Like Heaven

Lorna Scott Fox

I wonder how many culture-pilgrims have journeyed to Martinique since Texaco won the Prix Goncourt in 1992, to see whether a shanty town of that name really exists. The novel may be a lush documentary or it may be a historical romance: we can’t be sure. In any case, it is likely to change the way we think about the lives and circumstances of millions of people living on the periphery of large cities in underdeveloped parts of the world. With its mangrove-like proliferations and sinuous shapes and rules, the quartier of Texaco is the urban embodiment of black memory. That memory, dislocated and improvised, does not include Africa. The story begins with chaos in the belly of a slave ship, continues with the slave cabins scattered around the Grand-Case, the first incarnation of City – or l’En-ville – to which Texaco later appends itself, and goes on to trace the faltering attempt, after Abolition, to create a separate society in the hills. It culminates in the mass gravitation back to the edge of l’En-ville, an orderly ‘Western’ centre which, Chamoiseau says, is only given meaning by its turbulent margins. And these, in turn, need l’En-ville ‘like having a breadfruit tree by the hutch’.

The story of Texaco and its prototypes in the social and moral landscape, from the early 19th to the late 20th century, is told by its formidable founder, Marie-Sophie Laborieux, who repeats to l’Oiseau de Cham/le Marqueur de Paroles (as the author somewhat coyly refers to himself) what she told the Urban Planner when he came to the shanty with a view to demolishing it. Marie-Sophie’s evocations of slavery and slave magic, of the riots that hastened Abolition in Martinique, of the annihilation of the old capital Saint-Pierre by a volcanic eruption in 1902, of the tendrils of a ‘Creole’ black consciousness growing out of a half-consummated liberation, are derived from the life and sayings of her father, Esternome; half-remembered words which she has cobbled together into notebooks. This emblematic man, both innocent and ingenious, comes to us wrapped in the daughter’s affection for his exploits and misfortunes. He was a slave freed in childhood, who built parts of Saint-Pierre (undermining the plans of the békés, or planter class, who wanted the colony to look like France) and after Abolition climbed the slopes of the outlying hills, to try to found a community of former slaves in order to break their dependence on rehire at starvation wages on the same old plantations. Here, as in Saint-Pierre, Esternome set to work with an inspired bricolage of slave lore and white technology, until his lover (who knew that one can’t do without l’En-ville) left him for a lithe, snide musician. Rambling on to Marie-Sophie about that failed hillside project, the ‘Noutéka des mornes’ or ‘magic community of nous’, Esternome was already mapping out what a Creole quartier would be.

Chamoiseau seems resigned to the loss of any properly rural relation to the land, after the collapse of the island’s sugar industry at the turn of the century. His novel is partly a treatise on the philosophy of urban planning for a society of displaced people living off odd ‘djobs’. The Urban Planner who visits Texaco is instantly seduced and converted by Marie-Sophie’s web of stories about the Creole settlers’ years of struggle to found the warren of Texaco – the name comes from its site under the gasoline tanks on the property of an old landowner known as the ‘gas-béké’. Promoted by the battle-weary settlers from Scourge to Christ the Saviour, the Urban Planner sends impassioned notes to the Marqueur de Paroles that embroider and elaborate old Esternome’s original intuitions: ‘In the centre, an occidental urban logic, all lined up, ordered, like the French language. On the other side, Creole’s open profusion according to Texaco’s logic. Mingling these two tongues, dreaming all tongues, the Creole city speaks a new language and no longer fears Babel.’ This analogy between language and the city runs throughout the novel. L’En-ville embodies the rationality and sophistication of French: Texaco, taking worldly wisdom from that centre and imparting in return its sensuality and creativity, embodies the vitality of Creole. Texaco is a triumphant instance of this exchange.

The issue for Francophone West Indian writers of this century has always been what goes by the unlovely name of ‘diglottism’: the internalised split between two languages, one high-literary, the other low-oral. Early Francophone Caribbean writers (with the gigantic exception of the 19th-century Guyanan novelist Alfred Parépou) wrote implausibly in cultured French; if the Creole that everyone, even the békés, actually spoke was included, it took the form of a condescending, self-alienating phonetics – the quaint mumbo-jumbo of the p’tit nègre. The novelists Maryse Cond and Simone Schwarz-Bart still write in standard French and look primarily to their African origins; their work is only faintly inflected by the postwar trend for Creole (or Creolised French) fiction and poetry – pretty much obligatory in their native Guadeloupe. The trouble was, and is, that few people can read the language either in the Caribbean or in Paris. Martiniquan Creole is its own whirlpool of Amerindian, European, Asian and West African currents. In France it first gained ideological credibility during the Sixties, with the influence of diaspora intellectuals and their all-Creole journal, DJOK. Rural trade unions and other politicised groups in Martinique subsequently advocated the idea of a respectable, written Creole. But history was already tending in the other direction. Ever since France’s Caribbean possessions became ‘departements d’outre-mer’ in 1946, French has outstripped Creole in schools; a system of Creole transcription was perfected around 1970, but is still not generally taught. Contemporary militant Creolism, which makes language the chief symbol of racial and anti-metropolitan pride, and drives oral tradition towards writing, seems to protest too much, too late.

