Gossip, Investigation, and Identity
We know people by their stories.
IN HER 1992 poem “Crick Crack,” the Grenadian poet Merle Collins compares the founding myths of the Afro-Caribbean to the stories of her childhood. The “nanci-stories” were clearly labeled as fictions, she recalls, and listeners knew that “somebody was going to take a high fall on a slippery lie.” By contrast, Collins warns, the stories of the discovery of the Americas, of the emancipation of slaves, and of the end of apartheid, bear no such labels:
When we were children the signals were clear
somebody say crick we say crack
[ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ]
But some stories come
with no crick with no crack
[ . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ]
so what is the mirage and
do we know what is truth
and what is truly fiction? (193–95)
The Caribbean, Collins suggests, is fundamentally marked by this narrative tension, the only solution to which, she argues, is for its peoples to tell new stories and forge new histories that properly reflect their lived experiences and shared past. Still, to do so is no easy task, and the poem concludes with a hissing note of defiance that is also resigned to the continuing force and power of the region’s official narratives:
The mistrust of the official narrative, the authorized histories of “tall, tall, tall” white men, is urgently felt (196). But Collins also juxtaposes her defiant closing declaration with its own source material, an Ewe proverb, which she places immediately before her closing stanza: “Until lions have their own historians, / they say, / tales of hunting will always / glorify the hunter.” Collins’s repetition is a feminist riff on a rather masculine proverb, injecting a female lioness into the talk of lions and hunters. By turning the “his” of “history” into an ungendered, animalistic hiss, the poem insists that even if lions learn to tell their own stories and write against imposed truths, the tale will remain incomplete unless women (or lionesses) also seize the right to tell their stories on their own terms.
This is in keeping with Collins’s adoption of the oral patterns and images of stories traditionally told by adults to children. Still, her evocation—at once plaintive and mocking—of the easy certainties of childhood seeks to highlight the contingency of truth and fiction, mirage and reality, in the contemporary Caribbean. Despite her closing exhortation, Collins ultimately suggests that for the people of the Caribbean, the most pressing need is not to write new histories but rather to understand that much of what is presented as truth is in fact fiction, and that not all lies come clearly labeled.1
Collins’s suspicion of official narratives is, of course, widely shared in the Caribbean, a region triply marked by the sanitized histories of conquest and colonialism, the imposed discourses of authoritarianism, and the constant encroachment of cultural materials from dominant literary and artistic centers in Europe, the United States, and Latin America. Such suspicion creates fertile ground for gossip. But resorting to gossip in the face of untrustworthy or inauthentic accounts, and the epistemic instability that they bring, in turn raises questions about the epistemic quality of gossip. If official accounts cannot be trusted, why should we think any differently of information gleaned through gossip? Can gossip be a stable building block in a positivist, epistemically valid account of the world—or is it just another mirage, another fraught fiction, in a region rife with untrustworthy tales?
The epistemic validity of gossip is a puzzle that has been previously addressed, if not fully solved. Tommaso Bertolotti and Lorenzo Magnani describe gossip as mediating a bilateral exchange between individual and collective depositories of knowledge, and emphasize the practice’s role as a form of collaborative knowledge making. Karen Adkins, meanwhile, situates gossip within a broader tradition of feminist epistemological investigation, attempting a “historical resuscitation” intended to demonstrate the epistemic worth of gossip in narratives of both men and women (215). Both genders use gossip to construct knowledge, Adkins notes, as do scientists, historians, and many other epistemically respectable investigators. It thus follows, she claims, that the divide between authoritative knowledge and knowledge obtained through gossip is an illusion; gossip is revealed not as “women’s knowledge” but rather as an ungendered means of sharing and weighing information. “The material and means of gathering knowledge feminists have brought to light always already occur with all of us,” Adkins asserts (230).
Such investigations are valuable and, I will argue in this chapter, have significance for gossip’s deployments in recent Caribbean literature. The contradictory gossip of Rosario Ferré’s Maldito amor (1986) serves a refractive role, rendering firm or final truths unreachable, in a gesture entirely in keeping with the instabilities that Ferré perceives in the Puerto Rican nation. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), to which Ferré’s text is indebted, similarly uses gossip’s fraught epistemic status to trace fault lines in Caribbean society. Maryse Condé’s 2000 novel Célanire cou-coupé, meanwhile, presents an apparently omniscient narrator who defers to gossip and public opinion and is thereby seduced into presenting fantastic tales as plausible or truthful. Finally, Ana Teresa Torres offers a counterpoint to these murky epistemic spaces: in La fascinación de la víctima (2008), a psychotherapist plays detective, using gossip to arrive at meaningful new truths about an unsolved crime. In telling stories of and for a region full of tales that begin “with no crick with no crack,” and in exploring the truths and fictions of a region characterized both by distrust of official narratives and by ubiquitous gossip, Caribbean writers thus often come to reflect on the fascinating and treacherous epistemic status of the gossip and rumors through which they construct their narratives. In so doing, they—like Collins—address not just the truthfulness of Caribbean narratives, but the broader and thornier question of how to forge authentic collective and individual identities in a region where truth and falsehood remain sharply contested.
Family and Nation: Maldito amor
Adkins’s reading of gossip as an ungendered form of knowledge production is pertinent to Rosario Ferré’s novella Maldito amor, a work that engages with questions of both truth and identity and that has been widely interpreted as a feminist text. Lidia Santos argues that Ferré’s project is to rewrite the Latin American canon from a female point of view, while Cynthia Sloan remarks on Ferré’s efforts to disrupt the “dominant cultural constructions that have silenced women’s voices” (35). It is easy to see why Ferré’s text has inspired such readings: though dominated by the florid account of Don Hermenegildo, a lawyer and historian who tells the “official” version of the De la Valle family’s saga, Maldito amor ends with a radical act of subversion. Gloria, the family’s long-suffering mulatto nurse, recounts a divergent version of events as she sets fire to the family’s home, in the process perhaps killing Hermenegildo. Gloria’s narrative revisionism and final act of arson have been read as a double blow against patriarchal master texts, and by extension against broader gender-, class-, and race-based hierarchies. Marisel Moreno describes Gloria’s burning of the home as “the final debunking” of Puerto Rico’s foundational myth, an attempt to “rebel against the hegemonic order and patriarchal structures that the De la Valle family [ . . . ] comes to symbolize” (97). Gloria’s and Hermenegildo’s sparring accounts are thus conceived of in terms of an essential duality: one account triumphs over and replaces the other in a narrative clash that reveals the tensions and power struggles of Puerto Rican society.
Such readings, though valuable, overlook the refractive nature of Maldito amor, which advances not solely through the accounts of Hermenegildo and Gloria but also through a plurality of other contradictory yet complementary tales told by various family members and associates. The text’s narrative complexity can be understood by reading these diverging accounts as gossip, particularly in their aim to revise other narratives or to reveal secrets that shed fresh light on them. The characters of Maldito amor disclose, through Hermenegildo’s transcription of their gossipy speech, what they claim to be private truths about others; in so doing, they actively contradict the other characters’ versions of events. One account does not simply replace another; rather, through gossip, it establishes its place in a narrative lattice in which every character’s account undermines—and crucially, is undermined by—each of the others. The driving force at work here is not a simple dismantling of master narratives but rather an exploration of the essential precariousness of all narratives, carried out incrementally but insistently by all the text’s characters, female and male alike, through the gossip that they share.
As this suggests, the gossip of Maldito amor is forcefully adversarial: the De la Valle family members are engaged in a narrative struggle with gossip as their chief weapon. There is real power, both symbolic and practical, to the characters’ words. By revealing what they know (or claim to know) about others, the characters of Maldito amor gain tangible advantages over one another, and not always in proportion to the agency and authority they might otherwise possess: the account of Titina, the family housekeeper, for instance, is given equal weight to that of Arístides, the family’s only surviving son. Gossip in Maldito amor thus becomes a vital form of self-expression and a means of giving voice to one’s own viewpoint even, or especially, in the face of more securely established narratives. In this, the novella portrays gossip as a potent leveling force and tool for dissent, and as a discourse and social practice uniquely equipped to allow the subordinated to challenge the narratives of the powerful.
This aspect of Maldito amor clearly resonates with feminist approaches to the text, and it is reasonable to read Ferré’s deployment of gossip, a form so often seen as gendered, as a means of troubling master narratives, patriarchal or otherwise.2 Still, Maldito amor goes further, using gossip as a means not just of questioning hegemonic narratives but also of rendering a more fundamental epistemological uncertainty. In Ferré’s novella, gossip promises new truths and the disruption of prior understandings, yet it is also presented as partisan, inescapably (and often deliberately) colored and distorted by the perspectives and agendas it advances, and by the moral judgments it hands down. While each character’s gossip insists upon its own truthfulness and demands credulousness of its interlocutor, it ultimately fails to deliver the promised “real” or “true” insights. In this way, the text reminds its reader that both master narratives and the alternative tellings that strive to replace them are equally precarious. Neither can deliver a final or definitive truth but only another version or perspective; both, therefore, are equally vulnerable to being displaced by new, more seductive accounts.
Ferré’s warning is particularly urgent in Puerto Rico, a nation perpetually groping for a definitive account of its political standing and yet unable to crystallize different voices and viewpoints into a single coherent vision of its national status and identity. Similarly, there is no larger truth or even consensus to be found in Maldito amor, and no common narrative for the characters, in their fragmented perspectives and worldviews, to share. In using the De la Valles as a metonym for the Puerto Rican gran familia, Ferré’s text elaborates a failed epistemology of national significance. It stages, in other words, the failure—perhaps the inevitable failure—of Puerto Ricans to arrive at and agree upon a single common truth, and vividly renders an existential uncertainty that is both cause and symptom of the nation’s inability to satisfactorily resolve its own status.
Ferré conceived of Maldito amor as a tropical version of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), a “fabulous film,” she told Walescka Pino-Ojeda, in which three accounts of a murder “tell the same story, but from completely different points of view, and in the end one doesn’t know who is right” (82). Like Rashomon’s witnesses, Ferré’s characters tell and retell the same basic events but with each version revising or casting doubt upon those that came before. Hermenegildo’s account of the life of the De la Valle family patriarch, Ubaldino, is derailed by the entrance of the housekeeper, Titina, who lets slip that the family killed Nicolás, Ubaldino’s son, to keep him from giving away the family fortune. Next, Arístides tells Hermenegildo that Nicolás had been a homosexual forced into an unhappy marriage with Gloria, that he had been cuckolded both by Ubaldino and by Arístides himself, and that his death had been either a suicide or an act of revenge by workmen subjected to his sexual advances. Arístides’s account is followed by that of Laura, Ubaldino’s wife, who claims her supposedly chivalrous and aristocratic husband had actually been a syphilitic philanderer descended from a local black man, and alleges that Nicolás’s marriage had been a sham intended to shield Gloria from Arístides’s lascivious advances. Finally, Gloria, one eye already on the gas can, asserts that she and Nicolás had in fact been passionately in love, that Ubaldino’s political career had been tainted by corruption, and that Nicolás’s death was the result of either filicide or fratricide. Each character, in short, gossips about the others, yielding a succession of contradictory accounts that, as Ferré suggests, “produce what we might call a domino effect, in which the first version knocks down the second, which knocks down the third, until in the end it’s impossible to determine what the truth was because it all ends in questions” (Pino-Ojeda 82). As in Rashomon, there is no overarching narrative authority to provide the reader with a definitive version of events; besides a few basic facts, there is little upon which the characters agree.3
As these tales unfold, the text strays from the formal, hagiographic account intended by Hermenegildo and enters a brash, scandalous realm more akin to a Latin American telenovela than to the idylls of a novela de la tierra. Still, the action, with the exception of Gloria’s final act of arson, takes place offstage and is enacted through second- or third-hand retellings, rendered through multiple layers of prurient and obsessively detailed gossip about the lives of others. The tellers of these tales, moreover, are not content simply to describe a series of events; rather, they construct their stories according to the rhythms and cadences of gossip. Describing his brother, Arístides tells Hermenegildo: “Under his savior’s pose, beneath his airs of deliverer and liberator, he was really a closet queen, a poor degenerate fool who skewered and twisted and danced before their horrified eyes at the first opportunity he had of being alone with them; who doled and measured out the land and the houses he had promised on the basis of who would and who wouldn’t, who could be man enough to trade in his dignity for a piece of bread or a brick” (SDD 45).4 Arístides doesn’t just set out the facts: he relishes their telling, and revels in his ability to titillate his listener with specific and sordid details. Lingering over Nicolás’s sexual transgressions, Arístides acts as a stereotypical gossip, thoroughly enjoying the performative disclosure of another’s secrets. Of course, Arístides’s juicy tidbits seek not only to entertain and engage his listeners but also to seduce them into accepting the truthfulness of his version of events. To the extent that Arístides succeeds, through gossip, in converting his listener into an accomplice or ally, he wins a narrative victory: in accepting Arístides’s version of events, one must necessarily reject other, contradictory accounts.5
The same is true of the other stories presented by the various characters given a voice in Maldito amor. Rather than simply providing their own individual perspectives, each character actively seeks to elevate his or her version above the others and to have his or her telling accepted as the only true account. This highlights a key aspect of gossip that separates it from other forms of storytelling: the hidden truths it purports to reveal about its subjects frequently come at the expense of other accounts and explicitly seek to revise or overwrite another person’s version of events. What is more, as Arístides instinctively realizes, the gossip that triumphs in this narrative clash is not necessarily the most truthful but rather the best told, most memorable, or most sensational.
