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
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the iWatch for you? Well, it depends if you want for the fitness tech, or the style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

    £18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

    £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own