Patrick Chamoiseau's novel (1997) is an ambitious narrative history of the Caribbean island of Martinique, tracking the growth of a shanty-town named 'Texaco' after a nearby oil depot. Chamoiseau tells the story of the epic struggle of the Creole underclass to carve out of an uncaring and unfair society their own unique place. The story moves backwards and forwards in time, comprising the narrative of radical activist Marie-Sophie Laborieux, her freed-slave father Esternome and his many loves. Straightforward history - the rise and collapse of the plantation system, the coming of the oil companies, a formal state visit by de Gaulle in the 1960s - is interwoven with fragments of Creole legend and folk wisdom.The story is told in a variety of voices: in the extract below, at the New Internationalist, Marie-Sophie is speaking.
Away from City, time didn’t go by.
With City nearby, it was like having the breadfruit tree by the hutch. Getting Social Security, angling for a chance to be a civil servant, all of that school business to save the little ones, wandering through a whole bunch of counters, those keys of a life more and more complicated – all of that was more easily done there.
City (like certain rich reserves of the august water yam) was the pedestal of the rare things which bettered life, for, in truth, despite everything, life is made to be lived and so then: Syrian shops, terylene cloth, the hair stylists, the lights, the clubs, the merchandise from France – that no trinket vendor could get from the islands – grabbed our attention more than the idea of a shoal of mules passing through crushed shark liver.
We shoved our way about next to City, holding on to it by its thousand survival cracks. But City ignored us. Its activity, glances, the facets of its life (from every day’s morning to the beautiful night neon) ignored us. We had vied for its promises, its destiny; we were denied its promises, its destiny. Nothing was given, everything was to be wrung out. We spoke to those who looked like us. We answered their call for help and they answered ours. The old Quarters held hands, going around City, families joined them, exchanges linked them. We wandered around City, going in to draw from it, going around it to live. We saw City from above, but in reality we lived at the bottom of its indifference which was often hostile.
We from Texaco, last to join the wreath of the old Quarters, we reinvented everything: laws, urban codes, neighborhood relations, settlement and construction rules. In the beginning, around the reservoir tanks there were only logwood brush and wild sage, with (behind the logwood and wild sage) more logwood and wild sage. These plants had proliferated following a rupture in the original balance of the thickets. When we came, we brought the countryside with us: carts of lemon trees, swaying coconut trees, bunches of papaya trees, tufts of sugarcane, tatters of plantains, guavas, peppers, lichees, the blessed breadfruit, the avocado trees and a mixture of this grass and that grass to cure the aches, the heart’s sufferings, the soul’s wounds, the dreamy flowerings of melancholy.
We behaved according to the Noutéka of the Hills that my Esternome had described to me in detail, in communion with the open spaces right outside the hutch, to the rhythm of the moon’s seasons, the rain and the winds. And we wished, confronted with City, to live in the spirit of the Hills, that is: with our single resource, and better: our single knowledge.
On the slope, on my side, in Upper Texaco, the rock pointed its gray head on which we’d built our hutches. Here and there layers of soil appeared; they had only known the frugalities of wild sage and logwood brush, so they were grateful for the sap of fruit trees. It wasn’t necessary, like it was in Lower Texaco, to cart in good soil to put over the mangrove swampwater.
Our hutches sat on the soil, espousing its contours, without scraping any ground away, no modifications in the profile of the bank. We were a part of the cliff in Upper Texaco. Sometimes, right beside, almost like a dream, I’d hear the water infiltrate the cliff, crumbling it under the sun and threatening the hutch sitting on the rock. Those on the mangrove swamp felt in their bones marine rumors, murmurings of foam.
Our light house frames (tested in the Noutéka of the Hills) allowed us to hook on to the most extreme points of the cliff. We knew that this way would promise each hutch almost direct access to the wind, a panoramic opening on sky and sea; this took care of the claustrophobia which our stacked-up proximity sometimes brought on. We knew how to do things like that since a cartload of time ago.
No waste of space in Texaco. Every last centimeter was good for something. No private land, no collective land, we weren’t the landowners so no-one could pride themself on anything besides the number of hours, minutes, seconds of his arrival. The moment of arrival acquired intangible pre-eminence around here: I was there first. The ox at the head drinks the clear water. But if the first one had a good spot, he could only, on that good God’s land, contemplate the settlement of the other; he even had to help him, for (he who sows well, harvests well) we were, in that battle to live, worried about our harvests. Each hutch, day after day, supported the other and so on. The same went for the lives which reached out to each other over the ghost fences writhing on the ground.
In our mind, the soil under the houses remained strangely free, definitively free.
When a crack of the soil was exempt from what-have-you, it was in fact the outline of a path, a clearing dug with the heel in the gravel, a mysterious zone which had been able to forever dodge anyone’s grip, and which, open to the sun, functioned among our piles like a lung living in the wind, oxygenating the hearts.
Upper Texaco looked as if sculpted in the cliff. Battered by the rains and winds, the crate wood and the asbestos had taken on the hue of the rocks and the opaque stillness of certain shadows. Seen from the sea, the cliff seemed to grow mineral hutches, wind sculptures, barely more accentuated than the humps of dacite. When brick and cement came, the cliff went from perpend-gray to reddish-gray. Later the pink, white or light green of an unfinished layer of paint (on sale by the seashore) was added. The painter would very soon realize that painting was useless in our pyramid chaos and in fact created dangerous reflections and therefore heat. The naked color of the stone, brick, cement, then later concrete, was putting out the sun rays one after the other like candles.
