The Enchantment of Language : TEXACO. By Patrick Chamoiseau . Translated from the French and Creole by Rose-Myriam Rejouis and Val Vinokurov . Pantheon: 401 pp., $27 : SCHOOL DAYS. By Patrick Chamoiseau . Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale . University of Nebraska Press: 156 pp., $35 cloth, $13 paper
March 02, 1997|JONATHAN LEVI | Jonathan Levi is the author of "A Guide for the Perplexed: A Novel." He has just completed his third novel, "Blue Nude #1."
A master storyteller, Chamoiseau needs this subtle and indirect language for his tales. Both "Texaco" and "School Days," his fictionalization of his youthful beginnings, are tales, gestes, with all the connotations that word carries of histories and heroes and daring.
Eighty-year-old Marie-Sophie Laboreux is the heroine of "Texaco" the novel and Texaco the shantytown named after the absent owner of the oil reservoirs outside City. City is Fort-de-France, the capital of Martinique. City is also the force that Marie-Sophie battles from her birth at the turn of the century, the force of authority, the force of French language and government, the force of impoverishment and assimilation.
In the course of her chanson de geste, Marie-Sophie sings the history of French Martinique; the history of her parents, born slaves before the abolition of slavery on Martinique in 1848; the history of her grandparents. It is a history that Marie-Sophie tells first to an urban planner who has been sent by City to renovate the shacks and alleys of Texaco; and then to the Word Scratcher, a man sometimes called Cham-Oiseau or King of Birds, the author himself. She speaks to the Word Scratcher:
" . . . [mixing] Creole and French, a vulgar word with a dear word, a forgotten word with a new word . . . as if at any given point she were mobilizing (or summarizing) her tongues. Her voice, like that of great storytellers, dipped into unclarity. In such moments, her sentences whirled at a delirious pace and I would not understand squat: The only thing left for me to do was let myself (shedding my reason) plunge into that hypnotic enchantment."
And Texaco, the language of "Texaco," is absolutely, magically enchanting. As heroic as the tales of Marie-Sophie, her papa, Esternome, and mama, Idomenee, it is Chamoiseau's chabin language that is the true heroine of "Texaco." Marie-Sophie's battles with City are nothing less than the wars between French and Creole, between the classic and the patois, the colonizer and the colonized. But neither she nor her Word Scratcher is a simple partisan of Negritude. Marie-Sophie fully recognizes the power and beauty of the European language. Her discovery comes while working as a domestic for a middle-class black family, from the children's teacher.
"With him (thank God! . . .), I learned to read and write. If the A cost me 13 yams and the B was only a dasheen, and then from C to Z all I had to do was arouse the pleasure he took in resisting ignorance and the volcanic agony of his libido. All for a kiss on the cheek of this tormented-nasty-one-despite-his-age (to excite me, he'd whisper one of those erotic flowers by one called Baudelaire)."
When his novel "Texaco" won the French Prix Goncourt in 1992, Patrick Chamoiseau could not have foreseen that it would appear in English at a time when language and art were sitting in the front row of the long-running American play of "race." Should the African American children of Oakland be taught in their local patois? Should black theater be for "colored people" only when the rainbow is not enuf? These American debates are giving John Grisham and "Les Miserables" runs for their money at bookstores and theaters around America.
Enter Chamoiseau with "Texaco" and "School Days," a narrative based on his childhood on the tiny Caribbean island of Martinique. Martinique is a little dot at the crossroads of the Americas and the Paris-Dakar axis, a department of France (with the same population as Oakland), a culture of freed slaves, imported East Indian and Asian workers, the remnants of a white master race and all the rainbow mixtures that desire and language can produce. Affranchis, bekes, capresses, engages, bekes goyaves, chabins, with their blend of intensely white and intensely black features, are only some of the delicate Creole variations of pigment and class that define the Martinican population.
Chamoiseau himself is black, a negre, and a cultural descendant of the black-pride movement of the Martinican poet and politician Aime Cesaire, who developed the concept of Negritude back in the 1930s, looking toward Africa for a literary and political solidarity to enfranchise the blacks of Martinique. But Chamoiseau's language is a curious mixed breed, enough classical French to please the Academy and enough Creole to paint his subject. It is a sophisticated mixture of music and meaning that leaves the debate of Martinique's northern neighbor in the dust of the playground.
Patrick Chamoiseau’s work has been the subject of five previous monographs. Of all five, this is perhaps the most inclusive study of his writing, methodically tracing Chamoiseau’s progression from his earliest through to his most recent texts; embracing drama, screenplays, film, theory, autobiography, and fiction; and, on the way, attending to a number of his less-studied texts (e.g., Maman Dlo contre la fée Carabosse, Au temps de l’antan, A Bout d’enfance, and a range of works for children).
The introduction sketches the writer’s evolution and reception and draws usefully and meticulously on hard-to-access Martinican resources. Similarly, in the second chapter, “Insurgent Performance Works,” valuable material about early plays and their performance in Martinique is unearthed. The next three chapters cover more familiar territory. Chapter three examines Solibo Magnifique and Chronique des sept misères, chapter four deals with the Eloge de la créolité, Lettres créoles, and Texaco, and chapter five with Chamoiseau’s autobiographical works. Knepper’s readings are generally sensitive and well-grounded. Particularly acute are her comments on the pace of Chronique slowing down to prepare for its tragic conclusion (69), her analysis of a critique of nostalgia being embedded in this highly nostalgic novel (73), and her observations on the role of the messianic figure and of twins in Texaco (111). Indeed some of these points could have been further developed and teased out. At other times, for this reader at least, the close reading was more tenuous—the association between chaux and chaud in Texaco is over-stated (123), as is the notion that the scraping of burnt confectionary has racial connotations in Chemin-d’école (136), or that the making of bread becomes a metaphor for “the production of selfhood” in the same text (Ibid.).
Chapter six offers an original reading of Ecrire en pays dominé via the figure of the Warrior of the Imaginary and the pierre-monde. This essay is often invoked by critics, but such a detailed analysis of the text, on its own terms rather than as a way into other Chamoiseau writings, is unusual. Chapter seven, “Visual Texts and the Revolutionary Epic,” gives a valuable flavor of the films on which Chamoiseau has worked. This is the chapter in which Knepper allows herself the most critical distance from Chamoiseau. She rightly acknowledges that the oneiric qualities of his screenplays can lead to a “somewhat plodding cinematic experience” (187) and that the collaborations with Guy Deslauriers at times risk perpetuating “a colonial and/or doudouiste vision” (Ibid.). This chapter also includes an illuminating reading of the role of Vodou in Biblique des derniers gestes. A final chapter on “Activism and Tales of Initiation” brings the reader right up to date with Chamoiseau’s work, analyzing a number of recent political pamphlets as well as novels such as Un Dimanche au cachot (2007) and Les Neuf consciences du Malfini (2009).
Knepper’s democratic approach, in which texts are given if not equal then at least comparable status and space, allows for a holistic and comprehensive treatment of this major writer. If the study lacks the theoretical or thematic focus of much previous writing on Chamoiseau—and therefore, at times, the critical distance from the author—it is a sympathetic, informative, and scrupulously [End Page 204] researched introduction. It is for this reason that it is perfectly placed to appeal to undergraduates, but should be of interest to all researchers working on Caribbean writing. Despite a disappointingly high number of typos and errors, especially— but by no means exclusively—in the French quotations, this is moreover a stylish and beautifully presented book.
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