Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 36, 1992
Postcolonial Fictions:
Proceedings of the SPACLALS Triennial Conference 1992
Edited by Michèle Drouart

The Group as Protagonist in Recent French Caribbean Fiction

Beverley Ormerod [Noakes]

In the French Caribbean, as in other former colonial territories, writing was once the province of the upper classes; and so life in Martinique and Guadeloupe was viewed through the eyes of a European or Europeanized minority. Even in Haiti, where a bitter war of independence saw the expulsion of the French in 1804, the new elite, largely composed of persons of mixed race, held on for well over a century to European values and attitudes. In this society, the group, the masses, meant primarily the descendants of the African slave population. These people, scarcely individualised in fiction, might be presented as exotic, or comic, or dangerous, but always remained an adjunct, never reaching the heart of the writer's preoccupations.

A similar situation persisted even longer in the colonies of Martinique and Guadeloupe. Slavery was not abolished there until 1848, and a century later, colonial status was exchanged not for independence, but for the status of Overseas Departments of France. The French colonial policy of assimilation, which promoted the development of a Europeanized middle class through control of the school syllabus and the media, was an effective form of cultural indoctrination which encouraged the educated French West Indian to view his own society through European eyes. And so, in fictional works, the group, which by now included minorities such as the descendants of Indian and Chinese indentured labourers, continued to be background material, somewhere on the edge of the writer's cultural focus.

The twentieth century has, however, brought immense social upheavals and reassessments to the Caribbean, and the literary status of the group has altered in two major ways. First, it acquired dignity; then it acquired a voice. Dignity was conferred in the first instance upon individual protagonists, members of the peasantry or working class who were elevated to the rank of exemplary hero. This is particularly striking in the case of Haiti, where two major writers towards the middle of this century were politically motivated to redefine the importance of the masses. Jacques Roumain and Jacques Alexis were both Marxists, both militant nationalists, and both passionately concerned with political and social injustice. Roumain had grown up during the 19-year American occupation of Haiti; Alexis lived and died under the dictatorship of "Papa Doc," François Duvalier. Each of them created in his fiction an idealized protagonist, one a peasant and visionary, the other an intellectually ambitious boy from an urban slum, both of whom were used to symbolize the moral virtues and potential strengths of the Haitian majority. These portraits illustrate the ardent desire of Roumain and Alexis to transform the social and political structure of Haiti, a country which had been independent for well over a century but was still foundering (as it is today) under a succession of military coups, assassinations and dictatorships. Through the tragic dignity of their individual protagonists, they invested an entire social group with a certain heroic stature. The Haitian proletariat thus moved closer to centre stage and the possibility of a real speaking part.

In these novels, however, the identifiable discourse is not that of the group. It is the author's personal voice, heightened and poetic, sophisticated and didactic. It cannot be equated at any literal and realistic level with the discourse of the Haitian proletariat. The same might be said of Aimé Césaire's celebrated poetic work, Return to my Native Land, which was the point of departure for modern writing in Martinique and Guadeloupe. Stirred by the same political and reforming zeal, Césaire presented his poem as the result of his desire to be "the voice of those who have no voice," and he does, magnificently, plead their cause: but he does so in an esoteric, surrealistic style that bears no likeness to the speech of the Martinican majority.

It was only in the 1970s that this social majority came to be a significant presence in French Caribbean literature, and later still that writers began to address the stylistic problems that are inherent in the attempt to give a faithful rendition of that collective voice. In 1975 two novels were published in which the group held a privileged place far superior in importance to any single protagonist. One of these novels was from Martinique, Edouard Glissant's Malemort, which has exercised a greater influence on the following generation of French Caribbean writers than any other single work. With its shifting time-schemes, its elliptical references, and its disconcerting profusion of narrative voices, Malemort is intended as a mirror of the group's historical experience: an experience which - Glissant reminds us - is itself fragmentary and uncertain because the archives of the colonial past were kept by the ruling class, which did not concern itself with the social history of the folk. For Glissant, this is the only history that matters, this past which is essential to the West Indian's sense of identity, but which is only faintly alive now in the flawed collective memory of the Martinican people. Malemort, like all of Glissant's work, is an attempt to recapture Caribbean history and to persuade modern Martinique away from its drive towards the exterior, towards French cultural values. He seeks to replace that with his own regional concept of antillanité, Caribbeanness, which is the notion of a unity existing amongst the diverse racial and linguistic groups in the Caribbean, despite their different colonial histories. His writing attempts to foster a sense of national solidarity, something that could override Martinique's official identity as a little corner of France in the Caribbean. And this faith in a future Martinican nation lies behind the emphasis he places on collective destiny, and his choice to write an unconventional sort of fiction, turning away from the embodiment of individual destinies in order to create what he calls "the novel of the We," "the novel of the involvement of the I with the We, of the I with the Other." [1]

