Patrick CHAMOISON – Martinique

Patrick Chamoiseau, Haiti, writer
Patrick Chamoiseau was born in 1953 in Martinique. After studying law in France, he returned to Martinique. He published his first novel in 1986, based on Creole culture and Edouard Glissant’s work. He obtained the consecration in 1992 by winning the Goncourt prize for his novel ‘Texaco’, a vast work presenting the life of Martinicans over three generations.


Publications in French :


Novels : ‘Chronique des sept misères’ Gallimard 1986 (prix Kléber Haedens 1986, prix international francophone Loys Masson 1972) and Gallimard, coll. Folio, 1988 (preface d’Edouard Glissant) ; ‘Solibo magnifique’ Gallimard 1988 ; ‘Texaco’ Gallimard 1992 (prix Goncourt 1992) ; ‘L’Esclave vieil homme et le molosse’ avec un entre-dire d’Édouard Glissant, Gallimard 1997 ; ‘Biblique des derniers gestes’ Gallimard 2002 (prix spécial du Jury RFO) ; ‘Un dimanche au cachot’ Gallimard 2007 (prix du livre RFO 2008) ; ‘Les Neuf consciences du Malfini’ Gallimard 2009 (prix Critiques Libres 2013 dans la catégorie roman français) ; ‘Hypérion victimaire. Martiniquais épouvantable’ roman policier, éd. La Branche coll. ‘Vendredi 13’ 2013 ; ‘La matière de l’absence’ Seuil 2016 ; ‘J’ai toujours aimé la nuit’ Éd. Sonatine 2017.
Autobiographies : ‘Antan d’enfance (Une enfance créole, I) Hatier, 1990 (Grand prix Carbet de la Caraïbe) ; (Chemin d’école( (Une enfance créole, II) Gallimard 1994 ; ‘À bout d’enfance’ (Une enfance créole, III) Gallimard 2005.
Narration : ‘L’Empreinte à Crusoé’ Gallimard 2012.
Essais : ‘Éloge de la créolité’ Gallimard 1989, avec Jean Bernabé et Raphaël Confiant ; Réédition en édition bilingue créole/français ‘Éloge de la créolité / In Praise of Creoleness’ Gallimard 1993 ; ‘Martinique’ Ed. Hoa-Qui 1989 ; ‘Lettres créoles : tracées antillaises et continentales de la littérature, Haïti, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Guyane (1635-1975)’ Hatier 1991 (avec Raphaël Confiant) ; ‘Guyane : Traces-Mémoires du bagne’ Éd. C.N.M.H.S. 1994 ; ‘Écrire en pays dominé’ Gallimard 1997 ; ‘Élmire des sept bonheurs : confidences d’un vieux travailleur de la distillerie Saint-Étienne’ Gallimard 1998 (photographies de Jean-Luc de Laguarigue) ; ‘Livret des villes du deuxième monde’ Éditions du Patrimoine 2002 ; ‘Quand les murs tombent, l’identité nationale hors-la-loi ?’ éd. Galaade 2007 (avec Edouard Glissant) ; ‘L’Intraitable beauté du monde, adresse à Barack Obama’ Éd. Galaade 2009 (avec Edouard Glissant) ; ‘Césaire, Perse, Glissant, les liaisons magnétiques’ Éditions Philippe Rey 2013 ; ‘Frères migrants’ Éditions du Seuil 2017.


Publications in English :


Novels : ‘Solibo Magnificent’ (1988) publisher Random House, 1997 (translation by Rose Réjouis and Val Vinokur) ; ‘Texaco’ (1992) : ‘Texaco’ Random House 1997 (translation by Rose Réjouis and Val Vinokur) ;

A Creole town

[published in RN06 Caribbean, September 1992, original text in French translated in English by John Taylor]

In the following extract, Patrick Chamoiseau describes one of the most famous Caribbean towns: the town of Saint-Pierre, in Martinique, which was to be unfortunately destroyed by the Pelée Mountain after its eruption of 1902. The scene takes place a short time before the abolition of slavery, around 1840…

