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Debrouya pa peche, or il y a toujours moyen de moyenner: patterns of opposition in the fiction of Patrick Chamoiseau.

Our stories and storytellers date from the period of slavery and colonialism. Their deepest meanings can be discerned only in reference to this fundamental epoch of French West Indian history. Our storyteller is the spokesman of a fettered, famished people, living in fear and in the various postures of survival.... If their ludic function is undeniable, (what more fertile ground for hope than laughter when one must live in a kind of hell?), creole stories as a whole constitute a dynamic pedagogy, a form of apprenticeship in living, or more precisely in surviving, in a colonized land. The creole story says that fear is there, that every last fragment of the world is terrifying, and that it is necessary to live with it. The creole story says that open force is the harbinger of defeat and retribution, and that the weak, by dint of cunning, evasion, patience, by manipulating the system in a way that is never sinful (de debrouillardise qui n'est jamais peche), can defeat the strong, or seize power by the throat. The creole story spatters (eclabousse) the dominant system of values, undermining it with all the immoralities or, better, amoralities of the weaker party. It does not, however, bear a "revolutionary" message, its solutions to misfortune are not collective, the hero is alone, egotistical, preoccupied with his own escape alone. For this reason, one may follow Edouard Glissant in thinking that what is involved here is an archetypal form of deviant, roundabout behavior (un detour emblematique), a system of counter-values or counter-culture, in which are simultaneously manifested a powerlessness to liberate oneself globally and a determination to try to do so. The creole storyteller is a fine example of this paradoxical situation. The master knows that he is speaking, the master tolerates his speaking, sometimes the master even understands what he is saying: his Word thus owes it to itself to be opaque, evasive, roundabout, its meaning diffracted in a thousand sybilline fragments....

--Patrick Chamoiseau, "Les Contes de la survie," Au temps de l'antan. Contes du pays Martinique (1988), 10-11

Patrick Chamoiseau was born in Fort-de-France, Martinique, in 1953. He is the first major Martinican writer to have been born and brought up in the island-department's capital rather than in the outlying communes, and he belongs to a generation of French West Indian writers that includes Vincent Placoly, Daniel Maximin, and Raphael Confiant that has no direct personal experience of pre-departmental Martinique or Guadaloupe. He is the author of a play, Manman Dlo contre la Fee Carabosse (Editions Caribeennes, 1982); of two novels, Chronique des sept miseres (1986) and Solibo Magnifique (1988); and of an autobiographical essay on his childhood in Fort-de-France, Antan d'enfance, published by Hatier in its Haute enfance series in 1990. In addition, he is co-author, along with Jean Bernabe and Raphael Confiant, of the manifesto Eloge de la Creolite (Gallimard/Presses universitaires creoles, 1989), and he is a frequent contributor on political, literary, and ecological subjects in the weekly Martinican magazine Antilla, of which he is overall coordinator.(2) A third novel Texaco--the title derives from a shanty-town of that name built on the site of a former petroleum depot in Fort-de-France--is in preparation and may well have been published by the time the present study appears in print.(3) Not yet forty years old, Patrick Chamoiseau is without question the leading Martinican writer of the new post-Cesaire, post-Glissant generation, situating himself in literary, political, and ideological opposition to the first-named and within the general trajectory of Antillanite opened up by the second.

The small amount--newspaper reviews apart--of critical writing so far devoted to Chamoiseau's work(4) has focused almost exclusively on the language in which his fiction is written: a highly distinctive fusion of French and creole, dubbed "francais-banane" by Martinican critics hostile to Chamoiseau,(5) which seeks systematically to inhabit, invest and exploit the interlectal space that has opened up between acrolectal French and basilectal creole in the French West Indies in the four and a half decades since departmentalization. Any paragraph in a Chamoiseau novel is likely to contain one or more passages in basilectal creole, sometimes a word or cluster of words, not infrequently a clause or entire sentence; parentheses or footnotes often supply noncreolophones with impromptu translations into French, but on many occasions the exoteric reader must rely on context, etymology, or simple guesswork to deduce the writer's meaning. Just as frequently, though, the rhythm and structures of creole will be cunningly simulated in French, or a creole expression will be infiltrated into the text "disguised" as French, making of each sentence and paragraph a chain of convergences and divergences between French and creole, of momentary tangences followed by abrupt deviations, a coupling and friction of codes that, as the leading creole linguist Jean Bernabe has written, generate a kind of sexual intensity through their alternating rhythms of tension and release.(6) Patrick Chamoiseau is the first writer fully to exploit the heteroglossic potential of the French West Indies, the first to write fiction in which language, as the substrate and vehicle of the region's complex and divisive history, is in itself a major novelistic theme, in which each individual paragraph, and, it sometimes seems, each individual sentence, is compacted of all the linguistic and other tensions that make up that many-faced totality, at once fissile and fusile, that Chamoiseau, along with Jean Bernabe and Raphael Confiant, calls Creolite.

Chamoiseau's ecriture, crackling with energy, irony, and lyricism as it sparks and forks across the complex linguistic space of contemporary Martinique, will receive some attention here, pending closer investigation in a subsequent study. My focus here is on the patterns of opposition--of which, to be sure, the creole language and Chamoiseau's own idiolect are leading exemplars--to the dominant colonialist-assimilationist culture in Chronique des sept miseres,(7) on those tactics of survival, maneuver and manipulation on the part of the dominated so perfectly encapsulated in the creole proverb debrouya pa peche: there is no sin in making out, in turning the system to one's advantage. What has been called the ideology of debrouillardise(8) impregnates the whole universe of creole folklore on which Chamoiseau draws so freely. Debrouillardise is, to use a celebrated expression of Jean-Francois Lyotard, the strength of the weak, the only way in which the chronically disempowered can survive and turn the system that oppresses them against itself and use it to their own advantage: its emblem or archetype in the creole folktale are Ti-Jean and Compere Lapin. In analyzing the theme of debrouillardise in Chamoiseau's fiction, I shall be making use of a distinction, first made by Michel de Certeau and since applied with great effect to the study of literary texts by Ross Chambers, between resistance and opposition. De Certeau argues that a given socio-political system can be resisted only when it is possible for the dominated group or for dominated individuals to place themselves entirely outside the system in question. Resistance requires an "elsewhere" from which the system may be perceived and grasped as a whole and from which a coherent strategy of resistance may be elaborated. Opposition, on the other hand, has no space which it can properly call its own. It takes place of necessity within the system, on ground defined by the system, and, in the absence of any concerted strategy of resistance, operates, de Certeau says, "blow by blow," moving from one tactical maneuver within and against the system to another, utilizing "the gaps which the particular combination of circumstances open in the control of the proprietary power. It poaches there. It creates surprises. It is possible now for it to be where no one expects it. It is wile. In sum it is an art of the weak. Cracks, glints, slippages, brainstorms within the established grids of a given system: such are the style of these tactical practices, which are the equivalent in the realm of action of wit and witticism in the realm of language."(9)