In this sense, Maldito amor exploits and foregrounds gossip’s inherent adversarialism. The characters are well aware of the rival threads of gossip that swirl around them, “roaming the town like stray dogs,” and seek to tame, dominate, or control them, often through gossipy ad hominem attacks on those who spread the tales (MA 129). Talking about Gloria, Titina states that “in Guamaní to be single and walk the streets means you’re risking your reputation, and now Arístides and his sisters are spreading the rumor that Gloria is loose with men, may God save her soul” (SDD 21).6 Hermenegildo, meanwhile, laments that rumors narrated “by strange and untrustworthy people” have tainted the family’s reputation (MA 132).7 Arístides, too, insists that Gloria is merely a “scheming, ambitious hussy” and that he “won’t let her let loose her pack of lies upon the town, trying her best to ruin us” (SDD 35).8
Such exchanges underscore the fact that the primary source of gossip’s power is its ability to wreck reputations. The characters of Maldito amor are acutely aware of the image they present to the world, and invest their energy in keeping their private transgressions out of the public eye. When the family’s good name is tarnished, Arístides says he wishes to move to the capital, “where no news of our dishonor or of our shame has as yet arrived” (SDD 36). Laura, similarly, complains of Ubaldino’s aunts’ “ugly habit” of gossiping about “which families of Guamaní had a strain of black blood in them, and which had managed to remain white” (SDD 70). She counters with gossip of her own, telling Hermenegildo about how she learned, through gossip, “the secret, the unmentionable mystery” the aunts had tried to hide: that Ubaldino’s mother had married a black man (SDD 74). Like Laura, the text’s other characters seek to eradicate one another’s gossip and negate threats to their reputation with new tales of their own. It is indicative of gossip’s place in the power dynamics of Maldito amor, too, that the characters have, in many cases, held on to the information they share for years or even decades. The versions they now divulge have long been part of their worldview but were hitherto kept private—in order to protect “our good names,” Arístides claims (MA 142)—and are brought to light only when the imminent death of Doña Laura threatens the characters’ individual interests.
The narrative clashes of the De la Valles do not, then, take place in a vacuum: rather, they have specific and significant consequences. Arístides’s account of his brother’s sexual escapades is more than just backbiting; it is a calculated attempt to counter the suggestion that Nicolás was killed by his own family, and to convince his listener that in fact Nicolás’s insatiable sexual appetite led his abused employees to sabotage his airplane. This pattern is repeated throughout Maldito amor, with gossip that initially seems merely trivial often proving to have far-reaching consequences. Titina’s gossip, for instance, triggers Hermenegildo’s hunt for a will that promises to determine the mill’s future ownership and sets off the chain of events that culminates with Gloria’s act of arson. Gossip, the text repeatedly insists, has real power and real consequences, and the characters harness it to their benefit.
The power struggles thus enacted through gossip in Maldito amor frequently play out according to the gender dynamics noted in feminist readings of Ferré’s work. It is through gossip, after all, that the text’s female characters—most notably Gloria, but also Laura and arguably Titina—succeed in asserting their voices, viewpoints, and versions of the narrative.9 The women’s stories, moreover, are somewhat less easily discredited than those of Arístides or Ubaldino: the male characters’ values align them with and lead them to defend the white, male-dominated, land-owning class of Puerto Rico, while the women, as underdogs in a patriarchal society, demand the reader’s sympathy. This supports past readings of Maldito amor, and Ferré’s broader corpus, as mounting a strong feminist critique that, as Moreno asserts, “challenges and parodies the paternalistic canon” and seeks to tear down patriarchal constructions of the Puerto Rican nation and its history (83).
Ferré’s use of gossip can be read, then, as an aspect of the feminist thought that undoubtedly marks the text, but such readings do not tell the whole story. It is not just the female characters of Maldito amor who use gossip to assert their voices: all the characters gossip, men and women alike. The chatter of the housekeeper, Titina, is gossip in its most stereotypical, feminine form; so, too, are the informal oral accounts of Gloria and Laura. But Arístides’s sexual boasts and sniping at his brother’s supposed debauchery, and the moralizing machismo and homophobia implicit in his comments, are equally recognizable as gossip. The same can be said of Hermenegildo’s overwrought, faux-historical account, which is littered with asides about his subjects’ private lives, up to and including accounts of their toilet habits and marital relations. The gossip of Maldito amor is not, then, uniquely feminine, any more than it is uniquely oral or informal; the registers and rhetoric vary, but all the novella’s characters take pleasure in revealing secrets and personal details that others would prefer to keep private. Gossip emerges in the text as a democratic narrative form: men and women, rich and poor, white and black are all equally avid gossips, and all use gossip to gain narrative power over one another.
Ferré’s conception of gossip as a narrative leveling process contrasts with the previously discussed traditional view of the practice as women’s talk. Ferré’s text hints at the cultural stereotypes and gendered history of gossip; her depiction of Titina, especially, reflects the popular image of the female gossip who is intimately acquainted with the private lives of those for whom she works. But by allowing spiteful gossip to filter into (or, more tellingly, emerge from) the formal and masculine registers of Hermenegildo’s literary and historical account, and the forcefully macho speech of Arístides and Don Julio, the text challenges the notion that gossip is inevitably gendered. Instead, gossip is framed as something both petty and dangerous—to be kept at arm’s length, but also a tool used, by men and women alike, to reveal, denounce, or overpower.
Read in this way, the conflict between the male and female characters in Maldito amor is less sharply delineated than many scholars have assumed. Certainly, the female characters’ narrative interventions do often puncture and deflate the hegemonic, patriarchal account crafted by Hermenegildo. But the women are neither alone in doing so—Arístides similarly seeks to correct the record about his brother’s habits—nor exclusively focused on challenging Hermenegildo. Time and again, the female characters’ narratives struggle against and seek to undermine one another, too, suggesting that their interventions should not be read solely in terms of gender. Neither are such interventions solely enacted by marginalized characters. Don Julio silences his wife, Doña Elvira, with physical blows but also with the humiliating reminder that “her saintly De la Valles, like the rest of Guamaní’s hacienda owners of yore, had also been slave drivers,” a slur that becomes gossip when recounted by Hermenegildo (SDD 14). What ultimately emerges, then, is not simply a gendered dichotomy but rather a more plural and atomized framework in which the characters speak against each other. The unifying factor, it seems, is less gender than the characters’ use of gossip to assert their stories and undermine those of their rivals.
This implies a significant break with what one might term the conventional reading of Maldito amor, which suggests that Gloria’s incendiary final chapter, in supplanting Don Hermenegildo’s narrative, offers a factually accurate account of the De la Valle family. Such a reading is both plausible and seductive: Gloria is in many ways the fulcrum upon which the family’s saga turns, and by the time the novella concludes with her account, she has been alternately celebrated or maligned by most of the other characters. Having been used and abused throughout the text, in the last chapter Gloria is at last no longer acted upon but rather is granted the right to act and speak for herself, and to tell her story without Hermenegildo’s mediation. It is almost with relief that the reader comes to accord to Gloria’s testimony the weight of truth and to accept it as the key to the puzzling contradictions that have preceded it.
Ferré’s text seems actively to encourage such a reading. Consider, for instance, its treatment of Hermenegildo’s account, with its conception of Puerto Rico as, in Ferré’s words, “a lost paradise, a feudal and agrarian world, in which, supposedly, injustice and hunger did not exist” (“Memorias” 112). Hermenegildo, at once a lawyer, a historian, a biographer, and a journalist, represents four different facets of the official narrative of Puerto Rico’s past. But just as Ferré questions his account, so too her text repeatedly reveals gaps and obfuscations in Hermenegildo’s version of events. He fails to mention, for example, that Don Julio Font, whom he consistently portrays in a negative light, is a black man, an omission that the reader can plausibly infer is intended to mask his own racism. Similarly, Hermenegildo passes over Ubaldino’s corruption and philandering in silence in a bid to “protect his good name” (SDD 24). As the tale unfolds, however, the characters directly challenge Hermenegildo’s authority, with Laura, for instance, warning that a man could never understand her family’s story. Finally, it falls to Gloria to offer a direct rebuttal of Hermenegildo’s utopian vision: “Guamaní had never been a paradise, as Don Hermenegildo says in his romantic novel.” Instead, she continues, “for centuries it had been an epidemic-infested hole, where most of the Guamaneños remained illiterate and before turning thirty-five would die by the hundreds from tuberculosis, uncinariasis, and hunger” (84). Gloria’s words are grittier and more realistic in tone than Hermenegildo’s romanticized telling, and appear the more truthful for it. The act of arson that accompanies her words, too, might lead the reader to assume their truthfulness. Why would she take such radical action, after all, unless she is nursing an honest grievance?
The apparent privilege accorded to Gloria’s account has led many critics to conclude that Gloria serves as a kind of authorial proxy who voices Ferré’s own views. Given Ferré’s avowed feminism, it is reasonable to assume that it is with Gloria that her personal sympathies lie, and the same can be presumed of many of her readers. As Oralia Preble-Niemi notes, “Each reader of the novel must make an individual decision about what the truth is in the various matters brought up by the dramatized narrators,” and amid the “polyphonic and heteroglossal” noise of Maldito amor, the reader will tend to trust the account of the character whose “class or ideological system more nearly conforms to his or her own” (21). But if such factors lend Gloria’s account their weight and plausibility, they also serve to highlight its contingency. Gloria’s account, for all its merits, derives its claim to truth status not from any objective set of facts but rather from a series of subjective judgments, and the potential congruence between her views and our own, or Ferré’s, does not render her version necessarily more complete or truthful. No matter what the reader may think of her, Gloria has not nullified the other characters’ accounts; she has simply communicated, like the other characters, her own unique and partial perspective, albeit in a particularly dramatic way.
The reader should not be too quick to decide, then, that Maldito amor’s female voices offer the real or true version of the family’s saga, or to read Gloria’s words as somehow privileged or final. For one thing, as Paul Allatson writes, the story of the De la Valle family does not in fact end with Maldito amor—some family members reappear in other stories published alongside Ferré’s novella, suggesting that the family narrative has survived Gloria’s act of arson. Even the destruction of the sugar mill is neither as dramatic an upheaval nor as definitive a transfer of agency as it might seem: Arístides has already decided to end the family’s association with the property by selling it to the Americans. And while Ferré gives Gloria the last chance to shape the text’s narrative, her final words are in fact adapted from the nineteenth-century Puerto Rican danza “Maldito amor,” the same song crooned, in Hermenegildo’s telling, by Ubaldino’s mother two generations earlier. These borrowed words hint at Gloria’s continuing entanglement in the family’s tale and suggest the impossibility of the clean break to which her narrative aspires.10
This is another reason to deprivilege Gloria’s account and to view it as a commentary on, rather than a rupture with, the epistemological instability that has gone before. Gloria sees, more clearly than any other character, the fractures and contradictions that the De la Valles have hitherto concealed in order to uphold a sanitized version of the family narrative. By burning down the family home, she seeks to silence all those who, in speaking, have sought to establish the primacy of their own versions of events; in so doing, she also hopes to establish her own version as the single and definitive account.11 But Gloria’s violent actions are simply an amplification, an impassioned staging, of the same process found in every other character’s account: the drive to silence others and to assert the truth of the speaker’s viewpoint. Gloria’s act of destruction, which affects not just the family’s home but also the potential for Hermenegildo, its chronicler, to continue recording the family members’ stories, is an attempt to impose a state of amnesia, to obliterate even the memory of the text’s diverging accounts. Were Gloria’s attempt to succeed it would mean, as George Handley notes, that Gloria’s own narrative “would become History, a new master narrative” (“Testimony and Truth” 76). This is the final victory that Gloria seeks; she fails to realize, however, that even if it were possible for her “river of blue benzine” (SDD 82) to wash away the other characters and erase their accounts, other alternative accounts, other gossip, would soon emerge to take their place. Simply asserting one narrative more forcefully, or silencing conflicting voices more brutally, cannot confer the definitive epistemological closure that Gloria craves.
