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
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
“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
the widow of a freemason whose body had joined his brothers on Rue Lamartine and whose tomb held only the wood of a banana tree. This was revealed when the tree, fed by no-one-knows-what, smashed the coffin and shot stems through the vault, breaking the white tiles and the marble stela, and venturing three big leaves without ever promising one banana bunch (good thing, for it frightened everyone to even think about such inconceivable fruits). Bewildered, the widow didn’t go to witness the phenomenon with her own eyes. Leaving their lodge called the Beehive at night, the freemasons cut down the banana tree every month, but it grew back on full moons. That mystery induced a diarrhea of gossip. The widow found herself in a solitude that no fellow dared to violate except for that mongrel Qualidor. Used to City’s garbage, he was able (from what I’ve heard, I’m not the one saying this) to approach the woman, gather nectar from her armpits’ sulfurous pollen, undo her gray laces, roll down her green slip, dust her hair, and live it up with her, in a fog of incense, dishonorable candlelight humping…. Ah, how people like to talk….
Marie-Sophie’s memory goes back to the days of slavery when her ancestor Esternome saves the life of his owner, the béké, from an attack by a nègre marron, a Maroon, or fugitive slave, and is given the freedom of being a nègre savanne, a savannah Negro. Esternome falls in with a lecherous but industrious white, fire-haired carpenter called Théodorus Sweetmeat from whom he learns the trade, traveling about the island with a band of freed artisans; they are attacked by Maroons, and Esternome moves to Saint-Pierre. He hustles for menial jobs and shares the pleasures of a woman called Osélia-hot-pepper or Osélia-tin-o’-syrup with her customers. The volcano overshadowing Saint-Pierre will later erupt, but here is life before its extinction from a calendar that is measured by natural disasters.
Békés and france-whites went around in carriages, dined on dinner on the top floors of restaurants, and paraded on the steps of the theater or the cathedral whose creamy white stone broke up the shadows. They endured in the districts of Fonds Coré, around the Fort and the Ex Voto parish where all kinds of religious affairs flourished…. You could see them sipping the falling day under the tamarinds of Bertin Square. One saw them savor the melody of the orchestras around Agnès Fountain. They opened the holes of their noses to medicinal iodines or gazed in open-eyed wonder at the tritons spitting mountain waters.
As it did in Napoleonic Haiti, a civil struggle develops between the mulattoes and the freed slaves, the affranchis. The social pyramid, with a black peasantry at its base, a mulatto bourgeoisie in its middle, and whites or békés at its peak, is the racial structure of Caribbean history, with the Janus-faced mulattoes seen as either traitors or mimics. Chamoiseau also spurns the dou-dou-isme (the sweet-sweetness) of the mulatto women of folksong, common to Haiti and the smaller French islands, with their prototypical foulard, madras, and gilded earrings. For Chamoiseau, sweetness and slaughter go together in the myth of the mulatto women. But the myth—as sometimes retold from “notebooks” Chamoiseau has invented—has its intricacies of torment, too. In one of her entries, Marie-Sophie reflects on Esternome’s habit of labeling each person “according to his degree of whiteness or unfortunate darkness”:
Marie-Sophie, don’t believe it, sure it was about color but it was also about manners and nice airs. With manners and bearing they saw you as a mulatto, so that mulattoes were sometimes completely dark. But without the manners or the bearing, a mulatto of skin (same thing or worse goes for the white man) remained who he was. It’s complicated but here’s the real thread: the best bearing was the skin without slavery’s color. And what color was slavery’s skin? What color? Not mine in any case…. LONG LIVE SWEET-MAMA FRANCE!
—Notebook no. 5 of Marie-
Sophie Laborieux, Page 7. 1965. Schoelcher Library.
Sweetmeat, the flame-haired master-carpenter, expires from syphilis. Osélia leaves the island with a white man, and Esternome drifts in a haze of alcohol but recovers to resume his work as a carpenter and helps build the city of Saint-Pierre. He falls in love for a second time with Ninon, a slave girl whom he identifies with the zeal for liberty. But in 1902 the volcano Morne Pelée erupts, with thirty thousand dead. The capital becomes a scorched ruin.