The value of this distinction for the analysis of colonial society--and particularly of a paracolonial society such as Martinique with its slave past and a present of intensifying assimilation at every level--should be obvious. With regards to slavery, it makes it possible to transcend the contrast conventionally made between "physical" and "psychological" forms of resistance by adopting a clearer distinction between opposition and resistance: all slaves, one might say, opposed slavery at all times, but only some slaves resisted it when circumstances -- such as war between the colonial powers, or revolution in the metropolitan country--permitted them to move outside the system to confront it as a whole. In the case of the politically, economically and, to an increasing extent, culturally assimilated French West Indies, the distinction is even more suggestive. If Edouard Glissant(10) is right in contending that there is in contemporary Martinique no cultural or psychological hinterland (arriere-pays) into which, fleeing like the runaway slaves of old from lowland plantation to the relative freedom of the mornes,(11) the Martinican can retreat and gather strength, then opposition is the only resource available to those who, paradoxically, are disempowered politically, culturally, and psychologically as West Indians by the very system that empowers them as French citizens. The theme of marronnage is, as we shall see, central to Chamoiseau's writing, and his novels are replete with characters who, in one way or another, are attempting to relive the experience of the runaway slave in assimilated, departmentalized Martinique. But in the region monodepartmentale of today, the traditional distinction between, on the one hand, the servitude and, later, the enforced assimilation of the lowlands, and, on the other, the relative autonomy of the mornes has been comprehensively eroded: the island landscape as a whole is subject to ever advancing betonisation(12) as woodlands are felled and mangrove swamps drained and filled in to make way for secondary residences, hotels, golf-courses, motorways. If, as Derrida maintains, there is no hors-texte (no outside of text), there is, in contemporary Martinique, no hors-pouvoir (no outside of power), no hors-systeme, and, increasingly, no hors-plantation,(13) if by plantation we understand the totality of the assimilationist complex which, day by day and year by year, extends its grip over the mornes without and the mornes within the individual and collective Martinican mind. With the erosion of exteriority, the tactics of opposition come into their own.

Interestingly, however, Chamoiseau's first published work, Manman Dlo contre la fee Carabosse (1982), does seem to hold out the possibility of resistance in de Certeau's sense of the word. The play dramatizes the conflict between the colonial powers and its culture, symbolized in the figure of the wicked fairy Carabosse taken from creole folklore, and the dominated culture, symbolized by the water-spirit Manman Dlo and the forest-spirit Papa-Zombi, who, together with other denizens of forest and water, set out to counter the colonizing project of Carabosse and her assistant Balai. From the outset, Carabosse is associated with the written word and Manman Dlo and her allies with the spoken word (la Parole); Carabosse's initial effect is to reduce to silence all those spirits which previously had filled the island with unfettered speech and song. Gradually, however, Manman Dlo and Papa-Zombi muster the necessary resources of speech with which to confront Carabosse and her scribe Balai before unleashing the natural forces of wind and water which finally sweep her out of the island. On the surface, Manman Dlo is a straightforward nationalist allegory, notable for its optimistic assessment of the strengths of the dominated culture in the face of the dominant colonial system. Looked at more closely, however, the play reveals a fatal flaw which lies in the uncertainty of the origins and status of the creole counter-culture. By stressing Manman Dlo's African origins, the play seems to endow that counter-culture with an identity anterior to and wholly separate from that of the colonial culture it is called upon to combat: it is as though Manman Dlo and her fellow spirits had occupied the island for aeons prior to the arrival of Carabosse and the written word. But, though they may be of African origin, Manman Dlo and Papa-Zombi are only in the Caribbean because Carabosse, in her guise as slave-trader, brought them there. Creole culture, like the creole language itself, may be anti-colonial in character, but it is in no way ante-colonial. On the contrary, Creolite is a product and consequence of colonialism which, no matter how much it derives from non-European sources, is impregnated--some might say contaminated--at every point with the culture of the colonizer. It is different from, but in no way separate from, the dominant culture and, to that extent, is to be contrasted to the "traditional" cultures of Black Africa or the Islamocentric cultures of the Maghreb which, for their part, are both anterior and exterior to the European colonial cultures superimposed upon them. Positing the creole counter-culture as entirely separate from the colonial culture certainly allows the play to be brought to a (wholly unhistorical) triumphant conclusion, but at the price of seriously distorting the relationship between "great" and "little" traditions in the French West Indies. Chamoiseau partially acknowledges that this is so in a final scene in which Manman Dlo hands over to her daughter Algoline the magic wand which Carabosse has left behind her in her flight from the island, urging her to assimilate (Manman Dlo, 139) the magic powers it embodies, including the formidable and enigmatic power of writing, with a view to transcending the opposition of Word and word, of speech and writing, that the play has dramatized. Where the writer himself stands in all this remains unclear. He is a Son of the Word (Fils de la Parole, 141), dependent on it for his very being, but transcribing the spoken into the written exposes him to the charge of betraying and exploiting the very Word he would capture and celebrate.(14) Like so much else, Manman Dlo raises this problem, the crucial theme of Solibo Magnifique, only to drop it: small wonder that, asked today about this product of his apprenticeship, Chamoiseau merely shrugs his shoulders and smiles.

