Refuge for the wretched

Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau (Vintage International)

The tiny Caribbean island of Martinique has bequeathed to the world great thinkers and writers. Most prominent, at least in Africa, is Frantz Fanon, one of the most important thinkers of the past century, whose text The Wretched of the Earth is routinely described as the “bible of decolonisation”. Then there is poet and politician Aimé Césaire, who, with the late Senegalese president Léopold Sédar Senghor, is a cornerstone of the black movement Négritude.

This celebrated duo find a worthy compatriot in novelist Patrick ­Chamoiseau. He is less celebrated in the English-speaking than in the Francophone world, where he is a phenomenon — University of Cambridge scholar Megan Vaughan describes him and poets Édouard Glissant and Raphaël Confiant as the “architects of the créolité movement”.

Patrick Chamoiseau and Breyten Breytenbach debate writing and translating with Georges Lory in Speaking in Tongues: Talking, Writing, Translating. Session 10, Saturday September 1, 4.30pm to 6pm, Laager Theatre. Book your place at the festival here.

Of course, it would be remiss if we forgot to include in this stellar line-up the former Arsenal striker, Thierry Henry, whose mother, ­Maryse, is Martinican. But that is a tale for another day.

Chamoiseau is the author of ­Texaco, an intergenerational account of a Martinican “black” family from the days of slavery to the late 1980s.

I put “black” in quotations because Martinique, a province of France, has intriguing notions of race. Vaughan notes that “the French Antilles were a breeding ground for mad theories about the minutiae of ‘racial’ difference, taxonomies of ‘shadism’ which distinguished no fewer than 128 categories of ‘mixed blood’ ”.

Winner of the Prix Goncourt in 1992, the 400-page Texaco was translated into English by a Franco-Haitian, Rose-Myriam Réjouis, and her American husband Val Vinokurov, who “speaks almost no French”.

There are times, and this is one of them, when I regret not building on my year of learning French, because reading Chamoiseau’s text in the original French would have been invaluable. How useful my dictionary French would have been is doubtful, because significant parts of the work are in Creole, a mélange of African and Indian languages, indigenous Carib and old French, Spanish and English. When the Creole sentence “sacre vie-isalope, man ke senyen’w yon se jou-a” is translated into English it becomes “hey, old bastard, I’ll kill you one of these days” — a sentence that I am sure would confound a French speaker.

But the translators assure us that “for all its multi-voicedness, collage and foreign mutterings, Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco remains grounded in French — as its 1992 Prix Goncourt attests … so with an English bursting at a few seams, but English nonetheless, our text tries to remain faithful to Chamoiseau’s, to the rapport between Martinican Creole and French in a Creole text with a French matrix”.

Easy and fascinating
Texaco is essentially the story of the foundation of a shantytown (what in South Africa we would call an informal settlement) outside Fort de France, Martinique’s main city. There are several narrators and two fictional editors. Ti-Cirique is a Haitian-born intellectual who speaks a “perfect, finicky French stuffed with words which adhered to his thought but which made him even more obscure to us”. Then there is Oiseau de Cham (an inversion of the name Chamoiseau, presumably the character the author mostly identifies with), whose idea of French is of a mongrel language infused with words borrowed from the native Carib, old French, India and Africa.

The principal narration of the story includes excerpts from notebooks of the founder of Texaco, Marie-Sophie Labourieux, who is retelling the story told to her by her father to Oiseau de Cham. What comes to us as the novel Texaco is, in the words of the translator, “Oiseau de Cham’s transcription of Marie-Sophie’s reiteration of her story, Texaco’s story, as told to the … urban planner”. And then there are Chamoiseau’s letters to Marie-Sophie and the “urban planner’s notes to the Word Scratcher” (Chamoiseau’s alter ego). Confused?