If the "We" of Glissant's fiction symbolically indicates the need for a postcolonial society to overcome national fragmentation and personal alienation, the "We" of the second important novel of 1975, Dézafi by the Haitian writer Frankétienne, is used to denote the predicament of a more specific group, the masses in Haiti. But, like Glissant, Frankétienne turns away from the convention of central characters and individual destinies. It is the group that dominates, with its moodiness and cruelty bred of hunger, uncertainty and despair. The work is in fact an allegory about political oppression in Haiti during the brutal heyday of Papa Doc. Its influence on Caribbean writers has been mainly linguistic. Dézafi was the first novel written in Haitian Creole. Although Creole is the only language of the majority of Haitians, that majority is mainly illiterate, and creative writing in Creole had previously been for radio presentations or public readings. Frankétienne was responsible for transforming Haitian Creole into a viable literary language. So as to maintain its popular quality, he used not only the standard Creole of the towns but also the vocabulary of a particular rural group, the breeders of fighting cocks who live in northern Haiti. This language is carefully integrated with the narrative's dominant images of political corruption and violence, which are drawn from the underworld of the sport, the fixing of fights and the mutilation of prize birds. Frankétienne demonstrated new possibilities for Caribbean discourse, and younger writers have hailed him as an "alchemist" who transformed Creole into a vehicle of authentic Caribbean experience. [2]

But even in a country like Haiti, where Creole is the dominant spoken tongue, to write in Creole is not a simple decision. The writer must select among varying regional forms of the language, and must also accept the ironic fact that since the group he seeks to represent is mainly illiterate, it is not going to have access to his fiction. In Martinique and Guadeloupe, the linguistic situation is different again. While Creole is the popular tongue, French is the official language, literacy levels are high, and the influence of the media has created a public which is culturally orientated towards Paris rather than the Caribbean. This public has on the whole shown little interest in reading about itself. And this means that French West Indian publishers are reluctant to accept manuscripts by local novelists. Patrick Chamoiseau, who is perhaps the most important young writer in the region, told an interviewer who asked why he had his first novel published in France, that he had previously submitted the manuscript to every publishing house in the French Caribbean, and not one had been willing to take it. They thought a book about market women and odd job men, partly written in a Creolized form of French, was earmarked in advance as a financial disaster.

The question of the status of Creole is not just a literary or financial matter in the French Caribbean; it is also a sociopolitical issue. One of the key discussions of it is in Edouard Glissant's volume of essays entitled Caribbean Discourse, which appeared in 1981. Glissant considers that the marginal situation of Creole, which dates back to its original function as a sort of plantation pidgin and its acceptance even by Creole speakers as a non-serious language, is symptomatic of the wider political question of the islands' culturally inferior status in relation to France. The concept has been much debated by younger writers, who also place great importance on Glissant's notions of collective history and collective destiny. Instead of seeking to invent an exceptional individual whose history and fate would reflect, in a heightened fashion, that of the group, writers are choosing to assemble a crowd of characters from the Creole-speaking masses, characters who are at first glance individually unremarkable, in order to convey the collective experience of the colonial past - the heritage of slavery and uprooting, of linguistic and psychological alienation - and also its aftermath of political and economic dependence and cultural confusion.