Read in this way, Gloria’s actions can be seen as bringing to a head an epistemological anxiety that pervades the novella as a whole. Like all gossips, the characters of Maldito amor promise to reveal the truth and are explicitly concerned with asserting and elevating their own narratives as the “true” version of events; it is this impulse that leads Laura to declare that she “only wanted to scream, to proclaim the truth” (MA 176). But in its very urgency, such an imperative betrays the fragility of its own promise. The frantic pursuit of narrative primacy is, paradoxically, an indication precisely of the multiplicity of “truths” that circulate and also of the degree to which any given account’s popular acceptance is a sign less of its objective truth status than of its teller’s victory in an ongoing battle for narrative control. Each individual act of gossip promises the definitive inside scoop, but taken in aggregate the conflicting tales of Maldito amor in fact call into question the very possibility of definitive versions. The result of the cascading contradictions is, as Julio Ortega writes, a text that progressively “erases itself [ . . . ] in an act of radical negativity” (91). As in Kurosawa’s Rashomon, the text provides neither a framework against which to evaluate the characters’ statements nor direct access to the facts at hand; the reader is given no easy way to determine what really happened. It is this double movement, promising truth while foregrounding its ultimate inaccessibility, that defines Maldito amor’s use of gossip.
Ferré’s exploration of the epistemic implications of gossip resonates with Edgardo Cozarinsky’s conception of the practice. Cozarinsky writes that gossip “subverts before the narrator the realist illusion, uncovers for them countless aspects of a reality that habit or apathy had dilapidated” (31). Cozarinsky’s premise is that gossip, even when ostensibly focused on trivial, everyday situations, serves to reveal new aspects of reality. By refracting a narrative into multiple parts and perspectives, gossip allows texts to discover the plural realities masked, or rendered dilapidated, by our tiresome habit of perceiving reality as “one, precise, tangible” (31).12 Indeed, it is this very habit that the characters of Maldito amor seek to leverage in telling their tales: they count on their listener’s desire for a single coherent narrative, for it is this tendency that allows their own tales to supplant those of others rather than simply being taken as one viewpoint among many.
There are echoes here of the impetus that Cozarinsky traces in Proust’s work, for whom gossip proceeds “like the positive sciences in their battle to dominate ‘data’ and possess a ‘truth’” (24). Gossip, Cozarinsky suggests, provides data points that Proust organizes into a coherent narrative. But there are other ways of conceiving of gossip. Henry James, Cozarinsky notes, does not see knowledge acquired through gossip as necessarily cumulative; rather, James’s passion for gossip shapes and is shaped by his notion of the many-windowed house of fiction, where the reader’s view of the surrounding landscape depends upon which window they look out through, which is to say, which character’s viewpoint they follow. James’s works, Cozarinsky writes, are marked by an “absent center” (28), in that events cannot be directly accessed but can only be seen obliquely through the idiosyncratic and fragmentary perspectives of the various characters. Where Proust uses gossip to deduce the truth, James uses gossip to emphasize the incompleteness and partiality of the narratives he weaves.
The characters of Maldito amor are, like James’s, built around an absent center. The text refuses to intervene in their bickering or to rule on the truth status of their conflicting accounts. But Ferré goes further than James. Those standing at the windows of James’s “house of fiction” are presumed to make a good-faith attempt to describe what they see outside; the discrepancies between their accounts primarily reflect the different frames through which they view the world. Ferré’s characters are similarly constrained by their varying viewpoints, failures of recollection, or naive responses to what they see—but their accounts are also overtly adversarial, constructed in full awareness of the tales that came before, and underpinned by self-serving calculations about how they will be perceived and used by others. James proposes truths that are inaccessible or difficult to grasp; Ferré seems to agree but goes further, offering characters who do not even try to communicate the truth and instead lie or confabulate to suit their own prejudices and private goals. In Maldito amor, Ferré writes, “Literature, language itself, is at the center of the characters’ struggle for power. Everything they say is gossip, lies, unfettered calumny, and nonetheless it is all true” (“Memorias” 112). James’s fragmented viewpoints are here recast as a narrative power struggle: every glimpse is not only incomplete but also filtered and distorted according to the speaker’s own agenda.
Still, Ferré insists, despite the lies and distortions, “it is all true.” With that she seems to suggest that Maldito amor is not a puzzle that can be solved, or at least not one that has a single answer. Rather, every speaker’s version is a puzzle of its own: a story containing a private truth, which can be discerned despite, or even through, the speaker’s calculated obfuscations and manipulations. This irreducible plurality underpins Ferré’s claims that her characters challenge Hermenegildo’s sweeping historical account by offering “the story of the port of Guamaní, where everything changes and there is no stable reality” (“Memorias” 112). Hermenegildo’s account may be the “official version,” but none of the versions offered present the reader with a “stable reality.” The female characters, in their marginalization, are perhaps more aware than Hermenegildo of this instability, but while they are able to use their gossip to reveal the inadequacy of Hermenegildo’s narrative, they are no more able than he to present a fixed and final version of the family’s tale or to fully erase the countless versions that have gone before.
The contradictions and narrative clashes of Maldito amor demand to be understood as speaking to a national condition, with the De la Valles’ claim to be descended from Puerto Rico’s first governor, the conquistador Juan Ponce de León, standing as an invitation to read the family’s struggles as an allegory of the island’s own troubled history. This is particularly significant given that Puerto Ricans have, for much of their history, used the metaphor of the gran familia to portray their nation as a single happy family. Hermenegildo, early in Maldito amor, uses the words “great family” to describe Guamaní residents of “good stock,” suggesting, perhaps, that Ferré intends for her reader to view the concept of the gran familia with the same skepticism she invites them to accord to Hermenegildo’s other romantic but elitist and exclusionary notions about his country’s culture and identity. As Ricardo Gutiérrez Mouat and other scholars argue, Ferré’s project is to show the connection between neocolonial Puerto Rico and the political, erotic, and familial conflicts of the De la Valle clan, and by extension of all Puerto Rican families. Gutiérrez Mouat writes that Ferré “envisions each Puerto Rican family as a scale model of a nation in perpetual civil war, divided between the proponents of assimilation with the United States and those in favor of independence” (285). What ties both the nation and its families together is a shared past constituted through their shared stories, but the gossip of Maldito amor, by constantly opposing and calling into question the accounts of others, foregrounds the fundamental contradictions that fracture what should be common narratives and highlights the precarious balance in which the gran familia hangs.13
Ferré’s problematization of the narrative foundations of the Puerto Rican gran familia, in casting its stories as willfully adversarial rather than stable or consensually realized, recalls Ernest Renan’s notion that forgetting is “an essential factor in the creation of a nation” (7). Renan sees nationhood as springing from disparate groups’ willingness to forget their differences and forge a common identity. Homi Bhabha argues that Renan’s act of forgetting is thus a collective assertion, a performance, of unity and will to nationhood: “To be obliged to forget [ . . . ] is the construction of a discourse on society that performs the problem of totalizing the people and unifying the national will,” Bhabha explains (230). In this sense, the act of forgetting is a daily referendum, a constant reaffirmation of nationhood. In Maldito amor, however, gossip functions as a narrative of revision and rediscovery, bringing to light grievances and transgressions that were hidden or at risk of being forgotten. The text thus presents Puerto Rico as a nation that has not yet achieved the kind of unity Bhabha invokes; just as the De la Valles cannot agree about the details of their own family history, so Puerto Rico cannot arrive at a coherent and consensual view of itself. It cannot, in other words, agree on what to remember and what to forget.
What is more, Maldito amor further suggests that in the Puerto Rican context, forgetting becomes a divisive rather than a unifying act: not an outgrowth of or path to national unity but rather an amnesia unilaterally imposed by factions seeking to shape the nation’s narrative to serve their own ends. Ubaldino’s career as a nationalist politician leads him, Ferré writes, to “practice a series of forgetting exercises, to weaken his memory as much as possible” (SDD 83), allowing him to sidestep uncomfortable aspects of Puerto Rican reality. This might seem a Renan-esque exercise in nation building, but Gloria, in gossiping about Ubaldino’s forgetfulness, suggests instead that it is the self-serving construction, by a corrupt politician, of a one-sided history from which the underprivileged are conveniently excluded. Hermenegildo himself says nearly as much, arguing that while every family has skeletons in its closet, “it’s better to forget these unhappy events, erasing them with the edifying accounts of his heroic exploits. Every country that aspires to become a nation needs its heroes [ . . . ] and if it doesn’t have them, it’s our duty to invent them” (SDD 24).
If forgetting can be a path to national unity, then, it is also a fraught and contested process. Maldito amor thus uses gossip to assert a larger point: that every historical fact, and much of what passes for knowledge, is the site of an epistemological battleground. If it is not seen as such, it is only because the battle has already been fought, and a given set of facts and interpretations has triumphed. But if gossip is a means of challenging narratives, it also stands, in its ubiquity, as a metaphor for the relentlessness of doubt itself. For Cozarinsky, “the ‘truth,’ which confers so much dignity on history, is merely the absence of contradiction among received versions of a fact” (16). Ferré would agree: for every nugget of historical information, be it personal or national, there are countless possible revisions and alternative versions, spoken or unspoken. If one cannot be sure about the story of a single family, then how can one possibly hope to establish the truth of long-ago events or of so-called historical facts?
Through gossip, Maldito amor reveals the epistemological frailty of historical narrative, but offers neither a real alternative, nor much hope that an alternative is even possible. Gossip allows disenfranchised Puerto Ricans to challenge unsatisfactory historical accounts and to shatter hegemonic views of the country’s past into shifting and contradictory versions. But gossip does not provide a tool with which to distinguish or judge between these versions. The story that replaces or corrects a master narrative is not necessarily more complete or “true” simply for having challenged it, nor by virtue of its being told second. This is another reason to doubt Gloria: her radical solution might bring some satisfaction on an individual level, the text implies, but one cannot resolve an entire nation’s historical and epistemological anxieties with a can of gasoline. This is an intractable problem: the notion of a complete and lasting solution, like Gloria’s attempt to unilaterally end the family’s story, is ultimately little more than a fantasy.
What emerges from the text is a peculiarly despondent and atomized vision of Puerto Rican nationhood, in which consensus and unity are unreachable chimeras.14 Such a view resonates with other readings of the island’s troubled history. In his classic essay “El país de cuatro pisos,” José Luis González claims that Puerto Ricans are rightly concerned about “the persistent lack of consensus that our people shows in what concerns the future and definitive political organization of the country, that is, the so-called ‘problem of status.’ In that sense, one easily recognizes the reality of a ‘divided people’” (25). Similarly, Maldito amor can be read as a meditation on the island’s failed struggle to definitively resolve either its own identity or its relationship with the United States as a colonizing power. Ferré describes Puerto Rico as a “schizophrenic country with a Hamlet complex” (“Memorias” 111), profoundly marked by its own ambivalence—its lack, in other words, of a “stable reality.” The Hamlet complex of which Ferré speaks resonates with Mallarmé’s description of Shakespeare’s prince as “ce seigneur latent qui ne peut devenir,” a latent lord who cannot become (300). Puerto Rico’s status as a site of colonial and postcolonial epistemological struggles, Ferré suggests, forces an awareness of the limitations even of self-knowledge, and the island, in its uncertainty, is left inescapably torn between independence and statehood, stasis and reinvention, and the question of whether to define itself through or against its colonial status. Like Hamlet, the island is seen as ripe with its own potentiality but hesitating, trapped between the many versions of its past, present, and future.15
“The Other Side”: Wide Sargasso Sea
Ferré’s novella can be read as an overt homage to Jean Rhys’s 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea, which similarly retells a master narrative and reflects on questions of identity from the perspective of marginalized female characters.16 Antoinette’s experiences can, as Gayatri Spivak points out, be read as “an allegory of the general epistemic violence of imperialism” (251), while in Benita Parry’s compelling counterreading, the Martiniquan servant Christophine can be viewed as an “articulate antagonist of patriarchal, settler, and imperialist law” (38). By borrowing details from Charlotte Brontë’s original narrative Rhys seeks to interweave the two texts and, as David Leon Higdon notes, “give the illusion that this is [ . . . ] the other truth” (106). Yet throughout her text, Rhys shows characters struggling to deal with truths portrayed as fragmentary and insufficient and confronting the epistemic challenges of the Caribbean. Wide Sargasso Sea is marked by what Saikat Majumdar terms “a deliberate lack of signifiers, gaps between signifiers and signifieds, a Beckettian abundance of all ‘nameless things’ and ‘thingless names’” (110). The text, Majumdar continues, “destroys all possibilities of epistemological certitude. No authoritative, omniscient voice resolves conflicts created by fragmented, multiple viewpoints. Antoinette is ‘undecided, uncertain about facts—any facts.’ The letters of Daniel Cosway, the Obeah voice of Christophine, the unsettling effect of the ambience on Rochester, the recurring motifs of madness, all give but a hallucinatory glimpse of the ‘truth’” (110).
