A Woman Named Solitude

Written by Andre Schwarz-Bart
Review by James Hawking

The slave trade in Guadeloupe provides the grim historical context for this brief but powerful novel.  The opening chapters describe an indigenous African culture with traditions, rituals and religious beliefs, but under threat from a slave trade so brutal that the factory needs a special door to throw each day’s dead into the sea.   The first heroine is forced to submit to the pariade, the custom of slave ship sailors’ raping the African women before they disembark.  The result of this liaison is Rosalie or Two-Souls or Solitude, the title character.

Her story develops through the period of the French Revolution, the abolition of slavery in keeping with The Rights of Man, and the rescinding of that freedom, replaced by a plantation system where the whips were tipped with tricolor flags.  The heroine joins a colony of escaped and released Africans whose discipline and courage are tested in combat with English and French troops, and most especially with Black revolutionary soldiers. The hypocrisy of the Revolution contrasts with the genuine struggle of the Blacks, some of who plan to take ships back to Africa, or to walk there if necessary.

Ralph Mannheim’s translation is usually faithful and often graceful, but it uses the word “nigger” frequently, translating “nègre” and négrèsse” with the more offensive English term.  In dialogue this might make sense, but in the text it is distracting.