Caribbean Beat Magazine

Patrick Chamoiseau: Return of the Creole

James Ferguson talks to the novelist Patrick Chamoiseau whose controversial ideas have fuelled a raging debate on Martinique’s future

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  • Photograph by Jacque Sassier

I had expected somebody aggressive, abrasive, doctrinaire. I was prepared to be lectured, to be put in my place. If the truth be told, I was facing this interview with a little foreboding. When I turned up at the hotel in South Kensington at the appointed time and was told he’d gone out, I expected the worst. Some people always have to be late, to prove something by their rudeness. And he was one of them, I concluded. As I sat glumly in the foyer listening to American tourists planning their outing to Miss Saigon, I wanted to be somewhere else.

The interview in question was to be with Patrick Chamoiseau, a novelist from Martinique who has hit the big time in the last couple of years after his book Texaco won the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1992. That French success has led to a string of translations, the publication of earlier and later work in English and, now, a tour around Britain, talking and reading at bookshops and universities. His latest books, Solibo Magnificent and the autobiographical Childhood, had received positive reviews in the mainstream press. One critic had talked of “a Caribbean Rushdie crossed with a contemporary Rabelais.”

Leaving aside such improbable cloning, Chamoiseau had somehow acquired a reputation for something else, for being difficult, cantankerous even. I’d read a long interview with him in the arts magazine Transition, where he had pulled no punches in attacking critics and other writers. One unfortunate woman he’d dismissed as “inane”, while he’d spoken of the “fetid malevolence” of a former friend who had dared to criticise his work.

His work also has a reputation. Texaco, a massive 400 pages, was reckoned to be the untranslatable novel. A friend of mine, an academic who has spent years studying Martinican literature, turned down an offer to translate it as a recipe for madness. Full of linguistic inventiveness and stylistic quirks, it is unabashedly difficult, revelling in its own complexity. It’s written in a sort of French, but a French that is constantly stretched and subverted by Chamoiseau’s use of Creole. Solibo Magnificent is hardly an easy read either. A murder mystery, in which there is no murder and no mystery, it is a book that challenges many preconceptions about language and fiction.

I knew that Chamoiseau has three main axes to grind. First, that he hates Martinique’s status as an overseas department of France, an arrangement that he views as colonialism by another name. Second, that he regards the French language — which all Martinicans must learn as their “official” mother tongue — as the embodiment of that colonialism. And thirdly, that he views Creole, the language spoken most naturally and fluently by all Martinicans, as the authentic linguistic expression of his island’s culture.

This mix of political and linguistic radicalism has resulted in the concept of créolité (which I suppose can loosely be translated as Creole-ness or Creolity). In simple terms, it seeks to emphasise the unique cultural make-up of Martinique — and the Caribbean — as a dynamic mix of influences, African, Indian, European and so on. It’s partly a matter of language, because Creole itself is a medium of communication that has borrowed from a wide range of sources. And it’s partly a matter of identity and self-image, because to be of the Caribbean is to belong to a region that, clichés notwithstanding, is a melting-pot. That all these influences have mixed, evolved and been adapted into something unique is obvious in anything from Trinidad’s carnival to Haiti’s painting.

But in Martinique, créolité has a particular whiff of controversy about it. For more than half a century, the island has lived under the long shadow of Aimé Césaire, the poet, politician and statesman. Not only is Césaire largely responsible for Martinique being an overseas department of France, but he also wrote the path-breaking Notebook of a Return to My Native Land, one of the great works of Caribbean literature. He became associated with a literary movement called négritude, a sort of pan-Africanism which sought to re-establish the Caribbean’s links with the African ancestry of its majority population. Martinicans, said Césaire, could rediscover their real sense of identity by recognising that they were really transplanted Africans, torn from their homeland by European colonialism, but still connected by a shared culture and history.

In Martinique it is not normally considered good taste or common sense to mock Césaire’s authority. The grand old man of politics and literature is revered by many as “Papa Césaire”, literally the father of Martinique’s departmental status and the guarantor of its people’s relative prosperity. But Chamoiseau and two friends, Raphaël Confiant and Jean Bernabé, had the impudence in 1989 to publish a sort of literary manifesto, the Eloge de la créolité, which not only questioned the relevance of négritude to modern-day Martinicans, but which also proposed a radically different way of looking at the island, its relationship with France and its literature — in short, all the things which had become synonymous with Césaire.

