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Solibo Magnificent.

All novels, Mikhail Bakhtin says, are about language. Narratives may engage, characters may inspire empathy or stir up antagonism, but it's the layering and interweaving of languages, the confrontation of speech styles and dialects that best define the novel as a form. And it is the novel that best represents the multilingual babel that is the nature of every human society, even the smallest village or tribe. Yet it is typically those societies on the fringes of the centripetally nationalistic West - those of the Caribbean, pre-Soviet Russia, Africa, Latin America - which offer up the truly centrifugal, multilingual novel.

Case in point: Patrick Chamoiseau, author of the critically acclaimed Texaco, writes from Martinique, the Caribbean country most closely allied with France, the New World territory where French is the most cultivated, and the island that produced perhaps the twentieth century's finest French poet, Aime Cesaire. On Martinique, the primary languages are French and Creole, the latter existing uneasily (like all creoles) alongside the standard language with which it shares kinship; like a bastard child, Creole is inevitably considered inferior, a mark of the underclass, and - worse for the middle class - an audible reminder of the island's status as an outpost of Empire. For an educated person to speak Creole is either absurd or revolutionary; and though the form of the novel gives a kind of license to its representation, to put Creole in print for the world is to give it greater status that it has in Martinique, where it is usually restricted to humor magazines.

Solibo Magnificent, though an earlier work than Texaco, is more daring in its bold use of speech and dense characterization. Though Chamoiseau draws equally on both languages of Martinique, working them together to create new forms, he unashamedly writes under the sign of Creole, and so represents people who are not usually heard from. By doing so, he also has available an emotional and intellectual register not part of standard French. (Creole, according to Derek Walcott, another Caribbean writer with a creole in his background, is richer in nuance, "audibly aware of its melody, its pauses and flourishes, its direction toward laughter even in tragedy.") Chamoiseau's people speak in a phantasmagoria of words composed in the meter of dreamtime which he throws down before the received pronunciation of French.

. . . it's Soliboscape Solibo from the depths-without-depth Solibo of the forgotten Solibo of the traces without path without Tiger without Rabbit Solibo without sugar without salt natal total hospital congenital bottle municipal jackal clubpodal local grammatical . . .

Though composed of police reports, authorial descriptions, ethnographic notes, the testimonies of fourteen witnesses (one of whom is the "author"), even drum rhythms, the plot of Solibo Magnificent is surprisingly straightforward and coherent: Solibo, a storyteller and "wordsman" of the folk, is performing an oral epic in a park before a ragtag group of listeners during Carnival in Fort-de-France, when suddenly (in media res so to speak), he chokes to death on his own words, setting off a police investigation that turns his entire audience into suspects and eventually escalates into threats, humiliations, beatings, and two deaths. As a story it's not much - maybe even less, once we realize that Solibo's death is intended as a symbol of the dying of an oral culture. But as an account of the lives and adventures of languages, a depiction of the social laminations and interpretations of discourses in an ex-colonial society, the novel is remarkable.

But what language is this American edition written in? The original French-Creole compound, subdivided by various dialects and argots, was complex enough. Once translated (by the team who also translated Texaco), several other strata of language appear. There is a glossary to aid the reader when the untranslatable peeks through the English (or perhaps Englishes, for the translators manage to find words between the cracks of English and American slang, misfiring only when their choice of equivalents seems either dated or too hip). The complexities grow and intertwine, a rich and heady mix, but not one unique to the history of literature - multiple languages and even glossaries could be found in the earliest English novels before writers like Jane Austen flattened and homogenized the voices of class, race, gender, and age. Like Samuel Richardson, Chamoiseau evokes a divided community of talkers, in which some are incomprehensible to others, or one group pretends not to understand another (or pretends to understand another). For instance, when the French-trained Inspector and the Chief Sergeant interrogate one of the witnesses, they both speak French to him, but translate in terms of class: ". . . your age, profession, and permanent address?" "Huh?" "The Inspector asks you what hurricane you were born after, what you do for the beke, and what side of town you sleep at night?" And over it all, unheard, falls the shadow of the bekes (the white descendants of the old planter class), who never make an appearance, but nonetheless penetrate every domain.

Martinique has a long history of literary factions (such as Negritude and antillanite). Chamoiseau is a leading figure in Creolite, a movement that seeks to locate a unique voice and identity in their past and work it into a literary form called "oraliture." From this base, Creolite promises to reach beyond the local and the folkloristic to the rest of the world. Their aim is neither to create their own classics, nor to replace the world's classics in an act of totalitarian universality, but to reach toward "diversalite," the creation of a "world diffracted but recomposed, the conscious harmonization of preserved diversities," as Chamoiseau and his colleagues put it in their 1989 manifesto, Eloge de la Creolite.

The languages are new, the locale tropical, but the project is reminiscent of another "diversalite," modernism, and the striving of James Joyce and even T.S. Eliot to build a universal art on the vernaculars of the world (a modernism in which we pretend as if we understood one another). Chamoiseau also reminds us that the black world has played a central role in the creation of modernism, and that its influence has not yet run its course.

John Szwed is Professor of African-American Studies, American Studies, and Anthropology at Yale, and the author of Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra.
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Author:Szwed, John
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1998
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