The pages dealing with the eruption move with the fatal leisure of lava, with the panic of screams and muffled detonations at its margins. There follows a migration to the second city of Fort-de-France where squatters settle. After Marie-Sophie’s mother, I doménée, and then Esternome die, the oil company acquires the site that will multiply into the shacks of the settlement that takes its brand name, the shacks multiplying through the ages that are called the Age of Crate Wood, the Age of Asbestos, and the Age of Concrete, the age in which Marie-Sophie, the founder of Texaco, dies, in 1989.
When I met Chamoiseau, we spoke in Creole. This was something I learned not to do with Césaire, sensing either incomprehension or rejection. My Creole was cautious and awkward, enthusiastic, ungrammatical. There is a difference between Saint Lucian and Martiniquan Creole which is more than just in accent, but also in tone and even vocabulary. They say tomato, we say tomahto, they say pain-bois, we say bois-pain for the word breadfruit, which may mean that St. Lucians speak, by the lights of Martiniquans, poor patois. For us the tone of Martiniquan Creole, like Haitian, is more French than Caribbean, and these points would be irrelevant if it were not for the expansive strictures of the manifesto which Chamoiseau coauthored.
This manifesto, Eloge de la Créolité, was published by Editions Gallimard in French in 1989, and in a bilingual English/French edition in 1993; it was composed by Jean Bernabé, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Raphaël Confiant, and translated by Mohamed B. Taleb-Khyar. It states: “Caribbean literature does not yet exist. We are still in a state of preliterature.” (Oh yeah? My exuberance about Texaco should be tempered by this typical Francophony, France’s ambiguous bequest, but it is not.) If Texaco were merely a philological tract, an experiment that demonstrates the opacité of French Creole, my interest in it would flounder by the end of its first paragraph.
Not only for members of the French Academy, but for the last few békés and their illegitimate heirs raging on their verandas, those who were light-skinned enough to have the apoplexy of tangerines, the tract was a part of the tradition it rejected: that of publishing manifestoes. But it also alienated Césaire.
His instinctive fear of illegitimacy often dictated to Césaire the use of the most pure and measured French idiom, enhanced by an impossible Creole, impossible because its literary status demanded yet to be invented…. As for us, our defense of Creoleness will never be that of an idle and parasitic crouching.
The manifesto seems to be caught in its own trap between the teeth of belief and syntax. What is the plane on which its eloquence, measured and subtle, always on the verge of contradiction, rushes along? The meter of the manifesto’s polemical aesthetic is not one of which Creole is incapable, but it is nevertheless academic, even classical, as opposed to the invisible but imagined gestures of the sinuous, incantatory emphasis on oralité that characterizes Creole. The manifesto urges oralité in the solemn parentheses of the lectern, not of the vegetable market it wants us to understand.
Nothing is more French than the confident rhetoric of this manifesto. It echoes, in its emphatic isolation, all those pamphlets outlining programs for a new painting, a new poetry, that erupt from metropolitan ferment, and that, reaching out to embrace a public, baffle it by their vehemence. What is the tone of the manifesto if not that of its language, French, being used in the meter of exposition? Why was it not written in Creole if it is that passionate about authenticity? In the manifesto we hear really the old yearning for naiveté, for the purified and primal state of the folk of the virginal countryside with its firefly fables and subdued nobility, in other words Rousseau and Gauguin from the mouths of their subjects, their voluble natives. This reduction is simplistic, but it probably reflects the antithetical quarrel of English versus French, a quarrel between two colonial conditions, and above all it is something that Texaco, the novel, subverts, contradicts, and then triumphs over. The book is never polemical yet it was created from polemical argument.
One of the manifesto’s grandest aims runs as follows: “…We shall create a literature, which will obey all the demands of modern writing while taking roots in the traditional configurations of our orality.”