In the subsequent fall-out, Chamoiseau’s reputation as a provocateur grew. Césaire dismissed his critics as callow youths and sniffily remarked that créolité was “incapable of elevation, of the expression of abstract ideas.” And so a skirmish between literary movements evolved into extended trench warfare, with Chamoiseau and his associates sniping at Césaire whenever possible.

 

As I contemplated the unappetising prospect of an afternoon spent discussing literary vendettas, Patrick Chamoiseau suddenly turned up. Wrapped in a large brown overcoat against a bitter late winter wind, he was apologetic and obviously a bit disoriented by this, his first trip to Britain. And I realised that my foreboding was out of place. He was soft-spoken, almost shy, hardly the hectoring demagogue I had feared. The bad news was that he claimed not to speak any English. The good news was that he listened politely to my French and replied with the sort of clarity that could lead you to believe that you have suddenly become bilingual.

What about Aimé Césaire, I asked? Is he really such a bad thing? Chamoiseau sighed a sort of more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger sigh. “You have to understand that Césaire has dominated all aspects of our daily lives for more than forty years. People like me were born and brought up under his influence. We recognise that he broke new ground, we don’t have any quarrel with the originality of the Return to My Native Land. The problem is that his ideas have been uncontested for too long and taken for granted as the official way of thinking in Martinique. Césaire is an old man now, what is more interesting is the fight over his legacy.”

So far, so reasonable. But surely, I said, looking to provoke some venom, his greatest achievement was making Martinique a département of France and bringing all the French subsidies with it? Patiently, he explained: “Martinique’s experience as a department has been a catastrophe. Yes, there have been undeniable economic advantages, but at what cost? Dependency, a lack of positive vision, the creation of an artificial consumer society that lives from hand-outs. That is not an achievement.” So is independence the answer, I asked? Wouldn’t it turn affluent Martinique overnight into another Haiti? He had obviously heard this a thousand times before, but remained even-tempered. “Look at the example of places like Mauritius or the Seychelles. They are not wealthy, but they have reasonable levels of employment and economies which work OK without massive subsidies. Take Barbados or the other Eastern Caribbean islands. They have proved that independence doesn’t spell ruin. Quite the opposite.”

Martinique soaks up billions of francs each year in French subsidies, and exports bananas, some rum and some sugar back to France. Surely, an economy like that couldn’t go it alone? “I think the future of Martinique, and the Caribbean, can’t lie in the old agricultural exports,” said Chamoiseau. “We have to look at areas like information technology where we can fit into the global economy by using what we have — an educated population. Anyway, I’m not suggesting a total overnight break with France. What we need is more sovereignty, a new relationship with Paris that would let us enter into closer collaboration with other Caribbean states.”

Did he, I enquired, feel French — or something else? “I think in the case of Martinique you have to think in terms of multiple identities. Globalisation is a fashionable economic concept, but it really applies to a place like Martinique, which is part American, part Antillean, part European, part African. And not forgetting India, of course. Yes, most Martinicans feel a kind of loyalty to France, but it’s not exclusive. During the World Cup, for instance, lots of kids were torn between supporting France and their normal favourites, Brazil. And that was a French team with more black and Caribbean players than normal. So there isn’t just one identity. It’s a question of constant tensions between competing identities, and that is what makes the Caribbean such a vital place.”

I asked him to explain what créolité meant. “The process of creolisation began with the concept of the New World. After the European conquest, different people with different languages and different cultures were forced to live together through slavery and other forms of mass migration. This mixing was violent and sudden, creating entirely new societies out of many displaced and transplanted cultures. That is why we say that Creole culture is not just African, not just European, but a mixture of much more, something that is inclusive, receptive, and not closed.”

The basis of this culture’s literature, it follows, is oral rather than written, for slaves and labourers were not encouraged to read or write. Instead, they transmitted their myths, stories and poetry by speech, and the story-teller became a key figure in the cultural life of the community. “Créolité tries to restore to the modern-day writer that status of story-teller by breaking down the barrier between the written and the spoken, French and Creole. If a writer can use Creole, then he’s much more in touch with the thoughts and expressions of ordinary people.”

