Some of the women mentioned the situation, as they called it, to their husbands when they phoned home from the Director’s office, left to them after he’d gone to bed…. The husbands barely reacted. Thirty years earlier, upon hearing about Bernadette, the husbands might have worried about their marriages. Thirty years earlier, at the airport in Paris and Lyon, the husbands would have kissed their wives longer. A few of the women became angry upon hanging up. Bernadette might have it right. What if they found a student of their own? Broke rules in all directions. Right here in the classroom, against the map of Europe, or, like Bernadette, on the beach, where they supposed she and Rado went.
I have to admit I was leery of yet another “romance set in an exotic location” story, but I thought it felt much more organic to the setting than either “Water Party” from One Story or “Pole, Pole” from this volume. But I have no real basis for that opinion. What I found most interesting in the story was how point of view was used. Or, more accurately, points of view.
Bernadette is a teacher from France, in Madagascar to train French teachers there. She’s in late middle age, rather unattractive, widowed. She strikes up a friendship with Rado, a young star student (he’s a schoolteacher on the island; these students aren’t kids, they’re teachers) who longs to move to France and become a poet, who is perhaps clinging to Bernadette because she has a position at University, if only a lowly part-time continuing-ed deal. Bernadette has read his poetry, and she was not impressed. The story focuses on how their relationship is perceived by the other teachers, the mob mentality that forms, and how ultimately Bernadette is chased back to France because of her “inappropriate” relationship with Rado. The end skips forward several years and revives a leitmotif of the coconut, which is present throughout the story. Very evocative, lyrical. I couldn’t help but smile.
Bernadette and Rado are the only named individual characters in the story. Bernadette’s roommate and the Director of the school, though they are significant characters and appear in several scenes, are never named. But a very strong and important character is a group I will call The Women, these teachers from France. It’s a very interesting use of a group as a character.
I’ve been paying more attention to voice and POV lately, thanks to Zin’s involvement with the Zoetrope discussion of this volume. This story uses a shifting POV and distance in what seems to me to be an effective manner. It starts out with a “long shot,” establishing the basics of who and what and where. It’s almost a third person plural “they” narrator – The Women, arrived from France, are a group, a whole. Then in the second paragraph we focus on Rado, but from a distance, as he appears to the teachers: “…he never made an error in construction or conjugation, and he listened to their explanations with a critical tilt to his head…took notes with a fountain pen. He was young, in his twenties, but he walked in his youthful body as if borrowing it on the way to an older one.” This is still from the “we,” The Women, point of view, so to speak.
We are then introduced to Bernadette. We watch as she and Rado talk over dinner. It’s still from a distance, from the “we” view, only Bernadette is not part of the “we,” she is a separate “she”: “…she fiddled with the corner of her napkin. Now and again, she laughed, which the women had never heard her do.…Rado laughed with her. The solitary line that marked his brow deepened, and his teeth showed, as they did not in the classroom.” This continues for several days, this mealtime behavior, and the Director does not notice, but the Women do: “Their discussions could be overheard in snatches: Rimbaud’s Catholicism, the lyrics of Prevert, nothing to raise suspicion in the Director, hunched over his plate at the other end of the table, necktie tucked into his shirt front. But the women interpreted what he ingnored…. In the communal bathroom, on the path to meals, and evenings, over herbal tea, Bernadette and Rado became the subject of hushed conversation.” Without needing any internal views at all, Delury conveys the surprise and envy of a group as one character.
We get to eavesdrop on one of their talks:
The coconut, he told her, as she followed him into the plantation, can travel for hundreds of miles on the ocean, even washing up on the shores of Antarctica and Ireland.
“Really?” she asked.
He smiled. “There is no fooling you, is there?”
“Perhaps if you were a botanist. Instead of a poet.”
And then we finally get a glimpse inside Bernadette’s head. She’s read his poetry, and it’s awful. Flat. “He chose obvious words for obvious subjects. He did not see past the surface of things.” This strikes me as supremely ironic, since it is people seeing, or not seeing, past the surface of things – The Women seeing past the friendship, Rado not seeing past her University title – that causes them all the trouble.
Bernadette’s roommate defends her to the group, and starts to think of The Crucible when she hears murmurings against Bernadette. This roommate does not get a name, but she is identifiable as the roommate – no one else gets any kind of identity, not even something like “the tall woman from Lyon.” The most we get is “one of the women.”
We go back to Bernadette and Rado, discussing the gossip, and we get closer to Bernadette again. She is a bit smitten. At least, she is enjoying the attention. But she knows Rado is attracted to her University position, though he misunderstands it and thinks it is much more prestigious than it actually is. “She saw it happen the first night, the way his eyes stopped roaming, but she didn’t correct him.”
And back to The Women, who call their husbands at night on the phone in the Director’s office and complain about Bernadette. Their husbands don’t give them the outrage they desire. This single paragraph is noteworthy for how it uses The Women as a single character, it’s really quite remarkable. It’s also effective at showing there is more to the outrage than Bernadette’s behavior; The Women are dissatisfied with their own lives, and Bernadette is merely the spotlight upon that dissatisfaction.
There are parts I don’t understand – in particular, a paragraph that seems to be from a strong narrative overview but includes a peek into Rado’s attraction to Bernadette’s University affiliation, and admits that if there were to be a genuine relationship, he would expect her to be a wife/slave. It almost seems like an authorial aside, to let us know, in case we aren’t sure: “Seen in this light, they were victimizing each other.”
The romance is finally consummated under a coconut tree. It’s a great scene, all flashbacks, imaginings, and coconut water.
The Women, of course, can tell. They finally pull the plug and report Bernadette to the Director. I’m not sure of the time period in which this is set, but I’m a little surprised French women are so outraged by a little hanky-panky. Even dissatisfied and jealous French woman.
Throughout the story, Bernadette’s dead husband is invoked as she works her way through this pseudo-romance. She begins to understand more about him, and more about her feelings during her marriage. He’d had an affair years earlier, and only confessed on his deathbed. She was outraged that she’d been denied the choice of whether to forgive and move on or not. And at the end, “He thought he was seeking her forgiveness, but he also wanted her rage.” Because what’s the use of betraying someone you love if they don’t see it as a betrayal?
Bernadette leaves Madagascar to avoid scandal; Rado asks what will happen to her, and she assures him, “Nothing of consequence.” I won’t describe the coda – you can read it yourself (the story is available online, though you will have to register with Narrative Magazine – it’s free). It’s worth it. The Women, coconuts, poetry, Rado, it all comes back, because nothing ever disappears. It’s very nicely done. This story snuck up on me, and it was a very nice surprise.