasant "antihero" (aka villain) where you're supposed to constantly reflect on how the story is actually challenging your perceptions about evil and heroes and villains, but all it's really doing is making you spend a lot of time with a villain, right? And at some point you're like "why am I watching this miserable show?" Or you decide not to bother from the onset.

Anyways, that's what reading Wondrous felt like.

The novel's blurb is, for once, not particularly misleading (even if it isn't exactly accurate); it describes a story about a set of twins whose lives diverge rather sharply. "Ivana's youthful altruism compels her to join the police academy, while Ivan walks the path of radicalization." This is the crux of the novel, and in fact encompasses a whole heap of the book's flaws without even meaning to (which I'll get to in a moment). Ultimately, Wondrous is the story of radicalization and violence. Within this, it explores racism, religious bias, political extremism, religious extremism, and different forms of emotional abuse. There is no doubt that Wondrous packs in quite a lot for a novel that's not even 300 pages long. There's no doubt that it also has a lot to say, politically and otherwise. It just does so in a way that feels like nails on a chalkboard. Again: Is some of this intentional? For sure! That doesn't mean I have to like it. And I didn't, not especially.

Ivan and Ivana's life begins on Guadeloupe, and unfolds rather slowly. Condé lingers rather elegantly on the twins' childhoods and the context for their growth and loneliness. From an early age, the two have different aspirations and expectations placed on them. As fraternal twins (though Condé's scientific descriptions here of their prenatal growth are... erm... wrong; this is very much a silly pet peeve of mine), Ivan and Ivana are very close; this closeness grows with them into adulthood into a mutual attraction and desire. It's important to note that this is not something I am plucking out of thin air. The theme of (an at times physical) desire and the internally disturbing emotions surrounding it repeat throughout the novel. This is especially emphasized due to the presence of an extremely involved external narrator. I'll get back to this more fully in a moment, but specifically on the point of defining its twins, Wondrous has a tendency to sharply point toward sexual and physical desires. And physical traits, at least on the side of Ivan. The novel is oddly obsessed with describing Ivan's specifically sexual physical appearance, with at least three instances that made me cringe. Why are these scenes necessary? Having finished the novel weeks ago, I'm still unsure.

From Guadeloupe (and after a series of violent incidents and disturbing cruelty on Ivan's part and the barest sketching out of Ivana's day-to-day life), the twins are sent to their father (a man they've never met) in Mali. Here, the same pattern that emerged during their childhood repeats. Ivan is gradually more and more embroiled in a world of violence, while Ivana... does something. (She works with kids at an orphanage. But like. In an extremely generic way.) Wondrous' very involved narrator at least has the self-awareness to admit that the story is much more focused on Ivan than Ivana, with the rather droll shift of "And what of Ivana, you are asking? What has become of her? We haven't heard from her for some time. Forgive me, dear reader. It's because she is not involved in this business as much as her brother. We were afraid that the description of her schedule at the Sundjata Keita Orphanage would make boring reading[.]" A similar self-admonation repeats later in the book, but with even less space given to Ivana's story and life. For all the split title and description, this is very much Ivan's book.

From Mali (and after a series of violent incidents and disturbing cruelty on Ivan's part and the barest sketching out of Ivana's day-to-day life), the twins proceed to France. Here too a narrative bias quickly takes hold. Despite behavior in the previous section that rather clearly lays out that promised "radicalization" from the back cover, again and again the narrator points to individual moments that serve as the linchpin or final nail. By the time the reader accompanies Ivan and Ivana to France, we have witnessed shocking (and not so shocking) choices on Ivan's part. We have witnessed cruetly that happens to him and cruelty that is carried out by him. The narrator remains generally upbeat and apathetic about these cruelties, seemingly trying to ensure that the reader maintains sympathetic to Ivan. Or if not sympathetic, exactly, then at least understanding. Numerous scenes feel entirely designed to give gentle space to Ivan's passive turmoil. While he most certainly makes terrible choices, most are only loosely linked to ideology. At every point that the narrator seems to suggest that this is the instance at which point Ivan became radicalized (and it happens... more often than it should), I found myself squinting at the page, not as perplexed by the idea that these could be radicalizing events (they certainly could...), but that they were Ivan's radicalizing events. The novel makes clear that Ivan's primary driving force is his own internal anger, shame, and discomfort, much of it (though not all!) driven by his relationship with Ivana. I repeatedly found myself wondering what purpose the narrator served, if to tell me something different from what the text was showing.

And yet those are minor quibbles. If anything, they reflect an intelligence on the part of Wondrous in its use of a narrator who is at times omnipresent and at times distinctly not, its small asides to the reader, and its willingness to break the fourth wall (in a way). The main problem I had with The Wondrous Life of Ivan and Ivana was the book desperately wanted to say something about radicalization, but did so in a... bad way. Condé makes free use of irony in her writing, with hypocrisy a favorite tool. And so in one scene Ivana is casually racist toward Arabs and Ivan swiftly calls her out for it, while only a few pages later, Ivan is angrily racist toward Jews and Ivana casually calls him out for it. The text is not wholly unaware, but the in-world obliviousness is enraging. There is a necessary amount of suspension of disbelief required across the board in this novel. Quite frankly: I could not suspend my disbelief for one moment.

The bad taste Wondrous left behind did not fade quickly. It took months. This is, again, to Condé's credit as a writer, showcasing her ability to create a lingering, real world even in fiction. The problem is just that it's a world I would much rather not have entered in the first place. Its deliberate bleakness, anger, and shallow approach to radicalization ended up making me angry, and disappointed over the book that it could (should?) have been. In a world where so many young people are radicalized (and not in any one way, nor even just in Ivan's specific way), a novel exploring its insiduous beginnings should be welcome. It's just that in its sly cleverness, Wondrous undos so much of its own critiques. The closing remarks from the narrator only emphasize this, as though the book is an exercise by the writer to get under the reader's skin. If so - good job! I hated it.

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