Discovering that your middle-aged husband has fallen for one of your teenage daughter’s school friends has got to be pretty high in the nightmare stakes for most married women. In British novels, such a scenario usually has one of two outcomes:
- aggrieved woman ditches the bastard, reconnects with the vibrant, inner self her marriage has stifled all these years and realises she’s better off without him
- aggrieved woman thinks about ditching the bastard and reconnecting with her vibrant, inner self, but, after much soul-searching, and after her husband has realised the folly of his ways, finds a complex, unconventional peace with what has happened and moves forward as a beautiful, seasoned character.
But what about countries where your husband is not only expected to fall for another, younger girl but also legally entitled to bring her into your home and family as his second wife?
Mariama Bâ’s partly autobiographical 1980 novel explores just such a predicament. Written in the form of a letter from schoolteacher Ratamalouye to her old friend Assiatou, the novel’s series of reminiscences sets out the ‘slender liberty granted to women’ and in particular the plight of first wives who are ‘despised, relegated or exchanged… like a worn-out boubou [robe]’ under Islamic polygamy.
Ratamalouye’s husband of 25 years, Modou, has just died. As the rituals of the 40-day mourning period throw her together with his extended family, she relives the hurt and indignity of losing his affections and support to one of her daughter’s friends three years previously. She rehearses these thoughts in her letters to Assiatou, who took the unconventional step of leaving her own husband when he married a second wife, and her descriptions become a prism through which Bâ is able to illuminate the frustrations of many Senegalese women.
Bâ’s work might easily tip into a rant if she weren’t so for aware of the complexity of living through the issues she describes. Though clearly a passionate believer in the importance of education for all, she tempers this with reflections on the toll academic aspirations have taken on rural life with ‘the disappearance of an elite class of traditional manual workers’ because ‘The dream is to become a clerk. The trowel is spurned’. Similarly, though full of admiration for Assiatou’s hard-worn career and independence and though she rejoices ‘every time a woman emerges from the shadows’, Ratamalouye is prevented by her love for her husband and sense of duty from following her friend’s path.
Interestingly, So Long a Letter is the first book I’ve read so far this year where Western influence is presented as a largely positive thing. Ratamalouye writes with unqualified affection of the French headmistress who strove ‘to lift us out of the bog of tradition, superstition and custom, to make us appreciate a multitude of civilizations without renouncing our own’. Given the choice of novel endings facing women in western Europe and women in West Africa, perhaps that’s not such a surprise.
So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ (translated from the French by Modupé Bodé-Thomas). Heinemann International Literature & Textbooks (1989)