The torment of the process of translation of Texaco is for me quadrupled. First the original, the French, then the Creole (one is talking about vocabulary, not tone, which is unified in the novel, hence its miraculousness), then the translation into English, and then into an English version of Creole whose base is French Creole; one must glide, with the translation’s push, over some discomforts and perils. Since no two Creoles are identical in the Caribbean—Haitian Creole is different from St. Lucian—the sense of opacité increases.
The word gommier, for example, translated into “gum tree,” is not only the tree itself but also the dugout canoe manufactured by the indigenous Caribs; and as the tree, its sound contains the activity of a light breeze in the gum tree’s boughs or branches; “boughs,” however, is archaic, containing a mild assonance—“gommier,” “boughs”—but it is so right a sound for the Carib canoe in its buoyancy and elegant length, its riding and shearing of water, the carved trunk of the floating tree and the blue echo around the word. But that is in Creole, or what in St. Lucia we also call patwa (patois). The gommier maudit, “cursed gum tree,” enrages because of the ceaseless shedding of its white blossoms that, once reaped, only repeat their infuriating cascade. Who first cursed them is by now lost, but their Sisyphean rhythm continues every season.
Let me reassure readers of the English translation that the prose of Texaco is based on a delight in the craft of writing, which supersedes translation, that subdued elation that propels and unites different masters, Joyce, Márquez, Hemingway, Melville, and perhaps that joy’s name is poetry. Texaco is garrulous because of its oralité, because Creole needs that expansive syntax which asks itself rhetorical questions accompanied by gestures, then answers them, a language audibly aware of its melody, its pauses and flourishes, its direction toward laughter even in tragedy.
This continuous bemusement at the ironies and stupidity of fate, of history, of orders laid down by the City (the city as metropolitan law and wisdom) is what gives all the novel’s characters a tragicomic grandeur, or rather an undefined stature that is not modeled on another archipelago’s ideas of hubris, on a Medea, or a Clytemnestra, or on the sibylline prophecies of doomed defiance, because Africa’s gods have been lost. There is no catharsis, its arc is not Aristotelian, the agonies it describes are not individual but those of the entire race, not unique but those of the whole chorus of the settlement. The tribe discovers its voice in defiance and by survival.
No one thought he’d live: a snake-bite means a funeral. But he, beg your pardon, nevertheless he reappeared in the light of rest-day to visit a star-apple tree that twenty blackbirds were madly shaking.
That “beg your pardon,” with an implied gesture anticipating interruption by the reader-listener, uttered with the authority of the storyteller, the griot, and of course, the novelist, is the oralité celebrated in the manifesto, and for me it is wonderfully accurate in the humor of its inflection, its relentless garrulity, its “moin,” its “tends ça,” and in English Creole: “hear dis,” “you listenin’?,” “I could finish talking?” This is the echo of the vessel that carries the tribal memory, and not only memory but invention, the magnification of ordinary events, the casualness of catastrophe, and it is at the center of the novel. The parenthetical phrase provokes laughter, a delightful skepticism, and it attenuates the reader’s hearing into a receptacle in which everything is torrentially poured, as such miracles and even agonies did when we were children, a smile that the storyteller-novelist exploits, a confirming nod that foresees a radiant ending, an exaltation, a triumph.
That parenthetical aside of “beg your pardon” is not new, it is part of the convention of storytelling. It is there throughout Dante, as when, listening to a restless and doomed Ulysses describe his death in a whirlpool, the voices of Dante and his character join in an Italian, not a classical Latin, gesture, “as it pleased Another.” Chamoiseau does not pepper his text with Creolisms to give it local flavor. It is, organically, the texture, the heat of the meal itself, the crunch of yellow yam, dasheen (taro), white yam, salt-fish, and maki (bark beer). I didn’t read Texaco, I devoured it.