My dad Esternome was a carpenter in the En-ville district of Saint-Pierre. His life was spent perched up on the timber with the pigeons. He was a-sawing rotten beams, a-replacing pegs, a-readjusting tiles, a-falling off to catch himself up again just in time. He was a-sweating upping-downing tools, strings, planes, measuring this, cutting that, eating great slabs of yam smothered in highly- spiced oil without tafla. So, it was first of all from up above that he discovered En-ville: a row of red roofs lining the bay peopled with boats, stretching from the Coré estate to the Thurin cove, then rising in tiers over the Bois-debout hills which it was never to conquer completely. Et cetera of tiles, red, ocre, black with age and bird shit, crackled under the sun like parched The twin towers of Bon-port cathedral, the spire of the clock on the Chamber of Commerce, gabled dormer windows, bits of facade, windows without frames, slatted shutters moving loke eyelids.ames, slatted shutters moving li Everywhere the green of an old tree between the interstices of the stone and wood, lofty crosses, bits of archway, pale silhouettes in the shade of a residence, the slow swaying of something fastened to the fleeting clouds, a bit of the grandeur of the theatre, the smoking torch of the Guerin factory, everything vibrating with an underground murmurring noise (tradeswomen, carts, horses clip clopping). Ontop^of all this, the slow-regular creaking of a mule-drawn tram sighing like a clarinet. My dad Esternome wasn’t a poet (of that visionary sort that gets excited about words manipulated like mirrors and as many pains), but he distinguished in this bric-à-brac a kind of power. He understood that the miseries of the great slave Plantations led to that. All that lonely blood, that pain without respite, that cart-horse work against the mud torrents of the bad season or the rule-of-the-fire of the Lent-season, were concentrated here in casks, in kegs, in parcels, took to the high seas in the holds of ships after the magical annointing of the ledgers. He also understood (but confusedly: my Esternome wasn’t a bright spark) that by only passing through there, the plantation-wealth had created this town, fed with the crumbs left in its wake thousands of people who as land slaves knew but little et couldn’t care a damn.
The thing went to his head. He got into worrying about seeing it closer. He fell into the habit of dragging his chains about, of looking, of feeling. The town was of the past, solid, thick. It left little room for its streets, except rue Victor Hugo which went wide and proud. The town was yellow, grey, mossy, damp in its shaded parts, it gurgled with the underground water from the hills. The northern part of the town was fresher. Next to the Fort, it turned into a labyrinth of alleys and steps sliding down to the sea. In its midst, the town swarmed with traders, dockers in the mooring ground sizzled in the heat from the hills which gobbled up the wind. Here a whiff of the rum distillery, there fumes from the foundry, on this side the hammered rhythm of the negro coopers making music with their hammers. To the south, the high cathedral touched the mulatto factories with its holy shadow. My dad Esternome was pleased about rue Monte-au-ciel, not because of what it suggested but for its flight of steps which climbed the climb with moss on its back. He also liked it for its central gully : clear water raced confidently down it to the sea. This street was fresh because its facades blocked off a lot of the sunlight. The rue de la Madeleine led to the convent of the sisters of the Délivrande. A solid, high-and-low convent, its roof pierced with two dormer windows and a turret in the shape of a cross, the Mother Superior of the orphaned girls. The latter learnt obediance and the arts of amusement there. My Esternome contemplated them lost in their black merino-cloth dresses, long-sleeved in spite of the heat. They wore cheerless hats. Their plaited hair was always tied with a mournful ribbon. He went to watch the washerwomen. They spent the day beating their washing, then stretching it out to dry twittering like drunken birds. They only stopped to grill a piece of cod on logwood cinders before breaking it up and mixing it with avacado dressed with oil. The white linen abandoned here and there then quivered like angels’ wings which had fallen during the lull in the wind. They were all super-women, slaves or free-born, whose hands and feet were worn by the water. Sometimes, but very rarely because men are forgetful, these babblers brought back memories to them of their old mam. Then he would veer slowly towards the Morestin bridge, contemplating the river which was more or less clean according to the day. Despite a low wall running along its edge, the Roxelane river seemed to be looking for enough patience to wear down the town, to transform it into one of those round rocks with which it could do as it pleased. He also spoke to me of rue Bouillé : hitched to the breastplate of a slave donkey, a tram creaked along with old age. The donkey had no chance of being one day set free, my Esternome thought. Except off course (he would still say to himself) if death wished it. But those days, he groaned sarcastically, even death was on the white man’s side.

Marie-Sophie, o my gentle one, imagine
the main street, its shops sown with seeds,
its white iron canopies providing protection
from the rains. There, a cluster of tradeswomen
were shouting out help me help .They were selling
everything that negroes free or like dogs on chains,
could do, garden, pick or steal. Things had to be sold
on the left to get on in this life. So imagine.

Section N° 3 of Marie-Sophie Laborieux, page 1, 1965, Schoelcher Library, Martinique.  

But my dad Esternome understood that those people (those negro sellers, those women-negroes with baskets, those in the port, those who babbled at the Roxelane beside their celestial linen, who made music in the casino and danced all night long, who smuggled smuggled goods, or else who like An Afarel devoted themselves to their work as if it were a sort of cult) had little chance. The town belonged to the Whitemen-shops and to French-Whites with boats. The mulattos moved around there bolt upright in order to widen their faults. But it was already clear, despite their grand speeches and tapping on the shoulder, the mulattos for the time being, like the fireflies, intended the light only for the sake of their own ambitions.
What did he do? Work. My dad Esternome worked and worked collecting his money without counting-miscounting. And, excuse me, we might say he built the town as far as its enlargements were concerned. Necessity is law, he became a great Greek in the business of masonry. He learnt to stick stones in lime mortar made of lime or cockroach rocks. He learnt to lift basalt, to surprise dacite, to cut all by himself the ghost-like pumice-stones. He learnt to make up his mortar with cane-trash cinders which bound better than any strong glue. The Whitemen and French-Whites always wanted to build the houses in their home provinces, wanted thick walls to keep in the freshness. The big-mulattos copied these models. But, on the building sites, my Dad Esternome saw how in their minds the negro workers pulled down the houses and reinvented them. In this way, slowly, slowly, Saint-Pierre deviated in “manners and fashions”. “In especial aesthetics” I believe he meant.

Patrick Chamoiseau
Extract from his novel ’Texaco’, Editions Gallimard 1992