Patrick Chamoiseau’s novels take their form from the primacy of orality, but with the recognition—expressed most clearly at the close of Texaco—that the written word cannot transcribe the oral without also, if it is to respect its powers, representing an elegy for all that is lost in its passing. But it is the nature of the spoken word to pass, context to context, body to body, to attach to a present that is always already past—but why not record, mechanically, the word itself. For that, too Chamoiseau, has an answer:
I looked at those tear-faded eyes which absorbed the light. I looked at her skin drying up with age, and her voice which came from so far away, and I felt weak, unworthy of all of it, unable to transmit so much wealth. Her memory would go with her like Solibo’s, and there was nothing, nothing, nothing I could do except make her take and put some order into what she churned out. The desire to film her came over me for a second, for it seemed more and more to me that audio-visuals offered new opportunities for oraliterature and permitted me to envision a civilization articulated by writing and word. But that required considerable equipment; I feared to arouse deathly silences, frozen gestures, denaturations oif her word magnetized by the camera’s eye. This being the case, I could only listen, listen, listen, feeling an unsettling drunknenness upon unplugging my tape recorder to better lose myself in her and to live the songs of her word at their deepest, until that November day when I found her dead that the end of the year—her shark catcher hanging onto her. I then found myself crushed by the weight of my task. Poor Word Scratcher…you know nothing of what there is to know to buttress the cathedral that death has broken.
Chamoiseau’s first reason, his purported main reason, is instrumental and practical: the camera will make her freeze, will denaturalize. But the real reason, I think, comes a bit later: “to better lose myself in her and to live the songs of her word at their deepest.” The answer turns on the relation of the first-person narrator, here a recorder, to the material being narrated; there can be no forgetting that Chamoiseau’s novels are all first person novels, where the story is always a result simultaneously what is being heard, or what has been heard, and what is being entered into by the narrator himself; the goal is not a transmission of words by the narrator, but a record of the words as the narrator has entered into them, so that even if the first person does not appear as a character, the effort of narrator to immerse himself into what has been presented is felt in the narration always. But such immersion is itself dialectical, the narrator working on the words he is told in order to make of them something that he can enter within. That means that Chamoiseau, the novelist, is responsible not only for presenting or representing a world, and not only for transcribing, but for representing and presenting the back-and-forth between the “churn” of language and whatever in that churn has admitted him: “Her memory would go with her like Solibo’s, and there was nothing, nothing, nothing I could do except make her take and put some order into what she churned out.” [Solibo is the storyteller who “supplies” the material of Chamoiseau’s first novel]. It is not, then, a transcription he aims at, as much as it is a retrieval and excavation of words from her words, which he has entered into, with the novel bearing a reminder always that the words are traces of a larger discourse, that the orality has exceeded the order of the novel, and that the novelist has himself—in order to “make her take and put some order”—at the least had to intervene with words of his own.
What Chamoiseau offers as a dynamic of character and mode of storytelling is a variant on an old epic tradition in which Muse speaks to Poet and Poet beseeches Muse, but also a variant on the theoretical notion of utterance and language, on the language that speaks an individual on the one side, and the individual that speaks a language on the other. But it should not be reduced to either of these because its goal is human and humane, the recovery not only of language, but of memory, and of the history that cannot be known except as the memories of those are themselves most at risk of being forgotten; whose histories cannot be afforded the claims of the Universal (a word against which Chamoiseau is vigilant—most evidently in the school scenes from his memoir School Days where the teacher, swept up with the “universality” of metropolitan Parisian thought, imposes upon his students the need to overcome their provincial, Creole origins; the dedication to that memoir speaks volumes in itself), because they are themselves the product of the shanty-town quarters of that substance and entity called “City” (call them slums, favelas, etc; Chamoiseau late in Texaco implores us to recognize that they are proliferating, without recognition), which have an order that owes from spontaneous processes of continuous generation and fading, analogous to orality, and which exists in relation and opposition; the order of Hills to City, Quarter to City are always, in a word that Chamoiseau turns to repeatedly, “becoming,” rather than fixed, imposed from a plan or scheme that is already determined (the plan that is, of city planning).
