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A Letter to Chamoiseau


by Patrick Chamoiseau, translated by Rose-Myriam Réjouis, translated by Val Vinokurov
Pantheon, 401 pp., $27.00


We know that road around the blue harbor with its immaculate cruise ship, its oil-storage tanks, and the dwindling fishing settlement you describe under an immense, disconsolate banyan, its shacks with their contorted lanes and rusted trees. The road takes us into the infernal congestion of the settlement from which we avert our eyes—Texaco, Conway, La Basse. We know the people who inhabit these settlements, we recognize nicknames given for both ingenuity and affliction. We had our own Iréné, the shark fisherman of your book, our own Ti-Cirique, the ornate belle-lettriste, we certainly knew Marie-Sophie Laborieux, the mother of our multilingual fictions, we knew Esternome, her father, and Sonore, Marie-Clémence, and even the bony, delicately elongated Christ, the emissary of Town Planning, the one who was stoned. We know them still by their quarrels and imprecations.

From the dry season, with its baking footpaths that turn into quagmires with the raining months, from scorching corrugated roofs after cardboard, thatch, and packing crates, the place called Texaco follows its own pattern, its three-act rhythm of servitude, defiance, and independence.

And I know you, Chamoiseau. You were one of those urchins with the artificial anger of boys running on a beach, pelting at mangoes and bursting dry almonds with a stone in the treacherous shade of a manchineel. It is this delight which makes the phrases in Texaco leap and finish in spray. Walk carefully in the sentences between the windows of the settlement.

Those are your progeny, Chamoiseau, these black children wrestling and splashing salt water into one another’s eyes, their wet skin glistening under the blinding aluminum of the gas tanks.

Chamoiseau’s characters are not only names but beings. Their conduct is drawn from the complexities of sensation rather than of action. We inhabit them naturally, their rages that roar like a rainstorm through a ravine, their sense of insult as sensitive as those weeds that close like shutters.

So, challenged by the formality of a review, I choose a letter, orotund but written in gratitude. The form allows me to be impulsive, elliptical, to indulge in that simultaneity which you call “opacity.” Its style, like yours, is adjectival rather than nominal, a style that lies in the gestures of the storyteller, and it is in the meter of Creole. It is what we both grew up with. The countryside at night with kerosene lamps and crickets.

The countryside is the nostalgic, bucolic part. We also grew up with things that are still here. The settlement like the one in your organic, fragrant novel: middens that accrete around our central towns, usually across exhausted rivers, on spits which jut into the ocean, but whose shacks have neat parlors and swept yards under precious breadfruit and knuckled plum, gardens guarded by old tires and conch shells. This is what you describe with a humming pain, more lovingly than in any other Caribbean novel I have read. It is one whose elation cracked my heart. Oh, Chamoiseau, your filial duty has been more than fulfilled. You have paid our debt for us!

I would press your book into the hands of every West Indian as if it were a lost heirloom, even on those who cannot read. After that formality, I would run through the markets with vendors in the shade of huge umbrellas, past abandoned fountains, stopping traffic with an uplifted hand, entering dark retail stores selling fading ledgers and disintegrating chalks, preaching, “You have to read this book, it is yours! It has come to reclaim you!”

Its prose is like a mangue, that reflecting lagoon where mangroves anchor their branches, over which dragonflies skim, kept fresh by a hidden rivulet, and, like a midden, it rejects nothing, from rusted chamber pots to water-ruined Bibles.

The anthill of the place called Texaco seethes with the industry of survival, from haphazard foragings of material to build its own paths into an architecture in which a solid foundation, a paved floor, comes last, but despite its damned condition—the condition of Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth—and for all the passion of his commitment to Creole, Chamoiseau does not look at the settlement with the gaze of a Marxist, as a political example of what racism and exploitation do to a people, nor is the rhythm of the book documentary in its base, like The Grapes of Wrath. Texaco is a vast epiphany of what he proposed in a Créolité manifesto, calling for a new Caribbean literature, but without any polemics, without the third-person distancing of Flaubert. Chamoiseau does not refute his ancestors; they are in the very sound of his French, even in translation. Great ghosts are in his voice, one from another anthill, the Paris that Baudelaire Creolized:

Fourmillante cité, cité pleine de rêves,
Où le spectre en plein jour raccroche le passant!


A civil servant, a town planner, who visits the Texaco settlement is stoned. He represents both the City, the nearby center of island power, and the Christ of a second coming. The stone, as if it were thrown into a lagoon, radiates rings of consternation, of witness and denial. From this, ambiguities begin. Has the town planner become an agent of capitalism, a savior-turned-Judas of his own people in the service of the silver tanks of Texaco, a Judas whose vision of a New Jerusalem does not include the shacks that have fastened themselves like crusted scabs on the raw earth? The settlement shares the name of the tanks that it surrounds like a besieging army, and indeed is their virulent antithesis.

The silvery tanks are the new Christ’s angels and armor, and so Texaco stands on the outskirts of a sort of terrestrial heaven that offers economic benefits, security, and progress. But the seraphic, eyeless cylinders are the dead opposite of the voluble, haphazard wasteland that is turning itself into its own City, into a planned future which it once rejected. As the narrator says of the City-sent Christ, “He was coming there in the name of the city council to renovate Texaco. In his scientific language, that really meant: to raze it.”

