Eve Out of Her Ruins
By Ananda Devi
Reviewed by Michael B. Tager
"Promise me you'll gather up my pieces," says one of the four narrators to another in the beautiful, tragic novel Eve Out of Her Ruins by Ananda Devi. It is a beautiful, tragic sentence, capturing in simple elegant language the immensities of poverty, of femininity, of hopelessness, even in the midst of love. It's both redemptive and capitulating.
Set in the cité (ghetto) of Troumaron, on the island country of Mauritius off the coast of Madagascar, Eve Out of Her Ruins follows friends and lovers Eve, Savita, Saad, and Clelio over a short period of time, the vibrant, scary part of youth, when children are on the verge of adulthood. They're all young and desperate, scheming to escape the traps of their lives through sex, anger, love, and poetry. And they all feel the hollowness of their hopes. As Eve notes, "Ever since I was autopsied on that table, I haven't felt like anything more than a corpse under his slimy gaze."
As the novel follows the young, frustrated protagonists, they find themselves deep inside a morass they can't easily extricate themselves from. Violence, particularly against women, is one of the beating hearts of this novel: "But they don't want these female bodies being dangled in front of them with no hope of a taste." Simply the sight of happy women by themselves is enough to set off anger in some of the men in this story. And worse happens besides. "When they pounced on me, I saw that I was something foreign to them," says Eve, "We destroy what's foreign to us. Then we gather it up like a bag of sand in a boat where the water washes it."
The violence isn't forgiven, but neither is it questioned. Eve, who sells her body easily, doesn't rage against the damage done to her, nor does she react to her father's beatings. Nor do the other characters. They aren't blind to the pain; they see, but they either aren't able or allowed to articulate pain's effect on them. They've lived with pain for so long, they have become inured.
The boys, who are some of the younger, tertiary characters, allow themselves to hate and be angry. It strikes a chord, these wild children with no hope and no ideas of a future. Saad, the poet, is able to step back and see his companions for who they are. When they begin to lose themselves in riot, he says, "They're blinded by their desire for the impossible. They don't understand just how fragile their world is. How this act of stupid teenage rage, of throwing a rock at a store window can set off shock waves that will be all but impossible to stop. Kids breaking things, sure; but behind them, there are wolves waiting to come out and tear everything apart."
Of course, despite the anger and the rage and violence, there are moments of beauty. Ananda Devi understands one of the ways to make pain palatable is to write about it in the prose of poetry. Instead of glorying in the dark and using a static microscope to force readers to linger on brutality, she instead gets them drunk on language. Translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman, the prose is darkly gorgeous, reveling in tactile sensation and introspection. From time to time, there is joy, as in when two lovers meet.
We have the same skin, completely smooth, into which our hands disappear. The softest parts are the hollows of our backs and the insides of our thighs. When we rub these spots, time stops. I lay my head on her stomach and I hear the sounds of her organs. Something rumbling, some hunger, some urge, I don't know, or maybe it's just her intestines doing their work. We don't really need to talk. We know how to listen to our silences.
That Eve Out of Her Ruins is tragic is almost a given from the first few pages. The world—the real world—that Devi has constructed, hidden from the tourist traps and beaches, is one of sharp corners and not-so-hidden edges. Throughout, the weaker parts of human nature are on full display: abusive fathers, lustful teachers, casual murders. There are moments of kindness from unexpected places (a neglectful mother, a blustery police officer) and quiet repentance, but Eve Out of Her Ruins is not meant to make the world feel safe. It's meant to shine a light on the neglected and forgotten.
There shouldn't be a world where a young girl so emotionlessly sells her body, or where a boy who misses his older brother despairs at never seeing him again. This world is so often shoved under the carpet because it's simply unpleasant to think about. It doesn't make us feel good to know that our comfort comes before others' humanity. Eve Out of Her Ruins is not a feel good book. Without its hypnotic prose, it would be torturous to read. As it is, it is haunting, mesmerizing, that silky sheen on the ocean when it's covered in oil—beautiful to look upon, doubly-poison to drink. It's impossible to forget the beauty and it's desperately important to remember the danger.