All these contradictions are addressed in Texaco. Chamoiseau exploits the French language far too brilliantly to reject it. Esternome, who is always croaking ‘Vuve la Fouance!’, learns it eagerly (and in his case, as in his daughter’s, attraction to the power and mystery of l’En-ville is stronger than any resentment). Later in the novel, a Haitian refugee nicknamed Ti-Cirique comes to Texaco. His French is flowery and pedantic, and he deplores Marie-Sophie’s crude Creolisms as she struggles to write; but he is not disparaged for his Francophilia, as some readers of Texaco have thought. Ti-Cirique, a comic figure, represents the honourable predicament of the black intellectual who lives language and politics in unconscious dichotomy: he interprets each experience through the literature of dead white males, yet his greatest hero is Jacques-Stephen Alexis, the radical Haitian writer murdered by Duvalier in 1961. On the moral as well as the administrative level, Ti-Cirique is vital to the survival of Texaco in its darkest hours, when it is being torn down daily at the hysterical insistence of the gas-béké. ‘As soon as the following night, we rebuilt what was left, full (as Ti-Cirique said) of the persistence of Sisyphus and the invincibility of the Phoenix.’

More remarkably perhaps, Chamoiseau doesn’t pour scorn on black Martinique’s metropolitan loyalties. He is rueful about the mass enlistments in 1914, and affectionate about the passion on the streets for De Gaulle (perceived as an honorary maroon) when the island was held by the Pétainiste Admiral Robert. De Gaulle pays a visit in 1964, a year which coincides, in the novel, with a prolonged assault on Texaco by riot police and assorted demolition crews. Marie-Sophie is among the ecstatic mob that stampedes to petition him as though he were a saint. Even after he is whisked away in a limousine, the only doubt lingering in the minds of the island’s citizens is whether he intoned, ‘Mon dieu, mon dieu, comme vous êtes français’ or ‘Mon dieu, mon dieu, comme vous êtes foncés.’

Marie-Sophie later petitions Aimé Césaire, the poet and champion of negritude, for help, and an interesting ambiguity crops up. Marie-Sophie was overwhelmed by Césaire’s election as mayor of Fort-de-France in 1945, because he was black and on the right side. ‘Papa Césaire, our revenge on the békés and the big-wig mulattos.’ The mulattos, presented as arrogant theoreticians and universalists, get as little sympathy in this book as the pathetic enclaves of the planters. The support for the shanties from Césaire and his Communist council is warmly acknowledged, and the apoplexy of the ruling class before this impertinent slave much enjoyed, but there are suggestions of ineffectuality and paternalism. When Marie-Sophie and her ragged followers tiptoe unannounced into the mayor’s home (Ti-Cirique, carrying copies of Césaire’s books to be signed, loses his nerve at the gate), Césaire’s first reaction is fear. Marie-Sophie has to recite a passage from his early epic Cahier d’un retour au pays natal before he calms down enough to promise the services she requests. As they leave he asks, disbelievingly, whether she has actually read the Cahier. This is perhaps the point in the novel that marks the divergence between antillanité – a multiple notion of identity pursued since the Fifties by the Martiniquan writer Edouard Glissant, in a dark poetics of drift – and the more monolithic, Africanist negritude of the earlier generation of Césaire and Léopold Senghor. In School Days, Chamoiseau’s recent childhood memoir, the shortcomings of negritude are spelled out from the little négrillon’s point of view. When ‘the Teacher’ gets lumbago, a substitute in a ‘rebellious goatee’ excites and bewilders the class by switching every ‘white’ to ‘black’, and claiming that ‘our ancestors weren’t Gauls but people from Africa.’ He tolerates Creole, which makes the children even more ashamed of it, and challenges the views of the Teacher ‘with vigour, persistence and a fierce joy. But he never tackled either the Universal or its world order ... the home-grown Teacher was transformed into a comet: ephemeral and about as useless.’

Glissant is Chamoiseau’s master; Texaco is dedicated to him (and to Vera Kundera). Glissant has written, in his melancholy way, that ‘a forced poetics prevails where the necessity of expression confronts what it is impossible to express.’ Hence the torment of inauthenticity for those raised in Creole and French – native and official, mother and father tongues – with their burdens of class, race, aspiration and dispossession. Chamoiseau follows Glissant’s injunction to ‘construct language at the edge of the written and the spoken’, as a reflection of Martinique’s transition between oral and literate cultures, and as a liberation from the constraints of both. This does not mean writing in Creole (as another leading antillaniste, Raphaël Confiant, began by doing), but giving Creole rhythms to the French, inventing expressions in the Creole style, peppering the most classic, indeed precious, expanses of French with Creole words and phrases and treating Creole as a fount of linguistic energy – all the while stressing the difficulties, artificialities and betrayals inherent in the sumptuous result. Marie-Sophie asks L’Oiseau de Cham, the professional, how not to mummify living reality as she writes it down; and Chamoiseau makes his own apologies for rewriting her, and for his ‘shameful anxiety’ as he stumbles into the barrier ‘which separates the spoken word from the writing to be done, which distinguishes the written word from the word lost.’