The epistemological significance of Obeah in Rhys’s novel has been remarked by Maria Cristina Fumagalli, who considers it a form of discredited or subjugated knowledge, in much the same way that Carolyn Cooper describes folk superstitions as being part of a “body of subterranean knowledge” typically associated with “the silenced language of women and the ‘primitiveness’ of orally transmitted knowledge” (65). Indeed, as Parry notes, Rhys explicitly contrasts Christophine’s informal, Obeah-based wisdom with the lettered knowledge and official histories of the colonizer: “Read and write I don’t know. Other things I know,” Christophine insists (133). But such knowledge is not a direct substitute for conventional epistemology; rather, it is a fragmentation or destabilization thereof. Carine M. Mardorossian proposes that Obeah gives way “not to a sense of anchored historicity but to a proliferation of narratives” (73). The same, of course, could be said of many forms of gossip—and, indeed, it is remarkable that Christophine’s status as an Obeah woman is itself introduced into the text through an act of gossip. After a passage in which Antoinette reflects on the spiteful gossip she has heard about her mother—“I had heard what all these smooth smiling people said about her when she was not listening and they did not guess I was”—she recalls “that woman” also saying: “It’s evidently useful to keep a Martinique Obeah woman on the premises.” Antoinette reflects: “She meant Christophine. She said it mockingly, not meaning it, but soon other people were saying it—and meaning it” (17–18). The gossip spreads, as gossip tends to do, gaining seriousness and credibility along the way; soon, Antoinette herself is passing on gossip, breathlessly reporting her own daydreams about Christophine’s purported Obeah practices. The point is not so much that the gossip is entirely wrong: Christophine does present herself as an Obeah practitioner and concocts a potion (or poison) in response to Antoinette’s plea for help.17 Rather, the issue is that the Obeah gossip continues, unsubstantiated and unchecked, even as it taints both Antoinette’s perception of Coulibri and her relationship with Christophine. Just as Antoinette’s childish conviction that she intuitively understands Obeah without ever having been taught about it is allowed to go unchallenged, so too is the chatter about Christophine’s supernatural activities left to swirl through much of the novel without being directly contradicted or affirmed.
This slipperiness, and this spitefulness, plays a key role in Rhys’s presentation of gossip, which she frames as a potent source of information, but also of instability and doubt, for the characters of Wide Sargasso Sea. The racial tensions implicit in the gossips’ commentary on Obeah come to the fore in Antoinette’s strained relations with Tia, the black child whom Christophine recruits to be her friend after other black children start bullying her. When the pair squabble over a few pennies—and after Antoinette calls her a “cheating nigger”—Tia retaliates by unleashing a stream of gossip questioning Antoinette’s purported wealth: “That’s not what she hear, she said. She hear all we poor like beggar. We ate salt fish—no money for fresh fish. That old house so leaky, you run with calabash to catch water when it rain. Plenty white people in Jamaica. Real white people, they got gold money. They didn’t look at us, nobody see them come near us. Old time white people nothing but white nigger now, and black nigger better than white nigger” (14). Tia reaches for the nearest weapon at hand—malicious gossip that she has overheard—just as she later reaches for a jagged stone to symbolically shatter the bond between the two of them as Coulibri burns. Peter Hulme’s comments about the stone-throwing incident apply to Tia’s earlier outburst, too: the episode, he writes, draws together “the grotesque injustices of colonial violence with the story of an innocent childhood dream of friendship shattered by the realities of a racially-divided society” (“Locked Heart” 83–84). Both the thrown stone and the tossed-off gossip are childish acts that speak to deeper wounds, larger injustices. Indeed, it is by repeating the gossip of adults that Tia comes to assimilate—and to educate Antoinette about—the racial divisions that define their world, just as it is through a symbolic, mutually painful act of violence that she finally underscores the inaccessibility of her world to Antoinette.
The social scrutiny indistinctly perceived—but acutely felt—by the young Antoinette is far clearer to her mother, Annette, who quarrels again and again with her husband, Mr. Mason, over the islanders’ hatred of her:
“The people here hate us. They certainly hate me.” Straight out she said that one day and it was then he laughed so heartily.
“Annette, be reasonable. You were the widow of a slave-owner, the daughter of a slave-owner, and you had been living here alone, with two children, for nearly five years when we met. Things were at their worst then. But you were never molested, never harmed.”
“How do you know that I was not harmed?” she said. “We were so poor then,” she told him, “we were something to laugh at. But we are not poor now,” she said. “You are not a poor man. Do you suppose that they don’t know all about your estate in Trinidad? And the Antigua property? They talk about us without stopping. They invent stories about you, and lies about me. They try to find out what we eat every day.”
“They are curious. It’s natural enough. You have lived alone far too long, Annette. You imagine enmity which doesn’t exist. Always one extreme or the other.” (19)
The marital row encapsulates a key theme in Rhys’s treatment of gossip: not only that it is dangerous but also that it is dangerous in ways beyond the comprehension of English visitors and more easily grasped by those who identify with the Caribbean rather than the colonizing power. Mason, like Rochester, represents what Hulme calls the “white English ‘norm,’ ” while Annette is both Creole and Martiniquan and is “therefore alien to the ‘English’ creole of Jamaica” (80). Her outsider status (from the perspective of Mason, himself an outsider in the Caribbean, but also from that of the Jamaicans) makes her the target of gossip but also gives her a more acute understanding of the risks inherent in being ostracized. Indeed, islanders of all races and classes really are chattering maliciously about the Mason household, from the “idiot” son to the “six-foot snake” on their privy seat, with special venom reserved for Annette, “a widow without a penny to her name” (17). The couple’s argument continues, with Mr. Mason resorting to casually racist clichés to justify his position:
“They are more alive than you are, lazy or not, and they can be dangerous and cruel for reasons you wouldn’t understand.”
“No, I don’t understand,” Mr Mason always said. “I don’t understand at all.” (19)
Mason’s facile profession of incomprehension—transmuted by the word “always” into something weightier than a mere attempt to extricate himself from a marital tiff—underscores his own status as an outsider and his basic indifference to the reality of the colony where he temporarily resides. If he is reluctant to leave Jamaica, it is because, in a sense, he never really arrived: where his wife understands and fears gossip, Mason has simply established a quiet outpost of his own English reality, in which he dwells with neither understanding of nor interest in the islanders’ malicious chatter.
Such episodes prefigure the alienation and incomprehension that give rise to Antoinette’s later betrayal by Rochester.18 Daniel Cosway’s letter, itself a remarkable piece of epistolary gossip, tells Rochester that “the truth is better than a lie” and that he has been “shamefully deceived” (56).Cosway rattles off a litany of bits of gossip and family lore, all explicitly framed as a true account set in opposition to the prevailing narrative to which Rochester has hitherto been privy. “They tell you perhaps that your wife’s name is Cosway [ . . . ] but they don’t tell you what sort of people were these Cosways,” Cosway writes, continuing:
There is madness in that family. Old Cosway die raving like his father before him.
[ . . . ] Her father and mine was a shameless man [ . . . ].
[ . . . ] Ask the older people sir about his disgusting goings on, some will remember.
When Madam his wife die the reprobate marry again quick, to a young girl from Martinique—it’s too much for him. Dead drunk from morning till night and he die raving and cursing. (56–57)
Cosway repeatedly claims reluctance or unwillingness to speak—he writes only “after long thought and meditation” (56)—before going on to disclose juicy details, in a rhetorical gesture that echoes the performative patterns of spoken gossip. He writes of Annette’s marriage to Mr. Mason, for instance, that “there is much I could say about that but you won’t believe so I shut my mouth” before immediately going on to reveal, “They say he love her so much that if he have the world on a plate he give it to her—but no use. The madness gets worse and she has to be shut away for she try to kill her husband—madness not being all either” (57–58). Like most gossips, Cosway claims inside knowledge of his subject matter, thanks to his supposed status as Antoinette’s half brother; still, his parentage remains an open question, and he later admits to having had limited contact with his purported family.19 It is clear that much of what he writes is actually sourced from gossip; he repeatedly refers to what “they say,” and indeed some of his claims directly echo the gossip that Tia once relayed about Antoinette’s family. “Nobody would work for the young woman and her two children and that place Coulibri goes quickly to bush,” he writes. “She have no money and she have no friends” (57). Cosway reports, too, that he wrote his letter in response to island-hopping gossip about Rochester’s marriage: “News travel even to this wild place and next thing I hear from Jamaica is that old Mason is dead and that family plan to marry the girl to a young Englishman who know nothing of her” (58). And it is to gossip that Cosway repeatedly turns to validate his account: “Still you don’t believe me? Then ask that devil of a man Richard Mason three questions and make him answer you. [ . . . ] If he keep his mouth shut ask others for many think it shameful how that family treat you and your relatives” (59). Later, his first letter having been ignored, Cosway repeats: “You don’t believe me? Then ask someone else—everybody in Spanish Town know” (71). The secrets he discloses are in fact common knowledge, inaccessible only to Rochester, the English outsider with whom nobody gossips.
Cosway himself misreads Rochester; his second letter strikes a more threatening tone—“You want me to come to your house and bawl out your business before everybody?” (71)—and when the pair finally meet, Rochester rebuffs Cosway’s clumsy attempt at blackmail. Still, Cosway’s allegations unsettle Rochester. As Veronica Gregg remarks, Cosway’s letter has been largely ignored by critics, and viewed as little more than a device for stoking Rochester’s suspicions about his wife. Certainly, the letter has that effect; still, its gossip also serves a broader function: not just fueling Rochester’s doubts but serving to stage his alienation and—much like Mr. Mason—his fundamental incomprehension of the “dangerous and cruel,” and epistemologically unstable, reality he now inhabits. He reaches out to Antoinette after speaking with Cosway, asking whether there is “another side” to the story, and she gives him the only honest answer possible: “There is always the other side, always” (77). For Handley, Antoinette’s awareness of and tolerance for uncertainty is “a cognition that the novel ultimately values as more truthful” than Rochester’s conviction that the truth is something “knowable and something to be subjugated” (Postslavery 158). But Antoinette’s understanding of the truth as relative and plural is of little consolation to Rochester, raised on the easy certainties of empire. As Gregg notes, Cosway’s story “as told to the Englishman cannot be disproved. It can only be denied or disbelieved” (114). The truth of the matter, in other words, emerges as a social construct; it is accessible only by weighing partial, agenda-driven, and self-motivated accounts. This renders it inaccessible to Rochester’s drier, more positivist approach; perhaps inevitably, his doubts, irresolvable and festering, lead him to distance himself from his wife. Christophine tries to explain to Antoinette the effect that local gossip is having on her husband. “Plenty people fasten bad words on you and on your mother. I know it. I know who is talking and what they say,” Christophine says. “The man not bad man [ . . . ] but he hear so many stories he don’t know what to believe. That is why he keep away. I put no trust in none of those people round you. Not here, not in Jamaica” (68). Terrified of being deceived, Rochester falls prey to deceit; his belief in the power of secrets—which is also a belief in the existence of a hidden truth, fixed and irrevocable—makes him vulnerable to and unable to parse the multitude of lies and half-truths to which he now finds himself exposed.