Despite is simplistic and misleading presentation of the relationship between colonial culture and creole counter-culture, Manman Dlo clearly lays out the tripartite structure of Chamoiseau's imaginative universe. On the one hand, invariably associated with rationality, order, and the written word (French), is the world of the powerful who are not always necessarily white or French but can in assimilated Martinique include individuals of each and every racial category. Opposed to this, and commonly linked with fantasy, magic, the elemental forces of forest and water and, above all, with the spoken Word (creole), is the world of the Powerless, usually men and women of African or Indian origin,(15) who must somehow survive on terrain which, originally defined and regimented by whites (bekes-France and bekes-pays alike),(16) has progressively been invested by coloured and black supporters of the dominant ideology of assimilationism. Straddling these two worlds and mediating between them is the writer or "marker of Words" (marqueur de paroles) as Chamoiseau chooses to call himself,(17) who belongs to neither world and both and whose interstitial position clearly resembles that of the djobeurs and other liminal figures whose lives form the subject of Chamoiseau's first novel Chronique des sept miseres (1986). The novel uses the vegetable market at Fort-de-France as a complex metaphor for the transformation of Martinican society from before the Second World War, through the three years of domination by the Vichy regime (1940-43), to departmentalization in 1946 and the subsequent disintegration, becoming apparent in the early 1960s and accelerating in the 1970s, of the traditional creole culture under the pressure of imported French goods, French life-styles, French thought-patterns, and, not least, of the French language itself. The novel's heroes and victims, and also its collective narrator, are the group of djobeurs(18) or market porters who, as the effects of departmentalization (notably in the form of competition from supermarkets) make themselves felt, see both their means of livelihood and the orally-based culture associated with it collapse, until by the end of the novel, "victims of an invisible eraser," they seem to have been "quite simply wiped out of life" (216) and are left "incapable off I and Thou, unable to distinguish between ourselves, abandoned to a diffuse collective survival without internal or external rhythm" (240). In their prime, however, the djobeurs were debrouillardise itself, a living embodiment of the whole oppositional lifestyle and culture which, as Chamoiseau reveals through the resurrected spirit of an African-born slave called Afoukal, has its origins in the uniquely oppressive conditions of the slave plantation. Because creole culture, as presented in Chronique des sept miseres, is above all a counter-culture, a culture of the weak, it is with the structures of Power, and particularly with the association of Power and writing, that the present discussion begins.

A chronicle, as its title proclaims, of the recurring deprivation of the Martinican people, Chronique des sept Miseres convokes authority-figures from each stage of the island's history, showing how, despite the abolition of slavery in 1848 and departmentalization a century later, the basic structures of power in the French West Indies have stayed essentially intact from the slave period to the present, those changes that have occurred being--at least in Chamoiseau's view--largely matters of ideology and personnel that have left the underlying logic of internal and external domination unchanged. While Chamoiseau leaves the reader in no doubt that the ultimate source of Power lies in metropolitan France, it is not simply with the bekes-France or metropolitains, or with the bekes-pays who are now allied now opposed to them, that his presentation of power is concerned: a crucial theme in his writing is the vital part played in the replication and transmission of Power in the French West Indies by members of the coloured and black population who, from the slave period onwards, have collaborated with "the system" and, debrouillards themselves, have managed to turn it to their own advantage. From the slave period itself, Chamoiseau presents us, through the spirit of Afoukal, with the figure of the master or plantation manager while making clear that neither can master or manage the totality of the system from which they derive their authority. Significantly, it is through a written test in French--the letter from Bordeaux or Nantes dismissing one manager and appointing another--that the ultimate source of Power reveals itself: "Two months later a letter of appointment from the big boss in France resuscitated the master. It was then that we learned that they were eternal." (162). Associated with the master are the econome (book-keeper), the gereur (foreman), and the commandeur (slave-driver), the first two white, the third, the actual enforcer of authority in the canefields, more and more likely to be coloured or black as the slave system evolved; the structure of Power is completed by the priest who summarily baptizes the slaves, instructs them in the rudiments of the Christian religion and urges them to wait patiently for deliverance from their miseries beyond the grave. (152-57). In time, as Afoukal admits, the oppressed often come to identify with the oppressor, finding in him the father-figure that so often they lack in their own lives ("I was so bound to the master that I could no longer envisage my life without him" (168)), just as later generations of fatherless Martinicans(19) will identify with Marshall Petain "Papa of us all who must be obeyed" (54), "Papa-de-Gaulle" (55), or, a black father-figure now replacing the white, with "Papa Cesaire" and his deputy "le pere Aliker" (200-01). Progressively, the Other is internalized as a dominant but loving father before whom the self is forever guilty and grateful. Power implants itself in the being of its victim, not just in his or her outward social self but often in the mornes of the unconscious, making out-and-out resistance to the system not just impractical but literally unthinkable.