The recent novels of Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphaël Confiant in Martinique, and Maryse Condé in Guadeloupe, illustrate various ways of interpreting this new perspective on French Caribbean experience. Chamoiseau's first novel, Chronique des sept misères, published in 1986, is an affectionate tribute to the now defunct fruit and vegetable market of Fort-de-France, which used to be a famous landmark before World War II but was killed by competition from subsidized French produce. He has explained that he had a specific programme in mind when planning it: he wanted it to be "a collective novel, that is, a novel in which there would be no real heroes. The market would be, so to speak, the hero, and characters would appear without any single one's having a voice that would surpass the others." [3] He confesses that he got a little lost in his characters and still doesn't know exactly how many there are. Behind his literary project there is an implicit comment on the decline of Creole folkways. In his childhood he had known the market as a vital social centre bonding town and country dwellers, and as a meeting-ground for many of the key figures of folk tradition, such as storytellers, singers and dancers. The epigraph of the novel, which is taken from Glissant's essay on Caribbean discourse, affirms that personal histories run like cracks through History itself. [4] And so Chamoiseau sets out to retrace the many dozens of personal stories associated with the market, and does this, in the manner of West Indian conversation, with hosts of anecdotes and jokes and asides, covering exhaustively the antecedents and exploits of every character. Behind the element of playfulness in his work there lies an attitude towards the group which has social and political implications. He has said that he wanted this first novel to be a huge historical fresco: "I feel that we were anonymous in West Indian history, we were the ones nobody ever talks about, and I was very drawn to that particular group. I wanted to show a large number of more or less anonymous characters giving the narrative its impetus, without the presence of a big hero . . . I wanted to create something both diffuse and collective." [5]

An important element of this new programme is the influence of oral tradition. For linguistic and cultural models, writers have been turning to the fast vanishing traces of once popular customs. One is the funeral wake. It used to be the habit of West Indians to gather round the coffin of a dead friend or neighbour and sit up all night, sharing in the family's mourning, paying tribute to the dead person, and also telling stories and exchanging riddles. The wake is used as a framing device by Maryse Condé in her 1989 novel, Traversée de la mangrove, where ritually invoked memories of a dead man provide the structural basis of the narrative and also serve as a medium for the self-revelation of the group.

From the same folk tradition comes the figure of the storyteller. On slave plantations, the storyteller was the voice of the group. The apparently innocuous tales he told may also be seen as subversive models of passive resistance: the heroes of these tales, physically weak but smart and cunning, showed the triumph of guile and magic over brute force. At one level he entertained, at another he preserved distant memories of African folk tradition, at a third he celebrated Creole life in the face of suffering and captivity. Writers like Glissant, Chamoiseau and Confiant view him as the ultimate repository of Caribbean oral culture. But the popularity of the French Caribbean storyteller has declined in the face of all-encroaching French culture. He has therefore become something of an emblematic figure in the eyes of contemporary novelists, who see their own task as being in part to bridge the gap between oral and written tradition.

While Glissant interprets this project at the level of ideas and cultural values, rather than of language, younger writers have set out consciously to infuse their French with Creole elements. Chamoiseau, Confiant and Jean Bernabé, in a jointly authored essay in praise of what they call Créolité, or "Creoleness," present this concept both as a validation of traditional oral culture and an affirmation of the importance of folk history. Their essay vigorously attempts to turn French West Indians away from their fascination with the exterior, with the Other. Starting from Glissant's preoccupation with the recovery of collective memory, they advise the writer to turn inwards: "perfect the collective voice that resounds unheard within our being, participate in it . . . listen to it until the inevitable moment when a common consciousness is crystallized," and they assert: "Creole literature [should be guided by] the principle that nothing in our world is petty, poor, useless, vulgar, or incapable of enriching a literary project." [6] They give specific examples of what must not be deemed unworthy: popular music, popular religion, traditional magic, traditional cooking, and ordinary people's ways of loving and hating, fearing and defying, rejoicing and dying. Above all, they favour humble, anonymous, collective protagonists who do not correspond to the conventional European image of the hero.