Rochester’s descent into suspicion and uncertainty is underpinned by and fuels his increasing “othering” of both Antoinette and of the Caribbean itself. Majumdar suggests that Rochester’s initial fetishization of the exotic slips into something more troubling: “Rochester falls prey to the desire for a world which, with its ‘otherness,’ lies beyond his grasp and thwarts the authority of imperialism as the standard of absolute value” (112). As discussed in the previous chapter, gossip here marks the fissure lines in a failing community and reveals the unbridgeable gaps—and the power dynamics at play—between Creole and English-born, between colonizer and colonized, between races.20 But it also marks the epistemological rifts inherent in, and perhaps responsible for, the atomized community that it portrays. Rochester’s European positivism is of little assistance as he picks his way through the threatening, overgrown and ant-infested forests of Dominica: “How can one discover truth I thought and that thought led me nowhere. No one would tell me the truth,” he complains (62). Increasingly, he becomes convinced that Antoinette, or the Caribbean itself, has access to more exotic epistemologies, inaccessible to the British visitor. “I was certain that everything I had imagined to be truth was false. False,” he confesses. “Only the magic and the dream are true—all the rest’s a lie. Let it go. Here is the secret. Here. (But it is lost, that secret, and those who know it cannot tell it.)” (100–101). It is the desire to cling to this fleeting, secret truth—this realization that, as Helen Lock writes, there are “competing epistemologies” at play (101)—that leads him to resent and ultimately lock up Antoinette. Rochester, Lock continues, has been literally “changed ‘out of all knowledge’; his epistemology has failed him, yet he is unable to comprehend an alternative” (103). The real breakdown, Lock argues, is Rochester’s, for it is Rochester who comes to equate a hidden secret with both his wife and the Caribbean they call home.
There is an irony to this: Rochester, so uncomprehending of gossip, both fears scandal and relies on gossip to validate his suspicions about his wife. As the narrative arcs back to England, Rochester seeks to prevent chatter about his own family secret; still, as Rhys makes clear, gossip is not something that occurs only in the Caribbean. At Thornfield Hall, Mrs. Eff tries in vain to clamp down on the gossip of the household servants, even threatening to dismiss those who continue to gossip: “Next day Mrs Eff wanted to see me and she complained about gossip,” recounts Grace Poole. “I don’t allow gossip. I told you that when you came. Servants will talk and you can’t stop them, I said” (105). Indeed, the impossibility of stamping out or prohibiting gossip is apparent to everyone. “Then all the servants were sent away and she engaged a cook, one maid and you, Leah. They were sent away but how could she stop them talking?” Poole asks. “If you ask me the whole county knows. The rumours I’ve heard—very far from the truth. But I don’t contradict, I know better than to say a word” (105). Poole refers, almost in the same breath, to the potency of gossip, to its frequent inaccuracy, and to the hopelessness of seeking to correct or contain the spread of rumors. Even the ruling classes, for all the power they wield over their servants cannot “stop them talking” once the talking has begun.
As in the Caribbean, gossip here serves to stage the mutual resentment and lack of trust between social classes. But if Rhys presents gossip as a form of counterdiscourse, a space in which the marginalized can obtain a degree of narrative agency, she does not shy away from the challenges such narrative clashes present for the parsing of truth and falsehood. Like Ferré, she presents her narrative through multivocal, sometimes contradictory accounts that are peppered with gossip. “As if piecing together bits of gossip, the reader must puzzle alone for the information behind these statements and attitudes,” Colette Lindroth writes. “The reader, like Antoinette herself, must decipher hints, overheard whispers, snatches of distant conversation, gossip, and speculation to determine the direction of the narrative” (88). Rhys stops short of denying the reality or accessibility of truth: the puzzles she leaves for her reader are not as fundamental or all-encompassing as the uncertainties embedded in Ferré’s refractive, contingent text. Still, she allows Antoinette to grasp the truth and understand something of its limits—“It is always too late for truth,” she thinks (69)—and also to intuit that ultimately suspicion and belief, not truth, will determine her fate. Like Ferré, Rhys challenges her reader to look beyond the text’s apparent truths and epistemological signposts, as though to signal not just the insufficiency of the master narrative against which she writes but also the difficulties inherent in seeking a single, definitive version of what is true and what is false—what is mirage and what is reality—in the colonial and postcolonial Caribbean.
Seductive Stories: Célanire cou-coupé
Much like Ferré and Rhys, the Guadeloupean writer Maryse Condé is attuned to the epistemological challenges and possibilities of gossip.21 Her novel Célanire cou-coupé (2000) is told by an ostensibly omniscient narrator who frequently provides the reader with startling insights—presented in a remarkably matter-of-fact way—into the thoughts and indiscretions of the novel’s various characters. King Koffi Ndizi is unfazed by Hakim’s sexual preferences, the reader is casually informed, because he once shared them: “He was not ignorant of his inclinations, but viewed them indulgently, having groped a number of boys in his youth. Along with incest, sodomy is a king’s privilege” (22). In the same breath, the narrator informs us of Ndizi’s long-running plot to overthrow Thomas de Brabant, the governor’s deputy. “Koffi Ndizi and Hakim had tried to hide a mamba in one of his desk drawers and also to bribe his cook to poison his meals,” we learn. “One time, they had buried a doll that looked like him in the guts of a black cat. Nothing!” (22). The relaying of the details of acts kept utterly secret by their perpetrators suggests the narrator to be all-knowing—but in the first pages of the novel, the limits of the narrator’s knowledge are also quickly brought into focus: “At the moment when this story begins,” the narrator states, then interjects: “(but is it the beginning? Where is the beginning? Who can say!)” (14–15). The narrator explicitly questions his or her own monopoly on narrative authority and often does so, moreover, by deferring to another form of authority: common knowledge, gossip, and speculation. The narrator clearly has privileged insights, but for the full picture such insights are worth no more, and perhaps much less, than opinions circulating through the grapevine. This is a pattern that repeats, in various ways, throughout Condé’s novel: despite appearing to have unfettered access to the deeds, memories, and motivations of the novel’s characters, the narrator frequently delves into murkier spaces, recounting, re-creating, and even coming to rely upon the hunches and intuitions that circulate, in the form of rumor and gossip, among an extensive supporting cast of villagers and townsfolk.
Acts of gossip are seldom shown in detail in Célanire; rather, they are stipulated or taken for granted. We see individuals gossiping but rarely learn the content of their chatter: when Thomas de Brabant dines with senior officials and clergy, for instance, we simply learn that they “drank too much, and gossiped ferociously” (59); similarly, when Hakim and Betti Bouah meet, they swap “the latest gossip” (52). This opacity also extends to the gossip of unnamed figures: in the public parks, mothers spend their time “whispering secrets and the latest gossip to one another” (170–71); in the Peruvian bar where Amparo and Yang Ting meet “the chatter was non-stop” (223), and in the ship aboard which Célanire and Thomas head home, the female passengers “badmouthed each other” (235). Inasmuch as we learn the content of gossip and rumor, it is typically presented in the aggregate, without attribution to specific speakers. Tales of the governor’s failings, from his lackluster public-work projects to his struggles with his weight, are “whispered everywhere” (194), but we never learn by whom. Consider, too, the moment in which Célanire first returns to Guadeloupe:
Throughout the land the same whisper went up. Incredible but true! Célanire, Célanire was back! What could have brought her back? Did she not know her countrymen? Did she not know that they would not be able to resist exhuming the corpse of a rape that had caused such a stir at the time, and of gorging themselves again and again on its filth? No matter that she had become the wife of the governor: she and her husband would find themselves sullied. Unless she was back to add a few final touches to all the evil she had previously done? In any case, this return did not bode well. (139–40)
We hear the words spoken, but without attribution or context; the effect is of a collective voice, perpetually murmuring in the background, as though gossip percolates up through, or serves to mediate, the collective consciousness and common knowledge of the community.22
In this sense, the gossip of Célanire serves as an oral grapevine, reinforcing and defining communal ties through the transmission of news and information. This notion of gossip as a form of news service is widespread in the Caribbean: consider the radio-bois-patate and télédiol of the Francophone Caribbean, which Jarrod Hayes aptly terms “an alternative mode of truth production” and a fundamental narrative building block in the region’s literature (322); Cuba’s “Radio Bemba,” which evolved from guerrilla radio broadcasts into a rich network of both political information and celebrity gossip; or the Trinidadian word of mouth described by Elizabeth Nunez in Bruised Hibiscus (2000). Nunez’s novel begins by tracing the spread of news about a body’s discovery: “There was an intricate network of people who could be counted on—men’s women, women’s men, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, friends—who passed the word from mouth to mouth as they thought they should; news too sensational, too shocking to keep to themselves, news it was their duty to share” (4–5). News acquired through the grapevine supplements and in some cases replaces news from official sources: Cedric turns to gossip to confirm his hunch that a murdered woman was white, despite newspaper reports to the contrary. Nunez shows gossip from the viewpoint of its recipient, as an interpretive process informed by one’s presuppositions and prejudices, rather than as a source of objective or necessarily reliable information. Rosa, Cedric’s wife, chooses to believe contradictory rumors blaming the killing on Boysie Singh, a real-life gangster; her friend Zuela, meanwhile, dismisses the gossip about Singh and concludes that the killing was actually a crime of passion.23
In Célanire, characters similarly rely on information gleaned through quick-traveling gossip—not necessarily accurate, but always compelling—to navigate their community and their relations with others, and frequently turn to gossip in their efforts to find out more about the various enigmas in which Célanire herself is embroiled. Some of the news thus transmitted is relatively banal: the details of Tonine’s funeral are “spread by word of mouth like wildfire,” prompting all who hear to attend (203). Elsewhere, the grapevine transmits the kinds of scandals and bedroom secrets in which gossip often deals: “some good souls” inform Amarante that Célanire “was now carrying on publicly with Élissa de Kerdoré” (176). In other instances, gossip is shown as a repository of past knowledge: upon hearing of Célanire’s affair with Élissa, Amarante recalls “the old gossip: they whispered that, in her childhood, Célanire had caused the death of Ofusan, just as she had caused the downfall of Dr. Pinceau. And who knows what else?” (177). Similarly, Yang Ting’s murder is kept in people’s memory through their gossip: “In Lima, people still talk about the story” and “if you go for a drink at Juanito’s in Barranca, or at Brisas del Titicaca near the Plaza Bolognesi, they will tell you the story and add many unverifiable details” (222–23). Even the location and brutality of Yang Ting’s murder are thus memorialized, through rumors that the room where the crime took place is haunted: “Soon the rumor spread everywhere, and nobody wanted to live there” (224).24 As the transmission of details surrounding Yang Ting’s death reveals, the novel’s gossip and rumors may be a source of news or background knowledge, but are no slaves to the truth; they promise useful information, certainly, but also deal in distortions, “unverifiable details,” and even ghost stories.
Gossip of this sort is news, then, but news with a splash of something more intoxicating and seductive. Besides being a potent informational resource, the free-flowing gossip of Célanire is also highly performative, with embellishment and bias portrayed not as defects but rather as intrinsic parts of the narratives being woven. Though grounded in a private act of speech, gossip aggregates into something public: it can become a spectacle, even a spectator sport. To gossip can be a private act, entered into with the expectation of confidentiality—but, as we will see in the next chapter, it can also be to participate in a chain of communication, with the implicit expectation that what one says will be repeated, amplified, and even broadcast throughout the community. This, again, is a feature rather than a bug: some kinds of gossip, at least, can be furtive without being secretive and can be shared with an eye to a broader audience. For gossip of this sort, which makes up much of the gossip of Célanire, the more spectacular the revelation, the better; truth, or at least plausibility, still matters, but it matters markedly less than the startling or salacious quality of the tale being told. Indeed, this seductive aspect is perhaps a part of the reason that Célanire’s narrator is repeatedly drawn back to gossip. The facts matter, and the narrator strives to return to them, but the circulating stories are simply too juicy not to recount—and once the narrator begins to share them, they become almost impossible to set aside, even at the risk of losing track of what is true and what is false.