With the abolition of slavery in 1848, Power undergoes an important mutation since it is now the metropole, in its guise of mere-patrie, mother-and-father in one, that projects itself as the deliverer of coloureds and blacks from bondage to the beke-pays. But beneath the new "maternal" trappings, it is still the Power of the Father that is being transmitted and enforced through such characteristic figures as the gendarmes a cheval (mounted police) of colonial Martinique who replace the militia-men and bounty hunters of the slave period (24, 100, see also Solibo 78, 193) or the immigration officer responsible for the registration of indentured labourers from India who relays the slave-dealer of old (98). The priest continues, as under slavery, to enjoin patience and resignation, and is joined now by the teacher who for his (or, more rarely, her) part preaches self-advancement for the poor and black through mastery of the French language; desired and feared, French, especially when written down, is more than ever before the language of gendarmes a cheval (27), sought and cultivated by others who rightly see in it a way of entering, and manipulating to their advantages, the system that has hitherto excluded them. After the Vichy interlude when, under Admiral Robert, the depredations of French soldiers and sailors revived the worst folk memories of slavery itself (54-55, see also Solibo, 78) came the law of departmentalization of 1946 and further changes in the outward forms of Power if not in its underlying logic. In departmental Martinique the paramilitary police (C. R. S.) and French Foreign Legion take the place of gendarmes a cheval and, when necessary, (as during the riots in Fort-de-France in December 1959, or again in 1976 (220-23, see also Antan d'enfance, 63-64)), deploy all the force at their disposal to prevent opposition developing into out-and-out resistance. But typically it is through the "labyrinths of Social Security" (117) and in the person of the social worker (usually female and, if not French herself, invariably addressing creolophone clients and claimants in French (205-06)) that Power now reveals and conceals itself in the French West Indies: Chamoiseau scathingly refers to one such social worker as a "social policewoman" (policiere sociale, 205). In addition, there are the "new witchdoctors from the Paris medical faculty" (181) whom, says Chamoiseau, many Martinicans are afraid to consult, the psychiatrists from the mental asylum at Colson high in the mornes where one deranged djobeur is interned and dies (138, 213), the French educational psychologist who completely misconstrues Martinican family structure (Solibo, 52) and, more sinister, the forensic doctors who explain away the death of a young rioter at the hands of the C. R. S. (223). Every aspect of traditional creole life is now subject to regulation and regimentation by the written French word. Shortly after departmentalization the "apparent disorder" of the old market with its "imperceptible arrangement" and "subtle balances" (59-60) begins to be brought under control of the "compass" and the "square" of the municipal authorities and their market supervisor who insists that henceforth vegetables, fish, and meat be sold separately from fixed stalls (75): the complex intermeshing of people, words and things is subtly altered and the old market and its culture begin to their gradual but inevitable decline into silent, static homogenization by the novel's close. In the last sentence of the text, the now redundant djobeurs see their barrows--vehicles, in every sense, of creole debrouillardaise in all its skittish glory--handed over to the market inspector to the municipal garbage department for disposal. The victory of order and the written rule and regulation over the self-regulating chaos of Creolite is complete. Power is everywhere and nowhere. In the economic sphere, the supermarkets have displaced all but a handful of market-women, and those few that survive bring their goods to market in plastic containers (215) or Prisunic carrier-bags (220). Politically, the "official" opponents of the system, notably Cesaire and the autonomists of the Parti Progressiste Martiniquais, have, unbeknown to themselves, internalized the dominant discourse, not least in their fetishistic cultivation of French and unspoken contempt for creole (200). A "revolutionary" student harangues the market-women in French and understands nothing when she is spoken to in creole (135). If even the self-conscious adversaries of the system are unconsciously reproducing and transmitting its structure, what chance is there of opposition, let alone of resistance?

In common with many French West Indian writers,(20) it is to the runaway slave and the whole phenomenon of marronnage that Chamoiseau looks for his historical prototype of opposition to "the system." Chamoiseau's presentation of marronnage is clearly influenced by Edouard Glissant's treatment of the theme, but at the same time departs from it at certain critical points. For Glissant the runaway slave (le Negre marron) is "the only true popular hero in the (French) West Indies" whose flight from plantation to mornes represents "an incontestable instance of systematic opposition, of total refusal" of the slave system; flight and the setting up of separate extra-territorial communities in the uplands constitute an act of "fundamental cultural opposition to the new order imposed upon the slave."(21) (It goes without saying that Glissant here is using the word "opposition" as synonymous with "resistance" and not in de Certeau's special sense of the term.) Glissant's marron is "the Negator,"(22) the unconditional refuser of the system, usually African-born, who succeeds in creating an authentic culture and community outside the plantation with which he retains only the most tenuous of links; he is the absolute outsider, and he and his progeny embody a continuing tradition of wholeness and dignity that contrasts sharply with the accommodations and compromises with the system made by those who remained on the plantations and those who today inhabit the lowlands and, above all, the towns.

Following Glissant, Chamoiseau also sees the maroon as a West Indian culture hero, the model of a certain way of refusing-opposing the system, but he makes a crucial distinction (162-65) between la grande marronne (where the runaway completely and permanently abandons the plantation and lives either alone or in a maroon community in the mornes) and la petite marronne (where the runaway absents himself partially and temporarily, and usually at no great distance, from the plantation and continues to live in ambivalent symbiosis with it until he eventually returns). Chamoiseau stresses how rare and difficult it was, particularly in a small island like Martinique, for runaways to totally abstract themselves from the world of the plantation. His grands marrons establish themselves in their upland fastnesses where they live in remarkable harmony with their surroundings (maroons are Chamoiseau's Ur-ecologists in the Caribbean), but though they are "well implanted," they are also "adrift," living "the most worthy of miseries," the eyes of their children "dark and devastated, warmer and more distant than a memory of their homeland" (165). Moreover, even grands marrons remain dependent on the plantation for tools, certain foodstuffs, and nor least, women and, if they launch an attack on the plantation, it is usually only to confront their "old fear" of their master and the "sudden numbness" of their bodies when he appears before them (164). More common than "la grande marrone" is what Chamoiseau calls "marronnage de devant-les-bois," in other words absconding into the ambiguous interstitial zone between plantation and mornes where, for a time, it was possible for runaways to retreat from the ardours of plantation life and enjoy the quasi-freedom of the truant schoolchild without ever severing "that umbilical cord that bound you to the belly of suffering. It lasted generally six months. Then you returned. The master, who had always known that you were in the vicinity, whipped you as a point of principle. The book-keeper hadn't even crossed you off his list. Is la petite marronne still practised today?" (162-63).

