Of black Martinican provenance, Patrick Chamoiseau gives us Texaco (winner of the Prix Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary prize), an international literary achievement, tracing one hundred and fifty years of post-slavery Caribbean history: a novel that is as much about self-affirmation engendered by memory as it is about a quest for the adequacy of its own form.
In a narrative composed of short sequences, each recounting episodes or developments of moment, and interspersed with extracts from fictive notebooks and from statements by an urban planner, Marie-Sophie Laborieux, the saucy, aging daughter of a slave affranchised by his master, tells the story of the tormented foundation of her people's identity. The shantytown established by Marie-Sophie is menaced from without by hostile landowners and from within by the volatility of its own provisional state. Hers is a brilliant polyphonic rendering of individual stories informed by rhythmic orality and subversive humor that shape a collective experience.
A joyous affirmation of literature that brings to mind Boccaccio, La Fontaine, Lewis Carroll, Montaigne, Rabelais, and Joyce, Texaco is a work of rare power and ambition, a masterpiece.
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Excerpt from Chapter 1
(in which the urban planner who comes to raze the insalubrious Texaco Quarter instead finds himself in a Creole circus and faces a matadora's word)
Ti-Cirique's Epistle to the Shamefaced Word Scratcher: "At the task of writing, more than a few might have seen my noble pencil pointing to the Olympus of feeling with many an elegant line, as suits a worthy gentleman; many might have seen me, Universal Man, rise above the oxygen in the horizons, exalting the depths of man's raison d'être, the why of death, of love, and of God, in a French more French than that of the French, but not at all like you do it, you small pea lost in the pod of the monkeying of your Creolity or in Texaco's decrepit asbestos walls. Forgive me, Oiseau de Cham, but you lack Humanismand especially grandeur."
Reply of the Pitiful One: Dear master, literature in a place that breathes is to be taken in alive . . .
Upon his entrance into Texaco, the Christ was hit by a stonean aggression that surprised no one. In those days, truth be said, we were all nervous: a road called Pénétrante West had joined our Quarter to the center of City. That is why the ever-so-well-to-do from the depths of their cars had discovered our piled-up hutches which they said were insalubriousand such a spectacle seemed to them contrary to the public order.
But, if they stared at us, we certainly stared back. It was a battle of eyes between us and City, another battle in a very ancient war. And in that war a cease-fire had just been broken, for the construction of that road could only bring a police crackdown to make us clear off; and we waited for that assault every minute of every day, and amid this nervousness the Christ made his appearance.
Iréné, the shark catcher, saw him first. Then Sonore, the câpresse, hair whitened by something other than age, saw him come. But only when Marie-Clémence, whose tongue, it is true, is televised news, appeared was everyone brought up to speed. Looking at him, one thought of one of those agents from the modernizing city council which destroyed poor quarters to civilize them into stacks of projects, or of one of those bailiffs from the old dirt-poor days who would enjoin us to disappear. That's probably why he was hit by the stone and lost that bit of blood which slid along his cheek. So who threw the stone? The answers to this question were so abundant that the real truth forever slipped through our fingers. Every leap year on Sunday evenings, we'd suspect the most terrible of Texaco's inhabitants: one nicknamed Julot the Mangy, who fears nothing but the return of his dead mama on earth. But, as soon as that cruel unbaptized mother who had scorched his childhood was six feet under, Julot had taken the precaution of securing her coffin beneath the seven invincible knots of a hanged man's rope. Feeling confident because of that precaution, he braved death, took God for one of his rummies, never bowed to fate. When chance sent him to us, to Texaco, he protected us from City villains and became a Boss whose benevolence covered only those who looked up at his ballsI mean: only his vassals. At each police onslaught, you could see him in the front row under a hail of billy clubs. All this to say that he was always ready with stone, acid, or blade, and on his own initiative, to welcome undesirable guests in a most brutal way.
But let's not lose the thread herelet's go back to the story stitch by stitch, and if possible one stitch before the other. We'll start with Iréné...