In this way, the pursuit of the spectacular can lead gossip to become a speculative form, dealing not just in what is actually known but in what is merely supposed or suspected. We are delving, here, into the territory described by C. A. J. Coady as a “pathology of testimony.” Rumors and myths may be false, Coady argues, but gossip—nonpathological gossip, at least—“is standardly sincere, and may be true and known to be true” (253); indeed, to knowingly spread falsehoods through gossip, he argues, is to engage in an act that has transcended (or sunk beneath the level of) what may properly be termed gossip. “To my ear, the phrase ‘lying gossip’ does not ring true; the more accurate description of the activity is just ‘spreading lies,’ ” he asserts (263). What Coady sees as a pathology, however, I view as fundamental to gossip, which depends for its validation not on hard facts, but rather on its plausibility: not on factual truth but rather on an affective alignment with the emotional needs and preexisting prejudices of its participants. Olive Senior—a writer who freely declares herself a gossip—notes that gossip “presupposes a loop that connects teller to listener, binding both to the subject of the story” with the “ultimate judgement [ . . . ] based not on veracity but believability” (“Writer as Gossip” 49–50). Speculative gossip is, in Célanire, a way of giving voice to the hunches, suspicions, and slanderous suppositions that bubble beneath the surface of the community; it is at once a negotiation and an affirmation of the group’s collective judgment of a situation. Crucially, however, gossip seldom if ever acknowledges that it has drifted away from the pursuit of pure factuality; even as it gives way to speculation and prejudice, gossip typically continues to insist upon its own truthfulness and remains a space in which common knowledge is delineated and transmitted. It is, in short, a space in which speculation can give rise to claims that are communally accepted as truths—and that, once accepted, are seldom reexamined. As Condé’s novel shows, gossip, for all its bias and embellishments, can thus cohere and weave itself into a community’s stock of common knowledge: in its partisanship, it offers a morally and ideologically clear map of the community, even if in so doing it undermines or displaces more accurate accounts of the events it describes.
A part of the process whereby the factual schemas proposed through gossip come to dominate the public discourse and cement themselves as “common knowledge” is by seeking to exclude those who refuse to participate in gossip. As previously discussed, to exist outside the realm of gossip is to be fundamentally othered: not simply a member of the in-group or the out-group but a member of no group at all. When Melody testifies against Papa Doc, it is the lack of gossip about her that proves most unsettling and serves to undermine her claims.25 “Where did this Melody come from, whose testimony had condemned me?” Papa Doc wonders. “Nobody had seen her, nobody knew her. Before working for me, she had not been in the service of any good family. Neither in Grande-Terre nor Basse-Terre had anyone ever seen her before” (123). But Célanire herself also exists in this liminal space, distancing herself from the community’s gossip and effectively othering herself as a form of self-assertion: “She had never shared their simple enthusiasms, their excitements, or their fears. When they confided secrets to each other, she covered her ears” (16). Here, Célanire is shown as actively distancing herself from the intimacy and complicity that are crucial for communal bonds. In a corresponding gesture, meanwhile, she actively cultivates or seeks to provoke gossip about her scar, knowingly stoking speculation by concealing it from view:
Of course, there was always that rotten handkerchief knotted tightly around her neck. What did it hide? The most fantastic explanations took root and circulated. At sixteen, Célanire had been disfigured by a crazed lover that she had spurned. He splashed acid at her eyes, but in his rage his hand trembled and he caught her throat. That occurred in an African country several years before she married Thomas. Thomas, who was then governor, had used his position to have the guy transported to a penal colony. Doubtless, he was there still. Or they insisted that in her childhood her head had been all but ripped off with a skipping rope, and sewn back on by a surgeon in Guadeloupe who had then raped her. And so on and so forth . . . One can see that the common thread in all this gossip, where pieces of truth had been crassly stitched to bits of fable, was that Célanire was a woman who should be handled with caution. (237–38)
The public narrative, like Célanire herself, is a patched-together creation, a Frankenstein’s monster, and by making herself the subject of gossip Célanire ultimately gains a measure of respect. Indeed, Betti Bouah is reduced to childlike fear by Célanire’s scarf, which he suspects conceals “the mark showing that she was the ‘horse’ of dangerous aawabo” (48). The mark Bouah believes Célanire to carry is an intimate secret—examples of other such marks include warts and fused toes—of the kind typically interrogated through gossip, but by covering her throat Célanire assumes an active role in inciting and steering the circulating gossip. “The dread she provokes stems mainly from this scar’s invisibility, from an unconfirmed suspicion that Célanire is hiding a ‘secret terrible,’ ” notes Nicole Simek. “Her ‘monstrosity’ lies in this interpretive instability, as well as in her control over those who would ‘read’ meaning into her scar” (105). Célanire manipulates the gossip about her, or at least the information available to the gossips, as a means of asserting her own agency, and her independence from and indifference to the community’s moral judgments.
But while Célanire can control, to an extent, the facts that she discloses, she can do little to stanch the slow drip of pure speculation that, throughout Célanire, emerges with little or no factual basis, is repeated as gossip, and gradually becomes accepted as “fact” by the community as a whole. Condé’s roman fantastique is rife with examples of lurid speculation—often concerning Célanire’s purported monstrosity—being disseminated through gossip and becoming accepted as factual accounts of the events in question.26 After a cleaner gossips about Célanire’s homosexual liaisons, for instance, sinister tales begin to spread:
A hunter who had gone deep into the woods to catch thrushes and ortolans claimed that before dawn he had run into Célanire, who seemed to be waiting, sitting under a wild cherry tree, her lips smeared with blood. [ . . . ] She chased him, so he climbed to the top of an ebony tree. She apparently did not know how to climb trees, and in a rage had paced up and down at the base of the tree. This show had lasted until sun-up, when she had bolted off back to Ravine-Vilaine.
Given such gossip, the good that Célanire was doing passed unnoticed. (206)
In this remarkable passage, the narrator reflects on how gossip’s seductive quality overpowers other narratives that, though potentially more accurate, are less flashy and less fascinating to the listener. The narrator attempts to retain some distance—it is only what a hunter “claimed,” and what “apparently” happened—but nonetheless passes along and helps to perpetuate the gossip. Célanire’s supposed bestial transformation recalls an earlier episode in which a nurse claims to have seen Célanire shedding her body just as a snake sheds its skin: “One night while the rain and wind were rattling the shutters, she had gone unexpectedly into her room and seen, before the wide-open window, a small pile of soft, shapeless flesh and skin. Hidden behind a closet, she witnessed the return of the young woman during the small hours of the morning. Her mouth smeared with blood, she had squeezed herself back into her fleshy trappings and calmly returned to bed” (84–85). The narrator insists that we should dismiss this gossip as mere superstition: “Can one really believe such nonsense and badmouthing?” (85). But the narrator immediately undercuts this dismissal of the gossip: “One thing that wasn’t a lie was that in the June session, the Home put forward six candidates, of whom four were girls, for the native certificate of elementary studies. They all passed, even the girls[. . . . ] In everyone’s eyes, the quick transformation of the Home reeked of pure witchcraft.” (85). The superstitious “nonsense and badmouthing” is followed by facts, presented as indisputable, which rhetorically one would expect to serve as a counterpoint to the gossip. In fact, however, the new details support the common view that Célanire is in fact embroiled in some kind of witchcraft and that her success can only be explained through black magic. Gossip here appears to overcome the narrator’s own better judgment and begins to infiltrate their supposedly factual account.27
There are other notable occasions when Célanire’s narrator suggests that it is possible to discern the truth or falsehood of the gossip on display but then explicitly fails, or refuses, to do so. In describing Célanire’s recuperation, for instance, the narrator disavows any privileged insights into the specifics of her treatment, falling back on a more probabilistic approach to the facts of the matter: “We don’t know whether Madame Eusebio gave Célanire the medication recommended by Doctor Iago Lamella,” the narrator admits. “Cod-liver oil? Shots of camphorated oil? Hardly likely! She did whatever entered her head!” (236). Crucially, the narrator then goes on to describe in far more detail, and with far more certainty, the nature of the meals prepared for Célanire by Madame Eusebio: “Because we do know with certainty, down to the last detail, the diet that she made her follow. Twice a day she would go down into the heat of the kitchens, tie an apron around herself, and prepare her patient’s tray. The most outlandish stories circulated about her behavior, spread by the cooks and the kitchen boys. For them, without a doubt, Madame Eusebio was a bruja, like those of the southern coast of Peru. Rather than milk, she needed blood, more blood, always blood” (236). The passage effaces the boundary between knowledge and speculation, between fact and gossip. We are told that we can “know with certainty” what Célanire ate, but having promised facts, the narrator steps back to describe her diet through the “outlandish stories” and insinuations of witchcraft that circulate among the kitchen staff. The slippage is significant: the narrator, the storyteller from whom the reader’s own knowledge derives, appears to have been lulled by the rhythms of gossip into forgoing “certainty” and choosing dramatic hearsay over dry facts.
This concept of choice is significant and serves as a reminder that the knowledge built up through gossip is less monolithic than its ubiquity might suggest. Gossip is not a means of imposing a fixed narrative onto a community but rather a means for communities to negotiate, or try to negotiate, consensual ways of knowing.28 In Célanire we typically see the effects of this process, rather than the process itself at work; still, there are hints at the negotiations continually being effected through gossip. In some moments, the narrator makes clear that the opinions being shared have not yet reached the level of a consensus. As Célanire concludes, for instance, the people of the island are troubled to see lychee trees bearing fruit before their proper season, and arrive at wildly divergent conclusions: “What did such an abundance presage? Surely, a series of catastrophes. Given that March was not hurricane season, some peered over at La Soufrière. It is true that, after several weeks, it was once again letting out fumes, foul-smelling like farts. Others remembered that it was the tenth anniversary of an earthquake that had reduced La Pointe to rubble. Discordant voices insisted that on the contrary, the lychees heralded good fortune” (241). There is little sign of the speculation settling into a consensus; we are simply presented with contradictory interpretations of the event’s significance. Similarly, the consensuses arrived at through rumor and gossip are at times shown as being restricted to subgroups of the community: one event “deeply shocked the Africans,” while another “stunned both Blacks and Whites,” with the narrator’s insistence on racial group identity serving as a reminder that even convergent opinions do not always efface the perceived boundaries between groups (92–93).29 These divisions and fault lines highlight gossip’s status as a means of delineating group beliefs, but also of cohering and defining subgroups through the differences in opinion arrived at and articulated through gossip.
Celia Britton traces a similar strategy in Édouard Glissant’s Malemort (1975), in which the narrative is conveyed through reported speech, generating a refractive effect that dilutes the authority of any individual version. For Britton, “The plurality of discourses is crucial to Glissant’s promotion of diversity against the domination of a single universalizing truth” (Glissant 168). Similarly, Valérie Loichot writes that for Glissant, “the intermingled voices are those of the community. They mix, dissolve, and clash in the person of a ‘nous,’ allowing the reconstruction of a clearly Caribbean voice” (73). But where Glissant’s narrator defers to the voices of others in order to cultivate polyphony, Condé’s narrator appears torn between the urge to deliver firsthand, ostensibly objective knowledge of the type a reader expects from an omniscient narrator and the desire to tap into the circulating narrative, grounded in gossip and commingled with superstition, that represents the social consensus about the events and people in question. What we read in Célanire, then, is not the “reconstruction of a clearly Caribbean voice” but rather the convulsions of a people struggling to maintain a collective voice, a collective identity, in the face of individuals and actions that do not fit neatly into existing moral or factual schemas.
The gossip that bubbles through Célanire, then, is not merely informational, and does not serve solely to assert community or group membership, but is also an interpretive challenge. This is an aspect of the text, if not of its gossip, that has been remarked before: Simek highlights the “dizzying mélange of parodic techniques” at work in Célanire, which she asserts function to make Célanire’s identity “incomprehensible, in the etymological sense of something that cannot be contained within the normative parameters of categorization or representation” (258). As Simek rightly notes, the fracturing of the narrator’s authority in the novel’s first pages serves as a signpost that warns the reader of the interpretive difficulties that lie ahead. Similarly, Dawn Fulton writes convincingly of the ways in which conflicting accounts of characters’ deaths generate a “heightened interpretive tension” as divergent tellings are “forced to occupy the same discursive space” (106–7). Célanire herself is the focal point of a similar tension, Fulton continues, with her cultivated opacity rendering those around her unsure of her true nature and ultimately leading them to view her as monstrous. “Versions and explanations conflict, firsthand accounts of her behavior meld into rumor and exaggeration, and interpretation vacillates with shifts in audience,” Fulton writes (104). Indeed, she argues, the text itself becomes a “monstrous” narrative, with disparate versions from various sources patched together into a discomfiting and piecemeal narrative. “The narrative is thus ‘monstrous’ in the sense that it does not represent a coherent whole through the lens of any particular interpretive context,” Fulton writes (105). Fulton’s reading is accurate, but one can add that gossip is the common thread running through many of these fragments of information and interpretation. The epistemological challenge that Fulton traces in Condé’s work manifests not just in the diverging episodes that Fulton analyzes but also runs deeper, as the text’s narrator alternates between presenting an omniscient perspective on the events described and sharing the other versions that have crystallized in the town’s gossip.