The answer to Afoukal's question is, of course, yes: by practically all lower-class Martinicans, if Chronique des sept miseres and Solibo Magnifique are to be believed, and by not a few middle-class ones (including the marqueur de paroles himself) as well. If la grand marronne is shown to be next to impossible in contemporary Martinique, la petite marronne, inseparable from the practice of debrouillardaise, constitutes a daily method of both opposing the dominant system and of surviving within the gaps and fissures left within it, of inhabiting and investing an in-between world that is neither plantation nor mornes, though it partakes of both. Out-and-out resistance to the status quo is, as the fate of the rioters of 1959 and 1976 reveals, as futile as it usually was under slavery. Likewise it is as difficult to abstract oneself entirely from the established order as it was for the grands marrons of the past. To be sure, there are would-be grands marrons in contemporary Martinique: local Rastafarians cultivating food crops and cannabis in the woods around Fort-de-France and renewing "the ancestral complicity of man and the earth" enjoyed by their maroon forebears at Fond-Massacre (175, 195), a few surviving charcoal-burners who, as Solibo does, still eke out a living in the Tivoli woods north of the capital (Solibo, 168), and those other epigones of the maroons of old, the quimboiseurs, papas-feuille and other folk-healers, spirit-mediums, and magicians who commonly live away from settled communities in "old-time huts" (Solibo, 240) located deep in the wooded hinterland. But though these vestigial denizens of the arriere-pays are outside the dominant system, they are by no means apart from it, by no means autonomous. To survive they need to sell their products and services to lowlanders and townsfolk, and they are constantly harried either, as were maroons, by the forces of order or, ironically, by lowlanders who see in their refusal of the status quo a model authenticity. When Pipi, the "king" of the djobeurs, runs away to the hills outside Fort-de-France to cultivate legumes-pays (local vegetables) as in the creole gardens of yore, he is pursued by a succession of "experts" and dignitaries--including Cesaire himself--for whom his economic self-sufficiency is the prototype for an autonomous Martinique of the future: it is not long before the "black botanists and agronomists" from the Conseil Regional succeed in disrupting the complex ecological balance of the smallholding and reducing its owner to final dereliction and death (196-204). Once more the written word--manipulated as so often by black and coloured Martinicans--destroys the unwritten, and perhaps unwritable, subtleties of Creolite.

Chronique des sept miseres strongly suggests that, in contemporary Martinique, self-marginalization is no longer an option for the simple reason that the margins themselves have been drawn into the center and are subject, like the lowlands before them, to betonisation by the dominant assimilationist order. But what the novel also shows is that there is significant, if limited, room for maneuver on the lowlands themselves, not least in the capital city itself which, in certain of its parts (notably the market and surrounding streets), offers an ideal intercalary realm for the practice of debrouillardaise and la petite marronne. According to Edouard Glissant, the traditional economic survival tactics of the Martinican people are in themselves "a form of marronnage"(23); Chronique des sept miseres demonstrates that the djobeur is the petit marron par excellence, debrouillardise incarnate, who has managed to make of the ultra-assimilated city a stage and terrain for his complex oppositional game. On the very first page of the novel, Chamoiseau makes the essential point that the djobeurs themselves produce nothing whatsoever: they are mediators "whose only capital is the wheelbarrow and the art of maneuvering it" (riches seulement d'une brouette at de son maniement, 15). Each djobeur must make his own barrow ("it is then the djobeur is born, free and alone with himself," 86) learn how to manipulate and steer it from delivery lorry to market and between basket and stall (the true djobeur is a "doctor in barrow-studies," a docteur en brouette, 89) and make the personal contacts with the individual market women who will hire their services: the djobeurs are a clan, but their modus operandi is strictly individualist. Trickster and bricoleur combined, the djobeur operates in the gaps left by the system. His function is to mediate between the rural producer, the market-woman, and the urban consumer: if the market is a place of exchange, it is he who makes exchange and communication possible. His is an interstitial task in an interstitial realm, his shuttling between the participants in the process of exchange an "integral part" of the market (69), but because he produces nothing, he is even more vulnerable than the market itself to the inexorable advance of economic and social change. So long as gaps survive, he can maneuver and mediate between them, but should the gaps close, as in Chronique des sept miseres they relentlessly do, then what was once his crowning glory--his barrow and the way he could weave it this way and that, dodge every obstacle and though his comings and goings knit the market and surrounding streets into a single complex network of communication--becomes an index of his fundamental irrelevance and dispensibility. By the early 1960s, as the economic and cultural effects of political assimilation made themselves felt, "our only knowledge, that of the barrow, was losing its precision; grey-haired master-djobeurs, we had no outlet; outside the market we could do nothing." One djobeur named Bidjoule is unable satisfactorily to repair his barrow when it loses a wheel and breaks an axle; he can no longer steer it properly, his djobs are poorly performed and his barrow even scrapes against cars, a sure sign that, as the market culture disintegrates around him, he is losing his grip on reality: it is not long before he is taken to the lunatic asylum at Colson where he dies (136-38). Pipi too abandons the market in despair, leaving his barrow behind him: "Nothing is more terrible for a djobeur than an abandoned barrow. A fragile flower, it fades, loses its glow, invites dust and stains. For those who can hear it, the barrow groans" (176). Once the vehicle of communication and exchange, the very epitome of Creolite, the barrow is by the novel's end a signifier with no signified, fit only for consignment to the municipal rubbish tip.

All the djobeurs are men, but women in Chronique des sept miseres display even greater resourcefulness as, usually without male economic support and always with fatherless children to fend for, they improvise endlessly along the seams and edges of the established order. Man Elo does cleaning for a Lebanese trade and, her baby boy slung on her hip, sells sandwiches at the market (41); Ninon makes and sells brooms (30); Amedee Balthazar sells pistachio nuts before graduating to make widows' weeds on a Singer sewing machine "obtained" for her by a customs officer boyfriend (70); Man Goul sells French fries (78); Anastase makes and sells candies for schoolchildren during playtime (99). The career of Clarine is even more diversified, though, unlike the other women, she does not actually make anything. She looks after cows, carries coal, cleans houses and then streets, carries cloths for a Lebanese trader and sells sugar cane at the market which she gets from an old woman at Lamentin with a plot of land behind her hut; on one occasion she even makes money cleaning artificial flowers in the cemetery in preparation for All Saint's Day (62-68). Most remarkable is the itinerant tradeswoman Elmire who travels to Haiti, Guadaloupe, Barbados, Trinidad, and Grenada buying goods she then sells in the market at Fort-de-France (79). The market women are the nodal points of a vast network of exchanges "linking sugar factories, entrepots, the country and the seaside to the centre of town" (50): it is they who, from the slave period onward, have sustained the whole alternative creole economy that functions in the interstices of the plantation complex. And, unlike the djobeurs, they are not destroyed by the changing economic and social circumstance. Man Paville sets up shop selling "things for funerals" (48) until she is driven out of business by French-style undertakers; she is last seen selling twists of pepper she grinds herself and brings to the market each day in a Prisunic carrier-bag (172-74). The djobeurs are the "official" heroes of Chronique des sept miseres, but the oppositional posture of the women is perhaps more profound since it is nor merely the colonialist-assimilationist complex they must maneuver around but also the sexist culture and comportment of their menfolk.

