Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

D U A L   B O O K   R E V I E W S
p a t r i c k   c h a m o i s e a u


By Patrick Chamoiseau
translated from French and Creole by Rose-Myriam Réjois and Val Vinokurov
© 1992 ~ English translation 1997 ~ 400 pp
Vintage International
$14.00 paperback

By Patrick Chamoiseau
translated from French and Creole by Rose-Myriam Réjois and Val Vinokurov
© 1988 ~ English translation 1997 ~ 192 pp
Pantheon Books
$23.00 hardcover

“In what I tell you, there’s the almost-true, the sometimes-true, and the half-true. That’s what telling a life is like, braiding all of that like one plaits the white Indies currant’s hair to make a hut. And the true-true comes out of that braid. And Sophie, you can’t be scared of lying if you want to know everything…” (Texaco p. 122)

“Rubbing the real with the magical (as practiced in Haiti since the moon was born) has added to the ways of apprehending human truths.” (Texaco p. 324-5)

Patrick Chamoiseau's Texaco, a 400-page novel from Martinique (a place I knew almost nothing about) looked daunting on my shelf. It had been translated from a French mixed with Creole that was said to be so linguistically inventive as to be almost untranslatable. Soon, however, the dreaded Texaco became a big, delightful book containing a world I didn’t want to leave. The experience of reading Texaco must be something like that of listening to a long, long folktale told to you by an old woman in a shantytown in Fort-de-France. Before anything else, this translation is sheer enjoyment.

As for the magical realism in Texaco, it struck me as necessary, natural and integral. It is necessary because using magical realism is the only way this story could be told in full, natural because the magic emanates from an existing culture’s beliefs, and integral to the work because the magic scenes are fused with the rest of the novel (with perhaps one exception). Throughout the novel, Chamoiseau’s magical realism serves his purpose well because it supplements what is known with what he terms elsewhere, “poetic knowledge, fictional knowledge, literary knowledge.”

Even before the novel begins, Chamoiseau presents us with a remarkable table of contents, and soon after that a sort of timeline, “Milestones in Our Attempts to Conquer the City,” that immediately spells out what this book is: an alternative history. The eras of the timeline are those of the building materials of the residents’ shacks, implying a different view of time: “The Age of Straw,” “The Age of Crate Wood,” “The Age of Asbestos,” “The Age of Concrete.” Beneath these headings, events from official history are supplemented by italicized entries for other events, those in the lives of the novel’s characters:

18— Probable time of birth of Esternome Laborieux, the papa of Texaco’s founder-to-be; he is a slave on a plantation near the city of Saint-Pierre.
At the beginning of the novel, an urban planner, seen as a Christ-like figure, appears among the collection of huts where Marie-Sophie Laborieux, narrator-in-chief, lives. This place is called “Texaco” for its location beside gasoline reservoir tanks along a river. The official enters Texaco to the consternation of its residents, who fear another round of demolitions by the authorities. Soon, he falls into Marie-Sophie’s hands, and she begins telling him how it all began, from her father Esternome’s tales of the end of slavery to her own early life in “City.” The narrative Marie-Sophie goes on to spin is essentially the history of a people with an oral tradition but without written records. (That Chamoiseau breaks into her narrative with dated fragments of text from her notebooks and others' seems a comment on this absence.) Part of their history starts, for example, with the powers of the Mentoh. Growing up on a slave plantation, Esternome encounters one of these mystical wise men, a man of hidden power living unnoticed among the other slaves:
“My papa had, of course, no desire to speak to such an insignificant being. He was turning on his heels when the fellow grabbed his wrist with the strength of a new mill, almost crushing my Esternome’s arm. Heat shot through his body. Since then, my Esternome became a believer in devilries. The winds, the light, the blades of shadows were for him sanctuaries of invisible powers. Reality seemed to him too simple a blindness and was to be tackled with great care and suspicion. As for truth, he would only grant it in a cautious plural. The old man’s eyes were imprinted with an immemorial authority, capable, this I swear, of hypnotizing any chicken hawk or uncoiling a curled-up long one. And he repeated: uncoiling a curled-up long one—a sure sign for him of what he called the Power. So he who had nothing on a snake sat back down ffllap, respectful, attentive, before the old blackman who had become light as husks again.”
This Mentoh's brief appearance marks an early turning point in the story. He speaks to Esternome and, “That speech, this much is sure, breathed into his heart the desire to leave. It also established the Mentoh at the beginning of our nettlesome conquest of the country.” Chamoiseau’s magical realism here is essential as he counters official history with what oral traditions know in other ways.