These concepts are very clearly illustrated in the novels of Confiant and Chamoiseau. Confiant, who also writes books in Creole, chose a group of fringe dwellers as the protagonists of his first novel in French, Le Nègre et l'Amiral (1988). In this book he seeks to recapture a particular moment in Martinique's history from the point of view of those on the bottom rung of the social ladder. He uses the device of multiple voices to emphasize the oral and Creole quality of slum life, transmitted through the interweaving of standard French and lexical variations. He also creolizes his work in other, non-linguistic ways, for instance by his use of magic and the supernatural, which become even more important in his recent novel, Eau de café (1991), and by his fondness for digressions, which are typical of the folktale.

The ways in which this concept of the collective protagonist can become the dynamic driving principle behind a work of fiction are perhaps best illustrated by Chamoiseau's second novel, Solibo magnifique (1988). The author himself is implicated in two ways in this narrative: he is at times a more or less omniscient narrator, but he is also the character that bears his name, Chamoiseau the writer (or, in Creole, the "marker of words"), a member of the group within the fiction, and possessing, like them, only a limited vision of events. There is thus a very powerful identification of the author with the group experience. This group is a chance gathering of persons who had assembled to listen to the storyteller, Solibo, on the last night of Carnival, and who, unfortunately for themselves, were still on the spot when he mysteriously collapsed and died. Although none is responsible for his death, by the end of the investigation two days later, two of them are dead and one is in jail for defending himself from the policeman who had been assaulting him.

Solibo magnifique is a sort of detective story in that it borrows the traditional structure of the detective story: the mysterious death, the closed circle of suspects, the police investigation led by a middle-class detective inspector and his heavy handed sergeant. Within this framework the author constantly makes play with the difference between two social worlds. The group knows Inspector Pilon is "a learned black," who whizzed through universities and did his police training in France. Pilon does not function in this novel as a symbol of oppressive neo-colonialism; in fact, he has a much lighter hand with the suspects than his sergeant does. But he represents a type of unreflecting cultural shift that is gently derided by the narrator. He does a lot of writing - and the contrast between writing and the spoken word, between French culture and Creole tradition, is a vital issue in the story. The voice of Europe, with its love of order and distaste for untidy Creole nicknames, is evident in the list of witnesses that he draws up: "Eloi Apollon, known as Sucette, claiming to be a drummer, in fact unemployed . . . Man known as Snake, claiming to be a fisherman, most certainly unemployed . . . Bateau Français, known as Congo, maker of cassava graters, very likely unemployed . . ." Since Pilon no longer speaks Creole, it's his sergeant that rephrases his questions to the suspects. The result is not so much a translation as an interpretation that shows the reality of popular discourse. So, Pilon's question, "What is your age, profession and domicile?" becomes "The inspector is asking you which hurricane you were born after, what you do for the white man, and where you sleep at night?"

These difficulties of communication are not merely linguistic: they have to do with differing concepts of life itself. For Pilon, time consists of seconds, minutes and hours; but when he asks the group how much time they spent listening to Solibo on the night he died, he finds that they have no idea. Their notion of time is not European: they measure it, rather, by social change and decline. For the unemployed, the porters who lost their jobs when the market closed, the field hand and factory worker phased out when sugar production crashed, time is simply endless. For the street hawker who used to make her own water ice at home but now is forced to buy and re-sell the cheaper commercial product, time is no longer a space of profitable creativity. Solibo himself, who could no longer sell his charcoal or his stories, lived without watch or calendar. The political radical of the group declares that all time is an interval spent waiting for Independence; and the marker of words wants to know where time passes when it passes: in front of you or behind you.

Through the medium of the group, the author introduces other aspects of popular culture. Magic and the supernatural are interwoven with more plausible events. All are amazed, but only Pilon is surprised, when Solibo's corpse suddenly becomes too heavy for twenty men to lift: the phenomenon of the unwilling corpse is presented as perfectly reasonable in Creole culture. Creole sexual mores are an important minor thread in the narrative. The police sergeant was once fleetingly connected with another member of the group, now a stout and belligerent seller of crystallized grapefruit, and the recollection of their youthful encounter involves an elaborate digression on the art of the chawa, or how to take a girl for a discreet car drive with the object of seducing her. The description of the fish and rice lunch that Solibo prepared in the house of his former girlfriend is another splendid digression, this time a celebration of Creole cuisine. From the elaborate marinade, the carefully judged operation over the stove, the delicious smell which causes a large number of neighbours to drop in casually, the closing of the shutters so that no more people would come in, the cries of encouragement to the cook, right down to the final wiping of the bowls and licking of the fingers, the whole episode demonstrates a way of life which, though it is governed by poverty and lack of privacy, still manages to find room for generosity and friendship.