The seepage of gossip into a purportedly objective and omniscient narratorial account reflects the difficulties inherent in telling stories about a community so immersed in the stories it tells about itself. Is it more accurate, more truthful, to focus on objective facts and ignore the lived reality, or realities, reflected in a community’s gossip? Or is it better to report the speculations, exaggerations, and embellishments taken as true by a community’s members, even at the cost of twisting or overshadowing the more mundane “true” version of events? To what extent, furthermore, can a narrator make a fair judgment between these two approaches, given the seductive power of gossip and the temptation to tell listeners not just true stories but captivating ones? And ultimately, in such a setting, what does it mean to have knowledge? Condé herself offers no solution to these epistemological challenges; indeed, she shrugs off the question and asserts that Célanire “is really a book that has nothing to teach people, that one can understand as one chooses. It has whatever meaning one wants it to have” (“A Conversation” 12). This is in keeping with her broader project; as J. Michael Dash notes with reference to La traversée de la mangrove (1989), Condé’s work is driven by an “inexorable skepticism” that makes her “one of the quintessential practitioners of postmodern narrative in the Caribbean.” The titular mangrove—itself read by Hayes as a metaphor for the narrative’s gossipy structure—is impossible to ford or navigate. “Consequently,” Dash writes, “no totalizing system or master narrative is possible in such a world” (Other America 120).
Gossip, in this reading, once more recalls Coady’s notion of a “pathology of testimony,” in that it not only fails to provide access to objective truths but in fact impedes access to such truths. The narrator is faced with the unresolved challenge of both presenting facts and adequately representing the stories that circulate in the community. In this sense, Condé presents speculative gossip as a way not of approaching epistemic truths but rather of interrogating the psychological truths of individuals, and the shared truths by which the community defines itself and inscribes its own understanding of the truth. Gossip may not itself always present the truth, Condé’s novel asserts, but no story can be complete, or fully truthful, without acknowledging the myriad speculative and revealing narratives that circulate through gossip.
Gossip and Investigation: La fascinación de la víctima
The texts examined thus far in this chapter deploy gossip as a means of highlighting the epistemological challenges of the contemporary Caribbean and view the region through a postmodernist lens: gossip, in its plurality and its multiple perspectives, is seen as speaking to the refractive and contingent nature of truth itself. Still, some writers do seek to show gossip as a possible solution to, rather than simply an expression or allegorization of, such challenges. In the preface to Falsas crónicas del sur (1991) Ana Lydia Vega claims to have woven her short stories from the oral traditions of the coastal towns of the Puerto Rican south. Indeed, several of Vega’s introductory notes acknowledge the stories’ roots in “Radio Bemba” (162) and “oral tradition in its street form of town gossip” (174). Vega remarks: “In this geography configured by sugarcane and the sea, beneath plants that hang like garlands from electric cables, the public and the intimate, for better or worse, are confusingly intertwined” (162). The confusion is inescapable, Vega argues, but the “protean multiplicity of events” (1) traced by gossip maps the connections that define communities, and can still reveal something meaningful about the nature (and knowledge) of the community in question.
Abilio Estévez’s Inventario secreto de La Habana (2004) similarly reports several stories purportedly sourced from gossip, claiming that “to speak of Havana one must speak of its malas lenguas,” or evil tongues (111).30 Unlike Vega, who tends to highlight gossip’s playfulness and its informational value, Estévez repeatedly stresses gossip’s maliciousness, claiming that “in Havana, all tongues are viperine” (113). But while Estévez foregrounds both his disdain for and apparent distrust of gossip, his inclusion of gossip as a source mirrors Vega’s and similarly affirms gossip’s value as a means of reconstructing stories that might otherwise be forgotten. Here again, gossip’s questionable veracity does not necessarily render it less useful or diminish its ability to communicate significant truths about the society in which it circulates. Both Vega and Estévez take a rather impressionistic approach that allows them to sidestep some of gossip’s thornier epistemological challenges. The truth or falsehood of a specific bit of gossip matters less, they propose, than the simple fact that regardless of its epistemic reliability, gossip offers valuable insights into stories circulating in a given time and place.
Still, some writers go further, suggesting that gossip can nonetheless serve as a reliable means of uncovering and ascertaining specific facts. This, certainly, is the case in La fascinación de la víctima, a 2008 novel by the Venezuelan writer Ana Teresa Torres, in which the protagonist, a psychoanalyst turned sleuth named Elvira Madigan, uses gossip as a potent investigative tool while she navigates a corrupt and toothless judicial system and ultimately successfully solves a murder. Madigan’s inquiries begin when a patient, Adriana Budenbrook, seeks help coping with her sister’s murder. Adriana is convinced that her grief can be assuaged only by learning the truth about the murder—it is, Madigan quickly perceives, “more a case of who did it and why, than the need for personal help” (11)—and to fulfill her duties as a therapist, Madigan increasingly assumes the role of private investigator. In fusing these roles, Torres’s novel reflects on the epistemological and narrative connections between the psychoanalytic process and the detective story—a kinship Freud understood and one that has been well explored in the scholarship of Peter Brooks and others. In La fascinación, however, psychoanalysis and detection bear fruit only when brought into conjunction with gossip, which is presented as an equally valid and potent investigative method. The most significant clues that Madigan uncovers are arrived at and interpreted through gossip: she reconstructs the killing through secrets disclosed by others, and the novel’s narrative is propelled forward by the incremental discovery, through intimate, dyadic conversations, of new perspectives on a decades-long, still-unfolding story.
In this way, La fascinación presents gossip as a relatively benign social practice, transmitting valuable and largely reliable knowledge about a community’s members, rather than as the narrative power struggle presented in Maldito amor and Wide Sargasso Sea, or the barbed and speculative communal judgments shown in Célanire. That is not to say that the gossip of La fascinación is not adversarial, or that it has bated edges: the gossip Madigan hears is still an act of violation, insofar as it is the revelation of facts that its subject wished to keep secret. Still, Madigan’s interlocutors are not chiefly concerned with twisting the facts to their advantage; rather, they seek to obtain a measure of fleeting and perhaps largely symbolic power through the act of violation itself, by claiming the right to reveal the private stories of others. This is clear, for instance, when Adriana’s father, Adrian, is accused of killing Adriana’s half sister. His business partner, Leo Altman, declares that “he killed her. [ . . . ] Adrian could not accept a daughter who would sully his life” (275) and tells Madigan she has given him “the chance I have waited for my entire life. [ . . . ] The chance to say out loud that Adrian Budenbrook was a murderer” (276). In soliciting information, Madigan gives something to her interlocutors: there is a power in the sharing of gossip, a power in the act of denunciation—and, as the passage shows, a power that is realized when latent, unspoken knowledge is reified in the act of disclosure. If the gossip of Maldito amor is specific, self-serving, and urgent and the gossip of Célanire is diffuse, always simmering in the background, then the gossip of La fascinación lies somewhere between the two: it is less explicitly self-interested than the gossip of Ferré’s novel and less obliquely presented than that of Condé’s text but exists as a tangible presence, foregrounded and shown directly as a constant of social interactions that offer real utility to both listener and speaker.
It is these social interactions that drive the novel forward: Madigan does not so much interrogate her witnesses as simply chat with them, with traditional evidence replaced by personal insights obtained through acts of gossip. One of Madigan’s chief sources, Aída Machado, is a society journalist—a professional gossip, as it were—who, once befriended, shares “her opinions, her jokes, and her gossip” and in the process reveals crucial clues (236). Lisbet, a minor character whom Madigan meets at a party, spends most of her time regaling Madigan with “very old gossip,” including the story of how, during the dictatorship of the 1950s, “the gossip about Luis Emilio Orozco’s conspiring” led to his being jailed (324). It is from this disclosure, in fact, that Madigan finally deduces the motive for the killing. Even the killer himself, Tomás Orozco, gossips with Madigan, casually revealing intimate details that help bring about his downfall. Orozco recognizes the risks in gossip—he laments that “to wind up on Aída Machado’s lips was dangerous” (159)—but cannot resist participating. Torres’s Caracas is filled with “constant babbling” (73), but gossip can also be a kind of currency, with Madigan’s interlocutors taking pride in the secrets that they alone can pass on to her. Adrian’s daughter, Adriana, speaks frankly of her father’s fabrication of “the family’s official version” of its past but goes on to brag that she is the only person to whom he told “the true story” (234). Machado herself, meanwhile, boasts of knowing “everything that happens in this city” and that “nothing escapes me” (237). Gossip, here, is not just a way of knowing but a way of asserting exclusive knowledge—even if, ironically, such exclusivity can be fully asserted only by imparting that knowledge to others.
As this suggests, the novel portrays Venezuelan society as deeply invested in gossip. As a Canadian expatriate, Madigan soon realizes that if she is to arrive at the truth about the crime, she must integrate herself into the social milieu of her new home and persuade the people with whom she interacts to grant her access to their secrets: to obtain gossip, in other words, she must herself become a gossip. This is a process complicated by Madigan’s status as an outsider; still, despite spending much of the novel running up against dead ends, Madigan remains doggedly, even naively convinced that the truth is real and accessible, even if it is dispersed among the many friends, acquaintances, and other characters upon whose gossip she depends. In gathering together the threads of the truth she seeks, Madigan encounters multiple versions of the same events, much as we see in the works of Ferré and Condé; Madigan, however, is convinced that these contradictory accounts can be reconciled or reassembled to arrive at a true account of the events in question. At one point, Madigan marvels at how well informed one of the murder victims had been: “How on earth did Pablo Narval find out all that?” She answers herself: “The same way that everything in this country winds up being known” (343)—that is, through gossip and hearsay. Gossip, in this instance, becomes a valuable resource, a storage house for fragments of information through which, with the right tools, valuable knowledge can be discerned.
This is not an easy task. Not all of Madigan’s interlocutors are uniformly truthful, and at times she feels overwhelmed, “lost in a web of assumptions and misunderstandings, blinded by an intolerable family novel” (204–5). Still, she remains convinced that even if the truth is being kept from her, it remains potentially accessible: “Someone must want to know the truth, someone must yearn for that truth to be realized,” she insists (231). To approach the truth, Madigan ruminates at length upon what she has heard and frequently herself gossips about the gossip to which she has been made party, telling not only Adriana, her patient, but also her friend and fellow therapist Ingrid Horowitz and the police detective Boris Salcedo. These acts of gossip recall the analyst’s session, or the detective’s conversations with his sidekick: an active process of narrative composition through which information is unraveled, weighed, and organized. This is not to suggest, of course, that every piece of information received through gossip is true or that Torres’s novel presents the pursuit of truth, or truth itself, as uncomplicated. Madigan acknowledges that the insights she gathers from gossip are not in themselves reliable or final, and that they are in fact “parallel versions that could contain truths, half-truths, lies, or half-lies” (161), but she approaches this epistemologically treacherous ground with a detective’s rigor and a therapist’s sensitivity. By weighing and editing the diverging accounts she collates through gossip, she engages in a painstaking process of narrative reconstruction that ultimately allows her to uncover the truth about the crime she is investigating.