While it is never said explicitly, the early magic events on the plantation seem rooted in African culture. More Mentoh appear on the plantation when slavery ends to offer advice. They communicate through an old African Ibo (southeastern Nigerian) woman in another kind of Creole. Later, the death of the old African mother of Esternome’s lover Ninon is accompanied by a disconcerting phenomenon: “On her pallet they found the young body of a blackwoman surprisingly wrinkled…Mute before this lamentable miracle, the company dared not touch it.”

After moving off the plantation, Esternome has a strange encounter that probably owes more to West Indian culture than African roots. He is desperate to find his old love Ninon after the eruption of the volcano that destroyed the city of Saint-Pierre. Instead, he has visions of zombies in the moonlight:

"…something not too good at all happened. Ninon came back to see him—but as a zombie, to torment him. He told me that it had been the right night for that reunion. Under the effects of the moon, all kinds of things were sprouting up everywhere, a transient swarming, blinking sprites, white oxen, feather-weight hens with two beaks, floating beings looking for God knows what, utterly dazed. My Esternome was seeing all this on his left and the same thing on his right. He was scared but he went along, hoping for Ninon’s ghost. When he met it things didn’t go very well, at least not as sweetly as in his tired dreams. Ninon had changed. She’d ballooned up and looked like a disgrace. Her skin had withered. My Esternome even thought he saw on her the pink lips of the tafia-drinking women, and around her mouth the vulgar folds of those who curse in the streets. He had kept the sweet primordial image of Ninon. Now, there was only some sort of fishwife oozing out of Saint-Pierre, undulating toward him.”
African culture seems to evolve into something more Caribbean as the novel progresses, and Chamoiseau’s magic events continue to sound informed by an authentic culture.

The novel moves forward through the world wars and up to the late 20th century. Esternome’s journeys parallel the migration of former slaves into what is beginning to be a world of their own creation, from Saint-Pierre, to huts in the hills, to factory work, and finally into “City”—Fort-de-France. Late in life, Esternome fathers his only child, Marie-Sophie.

Before this all leads up to Marie-Sophie's founding of Texaco, she has a breakdown in a house where she is working as a maid in Fort-de-France. This section is as much a break from reality as Esternome’s tale of seeing zombies, but it is harder to suspend disbelief here. Perhaps this is because it is not part of a story from a more distant past told second-hand. More likely it is because Marie-Sophie is such a strong character for most of the book that this episode feels inconsistent. She hallucinates:

“…then the noises would get dim, so I would wade about in hazes of images, no longer knowing whether they were from my life or my Esternome’s, or my Idomenee’s, oh my dear ones come back to me, I mourn that juicy leaf flattened in a book, which grows its white hair roots, that Sunday afternoon at the park in the Alley of Sighs under the bothered beke’s unhappy eye.”
Here Chamoiseau, or at least this translation, sounds a little too much like other writers with an ongoing stream of ungrounded, unconnected imagery. But this section is brief, and its slight break with the rest of the text does not impinge on the overall experience of the novel.

Marie-Sophie’s breakdown does, however, lead into an important connecting event, when she is healed by perhaps the last Mentoh. He lives in a grove of trees the oilmen are afraid to cut down—for fear of “she-devils.” This is how she first comes to the plot of land where she will found Texaco, and where others will follow her with their families and their crate wood and concrete slabs.

Marie-Sophie’s story, and by extension the histories of the other descendants of slaves who gather around her to live in Texaco, is told more completely because the folk beliefs handed down naturally in the oral tradition are allowed to stand. The author has integrated them with all the rest of the information in the tales--the horrors, liberations, loves, journeys, and losses. Just because they may not be literally true doesn’t mean they don’t belong in this history, in this braid of the almost-true, the sometimes-true, and the half-true.

With Texaco, Chamoiseau has achieved so much more than a powerful example of magical realism. When I closed the novel, I had a thought that was more of a wish: that I would never look at a “shantytown” the same way—whether it is a version seen from a window on a foreign trip, in a photo of Rio or Delhi or Mexico City, or in my own city.