An important area of oppositionality in Chronique des sept miseres and, still more, in Solibo Magnifique concerns names and nicknames. Almost every male character in the two novels, and many female ones as well, have a nickname which, in Solibo Magnifique, a police inspector significantly calls a "nom des mornes" ("uplands name") as opposed to the "townhall name, the Social Security name" (nom de la mairie, de la Securite sociale) conferred by established "lowlands" security (Solibo, 98). Chamoiseau underlines the tension and disparity between name and nickname by using a different verb for "to call" in each case: standard French "appeler" or "nommer" for the nom de la mairie, creole "crier" for the nom des mornes, as in "un nomme Raffine Albert crie Grippe-Frissons" (Solibo, 155, see also Solibo, 82, 92 133). This practice of double-naming, of opposing official name with unofficial nickname, is traced back, like so much else in the creole counter-culture, to slavery: "When master called you Jupiter, we call you Torticolis or Big-Arse (Gros-Bonda). When master said Telemache, Apollo (Soleil) or Mercury, we said Syrup, Afoukal, Piss-Piss (Pipi) or Tikilik" (152). What Chamoiseau calls "the creole art of the nickname" (Antan d'enfance, 28) is an oppositional tactic designed not merely to confuse the official naming authority but also to give the disempowered room for maneuver within the fixed grids of established society. The freedom conferred by the nickname is, like any freedom accruing from oppositionality, an ambiguous and limited one, for if the nickname gives a kind of freedom from one identity, it often imprisons one in another (Big-Arse, Piss-Piss) which, freely bestowed by the creole community, is not so always freely adopted by the individual who bears it. But even here there is further room for maneuver, because the creole nickname may itself have multiple meanings which, by definition, will escape the non-creolophone. There is no more telling instance of this than the nickname Solibo Magnifique given to the creole storyteller in the novel of that name. Solibo's "real" name (which hardly anyone knows) is Prosper Bajole, and he got the nickname Solibo--glossed in the novel as meaning a fall (chute)--because, at one time, he had fallen so low that people said no ladder was long enough to bring him back to life (Solibo, 72-74). But Solibo has a number of other meanings in creole that, significantly, are not revealed in the book but which would be apparent to its creolophone, but not of course its metropolitan French, readers. Fe an solibo (faire un solibo) means "to come a cropper" but also "to caper around" (as Solibo capers around verbally and physically as he tells his stories), while pwan an solibo (prendre un solibo) means to strike the first blow in a fist-fight and bay an solibo (donner un solibo) means to finish off an opponent.(24) In other words, Solibo fights back and, thanks to his mastery of the Word (la Parole), transforms adversity into triumph, whence the adjective admirers add to his nickname: Solibo Magnifique, felix culpa, triumphant fall. But there is still another twist for, as readers of the novel will know, Solibo does indeed finally fall, mysteriously slain as he tells his stories of carnival time, choked, it seems, by the very Word he proffers. The man who took on destiny armed only with the Word eventually receives a fatal "solibo" from the very weapon of his triumph.

As this example indicates, Chamoiseau's novels are replete with hidden meanings and subtleties which only creolophone readers are in a position to grasp. Just as, under slavery, the creole storyteller spoke in a context defined by, but not entirely dominated by the values, language, and thought-patterns of assimilationism, a context in which the possibilities of both petite and grande marrone are severely limited (but not, for all that, non-existent), so the mornes themselves, whether of nature, culture, or the psyche, are being drawn more and more into the center. For the storyteller under slavery, to speak in creole was not enough, for master, foreman, book-keeper, and other plantation whites were commonly creole-speakers themselves: his solution was to disguise meaning in fable. For the marqueur de paroles the situation is somewhat different, reflecting the changing relationship between French and creole in Martinican society. Though many French West Indian radicals see creole as a language of resistance (in de Certeau's sense of the term), it is important to grasp that in its place of formation--the slave plantation--it was much more a language of control and accommodation, used by the masters to give orders to the slaves and by slaves as a means of communication amongst themselves; on the slave plantation, the only languages of resistance were the African languages spoken on their arrival by African-born slaves and these, of course, the masters did their utmost to eradicate by mixing together Africans of different speech-groups and so effectively forcing them to learn to speak creole.(25) But with the abolition of slavery in 1848 and particularly with the promotion, after 1880, of the French language through the republican school, the situation of creole underwent a significant mutation. Though still not a language of resistance on account of its promiscuity with French, creole could, amid the cult of Francophonia to which all the classes of Martinicans subscribed whether they spoke French or not, become a language of opposition to assimilationism, though, until the early 1970s, few French West Indians chose to use it as such. There was, Chamoiseau has written of his French-oriented childhood in the 1950s and 1960s, "a marronnage in language" (il y avait un marronnage dans la langue), a capacity, possessed by creole, to "contest the French order reigning in discourse" through which the child could exist "angrily, aggressively, in an iconoclastic, roundabout fashion" (Antan d'enfance 55-56). It is this oppositional potential of language that Chamoiseau will systematically explore in his fiction.

In the current French West Indian situation, the marqueur de paroles has a choice between three, or possibly four, alternatives. He or she can write in standard French, using perhaps some creole locutions in dialogue, and be read by a metropolitan public and by the not insubstantial number of local people interested in reading books in French by local writers: this is the option favoured by such leading "mainstream" writers as Maryse Conde, Simone Schwarz-Bart, and Daniel Maximin in Guadeloupe and, in Martinique, by Xavier Orville and Suzanne Dracius-Pinalie. Or he or she can write in basilectal creole as an increasing number of poets (Monchoachi, Joby Bernabe and Hector Poullet) and at least one novelist (Raphael Confiant(26)) have done in recent years. This, however, involves major problems, especially for the prose writer: problems of publishing, problems of marketing, problems, above all, of readership. As far as the last is concerned, basilectal creole is itself spoken by fewer and fewer French West Indians and, in the phonetic form of transcription favoured by most contemporary creolists, read by fewer still: populist in intention, prose writing in creole is, ironically, elitist in effect.(27) A third alternative is to write in the interlect--variously referred to as creole francise, francais creolise, francais regional, francais antillais or even frantillais, freole, and francol(28)--actually spoken on a day to day basis by the substantial majority of French West Indians who do not use French as their first or sole language. This course was adopted by the Guadeloupean writer Germain William in his novel Aurelien a pare le saut (1980) but has not otherwise been much favoured, partly, no doubt, because of the inherently unstable nature of the interlectal medium in question.