The Christ's coming according to Iréné
On that day, the shark catcher, my man Iréné, you know, had gotten up in the darkness, as the harvesting of these monsters required. Getting early to the sea, to the place where his Styrofoam floats signaled his bait, saved him from having to come home with nothing but the gnawed-up cartilage of hooked sharks. Having gulped down his coffee, he would stand up in the clean pre-dawn wind, then scrutinize his dreams which revealed the day's catch. He would call out to me from his doorstep the fish he would hook that day and confirm it on his return. That morning, his dreams were not prophetic. They held only the random ravings induced by Neisson rum. Three-quarters of the hour the sea gives up nothing for the bait. So Iréné went on his way without any swagger, already pondering where to dirty his secondhand mason's trowel after the fishing. 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 experts.
Along his way, he saw the Christ. The latter was just walking, nose in the wind, dazed, scrutinizing our shacks and their assault on the timorous cliffs. There was some repugnance in his stride. The stiffness in his bones spoke of his confusion. Iréné understood in a heartbeat: this strange visitor was coming to question the usefulness of our insalubrious existence. So Iréné looked at him as if he were a bag of flies dressed up as a man. The Christ did not see him or pretended not to and continued down the Pénétrante into Texaco.
Iréné rejoined his canoe where his crew awaited him: a dreadlocked waif, blindfolded by dark glasses, lost in the yellow phosphorescence of a navy oilskin. It was Joseph Granfer. They went about their shark business without Iréné even mentioning his deplorable meeting.
They didn't have to do much thinking before finding their line today. With Joseph balancing the canoe with his oar, Iréné grasped the horsehair thread with the irresistible power of his twenty-five years of making the same movements. My man Joseph is not tall like one of those Harlem basketball players, but he's not tiny either like those born under a low moon. He is thick like that, you know, arms toned by the weight of sharks, strong neck, thin legs, skin the peanut color of impassive chabins. So he pulled-pulled with regular movements which coiled the horsehair line behind him. Without consulting each other, they were about to pull in hooks that looked silly with their untouched bait, but when the line began to resist, they were certain of a catch. 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. When the line pulled, Iréné held it tight. When it got loose, he brought it back quick. He adjusted his strength to the resistance so as not to tear apart whatever was coming from the abyss.
Suddenly the line became loose-loose. Then as he was mulling, a twelve-year-old memory warned him of danger. Swift, he wound his line around one of the planks of the wharf and told Joseph to hold on. A tremendous quake jolted the world. The horsehair whistled like a crystal. The canoe began to glide faster than water off a duck's back. Joseph, astonished, held it back with the oars. This lasted a few seconds and then everything came to a standstill like an alizé which suddenly dies.
Iréné began to haul in the thing with all his might, cautious centimeter by cautious centimeter. For four hours he yielded none of the hundred-and-twenty-meter thread. He became still at times, and the line, ready to break, sawed at his iron palms. He then murmured to the invisible enemy, It's me, you know me, Iréné Stanislas, child of Epiphanie of Morne Etoile, and of Jackot, jabot-wearing mulatto dandy...The line then got loose. Iréné brought it back with the greatest care. He punctuated each bit won with a yes breathed out in effort and exultation. Soon the whiteness of the line heralded the fishhooks. Joseph left his oars to go harpoon a light-colored shark, then another, which had already drowned and whose gut had spilled, then a third with its jaws still moving, then a fourth. He almost passed out cold when the blue of the sky seemed to recede before the immeasurable mass. On its back, crucified on the last fishhook, the thing looked upon him with all the meanness in the world in its so small eyes.
If he could have, Joseph would have cried out, but the monster's pupils, though half submerged, had sucked out all of his soul. Above the left side of the canoe, he was crossing himself in a hurry like a Catholic about to dearly depart, his fingers tapering off at the end all confused. Behind him, Iréné was still bringing in the line when he noticed the inexplicable frenzy of his crew's right hand. Then our shark catcher, without even bending down to confirm his intuition, with an imperceptible gesture, that's how fast he was, and yes, with great calm, cut the line.
The sea opened before a departing strength, and then, exploding in concentric circles, its wake pushed the canoe toward some far corner of the earth. Joseph, freed from the charm, placed his Tonton Macoute shades on his nose and began to mill with his oars in the direction of dry land (full throttle).
