A Letter to Chamoiseau


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


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…

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