Alongside Chamoiseau's deployment of key situations in which Creole and European world-views come into conflict, he seeks at every level - as author, narrator and character involved in the action - to emphasize the cultural and metaphorical significance of Solibo's death. For this is also a novel about the dying out of folk traditions. Just as the homemade water ices are no longer in demand, so there is no longer any call for Solibo's folktales. His death was the result of his professional failure. No tidy solution to its mystery can be found, and in the end even Pilon is obliged to accept the Creole explanation, however implausible: Solibo was strangled by his own words, for which he could find too few listeners. After his death, Chamoiseau, the marker of words within the narrative, assumes the traditional function of the storyteller, the decline of which is symbolized by Solibo's death. The dedication of the novel underlines his admiration for the old oral tradition: it simply says "Hector Bianciotti, this word is for you." The book might be described as a collection of acts of speech by the group, who pay homage to Solibo in what Chamoiseau calls "the Creole of memory."

In order to convey the voice of the group, Chamoiseau manoeuvers between French and Creole in what is linguistically an extremely sophisticated way. He creates an illusion of everyday West Indian talk, even though this talk is in reality a literary artefact. Through the use of Creole intonations and syntax, of bilingual puns, of Creole words masquerading as French and vice versa, and of an unfailing ear for the verbal responses of the West Indian crowd, Chamoiseau devises a level of discourse that appears to correspond exactly to the group's ways of viewing and experiencing the world. At the same time, when functioning as omniscient narrator, he conveys a particular authorial vision of that world. His apparently dispassionate text, which brings such merry humour to so many bloodstained events, is underpinned with ironies concerning the structure of Martinican Creole society, where fear and desire, resentment and aggression still seem to perpetuate a kind of plantation hierarchy in which the group is powerless against those in authority.

Let us finally consider the question of the writer's intended audience. Chamoiseau writes of the group and as the group: but who is he writing for? In view of his sociopolitical position, it has seemed to me that he was writing for a surprisingly restricted public, since his reader needs to know not only French but also French Creole in order to be fully alert to every nuance of the text. But it is obvious that Chamoiseau enjoys writing at several levels simultaneously, and is prepared to take the risk that no single reader will necessarily be able to understand all of his meanings. Throughout his immensely good-humoured narrative he dallies with his reader, now by means of a half-misleading footnote, now by an irreverent allusion to literary idols both national (after the "Césairean disaster" of Solibo's death, it's "at the end of the small hours" that his corpse begins to stink) and international (the group waiting by the body is "more fixed and opaque than blacks in Faulkner"). At the same time, though he treats injustice and despair in the comic rather than the tragic mode, it is very evident where his sympathies and loyalties lie. Chamoiseau's novels may perhaps have to wait some decades for their future public to emerge in the Caribbean and elsewhere. But just as his books would not have been imaginable in the Martinique of 50 years ago, so one may anticipate that in 50 years time the group of whom he writes may have become not only the subject, but also the reader of his fiction.

University of Western Australia


1. Edouard Glissant, Le discours antillais (Paris: Seuil, 1981), 153. All translations from French are my own.

2. Jean Bernabé, Patrick Chamoiseau & Raphaël Confiant, Éloge de la Créolité (Paris: Gallimard, 1989), 23.

3. Patrick Chamoiseau, interview with Odile Broussillon and Michèle Desbordes, Notes Bibliographiques CaraÏbes, 48 (Feb. 1988), 15.

4. Glissant, epigraph to Patrick Chamoiseau, Chronique des sept misères (Paris: Gallimard, 1986), 11.

5. Chamoiseau (1988) 15-16.

6. Jean Bernabé, Patrick Chamoiseau, Raphaël Confiant, Éloge de la Créolité, 40.

New: 7 January, 1997 | Now: 19 April, 2015