It is useful here to return to Cozarinsky’s view of gossip as refracting narratives into multiple complex and heterogeneous parts. Torres’s novel similarly shows gossip troubling the surfaces of realities that had seemed unitary, but goes a step further: where Cozarinsky sees gossip as irrevocably shattering unitary narratives—or, rather, as revealing such narratives to be illusory and insufficient—La fascinación insists upon the possibility of teasing out, from disparate and contradictory fragments, what Madigan repeatedly describes in positivistic terms as “truth” and “order.”31 La fascinación is not naive about the possible distortions present in gossip, but neither does it despair of finding truth. The epistemological pessimism that pervades Maldito amor, Wide Sargasso Sea, and Célanire are here replaced with the Proustian conviction that gossip has the potential, even if it often goes unrealized, to provide access to hidden truths—and that, in fact, gossip can be a more effective means of arriving at such truths than many other mechanisms of inquiry. Where Ferré and Condé’s texts mobilize gossip to illustrate and explore the difficulties in arriving at coherent versions of reality, La fascinación sees gossip instead as providing, if not a complete solution, at least an effective medium through which to advance toward a solution. The definitive answers arrived at by the novel’s resolution clearly break with the view of gossip as a means of destabilizing narratives and problematizing the notion of objective truth. Gossip is presented, like police work or psychoanalysis, as a powerful and substantive way of knowing.
The congruencies between criminal investigations and psychoanalytic inquiry—and, to a lesser extent, gossip—have not gone unnoticed by scholars. In Body Work, Brooks asserts that analysts and detectives use similar methods because of their similar aims: “Like the detective story, the analysis is an inquest, moving back from present symptoms, clues presented to the analyst, to the signs left by earlier events, and eventually back to the beginning in order to construct the chain of events leading up to the scene of suffering. The narrative chain, with each event connected to the next by reasoned casual links, marks the victory of reason over chaos, of society and sanity over crime and neurosis, and restitutes a world in which etiological histories offer the best solution to the apparently unexplainable” (233). But if detectives, as Geoffrey Hartman writes, seek “graphic details” that feed their “lust for evidence” (165), then gossips, in their love of lurid specificities, do much the same. Just as importantly, the gossip, the psychoanalyst, and the detective not only seek new details; they also weigh them, consider them, and pore over them obsessively in an attempt to distill them into coherent and internally consistent narratives. In a discussion of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple tales, Spacks briefly notes the points of contact between the three fields: “As a mode of interpretation, gossip, like psychoanalysis, helps people make sense of the past in the light of the present, and of the present in relation to the past. A simple literary example is the detective story, in which the detective uses hearsay and gossip to construct retrospective explanation” (230). Though she does not trace the epistemic connections between the three forms of inquiry, Spacks notes that in Christie’s work, the role of the gossip “metaphorizes that of the writer” by shaping new truths: “Gossip constitutes information; it becomes truth,” she writes (230).32 In The Seductions of Psychoanalysis, similarly, John Forrester explores the connections between gossip and analysis, writing that “gossip is remarkably akin to analysis, both in its powers of revelation of the truth and in its revelation of the power of the truth” (250).33
Still, few writers or scholars have connected psychoanalysis, detective work, and gossip as directly and fruitfully as Torres does in La fascinación. In Madigan, the three modes of inquiry are channeled through a single character who uses them, interchangeably and often simultaneously, to arrive at truths that address the text’s central mystery, and to forge a revelatory narrative that sheds light on the hidden motives, actions, and interior lives of others. While in some ways psychoanalysis and criminal investigation might appear to be prioritized—Madigan is a therapist, the text is a detective novel—Torres’s text makes clear that gossip is just as potent a means of inquiry. Analysis and detective work alone bear scant fruit in Torres’s novel; it is only by supplementing them with gossip that Madigan gains the insights she needs to solve the crime and provide her patient with closure. In scrutinizing people’s words and exploring their actions through both their own accounts and those of others, Madigan is finally able to reveal not only the true facts surrounding the killing but also the true nature of some of the people with whom she speaks. Through gossip and deduction Madigan discovers that her patient has concealed certain key facts, including the scandalous detail that the murder victim was not Adriana’s sister but her daughter, the result of incest with her father.
Indeed, once Madigan lays out the whole story, Adriana confesses that “it’s curious, I began this because I couldn’t live without knowing who did it and now that seems to me the least important part of all. What I discovered was [ . . . ] the darkness of the soul, of my father’s soul, of my daughter’s, of my own” (363). The words recall Adriana’s earlier intuition that knowing the truth about the murder would restore her mental health. But Madigan has done more than simply reveal the murderer’s identity or uncover a few secrets d’alcôve. Gossip has made possible Adriana’s journey into “the darkness of the soul”; from a psychoanalytic standpoint, it has generated the narrative epiphany through which Adriana can begin to heal her psychic wounds. Torres, in portraying Madigan in the combined roles of therapist, detective, and gossip, and in showing gossip as providing the crucial impetus that allows Madigan to succeed both as analyst and as investigator, thus seeks to elevate gossip and establish it as a vital member of a narrative and investigative trifecta. Gossip, in La fascinación, is presented as a practice that can supplement other modes of inquiry and provide a means of unearthing the truth.
This is especially important in the Venezuelan context, where official institutions are viewed with suspicion, and where even Salcedo, the police detective, shrugs off his duties with the words “You can’t try to solve everything” (13). Salcedo’s words recall Carlos Monsiváis’s assertion that in Latin America “there is no crime fiction because there is no trust in justice” (11). Of course, we can quibble over how literally to read Monsiváis’s claim; in recent years, numerous writers from both Latin America and the Caribbean have turned to crime fiction to reflect upon the failure of their societies’ civil institutions and their governments’ inability to provide justice.34 We can see this clearly in Torres’s novel: Salcedo knows the man imprisoned for the crime was merely a scapegoat but does not care to investigate the conspiracy underlying the case, admitting to Madigan that “in this specific case they pay me not to discover it. [ . . . ] I received orders to leave things as they were” (13). But Salcedo also presents his shortcomings as something more fundamental: an epistemological deficiency rooted in the very methodology of police work. In a scene that again recalls Kurosawa’s Rashomon—and thus also the narrative fragmentation of Maldito amor—Salcedo tells Madigan: “Listen to ten informants, and you’ll get ten versions” (85–86). What is needed, what Salcedo lacks, is a way to look beyond the informants’ words and uncover their unspoken secrets. It is precisely this interior glimpse that Madigan derives from gossip, allowing her to tease out, from the parallel versions she hears, a narrative that fills the vacuum.
Madigan’s dogged belief in the existence of a coherent, true version of events stands in sharp contrast to Salcedo’s jaded worldview. This can at times make her (and perhaps the novel, too) seem naive, and it is worth remembering that Madigan is explicitly cast as an outsider who does not fully understand how Venezuelan society works.35 Still, it is striking that Torres allows her psychoanalyst turned detective to succeed in reaching the kind of recomposition, or epiphanic narrative revelation, that is the ultimate goal of psychoanalysis, of crime fiction, and perhaps also of gossip. La fascinación shares Monsiváis’s cynicism about the failures of the region’s justice systems and about the inapplicability of conventional detective fiction in such a context. But Torres also posits a solution. Madigan uses gossip as both an investigative and a therapeutic tool: not to problematize or challenge official discourses but rather to confront, process, and ultimately overcome Venezuela’s failed civil and judicial institutions. Through gossip, Madigan seeks truth, but she also seeks a means of coming to terms with the suspicion, mistrust, and cynicism that lies at the heart of Venezuelan society. When the state fails, Madigan suggests, it can still be possible to find solutions through self-reliance and appeals to the knowledge and insights of others.
In this sense, Torres’s text should be read as a twist on the tradition of crime fiction marked by suspicion of the state, of justice, and of the possibility of definitive truths. In keeping with this tradition, Torres’s novel portrays Venezuela’s criminal justice system as broken: the guilty go free, and police detectives, faced with the impossible task of restoring order in a society full of violence, approach cases with mere apathy. But Torres also uses crime fiction to explore gossip’s role as a potent way of building and sharing knowledge in societies where people know better than to rely on the state and its institutions for trustworthy answers—or indeed for any answers. Where Ferré presents official narratives as untrustworthy, self-serving, and biased, Torres’s even bleaker text offers nothing but silence, a system whose failures are so deep that answers are no longer demanded or expected. Still, Madigan, harnessing the power of gossip, is able to develop an informal but effective rebuttal to official indifference. In so doing, moreover, she develops a more complete picture, uncovering not just hidden facets of the lives of the people she encounters but also the solution to the crime. What begins as a simple whodunit becomes, through gossip, a more ambiguous and psychologically complex journey that engages with slippery questions regarding the status of knowledge, truth, and narrative.
Knowledge and Intimacy
We have now seen gossip used to challenge master narratives and show the contingency of all narratives; to condense speculation into consensus and common knowledge; and to sidestep corrupted official discourses and systems of investigation, and attempt a more direct and personal engagement with the interior lives of others. All these deployments are anchored not in the philosophical interrogation of what can or cannot be truly known but rather in the understanding of knowledge as a deeply personal phenomenon, in which each person’s reality can be markedly different, and in which to gain knowledge oftentimes means to gain insights into the individual experiences and perspectives of others. There is, in short, an intimacy to knowledge that gossip, through its occupation of the liminal space between the public and the private, and through its intrusion into the intimate secrets of others, is uniquely well situated to explore. Forrester suggests that like the intuitive insights of psychoanalysis, gossip “leads us to an epistemological impasse” (244), for it provides truths that cannot be verified through appeals to positivist inquiry but that nonetheless have a profundity and power that demands their admittance into our schemes of knowledge. “Knowledge had by gossip only barely maintains its claim on that word, sketching out the no-man’s-land of fiction which equally constitutes the social knowledge by which we live,” Forrester writes (244).36 The texts examined here share this notion of gossip, not necessarily as a tool for arriving at the stark epistemic truths dreamed of by philosophers, but rather as a means of negotiating the hazier and perhaps higher truths by which societies define themselves and by which individuals navigate their societies.
A similarly intimate epistemological view is taken by Brooks in Body Work, which casts the desire for knowledge as an erotic process: scopophilia and epistemophilia, he suggests, are sides of the same coin. “The desire to know is constructed from sexual desire and curiosity,” he writes (5). The Freudian impulse to uncover the intimate secrets of another, in other words, is for Brooks largely the same impulse that drives us to seek knowledge, to question, and to probe our condition, our very reality, for deeper and more absolute truths. To venture into the unknown is not only an exploration; it is also an intrusion, even a violation of spaces hitherto sacrosanct.37 “The private is an object of never-ending curiosity—of a basic ‘epistemophilic’ drive—precisely because, whatever its violations, it remains the space to which we assign final secrets,” Brooks writes. “Intimacy is of the body, and the body is private” (51).
Brooks sees parallels between the erotic gaze and the lust for knowledge, but we can just as easily trace parallels with the prying eyes and wagging tongue of the gossip. As Brooks notes, this erotic and epistemic duality bubbles forth in literary narratives; as the body becomes a focal point of literary attention, so too emerges “a literature driven by the anxiety and fascination of the hidden, masked, unidentified individual. The invention of the detective story in the nineteenth century testifies to this concern to detect, track down, and identify those occult bodies that have purposely sought to avoid social scrutiny” (Body Work 26). Gossip, clearly, offers a similar means of social scrutiny and is explicitly concerned with the hidden bodies, and, by extension, the hidden interior worlds, of its subjects. It is perhaps a more subtle drive than the lust for knowledge described by Brooks—as we have seen, gossip can be used not just to probe for truth but also to manipulate and misdirect the investigations of others—but it is, nonetheless, always preoccupied with knowledge, and with understanding and grasping the knowledge of others.
Just as Brooks locates epistemological awareness in the voyeuristic intrusions of high modernists such as James and Flaubert, so too in the gossip of the Caribbean can we trace an urgent drive to rethink, restate, or recalibrate existing discourses and ways of knowing. Like Brooks’s gaze, gossip is by its nature intrusive: a liminal and transgressive practice that not only probes the boundaries of the public and the private, but also seeks to bring into plain sight that which its subject wished to keep hidden, and to take possession of things held privately by another. As Brooks rightly perceives, the act of taking possession is epistemologically potent: the nosy servants of Madame Bovary, looking in at Emma through a broken windowpane, are not only breaching the boundary between private and public but are reformulating their own understanding of the world and violently but efficaciously finding new ways of knowing and understanding. The prying eye of the gossip, in this sense, can be read as providing another tool for those who, as Brooks suggests, wish “to work through epistemological complications to revelatory moments of looking, to moments of smashed windowpanes that call for revaluations” (Body Work 118). Gossip, like voyeurism, is a potentially destructive and implicitly violent act; yet for all that, much as Brooks suggests of the corporal gaze, it can be a powerful means of knowledge production, and a way of knowing especially well suited to the fraught uncertainties and boundless suspicions of the Caribbean.