Book review - The Gospel According to the New World

Maryse Condé, born in 1934 on the Caribbean archipelago of Guadeloupe, has written around 20 novels but is best known for her historical epic Segu (1984). Her latest novel, The Gospel According to the New World, shortlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize, is a parody of the New Testament. Condé says it is her final book. Her poor eyesight means she has to write each chapter in her head, before dictating the French text to her husband-translator, Richard Philcox — a process that gives the novel an episodic structure.

Set on a modern-day, fictionalised version of Guadeloupe, The Gospel According to the New World follows the fortunes of Pascal Ballandra, a messianic figure who travels the Americas searching for his real father and seeking enlightenment. As a baby he is abandoned in a shed and adopted by the childless couple who find him: Jean Pierre, owner of The Garden of Eden plant nursery, and his beloved wife Eulalie.

Initially, unsure of his destiny, Pascal enjoys success as a fisherman, spends time in an unnamed wilderness, heals a disabled man named Lazare and recruits 12 disciples, including the debonair Judas Eluthère, who is employed by the state-owned coffee plantation, Le Bon Kaffé.

Throughout his short life, Pascal is partial to rum punch and Lucky Strike cigarettes, and is easily swayed by a pretty face. Early on, he is bewitched by a beautiful prostitute called Maria. He lectures the workers at Le Bon Kaffé, enjoying the quarrels that arise “since truth and knowledge are born out of contention and dispute”, writes pamphlets, self-publishes a memoir and swiftly gains a reputation as a troublemaker.

Pascal finds his real mother Maya living close by. After converting to Islam, she is now known as Fatima. He learns that his father Corazón Tejara is from a powerful family “who for generations had been slave owners, merchants, landowners, lawyers, doctors and teachers”.

When Pascal discovers Corazón has founded an ashram, known as The Hidden God, on the fictional island of Asunción, he travels there, but instead of his father he is met by the enigmatic Espíritu (who is described as Corazón’s brother). Pascal also spends time with the Mondongues, former slaves who had set up a self-governing colony and made a fortune selling brightly coloured wooden toys. It’s another utopian-leaning community that proves a disappointment.

Condé studied literature at the Sorbonne, and has lived and worked in Guinea, Ghana and Mali as well as the US, UK and France. Like her previous work, Waiting for the Waters to Rise (published in English in 2021), this novel is an odyssey, which allows Condé to interrogate her favourite themes: the legacy of colonialism and slavery, gender, religion, race and inequality.

In The Gospel According to the New World, her tone is often playful and she deftly intertwines biblical references with Caribbean folklore, but the narrative’s anecdotal style means certain storylines are abruptly curtailed or peter out and other characters are sketchily drawn. Ultimately, the book spreads itself too thinly to fully satisfy.

Originally published by the Financial Times