“I understood suddenly that Texaco was not what Westerners call a shantytown, but a mangrove swamp, an urban mangrove swamp. The swamp seems initially hostile to life. It’s difficult to admit that this anxiety of roots, of mossy shades, of veiled waters, could be such a cradle of life for crabs, fish, crayfish, the marine ecosystem. It seems to belong to neither land nor sea, somewhat like Texaco is neither City nor country. Yet City draws its strength from Texaco’s urban mangroves, as it does from those of other quarters, exactly like the sea repeoples itself with that vital tongue which ties it to the mangroves’ chemistry. Swamps need the regular caress of the waves; to reach its potential and its function of renaissance, Texaco needs City to caress it, meaning: it needs consideration. FROM THE URBAN PLANNER’S NOTES TO THE WORD SCRATCHER. FILE NO. 19. SHEET XXVIII. 1987. SCHOELCHER LIBRARY.”
Through the stories of its inhabitants, Chamoiseau shows us how a place like Texaco can represent history, struggle and success.

What happens to an oral culture when someone starts writing it down? What are the dangers of writing, of using the same language as the police reports and laws that sometimes oppress people? Unlike Texaco’s alternate history, Solibo Magnificent is an allegory, an exploration of the fate of an oral tradition in an age of writing. Solibo Magnificent is a storyteller who dies, throat “snickt by the word,” and Patrick Chamoiseau is, more or less, a character in the novel, a writer who prefers the term “word scratcher.” Despite its length, Texaco makes a better introduction to Chamoiseau's work than this book. While Solibo Magnificent is shorter, and its language simpler, it is thick with references that are better understood after Texaco. The plot is basic—it is almost a mystery novel—but the ideas are not.

The plot hinges on the possibility of one main magic event: the unexplained death of the storyteller Solibo in front of a small audience. The Fort-de-France police get involved, turning the case into a murder investigation with consequences all around: false imprisonment and more deaths.

Unlike the world of Texaco, one constantly punctuated with the marvelous, here Chamoiseau balances a notion of two alternate realities. One is part of the reality of the modern world: scientific, orderly, bureaucratic, formal and, most importantly, literate (the written tradition). The other is the reality of an older world: a community living with the magical possibilities of a world defined in part by its storytellers (the oral tradition).

Chamoiseau directs our sympathies to the characters of the latter world, who are harassed by an uncomprehending police force. The twist is that the exploration of the loss of this older culture is in the pained voice of the word scratcher, “a pathetic gatherer of elusive things,” who may be part of the problem. He does, however, succeed in getting the magic down. We root for the characters who understand this death "snickt by the word" and we want the police, not all of them unsympathetic characters, to understand it, too. For example, the Chief Inspector, Evariste Pilon:

“…despite his long stay in the land of Descartes, since he had been raised in this country like the rest of us with the same knowledge of zombies and various evil soucougnans, the Inspector’s scientific efforts and cold logic often skidded.”
Toward the end of the novel, the police come as close as they ever will to understanding when they give up their investigation for an afternoon and instead go in search of a quimboiseur, an old sorcerer in the woods who may be able to tell them how and why Solibo died in the midst of telling a story:
"In the body, Inspekder, the sorcerer revealed in his ageless Creole, there’s water and there’s breath, speech is breath, breath is strength, strength is the body’s idea of life, of its life. Now, Inspekder, stop your thinking, let the dark and the silence weigh in your head, then, as quickly as you can, ask yourself: what happens when life isn’t what it should be—and when your mind draws a blank…?—and they concentrated on these questions so hard that they returned from this forgotten ravine with a sack of despair on their minds, Pilon’s shoes wouldn’t cling to the humid ferns, the sloping spiderwort. [ . . . ] What the suspects had said of that man, words to which he had paid so little attention, was taking shape in his memory just as a new stream begins to act like a river."
The Inspector almost begins to come to the kind of knowledge his less literate suspects from the community had from the start. While he fails, the reader has long ago sided with this community, with the belief in magic, with “knowing” something beyond textbook knowledge. Perhaps the development of this sympathy is the main achievement of this book in terms of magical realism. But we also come to understand the writer's dilemma as he is stuck in the middle. Reading Solibo Magnificent made me question how a writer from a community like this one, or with a place like Texaco behind them, joins, but does not join, the literate elite of fellow writers. Is there betrayal inherent in doing what a writer must do and living as they must live? And by writing what one knows—turning an oral tradition into writing—are you not, as Chamoiseau shows in Solibo Magnificent, killing your village's Solibos?

These reviews are dedicated to L.

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