There is a fourth alternative, and it is this that is adopted by Chamoiseau and, in his more recent work, by Raphael Confiant(29): not only to switch codes between and within paragraphs and sentences and so dramatize and exploit the full heteroglossic potential of contemporary Martinique, but also to forge a distinctive ecriture which beneath the surfaces of standard or near-standard French secretes creole locutions, some of which are explained (often ironically, and sometimes even misleadingly) to non-creolophones, but of which others will only be perceived and understood by the native creole-speaker. To use French in contemporary Martinique is to use the language of the assimilationist complex, the modern equivalent, as it were, of the plantation complex of old. To use basilectal creole is to use the language of the mornes and attempt a linguistic equivalent of la grande marrone with its promise of (possibly illusory) freedom and risk of self-isolation from the creole community deep in the mornes of orthographic purism. Chamoiseau's choice is the choice of the djobeur or the debrouillard: la petite marronne, investing and cultivating the interlectal space between plantation and mornes or, varying the metaphor, maneuvering his stylistic barrow this way and that across the market-place of intersecting and competing codes and so create an incomparably rich and complex network of communication-in-opposition between them. What is notable about Chamoiseau's practice as marqueur de paroles is that he regards the three principal dimensions of language in contemporary Martinique--acrolectal French, basilectal creole, and the spread of interlectal forms that has emerged between them--as mutually fecundating (or potentially so) rather than as necessarily, and in every circumstance, antagonistic(30); more precisely, he regards their very friction as a source of creative richness and, beyond that, of pleasure. His aim is to "explore fallow terrain, operate forbidden combinations (alliages), unexpected or illicit mixtures, in short to disturb the processes of expression (exacerber l'expression)."(31) His pleasure is the mildly subversive pleasure of the djobeur who scrambles codes for the sheer joy of doing so and who by playing one system against another and drawing on both is able to create for himself a zone of ambiguous freedom between the colonialist-assimilationist complex in the lowlands and the receding forests in the hills.

That freedom has, of course, its limits. It is in no sense "revolutionary," though it may contribute to the build-up of consciousness which, in certain at present unforeseeable circumstances, could trigger the passage from opposition to resistance. Like the djobeur, the marqueur de paroles is an individualist first and foremost, though his complex maneuvers may enhance the cohesion of the disempowered by revealing ways in which the grids of the system can be flouted without bringing retribution and by bringing into creative friction what might otherwise remain apart in sterile isolation. Above all, the marqueur-djobeur's game is always on the point of being absorbed back into the system it opposes, of falling prey, like so many assertions of difference in the French Caribbean before it, to that perennial foe of creole particularity, the Universal (as defined by France).(32) Chamoiseau's art, like that of the creole storyteller, is an "alchemy of roundabout resistance" (une alchimie de la resistance detournee)(33): in de Certeau's terms, an art of opposition. It changes nothing, save perhaps the consciousness of its readers, and may even strengthen the system it opposes by making it more livable.(34) For all its joviality and vivacity, it is a deeply serious art, born of realistic, even a pessimistic, assessment of the possibilities of maneuver in an assimilated, departmentalized, regionalized, and shortly to be Europeanized Martinique. As the process of betonisation eats day by day further into the mornes, it is in the gaps and fissures that it leaves behind--by nice coincidence, marronage in French also means cracks in a road--that the marqueur de paroles must henceforth act out his complex and ironic oppositional game:

Aller tout droit n'etait pas le meilleur moyen d'arriver aux endroits, et si les Tracees tournoyaient dans les bois, il fallait savoir tournoyer avec elles: etait perdu l'emprunteur des routes droites que les bekes-usiniers avaient deroulees pour eux-memes a travers le pays. Y marcher c'etait les servir eux. Il fallait prendre les Tracees, gribouiller leur ordre d'une deraison marronne. (Antan d'enfance, 109-10)

|To go straight ahead was not the best way of reaching one's destination, and if the Paths(35) twisted and turned into the woods one had to learn how to twist and turn with them: he who took the direct roads that the planter-refiners had unrolled across the land was lost. To walk there was to serve them. One had to take to the Paths, scramble the order of the roads with the folly of the maroon.~


1. The first of these expressions is a French West Indian proverb, the equivalent, in creole, of "se debrouiller n'est pas un peche" in French, and meaning something like "using the system against itself for one's own good is no sin." The second expression comes from an article by Jean-Francois Lyotard entitled "Sur la Force des faibles" (L'Arc 64 (1976): 11) and translates literally as "there's always a way to mediate" or "there's always a way to find a way." (See Ross Chambers, Room for Maneuver: Reading (the) Oppositional (in) Narrative, University of Chicago Press, 1991, xiii.)

2. Chamoiseau is a leading member of the Martinican "green party," the Association pour le sauvetage du patrimoine martiniquais (ASSAUPAMAR), and his activities as a militant ecologist form an essential complement to his activities as a writer and journalist.

3. An extract from Texaco appeared in a special number of the Martinican review Carbet in 1988 ("Un milan sur Marie-Clemence," Carbet 7 (1988): 51-56). |Editor's note: The novel Texaco, published in 1992, was awarded the Goncourt Prize in November, 1992.~

4. See above all the special number of Antilla "Faut-il bruler Patrick Chamoiseau?" (Antilla Special 11, December 1988-January 1989) and, within that number, the excellent detailed study by Marie-Christine Hazael-Massieux of the language of Chronique des sept miseres ("A propos de Chronique des sept miseres: Une litterature en francais regional pour les Antilles," 13-21). See also the same critic's "La Litterature creole: entre l'oral et l'ecrit," in Ralph Ludwig (ed.), Les Creoles francais entre l'oral et l'ecrit (Gunter Narr Verlag, Tubingen, 1989), 277-305.

