By Shruthi Rao
Title: Eve Out of Her Ruins
Author: Ananda Devi (Translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman)
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
Price: Rs. 200
Eve Out of Her Ruins is a powerful, disturbing book by Ananda Devi, a Mauritian writer of Indian and Creole heritage. The original book Ève de ses décombres is in French; Eve Out of Her Ruins is a masterful English translation by Jeffrey Zuckerman.
The writing is eloquent, the imagery stark, and yet, the overall effect is dreamlike. It is a book that is difficult to put down; hands reach out from the pages, grab you by the collar and compel you to read on.
The story is set in an impoverished neighbourhood of Port Louis, a part of Mauritius that is far-removed from the Mauritius of glossy travel brochures. The book is made up of monologues by four troubled teenagers, growing up in a changing world, tossed about by the turbulence of sexuality, the rage and the desperation of their daily lives, fear of the future and the urge to escape from everything, all of these underlined by a sense of futility and inevitability. Weak adults, difficult circumstances, and bleak futures cause these teenagers to “grow up” too soon, but emotionally, they are stunted, directionless and hopeless.
The neighbourhood and its atmosphere brought to my mind the setting of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels; the characters in this book are much more intense and unforgettable. Eve is the titular character, a girl who has discovered early on that her body holds power, and that she can use it to “trade” for whatever it is that she wants. Eve’s voice is strong and desperately sad. When she speaks about trading her body, she says that she “steps out of her body”, “separates from herself” since that’s the only way she can do what she does. The way she delivers the sordid details of her life and actions in a cool, passive way, underscores this sense of separation, this feeling that there are two Eves in one.
Saad is the serious one, seeking escape through books. He is given to lyricism and is deeply influenced by the poems of Rimbaud. Saad loves words and is evocative in his expression of love for Eve. He can’t understand the ease with which Eve pays for things with her body, “the most precious thing in the world”. He wants to protect her, and love her, but try as he might, she doesn’t reciprocate. Saad is on the fringes of a gang of testosterone-driven teenagers. He stays away, he stands apart, even though he feels its powerful pull – “When you’re a gang, you have to forget you’re a person, you have to be part of this powerful hot body that nothing can stop…”
Clélio’s words are rough and abrasive. He is prone to fits of temper, and has been in jail a few times. He waits for his brother Carlo to send for him from France. As it dawns on him that he is waiting in vain, and that Carlo is a “fake”, he realises that there is no escape. “I’m leaving this place with handcuffs on my wrists,” he says.
Savita is a gentle, lost teenager. She wants to run away from home, from her circumstances, but she can’t, not alone. She steps in to comfort Eve during one of her worst periods, and they grow close. Savita is the only person Eve loves and trusts; with her “calm sunlight”, she “saves” Eve from herself. In Saad’s words, “. . .they’re like two hands on a body. They don’t need a third. They are free to do whatever they like, whenever they like. Their smiles suggest no need for any boys. Their eyes bind them to each other. We are invisible.” When Eve is with Savita, Saad feels her slipping away.
However, the peace and happiness that the two girls have found in each other turns out be temporary. Savita is found dead. Clélio is thrown into prison, accused of Savita’s murder. Eve is struck with grief, her face “obliterated”. The rest of the book is a slow reveal of the killer, and how Eve deals with it.
Each of the four voices in this book is distinctive. The use of monologues makes each voice personal, immediate. There is not much conversation to speak of, but the passages don’t feel like they stretch too long due to the rhythm of the short, intense sentences and they are beautiful enough for you to want to savour them again and again, in spite of the pain they cause.
If you are looking for an easy read, this is not it. But if you want a book with words that will whip you, pummel you in relentless torrents, and sear themselves into your head, look no further.