The very form and order of the book is a form and order of “becoming” instead of “being,” and the dialectic of the encounter between Chamoiseau-the-recorder and Marie-Sophie Laborieux (the teller) is between one whose writing must fix, but whose material is always becoming, with each telling, and with each effort at recording; and which is itself salvaged from, and resisting, the detritus to which it is easily lost, as are the lives of those forgotten persons whom it would elevate to their proper dignity and heroic stature. Chamoiseau’s formal challenge and achievement is to find a form, in writing, of the becoming that is telling, and he meets it by acknowledging openly, and embracing, that the act of writing is also a process, not of always becoming, but of always seeking that which is becoming, of always laboring after something that is independent of him.
The risk of a novel founded on “becoming” and “seeking” is dissolution into a fog or mess of Platonism, moods, impressions, glances, or worse, empty verbalism, or piles of verbal foliage, leaves without trees or forest. Chamoiseau avoids all of this by clinging fast to the substances that become: the matter of the world, felt, desired, impressing its necessities and demands upon individuals. Ideals follow economy, and the economy of exchange, of desire, of labour and leisure alike is physical, material, sensuous and sensual. The body is always the locus of Chamoiseau’s narration, that to which language must ultimately answer, by means of which language might proliferate, and which may exceed the potential of language in its felt experiences. Where there is a body, there is the capacity to apprehend a world that is always becoming. It is impossible to imagine Chamoiseau bored by a scene; even boredom itself is an experience of physical, effective, somatic becoming; even in the experience of boredom, something would be happening for Chamoiseau. The body, then, is a sort of principle for excavation from the flux of Marie-Sophie Laborieux’ speech: to recover what happens to bodies, what they make happen, is a way of achieving coherence, specificity, situation, place, without forsaking “becoming,” containing as it does a principle that bodies are themselves generational, subject to vicissitudes of decay and rejuvenation, albeit tending always to collapse. (The body as an anchor amidst verbal flotsam is perhaps the lesson learned from Rabelais, one of Marie-Sophie’s four cherished authors, whose power the Haitian-born Ti-Cirique, with a strong allegiance to the “universal” order of a literary canon, acknowledges, with caveats; it is plausible to think Chamoiseau would agree with many of Ti-Cirique’s views, but not this.) Hence, opening Texaco at random:
As for Ninon, she was losing her footing. The light in her eyes wavered. She looked like the oil flame of a candle ring in the wind. She had found her cane bearings again, her mechanical movements to fend off their blades, her rags rolled up to the round of her shoulder, the old hat which pitilessly grated her temples under the heated sun. This badly watered life was hurling her every day down the bottom of the cliffs of her heart of hearts for good. My Esternome would make sure to be there when she came back home. She would come back like a withered flower. Month after month. Ninon was alighting from the world. She was beginning to look like the old African, her mother, no point in talking more about her. Soon she looked at what he brought her back (a glossy turtle shell, a small steel knife, some yellow scarves she loved so much, a clear eau de cologne) with indifference. It made him so sick; he thought he could see her slow descent into an echoless depth.
The movement forward, even where it is a movement down, or a movement into inertia from which there is no escape, does no cease, and in its surge is picked up all of the concretions of the living, feeling body—which in turn propel it forward. It is always a narration of what is told (“no point in talking more about her”; “this badly watered life”; “made him so sick”) , but also, in the rhythm, sequence, and cadence of the sentences, a restoration from the more tangled course of telling.
