"Between Two Worlds" opens like a traditional novel, explaining to the reader that the setting, Guadeloupe, "floats, forsaken, in the Gulf of Mexico," has a sulfur volcano, and was originally named "Isle of Lovely Streams." In the second paragraph, though, the unidentified narrator -- who begins to sound like a peasant woman in a trance -- casually adds: "And it supports all kinds of strange creatures, men and beasts, devils, zombies, and the rest." Simone Schwarz-Bart, a native of Guadeloupe, wastes no time in her second novel turning the geography lesson into a mythic tale and dream -- at times as gorgeous as an equatorial flower, at others as garish as "a horror puppet show."
The omphalos of this dream is Fond-Zombi, an "atom" of a hamlet in Guadeloupe, just beyond the "dead river haunted by a troop of evil spirits." Arcing over that haunted river is the Bridge of Beyond, a bridge that symbolizes both the link, and the chasm, between the Guadeloupe of the French colonialists and that of the slave-descended Creoles. "The Bridge of Beyond" is also the title of Schwarz-Bart's first novel, published here in 1974, in which an identifiable narrator -- a peasant woman named Telumee -- rhapsodically recounts the history of her family, and of her people.
The Guadeloupe of "Between Two Worlds" is decidedly more grim than that of "The Bridge of Beyond." Fond-Zombii'a is isolated, backwards, and full of strange happenings. In the lower part of Fond-Zombi, Down Below, live Creoles who practice collective amnesia: Cut off from their own history, they know life only "as an ox knows ticks." On the plateau of Fond-Zombi, Up Above, live sorcerers, men who are part animal, and the walking dead -- all vividly remembering the slave revolts and their ancestors, and believing that the grass is "the hair of the fallen heroes." Down Below residents see Up Above folks as wild men. Up Above dwellers see those of Down Below as, tragically, "consummate imitators of the white man."
These two antagonistic groups merge briefly, and catastrophically, when Awa, daughter of Up Above ruler Wademba, marries Jean L'horizon, a sawyer from Down Below. Wademba, seeking revenge for the loss of his daughter, turns her numerous pregnancies into "water and blood," then assumes an invisible body and rapes her himself. The male child born of that violent union is Ti Jean L'horizon -- "our hero" of the tale.
At the center of "Between Two Worlds," Ti Jean is a dramatic hero, and in many ways a classic one. He is half-god, half-mortal -- the offspring of a sorcerer from Up Above, yet a resident of Down Below. He receives his instructions from his forefathers -- Wademba presents him with a bracelet of knowledge, a belt of strength, and a musket that belonged to Obe, martyred leader of a slave rebellion. And Ti Jean is marked as the savior of his people -- when a cow-like Beast swallows the sun over Fond-Zombi, Ti Jean's destiny is to slay the Beast and liberate the sun.
Ti Jean is a marvelous concoction. In his "heavy and slow" blood seems to run a touch of the biblical David, the Greek Jason, the Haitian Toussaint L'Ouverture, and the intergalactic Luke Skywalker. The rites of passage for Ti Jean are an ordeal: In one of the most stunning scenes of the novel, his wrist is cut by sorcerers and jointed with the cut claw of a crow. Minutes after, Ti Jean changes into a crow and soars over Fond-Zombi. With this power of transformation, he is finally ready to slay the Beast.
Unfortunately, the Beast, however grand and galumphing, never seems quite up to Ti Jean, at least not as a literary creation. Next to Ti Jean's complex bravado, the Beast looks like a creature from an animated film.
Godzilla aside, another problem exists with the Beast. The narrator of "Between Two Worlds" points repeatedly to the Beast as a symbol of slavery -- a horror that blocks the sun. Given the actual, tragic impact of slavery on Guadeloupe, the Beast seems awkwardly fanciful. Ti Jean is a three-dimensional hero battling a two-dimensional antagonist.
The Beast, however, may be seen as a projection of the islanders' minds -- there is argument for this perception in the book -- and, on that level, the novel works magically. Ti Jean's flight through the belly of the Beast becomes an odyssey through the hero's own psyche. The odyssey takes him to Wademba's childhood home on the banks of the Niger in Africa, and eventually, after being stoned to death, to the Kingdom of the Shades. While hunting his way back to Guadeloupe, Ti Jean meets the Queen with Long Breasts, a rather unsightly gal with "a hyena-like muzzle . . . huge yellow fangs" and "a long hairy spine from which the bones stood out like knife blades." In a gesture heroic for its tenderness, Ti Jean oils the queen's back. Voila! She becomes a divinely beautiful woman -- her true form, which she can only assume for a few hours at a time -- and becomes Ti Jean's ambrosial lover.
"Ti Jean L'horizon" was the French title of this novel, and it seems more fitting than "Between Two Worlds." Ti Jean takes over this book. Guadeloupe, Africa, the Shade Kingdom, and France -- where Ti Jean, half-man, half-crow, flops down from the sky like a "black angel bouncing through the city" -- are landscapes within the intricately coiled shell of Ti Jean's soul.
Ti Jean, of course, finally slays the Beast. Ironically, he does not slay the actual white men who have imprisoned his ancestors. Ti Jean's war is within himself: a bitter struggle between the Up Above and the Down Below, between remembering and forgetting. Reliving the heroic lives of his slave ancestors is Ti Jean's way of remembering, and it follows the pattern of death and rebirth.
Early on in "Between Two Worlds," Wademba tells Ti Jean: "And yet, what is the spirit, the shade of man, but his stories, those which constantly follow him and without which no race survives." Schwarz-Bart has done a courageous job of shoring up one of these stories against the Beast, amnesia, that threatens to swallow us all.