5. See, amongst other examples, Lambert-Felix Prudent, "Ecrire le creole a la Martinique: norme et conflit sociolinguistique," in Ludwig (ed.), Les Creoles francais, 65-80. The expression "francais-banane" is used on page 77 to describe the "litterature franco-creoloide" written by Chamoiseau and his close associate Raphael Confiant.

6. Jean Bernabe, "Solibo Magnifique ou le charme de l'oiseau-lyre," Antilla Special 11, 38.

7. The edition of Chronique des sept miseres used here is the Folio edition, prefaced by Edouard Glissant, of 1988. Unless otherwise indicated, all page numbers refer to this work.

8. See Ina Cesaire, "L'Ideologie de la debrouillardise dans les contes antillais. Analyse de deux personnages-cle du conte de veillee aux Antilles de colonisation francais," Espace creole 3 (1978): 41-48.

9. Michel de Certeau, "On the Oppositional Practices of Everyday Life," Social Text 3 (1980): 6-7.

10. On the idea of the arriere-pays, see Edouard Glissant, Le discours antillais (Seuil, 1981), 131, 166, and 177.

11. Mornes is the term given in the French West Indies to often wooded upland areas which traditionally afforded sanctuary to runaway slaves (marrons) and which still secrete a declining population of peasants (bitacos), sorcerers (quimboiseurs), and charcoal-burners (charbonniers). On the importance of the upland-lowland theme in Glissant's own work, see Richard D. E. Burton, "'Comment peut-on etre Martiniquais?' The Recent Work of Edouard Glissant," The Modern Language Review 79.2 (1984): 301-12.

12. This term (meaning "concreting over") is widely used in nationalist-ecological discourse in contemporary Martinique to designate the whole process of development to which the local environment is exposed.

13. For an analogous development, see Chambers, Room For Maneuver, xiv.

14. See the comments on the figure of the storyteller/storywriter (conteur) in the play's dramatis personae (Manman Dlo, 5).

15. In common with many French West Indians, Chamoiseau dwells insistently on the contribution of the descendants of Indian indentured labourers, as well as of the descendants of African slaves, to the making of the complex synthesis of Creolite.

16. The term "beke" now invariably designates a local (creole) white; during the colonial (i.e. pre-1946) period it was customary to distinguish between bekes-pays (local whites) and bekes-France (whites of French origin) now referred to as metropolitains or, mockingly, as zoreilles.

17. Typically, this expression both conceals and reveals a creole term, make (|is less than~ marqueur) being standard creole for writer. See Solibo, 159.

18. The word is derived from English "job."

19. The theme of the abandonment of children by their fathers (and, correlatively, of mothers by their husbands or lovers) recurs throughout Chamoiseau's work. See, amongst many other examples, Chronique, 57, 60, 70, 107, 160, 188, and Solibo, 46, 52, 68.

20. See, for example, Rene Louis, Manifeste du marronisme moderne. Philosophie des artistes de la Caraibe et d'Amerique latine (Editions O Madiana, 1990). The theme of marronnage in the work of Edouard Glissant is usefully discussed in two articles in Carbet 10 (1990): Ernest Pepin, "Le Personnage romanesque dans l'oeuvre de Glissant" (89-99) and Philippe-Alain Yerro, "La Trace de Gani. Dialectique du Mythe et de l'Histoire dans l'approche du marronage chez E. Glissant" (101-15).

21. Glissant, Le Discours Antillais, 104.

22. Edouard Glissant, Malemort (Seuil, 1975), 189.

23. Glissant, Le Discours antillais, 73.

24. See Bernabe, "Solibo Magnifique or le charme de L'oiseau-lyre," 37.

25. For an elaboration of this and related questions, see the excellent article by Michel Giraud, "Les Conflits de langues aux Antilles francaises. Fondements historiques et enjeux politiques," Etudes polemologiques 34 (1985): 45-65.

26. See his Bitako-a (Editions du GEREC, 1985), Kod Yanm (Editions K. D. P. (Kreyol pou divini peyia), 1986) and Marisose (Presses universitaires creoles, 1987).

27. The situation of poetry written in creole is very different since public readings and recordings make it directly accessible to a large audience. What I say in no way implies that prose writing in creole should be abandoned: it simply describes what I believe to be the current situation. It is notable that in his magnificent novel about Martinique under the Vichy regime, Le Negre et L'Amiral (Grasset, 1988), and in his Eau de cafe (1991) Confiant has forsaken creole for a style very similar to that used by his close friend and associate Chamoiseau.

28. For a discussion of these terms, see Roger Ebion, "Mahogany: quelle langue?," Carbet 10 (1990): 117-41. The terms langue antillaise, langue martiniquaise, and langue guadeloupeenne are also encountered.

29. See note 27 above. It is also the course adopted, though in a less radical and eye-catching way, by Edouard Glissant (see the article by Roger Ebion cited in note 28).

30. In a characteristic image, Chamoiseau, following Jean Bernabe, has likened acrolectal French and basilectal creole to two contiguous mangrove swamps linked by intermediary mangrove where interlectal exchanges between acrolect and basilect takes place and where an "intermediary creole" (an Kreyol mitannye) is constantly in the process of being formed and reformed, combining and recombining elements drawn from the other two mangroves into ever-changing syncretic patterns. See Patrick Chamoiseau, "Penser creole," Antilla 407 (2 November 1990): 32-34.

31. "Les Secrets de Chamoiseau" (interview between Chamoiseau and Henri Pied), Antilla Special 11 (December 1988-January 1989): 24.

32. On the question of Difference and the Universal in French West Indian thought, see Richard D. E. Burton, "Between the Particular and the Universal: Dilemmas of the Martinican Intellectual," in Intellectuals in the Twentieth-Century Caribbean, ed. Alistair Hennessy, Vol. II, Unity and Variety: The Hispanic and Francophone Caribbean (Macmillan, 1992), 186-210.

33. "Les Secrets de Chamoiseau," 25.

34. See Chambers, Room for Maneuver, 7.

35. Tracees is the word used in Martinique to designate tracks through the mornes.
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Author:Burton, Richard D.E.
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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