Iréné was sitting in the back like a pope, using each side of the canoe for an armrest, a warrior's beatitude etched on his face, all the more easy to imagine since he wore that expression among us for a long time after that. When Joseph, reassured by the proximity of the cliffs of Case-Pilote, put down the oars to question him about the distressing encounter, Iréné answered pompously: My son, in the days to come you're going to have a really beautiful fight, in this harbor here there's a mean shark that'd eat us good...Saying that, he was trembling the way I tremble in anticipation of the fight I'll have to put up.
They sold the four sharks in a drip-drop: Iréné was going round with them on his wheelbarrow, absentminded as if he were already in the future battle which would pit him, like me, against some awful kind of shark. Joseph hailed the vendors, dealt out the slices, weighed them, and cashed in. Back home, this brought us the small joy of paying back four debts and of buying half a bag of cement to coat our façade. All of these things made my fisherman Iréné the first to suspect that the man he ran into this morning coming through Texaco did not grow out of a seed of misfortune as we so readily believed, nor was he the sign of a bad season. Nought but a battle. My great battle.
But, without getting all in a huff, let's see it through Sonore's eyes.
The Christ's coming according to Sonore
Annette Bonamitan, born Sonore, was Julia Etoilus's daughter. Her papa, a lay blackman,1 holder of an incomprehensible certificate and a teacher's position in the commune of Marigot, destroyed his career in some French World War I trench where none of us had sent him. I could tell the love story (in Cinemascope) between the instructed layman and the lady Etoilus who was ignorant even of the blank spaces between the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, but a detour would be risky.
Be that as it may, whatever it may be, their passion fathered our Annette who, one Saturday, married a ne'er-do-well called Jojo Bonamitan, though it would have been saner to swallow a toad that day. There again, a detour would have been edifying (a casino dog, who dissipated his life in an inferno of double-six, who got married every nine months in different towns and under different names, so that no one knew whether his real name was actually Jojo Bonamitan, and who probably loaded his dice with lead or fixed his cards since he'd always win money soon-spent, and who, avid for excitement, went to play baccarat with a dirty zombie in a church with lightning for its sole congregant, and who, as was his wont, cheated without ever thinking that his adversary was the acme of vices, so that he was certain of victory until his winning ten of diamonds turned into a four of spades when it came time to show his hand, and so on until Bonamitan bet his last underwear, his signet ring with the cross on it, the blood of his left leg, then the memory of his baptism, the loss of which transformed him into rotting flesh which the garbage collectors threw into the sea, having mistaken it for a dead rat . . .) but it's not for me to say.
In any case, no death certificate ever came up (except maybe with the barracudas who ate that filth). Unsure whether she was a widow, or even whose widow she might be, Annette Bonamitan blared the loudspeakers of thirteen sorrows from her chest. Thus she was heard until her memory harvested some forget-a-little. Right away the blackmen nicknamed her Sonore. That little name brought her back to the surname of the lay blackman. Lord, all that stuff will be the death of me . . .
But let's tackle the tragedy: the ne'er-do-well crapshooter (helped, without his knowledge, by some shoulders-to-cry-on who took advantage) had left her some seven children whose insolence the whitening of their mama's hair attested to day by day. Sonore always tried to savor life before the little creatures got up in the morning. The sun was sending off the first of its rays to her open window. That filled the câpresse with a hypnotic optimism from which she drew strength for the daytime. Besides the calamity of impossible children, Sonore was facing the calamity of not having worked for a stretch of time which the ANPE had lost track of in their calendars. The latter had been placed in the care of Parisian bureaus for a special study the results of which had been awaited for three years, ten months, two weeks, fourteen days, plus hours the distressing number of which would be tedious to mention here. Fighting back in her own way, she left her rented place at Terres-Sainville once it became probable that Bonamitan would no longer contribute to it. Like us, she had come to fence off a piece of land and erect a house in the shade of the Texaco oil company. At dawn she went into City for the maid's jobs in the compassionate hotels. She would reappear at the end of the afternoon to grill peanuts or sauté some corn flakes to sell to movie watchers later.