The sprawling shanty, the planned city of L’En-ville and the proximity of the one to the other restate this conflict between orality and writing, the open-ended and the fixed, in terms of the ideal conurbation of the future; for in devising a satisfactory fate for Texaco, Chamoiseau seems to suggest that the unformed and the hybrid can win legitimacy in the eyes of the world. At the end of the book, Marie-Sophie dies content in the fairytale fulfilment of her aspirations for Texaco. The Urban Planner is in league with L’En-ville city council to swing it: ‘He told me that City would integrate Texaco’s soul, that everything would be improved but that everything would remain in accordance with its fundamental law, with its alleys, places, with its so old memory that the country needed.’

In all this, Chamoiseau cannot, of course, sustain the pretence of being simply the dodgy Marqueur de Paroles. His style is a literary construct, offering one way for Creole oral tradition, with its mischievous energy, popular legends and demons, to transform and be transformed by the high sonorities of the French he came to love, despite his teachers, at school – a way that is quite distinct from Magical Realism. There are plenty of zombies, witches and ancient ‘forces’ here, but most of their manifestations strike ordinary mortals with terror. The fantastic is evoked in the traditional voice of the conteur or nocturnal story-teller, which Chamoiseau combines with elements of the African griot, the diurnal teller of dynasties, whose office, once complementary to the conteur’s, was rendered obsolete in the West Indies by slavery. If the griot’s memorial skills are revived in the narrative voice of Texaco, it remains the case that the kind of memory celebrated in the novel is not archaeological. It is a preparation: a ‘memory of the future’ for ‘virtual writers’ – Glissant’s expression – which begins by breaking the millstone of universality into a thousand fragments that reflect the seething internationality of the Caribbean; as Derek Walcott said of Port of Spain, ‘a ferment without a history, like heaven’.

Chamoiseau’s translator, Rose-Myriam Réjouis, tells us in her Afterword that she doesn’t think she betrayed Texaco ‘by actually making it readable’. After all, ‘Chamoiseau meant for his book to be readable.’ I’m not sure what is meant here by ‘readable’, or by the author’s implicit failure to achieve this ideal. Is it simply that we can recognise all the words in Réjouis’s limited vocabulary? One of the delights of the original for a conventional French-speaker is the range of unfamiliar, sensual, sprightly sounds whose meaning can almost always be intuited. No one could pretend that this book would be easy to translate. But if, as the Franco-Haitian Réjouis observes, it contains ‘Mulatto French’ (a disparaging term) ‘in addition to Creole orality and the many shadings between the two’, she might have attempted a similar compote in English, as Linda Coverdale does so well for School Days. Some of the blame for the chewing-gum cadences, both dull and grating, must fall on Réjouis’s co-translator, ‘an American who speaks almost no French’.

The insensitivity takes many forms. To the metre and melody of an old, rhymester poetry: ‘Or bondieu seul sait en quel état tombé sans eux nous fûmes toujours’ – ‘Yet only the Good Lord knows how we could ever have done without them.’ To language itself: ‘Que nos affaires aient été voltigées dans la boue, puis réinstallées en deçà de leur place, avait décomposé la mémoire des lieux’: ‘With our things having taken a mud-bath and then being thrown about here and there, it spoiled the memories of the place for us.’ ‘Occis’. ‘done for’. ‘Un fouyaya’, ‘some snoop’. ‘Intact dans son délire’, ‘still mad’. ‘Un gros-négre brailleur’, ‘a big blaring fellow’ (the French abounds in négresses, nèg-de-terre, négrillons ... the English is almost colourblind). And how about ‘One day one of the children got into one of those hurricane shelters like the ones they used to build’? Reading both versions together is like watching a couch potato trying to follow an advanced aerobics video; the English, despite the ‘meticulous and inspired editing’ the translators are thankful for, is full of mistakes, from the complete misunderstanding of complex passages to elementary howlers like calling a schoolteacher and former (ancien) shoemaker an ‘old cobbler’.

There are four books which Marie-Sophie holds onto all her life as sources of inspiration, severed from the great signifying trunk of European culture: Montaigne, Lewis Carroll, La Fontaine and the debauched Rabelais, who is disapproved of by Ti-Cirique yet strongly reminiscent of Marie-Sophie’s father Esternome’s amalgam of fine French and hill Creole, and indeed of Chamoiseau’s. What would an English translator need at her elbow? Shakespeare, Sterne, Lewis Carroll again and Joyce, at least. She would have to be able to handle as many registers as her author. It says nothing for the respect of the Anglophone world for the literature of other countries when a novel as important as this is so poorly served by what may be its only translation into English.