But who besides my Esternome and Papa Totone could have understood this? These equilibriums remain undecipherable to City people and even to Texaco’s. Whoever saw us would only see tangled miseries. And those who remained were only buying time till some favor assigned them a public housing unit to go die in.
Oh, the things we went through: the tides and the rains undermined our hutches’ foundations with their humidity. On the footpaths, we could see little streams run down. In Lower Texaco, by the mangrove swamp, we saw the river expand into the marshlands as it reached for the sea. The stilts, often sick, would rot until they dropped to their knees in a sudden fit of prayer which threw us, legs flying, into the water mud, sea, death.
Everyone cleaned their hutch and around their hutch, leaving the rest of the laundry to time’s washing. Everyone thought that, just like in the countryside, nature would digest the refuse. I had to tell them again and again that around City nature lost some of its strength and watched the garbage pile up along with us. But we had many other worries besides that question of garbage (the waves tossed it about, the mangrove swamp stiffened it into sinister scarecrows). I would have liked to put together a few hands to take care of all that, but there were a thousand wars to wage merely to exist. After that, we learned, between the flies and the mosquitoes, the smells and the miasmas, about living as straight-backed as possible.
Trénelle, Volga Beach, Morne Morissot, Marie-Agnès Field, Populo Field, Coco l’Echelle, Alaric Canal, Morne Pichevin, Renéville, Pavé, Pont-de-Chaînes, Béro, the Hermitage, Logwood Court, Good-Air Texaco... stoneworks of survival, Creole space of brand new solidarities. But who could understand that? It was more and more clear in my mind, a solitary lucidity, and to see Texaco grow lit up my Esternome’s every word in my head, brought back the mystery of the words of the old blackman of the Doum. I could only repeat all this in my heart along with my secret name, howl it in my head along with my secret name, and invoke the strength to defeat the adversary.
The idea to write down the skeleton of this revelation came into my head. Writing meant finding my Esternome, listening once again to the echoes of his voice lost in me, building myself slowly around a memory, out of a disorder of words both obscure and strong. I first wrote the secret name I had chosen for myself on the shirt boxes from the Syrian shops; beautiful boxes made of white cardboard, that I piled up like tablets of law and that I covered once in a while with a fat, not very straight, undulating handwriting. I learned to draw some straight lines in order to guide my hand. I learned to draw margins and respect them. At the least blotch of my schoolgirl’s pen, I crumpled everything to start all over. I wanted each box to be immaculate. Then one day I salvaged an accounting ledger in which there were still some blank square-covered pages. I then gained a taste for notebooks: you could yank out stained pages, the squares would discipline my hand; what’s more, it looked like a book to me; it was possible to read it again, leaf through it, smell it. A brand new notebook, woah! I got carried away, the beauty of the pages, the promise of blankness, its threat too, this fear when the first word is inscribed and calls forth the rush of a world one is never sure to tame.
It’s around that time, you know, that I began to write, that is: to die a little. As soon as my Esternome began to supply me the words, I felt death. Each of his sentences (salvaged in my memory, inscribed in the notebook) distanced him from me. With the notebooks piling up, I felt they were burying him once again. Each written sentence coated a little of him, his Creole tongue, his words, his intonation, his laughs, his eyes, his airs, with formaldehyde. On the other hand, I was forced to accommodate myself to my scant mastery of the tongue of France: my painstaking sentences seemed like epitaphs. Something else: writing for me was done in the French language, not in Creole. How to bring in my so Creole Esternome? Oh, knowing I was writing him into French would have made him proud, yes... but I, holding the quill, measured the abyss. Sometimes I would catch myself crying when I realized how much (finding him again so I might keep him) I was losing him and immolating him myself: the written words, my poor French words, dissipated the echo of his words forever and imposed betrayal upon my memory. That’s why so many could see me talking to myself, even to my body, repeating to myself inaudible things without breathing. I was hanging on to that temple I was saving in myself and losing at the same time – and in the same place. I wanted to taste that ultimate treasure of repeating it according to the freedom of my Creole and the bouncing joys of the word.
The feeling of death became even more present when I began to write about myself, and about Texaco. It was like petrifying the tatters of my flesh. I was emptying my memory into immobile note-books without having brought back the quivering of the living which at each moment modifies what’s just happened. Texaco was dying in my notebooks though it wasn’t finished. And I myself was dying there though I felt the person I was now (pledged to what I was going to be) still elaborating. Oiseau Cham, is there such a thing as writing informed by the word, and by the silences, and which remains a living thing, moving in a circle, and wandering all the time ceaselessly irrigating with life the things written before, and which reinvents the circle each time like a spiral which at any moment is in the future, ahead, each loop modifying the other nonstop, without losing a unity difficult to put into words?
Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau is translated from the French and Creole by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov. It is published by Granta, 1997 (ISBN 1 86207 046 6) in the UK and by Vintage, 1997 (ISBN 0679751750) in the US.