This is my review of Une si longue lettre by Mariama Ba.
Written during the prolonged period of mourning for her husband Modou, as required by Islam, Ramatoulaye’s lengthy letter to her lifelong friend Aïssatou is perhaps never intended to be sent. Containing so many descriptions of events with which Aïssatou is already only too familiar, the letter seems to be in fact a device for a series of reflections on the role of women in Senegal in the 1970s, when the book was first published.
Both originally marrying for love contrary to normal custom, the two Senegalese women have suffered in common the humiliation of their middle-aged husbands’ decisions to take a nubile young second wife, taking advantage of the Muslim encouragement of polygamy. Yet the two friends’ responses have been very different: walking out with her four sons, Aïssatou forges a new career and independent life; despite her education and confidence when talking to a distinguished old flame on equal terms, Ramatoulaye swallows her pride and hangs on, for reasons she gradually explains. After more than two decades of motherhood, her body and looks have been ruined by the birth of twelve children many of whom still depend on her maternal care, she likes her home, perhaps she is partly to blame for her husband’s roving eye, and besides, she still loves him.
Although it is clear why Mariama Bâ Is so highly regarded as an African female writer whose work is widely studied, as a Western C21 woman I find it hard to know how to read it. To what extent is Ramatoulaye meant to be a passive foil to her friend, reflecting the typical attitudes of women born around 1930, socially conditioned to accept a subservient, domesticated back seat role? Despite divorcing her own husband, to what extent was Mariama Bâ with her nine children herself a model for Ramatoulaye? The latter is portrayed as conventional in her attitudes. In a society strongly conditioned by “caste”, natural jealousy of her young “co-wife” Binetou is mixed with contempt for the girl’s low birth, and of her mother’s vulgar eagerness to gain status and material goods through the marriage. Following the custom of having a “griot” or “storyteller” attached to the family, Ramatoulaye tolerates the frequent company of a gossip-peddling fortune teller who interferes in her personal life.
As Ramatoulaye dribbles out the details of her marriage in a somewhat disjointed fashion, often leaving tantalising gaps as to how exactly she makes ends meet or juggles child care with some shadowy career, I became somewhat bored with a situation which seems to have been explained in essence with no sign of developing further. Appearing to have “lost its way”, the novel lapses into a series of cues for didactic reflections on marriage, motherhood and family which might fit better in an essay, or a Sunday colour supplement slot. The appeal of her flowing, almost poetical prose, apparently based on the Senegalese tradition of storytelling, tends to mask the fact that her reflections often seem like platitudes to a Western reader. Perhaps they would have appeared more radical when the book was first published.
I was disappointed by the tendency to stereotype: man are egotistical and often easily manipulated; mothers-in-law are scheming or materialistic, yet the married wives, often wronged, have the monopoly of integrity and endurance
Admittedly, the final pages are given a fillip with some tongue-in-cheek accounts of Ramatoulaye’s attempts to deal with her teenage children. She tends to take the line of least resistance, realising that it is often best to be pragmatic and accept, say, a daughter’s unplanned pregnancy by harnessing the good will of the student who has caused it. Yet when she tries to redress her previous failings as a mother by telling three of her other daughters the facts of life, she senses from their bored reaction that they know them already – or think that they do.
Mariam Bâ is strong on dialogue, which makes it all the more of a pity that so many events are “reported” to the reader. There are also some inconsistent shifts in point of view, as when Ramatoulaye enters the mind of the mother-in-law obsessed by the shame of Aïssatou’s low birth as a mere jeweller’s daughter, which she resolves to counter by grooming a niece as a genteel second wife for her spineless son.
On balance, I liked the sudden digression into a vivid description, the odd sharp insight, the almost soap opera bubbles of family anecdote. If Ramatoulaye appears essentially hidebound, she is capable of occasional flashes of independence as when she rejects an eligible suitor, an old flame who ironically wants to take her as a second wife.