A place in the sun

Books: Paula Burnett on a new Caribbean classic
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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.