The small choices of wording are themselves most telling: “pitilessly” in a novel and world that is careful to offer much sympathy but little pity, that cannot afford its luxury, even in a sentence like that which follows: “this badly watered life was hurling her every day down to the bottom of the cliffs of her heart of hearts for good.” “For good” is a cruel colloquial turn, hardly for good at all; “the bottom of the cliff of her heart of hearts” releases the metaphor “heart of hearts” into a figure of arduous, perilous physicality, implying a life spent clinging or perched precariously atop that cliff. We are invited to think back to “she was losing her footing,” and ahead to “alighting,” so that the fatality of “losing her footing” is recognized and the contrast with “alighting” insisted upon. ” “Hurling her every day” propels the scene into the realm of mythical torture, with every day, the same death inflicted. What is to blame? Life itself, but not Life, “this badly watered life,” where “badly watered” places “this life” among the vegetation of the fields, the thirst of laborers, the struggling survival of small garden plots that occupy the quarters of the novel. In the next sentence “there” is “home” in “when she got back home” but the return of “back” echoes the return of the downward hurling day after day, and “there,” syntactically, might be also the bottom of the cliff; he is there, but can do nothing. The entire passage is animated by whatever animation is possessed by a life almost dead, most active in its dying: “She came back like a withered flower.” Once again, the first thought is that she returns each day like a flower plucked and dried out, perhaps to be rejuvenated again. But a withered flower cannot be rejuvenated and “she came back like a withered flower” might suggest a failing of the seasons, with flowers in spring reappearing as withered. “Month after month,” and not “day after day.” “No point in talking more about her,” referring to the old mother, is also a gesture of conscientious forgetting to which Ninon might soon be subject: pitiless but not without sympathy; sympathetic without sentimentality. Another echo of return: “Soon she looked at what he brought her back” so near, but so far to, “bringing her back,” and the parentheses setting her apart from the worldly concerns, dispatching them to a cupboard, “with indifference,” that phrase itself deferred by the parenthetical, as if indifferent to its arrival, lacking energy, and closing out the sentence, like the life, without caring. “Soon” hardly seems “soon,” but is “soon” after the “months and months,” and “soon” in the course of a life; the rapidity of time felt in the word tugging against the terrible slowness of her collapse in “month after month,” occupying a period without verb, without subject, only a sequence of time. In a passage characterized by potent full-stops, each seeming an emblem of her end, and, in the context, making the re-establishment of subject and verb, or at least each new period, seem an effort of exertion, an effort to pull Ninon back into–not life (impossible), but the narrative–against all of that, the final semi-colon is astonishing. “It” is all of that: the indifference, but also all that has come before. “So sick” intrudes the force of a spoken voice, the presence of speech here fully needed at the keenest response to her imminent absence. Then the semi-colon and “it” suddenly looks forward also to what he thought he could see: not a violent crash down a cliff, but a slow descent, without echo of voice or sigh or any other sound we’d think to hear. That semi-colon slows but does not pause; it suggests the continuity of her withdrawal out of life.
What cannot be taken up into that way of telling, or extracted from it? Over the course of the novel are plantations, the emancipation of 1848, the arrival of the sugar factories, a beautiful—it could stand on its own with the power it contains within itself—Georgics of life in the hills, Dickensian petit-bourgeois mulattos, Aime Cesaire, spiritual healers, embodied earthly powers (Mentohs), all caught up from the same current of Marie-Sophie Laborieux’ voice, received into, ordered by, the narrator’s. The novel’s “style,” though really when we say “style” we mean “form,” is the estuarial mingling of her voice with the narrator’s active receptivity, his voice becoming her own, her own becoming his.
But of course the greatest formal feat of the novel is the imagination of the two voices in the first place, the fiction that Chamoiseau invents being the encounter of listening to a story being told, and recording it, arranging it, making it more orderly than it could be. It is a fiction, then, of speaking and listening upon which the written words of the novel is sustained, on which it feeds. Here too there is an implicit argument about what is necessary if one is to imagine a certain sort of history that is politically and ethically essential: the imagination must not only encompass the events, the people, the places, the bodies, but the conditions of testimony, memory, report and storytelling from which such a history is inextricable, and also the excess of telling and memory that no novel can contain, but which it must acknowledge and find space for, without losing coherence (the notebooks are one place in which that excess is registered and admitted; the footnotes another). To imagine the history that Chamoiseau wants to imagine, he needs not to represent the confrontation of the individual narrator and the Past, but to foreground the persistent resistance offered by the individual narrator as he listens, listens, listens to what another individual tells.