My sensation of Martinique, of the narrowed streets of Fort-de-France, and even the countryside with its goodish roads was that of an overarticulate congestion, of an extension of the metropole in its subdued longing, with an impatience about its development that made for a melodramatic contrast between modern concrete and atavistic bush. There is a sense of prolonged discours (discussion, argument, sophistication) between its metropolitan advertisements and its gingerbread eaves, crowded, urgent, and self-conscious—in short the direct enemy of the anarchic, quarrelsome, and stubborn anti-citizens of the Texaco settlement.
The direction of the Cité, of the hot agitation of Fort-de-France, felt like the restlessness of the immigrant, not really an immigrant since theoretically a Frenchman in Martinique is not an immigrant but a citizen. Therefore as much as Martiniquans are supposed to be Frenchmen, and Fort-de-France is supposed to be France, the Texaco settlement is not French, any more than is Texaco, the novel. The novel speaks in the voices, the Creole, of its population and not with the centralized authority of the Cité, that is, in the vocabulary of Césaire.
But the novel does not exclude these other Martiniquans, it has rooms and soft chambers, a huge, salt, fragrant sponge, it absorbs the past; it takes in the civil diction of authority as well as the screams of revolt. The manifesto goes on like a hot road in the noon heat:
This brings us to free Aimé Césaire of the accusation—with Oedipal overtones—of hostility to the Creole language.
My hatred of the current way of writing down Creole (“orthography”) is a lost battle, but my rage continues in defeat. Coarsely phonetic, it is visually crass, its aural range is limited to a concept of peasant or artisan belligerence that denies its own subtleties of pronunciation, denying its almost completely French roots (if French is allowed to have roots in the ex-colonies, that is, the départements of the islands). Written Creole is unreal because the grammar of its African auxiliaries varies from one Francophone territory to another, and in most cases the change proves its autocracy by incomprehensible changes in appearance: D’lo for de l’eau (water) is only one example. We have to understand that this vehement assertion of creating roots for what, linguistically, is a mother tongue blended with another mother tongue produces a false maternity.
Creole comes from French. Forced or not, Africans spoke French in slavery, and for the Creole Academy this is an unbearable reality. It demands to have its own writing, and its next step, in its effort to go further and further away from the degradation of slavery and colonialism, would be to invent the hieroglyphics of a new alphabet whose echoes cannot be changed unless every surviving aspect of French is banned. The contempt of the Académie Française is ultimately irrelevant.
Written Kweyol—why “k” for a hard “c,” for example?—claims an academic and political mandate whose decree I reject because the words are ugly and their sound cuts off the phonetic subtleties and elegance of the patois spoken in the heights of my own island; and of course it is this idea of ele-gance which Creole (Kweyol) orthography condemns as being false or self-deluding French.
It is not that Creole lacks elegance. Style is something the French islands pride themselves on, down to their habit of drinking imported wine as well as coconut water and pomme-cythère juice, but any language that does more than grunt imposes order, acquires syntax, parentheses, and elegance. The folly, by which I mean madness, is to believe that elegance is treachery, that it deceives the tribe.
This is the point at which Césaire stopped, not because he betrayed Martinique to France or Creole to the Académie, but because that is where the passion of argument peters out, in the distant tenor of imposing particulars that are racial despite the protests of a Creole universality. Texaco is the combined triumph of the Creole language and of French orthography that Césaire could not visualize. Who is more Irish than Joyce? What is more particularly Irish than Ulysses? But where is the Irish spelling of the elegant sentences in English of a true rebel, one who felt himself to be beyond the local quarrel of writing in the Irish language? What Ulysses did for Ireland it also did for literature in English, and Texaco, also a masterpiece, does the same for another island, Martinique, and for (here one swallows) literature in French.
Joyce was hardly colonized. Chamoiseau’s genius, like Joyce’s, is too great for any thesis. Of course this sounds like a trap, this flattery of accommodation, but the waving of banners is a part of French culture; there is a euphony of ideas in the nature of the French language, whereas English, and Creole itself for that matter, have a euphony of images, of simile. This euphony of ideas creates polemic, the polemic of Fanon, of négritude, of Césaire and Chamoiseau. The euphony of images is something else.