Why, I asked disingenuously, has créolité been criticised for being non-politically correct, for being sexist and even pornographic? For a moment, Chamoiseau reacted sharply. “Criticised by whom?” he retorted. “I don’t accept any such criticism. What we do is hold up a mirror to the people. We don’t idealise or distort anything. If by sexist you mean crude, that’s just how things are. There’s not a lot of delicate romance in Creole culture and Creole is a very earthy, expressive language. But the important thing to recognise is that there is a great deal of tenderness underneath the apparent brutality.”

 

It took Chamoiseau four years to write Texaco. He knows that it’s difficult. “My friends tried to read it but couldn’t. The editors at Gallimard said it was ‘impressive’ but didn’t understand it. It was what the French call an événement littéraire, a literary event. People wanted to be involved. It sold 500,000 copies, but I don’t know how many people finished it.” I admitted that I’d had trouble understanding some of this epic account of a Fort-de-France shantytown and its symbolic inhabitants. “Don’t try to understand,” he said kindly, “just feel. You should give in to the music, the sound of the words. Let the writer take charge.” He stopped for a moment. “Do you know, being a writer gives you a terrible authority, the ability to lead people where you want.” What about Solibo Magnificent, I asked, where the main character — and supposed murder victim — is a story-teller? “Of course it’s an allegory. I wanted to show how the oral tradition succumbs, and how the authorities, with all their paperwork and bureaucracy, don’t understand Creole culture.”

Chamoiseau’s easiest and most engaging book is his Childhood, an evocative account of growing up in Fort-de-France. I loved the part when he describes waiting for hours at a time to drop a stone on a rat, only to take pity on the animal as it gets old and weak enough to fall into his trap. His mother looms large in these artfully reconstructed memories as a tough survivor and a great influence. “Yes, it was only in writing it that I realised how important she was to me. She was illiterate, you know, which meant she had equal respect for anything in writing. As a result, I read anything I liked as a child — cartoons, detective novels, Simenon in particular. I discovered Rabelais and Faulkner later on and loved Alice in Wonderland for its sense of the marvellous. Emile Zola was another big influence, in the way he wrote about ordinary people.” Are there English-speaking writers he appreciates? “Not many Caribbean writers have been translated into French. And this is another sign of how Martinique is cut off from the rest of the Caribbean. I’ve been impressed by what I’ve read of Earl Lovelace and Caryl Phillips.”

Did he feel any sympathy for his translators, I wondered? After all, translating something like Texaco is no easy undertaking. “I’ve never looked at a translation of a book of mine. What would be the point? I don’t speak any other language well enough to know whether they’re any good.” I found this hard to believe, as most writers I know are fascinated by the idea of their work being translated. And what about reviews? “I don’t read them,” he replied flatly. I’ve heard other people say this, and I mostly don’t believe them. But somehow with Chamoiseau, it rings true. You suddenly realise that he isn’t interested in fame, glory, critical acclaim. As an afterthought he says: “I do send each of my translators a letter . . . wishing them good luck.”

Only as the interview came towards an end did I learn that Patrick Chamoiseau is not first and foremost a writer. He seemed surprised at the idea that he did nothing else but write, and told me that he worked full-time as a probation officer in Fort-de-France. “I trained as a lawyer at university in Martinique and in France and I’ve been working with young offenders for 15 years, going to court, getting to know their problems, trying to help them sort out their lives. It sounds terrible, but understanding these people’s experiences has helped me hugely as a writer, as it has allowed me to look into aspects of life that you wouldn’t normally encounter.”

So how is he so prolific? “Well. I work evenings, weekends, holidays, like anyone else would. I suppose I might be able to manage as a full-time writer, but I’d miss my work, my involvement.”

And then time is up. Chamoiseau’s minder appears to take him off to catch a train somewhere — he isn’t quite sure where. And again, it isn’t an affectation, he really doesn’t know, or care. As we part company, I realise that the bad boy Chamoiseau, the aggressive scourge of readers and critics, is something of an exaggeration, a figment of the imagination, mine or someone else’s. Unscathed by the encounter, I feel sorry that it had to end. And I’m not sure whether to feel relief or a sense of anti-climax.