A place in the sun

Books: Paula Burnett on a new Caribbean classic

Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau, translated by Rose-Myriam Rejouis and Val Vinokurov, Granta, pounds 15.99

Texaco won the Prix Goncourt (the French Booker) in 1992 and has already sold half a million copies in France. It has been translated into Japanese and Korean as well as nine other European language At long last, it has come out in English. What have we been missing?

For Milan Kundera, Chamoiseau "takes liberties with French which not one of his French contemporaries could even imagine taking". This big novel is volubly oral, its flow rapid, poetic and witty. It proceeds "by whirling paths...like driftwood riding the tide of memories".

Swampy would enjoy Texaco. So should the growing army of citizens who have stood up against business or officialdom on behalf of their communities. Texaco is a shantytown built on the oil company's disused depot between sea and mountain, between the country and the city of Fort de France, capital of the Caribbean island of Martinique, Chamoiseau's home.

Its residents are "between" in another sense - creoles, people emerging from once separate cultural and racial histories. They defend their threatened community with everything from pitched battles to politics - including such tactics as sharing out the children so that each house has "big-eyed blackids" to face down the officials. And they win.

The town planner, felled by a stone in the opening pages, is transformed by the end into the residents' champion. He is changed by the old woman who mends his head and tells him the epic story of how the people came to be there, and why it matters that they remain, building not only homes but their sense of who they are.

Memory is their history, the map of their alleys like the map of the veins in their hands. Wipe that out in improvement projects, suggests Chamoiseau, and you destroy something irreplaceable.

Like V S Naipaul's Caribbean classic A House for Mr Biswas, the book tells of the heroic struggle of the dispossessed to secure a place - but it is very different, with its rich tumble of stories spilling out just as the shanties spill down the hill.

The old woman's voice that predominates chronicles the epochs by the building materials used by the poor: straw, crate-wood, asbestos, finally concrete. This is Chamoiseau's tribute to a lineage of unsung heroes with an "ancestral custom of survival", as in Derek Walcott's poetic epic Omeros. The final section tells of the author's gathering of oral histories from real people; of his sense of recording a vanishing past.

In 1989 Chamoiseau co-authored the manifesto In Praise of Creoleness. Texaco is Creole poetics in action. It contrasts "an occidental urban logic, all lined up, ordered, strong like the French language" with Creole's "open profusion". The Creole city, it says, speaks a new language and generates a new identity, multilingual and multiracial.

The novel is in dialogue with Aime Cesaire, founder of the negritude movement. That Martinique is today an equal part of metropolitan France, and therefore the EU, is very much its mayor Cesaire's doing. But Chamoiseau's generation wants independence. Texaco is seen as the last bastion of local identity, threatened by the encroaching French city.

Translation has not been easy. Rejouis and Vinokurov have no Caribbean English, which has produced some anomalies. Why use the French spelling mabi when "mauby" is a familiar term in the anglophone Caribbean? The insistence on using "hutch" for cases (the shantytown dwellings) grates, as hutch conveys none of the pathos of makeshift home-making. But the standard English tone is accurate enough: most of the French is closer to standard than the Caribbean idiom developed by some writers in English.

This exhilarating book is now available to a huge new readership. If only a fluent Creole and Caribbean English speaker had translated it - a St Lucian, for instance. Derek Walcott's language, which draws on both traditions, shows what could have been done.

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
books
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
News
i100
News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Law Costs

    Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

    Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

    £28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

    C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

    Clinical Negligence Solicitor

    Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

    Day In a Page

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution
    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state