The stoned Christ lies prone on the ground. The settlers gathered over the body believe him to be dead and are discussing ways to make the corpse vanish without evidence when the figure sighs and starts its resurrection. “Carolina Danta provoked a panic when at that moment she fled shouting: ‘Oy! Dear! His soul’s back…. (Rockbottom luck….)’.” He is brought to the shack of Marie-Sophie Laborieux, “ancestor and founder of this quarter.” It is she who dictates her memories and those of her ancestors, particularly of her father, the ex-slave Esternome. She is an old woman talking to the scribe, a blackbird of the fields, Oiseau de Champs, and of course she is the source, fountainhead, and oracle of all Caribbean legend, a tree in which the writer perches and listens, translating its rustling leaves into his own sharp melody, the twitterings of his beak, his pen. Her gaze is piercing but benign:

Ainsi, moi-même Marie-Sophie Laborieux, malgré l’eau de mes
larmes, j’ai toujours vu le monde dessous la bonne lumière.

For that reason, I, Marie-Sophie Laborieux, despite the river my eyes have shed, have always looked at the world in a good light.

The river my eyes have shed” is an excessive metaphor and mawkish, but the general tone of the translation reflects that of the original.

Marie-Sophie keeps a notebook whose annals become the archive of the writer, a device that the scribe-bird invests with the precise poetry of revelations, the combination of an African sibyl with St.-John Perse.

Au bord des rivières, le sable de volcan est déjà du bon
sable. Mais sable du bord de mer est alourdi de sel et travaillé de fer. Alors, je le laissais à l’embellie des pluies jusqu’à la bonne couleur.

By the river, volcanic sand is already good sand. But the seaside sand is heavy with salt and riddled with iron. So I used to leave it to the rain’s pleasure until it was the right color.

—Notebook no. 4 of
Marie-Sophie Laborieux
Nos compagnons ces hautes trombes en voyage, clepsydres en marche
sur la terre…et les averses solennelles, d’une substance merveilleuse, tissées de poudres et d’insectes, qui poursuivaient nos peuples dans les sables comme l’impôt de capitation.

Our companions these high waterspouts on the march, clepsydrae travelling over the earth, and the solemn rains, of a marvellous substance, woven of powders and insects, pursuing our folk in the sands like a headtax.

—St.-John Perse, Anabasis (Translation: T.S. Eliot)

In the south, Marie-Sophie, limestone yields me mortar. By the sea, I roast shells and polypary, the Carib way, to make the mama of all cement.

—Notebook no. 4 of
Marie-Sophie Laborieux

The mama of all cement” is exuberantly Creole.

…So I haunted the City of your dreams, and I established in the desolate markets the pure commerce of my soul, among you invisible and insistent as a fire of thorns in the gale.

—St.-John Perse, Anabasis
(Translation: T.S. Eliot)

There is the same incantatory memory in the litany of Perse’s Eloges and his Images à Crusoé: that of a privileged Antillean childhood on the island of Guadeloupe, for black writers the souvenirs of a béké, a person of white ancestry: “In those days….” In Texaco the mantric phrase “Noutéka” meaning “nous tait ka“—“we used to”—pierces with its plangent echo.

Of course “the mama of all cement” is also in Aimé Césaire’s watershed poem Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal (“Notebook of a Return to My Native Land”). Texaco, like Ulysses, is a large prose poem that devours the structure of narrative fiction by its ruminative monologues, and Texaco happily and gratefully acknowledges Césaire’s poem as a source. Césaire himself appears in the book, an active persona in public; in private, he is reclusive and inaccessible. Césaire’s incantation in his poem invokes an island dawn, “Au bout du petit matin,” just as Chamoiseau’s “Nous tait ka” does. Join the three beginnings “in those days” (Perse in Guadeloupe), “at foreday morning” (Césaire in Martinique), and “we used to” (Chamoiseau), and you have the elegiac Caribbean memory, as calm as smoke rising from blue hills: “In those days, just before sunrise, we used to….”

That “Noutéka,” that “we used to,” of Texaco is the real history, the histoire seen for itself of a very small territory not seen in proportion to “the great mutations of the world,” but one bounded by small, thickly forested hills, or mornes, rusted roofs, bright bays, and bleached villages, and far from wars and changing empires.

Every island is circumscribed by that oceanic sadness called History, but the histoires recorded in Texaco are not related to the march, the rhythm, of some optimistic chronology which leads from slavery to emancipation to colonialism to independence, or the demand for it; rather these events are simultaneous, they have only one meaning and one tense: perpetual suffering, habitual agony. The scansion of time is as simple as the monody of waves or the rhythm of two seasons. The squatters live only in one tense, the “is” of the novel’s meter. It is this monody that increases the quality of myth in rejecting a linear law and calendar: it is l’histoire, not History but the story, the fable, the rumor, as opposed to times, dates, and places. Every event in Texaco is given a domestic but mythic resonance, not by the narrator-novelist, the bird-scribe, but by the agitations of rumor, by contradictory memory, and by the incantations of its characters. One such episode is the marriage of the roguish character Qualidor to

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