He brought the oars, the fuel can, and the motor from his lean-to, dumped all of that in a wheelbarrow, and went up the Pénétrante toward his plastic gum-tree canoe, subsidized by our regional council development exports.
Along his way, he saw the Christ….
Since Iréné remained somber, however, Joseph thought he was just bringing up one of those black sharks with satanic pupils that no Christian would wish to eat….
She was the only one to hear (at certain hours of the day, when the sun smashes the waves with a scintillation of salt) the conches’ unsettling song, the hiccup of corals coming up to the surface, the algae’s drone, a sort of deserted uproar in the water.
Texaco is not a work clouded by theory. Its edges are clear and natural, and the manifesto may have served as the tillage of its ferment, since the novel’s sources are more natural and organic than they are polemical. Its paragraphs rise and descend like the shaggy olive-green hills of the islands, its murmurous narrative is like that of a clear brook through whose corrugated pane you can see the stones. It smells of woodsmoke and the congestion of scorched towns. You can lift your head from a page and see the cobalt sky and enormous clouds of the archipelago. Its details are not those of the narrator, but of collective memory: the histoire of Martinique from slavery to the revolutions in Texaco’s settlement.
There is no plot in Texaco, there are connecting lives as firmly and intricately woven as a straw basket. Its cast of characters over these hundred years is immense.
Structurally the pages consist of paragraphs that have their origin in that French invention, springing from the alexandrine, the prose poem with its incantatory meter, its protracted breath, the sound of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Claudel, Perse, Césaire that culminates in the cul-de-sac of Francis Ponge. The sinuous line accommodates Creole rhythms, it keeps its gestures intact. It is not the meter of “La marquise est sortie à cinq heures” (The marquise went out at five), which Valéry felt himself incapable of believing. Texaco’s model is not Flau-bert. Its events are in the prosody of memory, of the extended poem-paragraph, and each character joins in the tribal incantation, the chorus, to the one meter, like the chain of a chant, reciting the sorrows of Esternome, his death, the growth of a second city that becomes the capital, Fort-de-France, outside which Texaco sets up its gimcrack battlements and defies siege.
And what bird should tell this? What warbler of our ragged pastures except the blackbird who rarely and lightly twitters, with no other plumage but its own sleek African skin, with a beak like your pen, Chamoiseau, swift, accurate without malice? Then, because of standard History, there is this matter of tenses.
Who conjugates the tenses by which these islands are judged? We know those who have made the scansion of the past their own property—schoolmasters, critics, administrators, the French Academy, consuls, prefects, and ironic stylists; those who admire ethnic exuberance, ornithologists who can categorize a Cham-Oiseau, a bird of the Martiniquan savannahs, or champs, as a brilliant exotic hybrid.
The translation from the French and Creole, by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov, often has a stiffened colloquiality that makes the Creole passages a bit arch, reducing its oralité, but it moves with the exciting propulsion of the French original, again with an occasional Parnassian flourish that contradicts the sociology. Magic is difficult to translate, and the sibylline can sound ponderous, but the book could not have been so joyous without the obvious delight of the two collaborators and their determination to make Texaco a gift.
So across the channel from where I live, a great book has been written; the pale blue silhouette of Martinique is sometimes so clearly edged that one can see the pale hues of houses, or what I think are houses, where you, Chamoiseau, live—a book that for its accuracy of feeling, its intimacy, belongs to the vendors selling T-shirts and their children screaming in the shallows, one that has entered our vegetation, as familiar as the thorny acacias along the beach, one with the cemetery stones bordered with conches, one with the cooing of ground doves in the brown season, and one with the melody of the bird in the dogwood’s branches, common to Martinique and Saint Lucia, the champs-oiseau with its melodic voice and amplitude of heart.
August 14, 1997