Although the narrative games mentioned above may be intimidating to some, the story itself is an “easy” and fascinating one. The novel is steeped in the oral tradition that most in Africa will find immediately familiar, a mode of writing canonised by Chinua Achebe, a tradition in which a story is handed down from one generation to the next by word of mouth. It is a mode of story­telling replete with idioms, proverbs (“the bamboo flowers every 70 years; it doesn’t look around to see what the hibiscus is doing”), the ordinary person’s “simple” vocabulary and a register of speech in communication with the natural world.

Scornful of standard French syntax and grammar, it is adorned with worldly gimmicks, trickster word plays, plantation philosophy and wisdom (“carrying freedom is the only load that straightens the back”) gleaned from the streets. Sometimes it is difficult, as in all great tales, to sift legend from what is “real”. On this continuum, there is the “almost true” at one end, “the sometimes true” in the middle and the “half true” at the other end — and a lot in between.

Although the story is told in a voice we easily associate with the rhythms of the countryside, its rolling hills and serene rivers, its flora and fauna,  at its heart Texaco is about the struggle for a people who have been let loose from the plantation to eke out a living in the city.

Near the novel’s end, the urban planner notes down in his journal that, “in a few years, more than half of humanity will face, under similar conditions, what she calls City”.

I remember reading somewhere that even if the Jacob Zuma-led ­government built thousands of houses every day for the people who are flocking to the cities, the housing list would not  be able to sigh in relief.

So from the edges of the city Fort de France the inhabitants of Texaco are in the same position as those in other informal settlements across the world (can I get an “amen” from Kibera near Nairobi, Porta Farm near Harare, Kennedy Road near Durban, and Johannesburg with its more than 180 informal settlements?).

It is almost like all the multitudes besieging the cities are listening to the injunction by a character in the book that goes: “Leave for City, don’t touch the land for anyone again, leave for City …”

Related to this story of the city are Marie-Sophie’s reminiscences of her father, Esternome. Right at the beginning of her tale told “over some dark rum”, she tells us that “her papa’s papa made poisons. Not as an occupation, but to fight slavery on the plantations.” The underlying maxim behind the poison was that “no children [were to be] born in chains”.

The tale goes back to the dark days of slavery and how the Africans who were transplanted to the Americas undermined the system.  

Although the slaves found themselves in a strange land, bordered everywhere by the sea and forced to bow before even stranger gods, they still retained “the pleasure of the memory” of “an impossible land which is … Africa”. (The book is dedicated to that memory merchant, Milan Kundera, and Glissant.)

Terrible and beautiful
Esternome was for a time what Malcolm X called a house negro, whose chief ambition rose to “kitchen disputes for leftovers, to the proud wearing of the [master’s] timeworn scarf” until he found himself. But living in the vicinity of the white master is sometimes not enough. There is a related battle to whiten oneself: “The bekes [white Creoles of Martinique] took blue-blooded France-flesh … the mulattoes eyed those more mulatto than themselves or even some fallen beke …”

Reading Texaco is akin to sitting in a room in which several master storytellers, each patiently awaiting his turn, are regaling you with a fascinating yarn. It is an erudite yarn, wild and intemperate, terrible and beautiful. It is precisely the kind of story you would expect to unfold at those crossroads when Africans, after surviving the boat ride, finding themselves in this strange land, try to make sense of themselves and devise “the geography of another country”.

For someone with an interest in the discipline that universities now call “urban studies”, Chamoiseau’s idea of the Creole city is fascinating. Years ago, the city of Johannesburg put out its vision of being a “world-class African city” (I don’t know what that means).

But Chamoiseau writes of a Creole city that “returns to the urban planner, who would like to ignore it, the roots of a new identity: multilingual, multiracial, multihistorical, open, sensible to the world’s diversity”. It is an idea for the bureaucrats who run Johannesburg, Cape Town and a number of our cities, whose overriding logic was to separate, not to integrate people.

Texaco is a masterpiece, the work of a genius, a novel that deserves to be known as much as Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and Cesaire’s Return to My Native Land.

Breytenbach and Chamoiseau are present courtesy of the France-South Africa Seasons 2012 & 2013

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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