Boy days: Patrick Chamoiseau

Is Patrick Chamoiseau’s Childhood a “minor” work? Maybe, says James Ferguson

Illustration by James Hackett

When I first started this column several years ago, I intended to devote one of the first pieces to Patrick Chamoiseau, the novelist (and social worker) from Martinique. His great novel Texaco was published in France in 1992 and won the prestigious Prix Goncourt, the annual prize that still manages to excite Paris’s literary class. It took five years for an English translation to appear, and, unfortunately, it wasn’t worth the wait.

The problem with Chamoiseau — and one or two other French Caribbean authors — is that his work is more or less untranslatable. No translation is simple, but the problems of rendering an English version of Chamoiseau’s idiosyncratic and often baffling version of French are almost insurmountable. This is mostly because he writes in a complex and unique mixture of French and French Creole — the language spoken by everyone in the French Caribbean.

Creole, with its piquant blend of standard French and a multiplicity of African and other influences, is living proof of the mixed and dynamic cultural identity of the region. It is a language which quite literally mixes ingredients from around the world. From the language itself, Chamoiseau and others have evolved the idea of créolité or creolity, the notion of a Caribbean culture that is fluid, evolving, and open to influences from anywhere and everywhere. Look at Trinidad’s steel pan, Barbados’s Landship movement, or Carnival celebrations in any island, and you’ll see what they mean. Chamoiseau writes of

Caribbean memories, from the swarming of Africa, from the diversities of Europe, from the festering of India, from the quakes of Asia, from the vast touch of the peoples in the prism of the open islands, the very sites of Creolity.

It follows that the language Chamoiseau uses is eccentric, provocative, and definitely hard to translate. He doesn’t want his reader to understand too easily, but rather to be challenged and entertained by his linguistic inventiveness. And this, of course, made translating Texaco — a massively sprawling epic recounting the history of a Fort-de-France shantytown — a thankless task. When the translation appeared, it was clearly the result of a huge amount of work, but somehow it didn’t ring true; it read like a translation. (Some words seemed plain wrong: the word case, a wooden house or shack, was for some reason rendered as “hutch”.)

So, if you don’t read French (or a very distinctive version of it), the four-hundred-page Texaco is probably not the best place to start with Chamoiseau. A briefer and very rewarding alternative is his Childhood, a poetic memoir of growing up in Fort-de-France in the 1950s and 60s. At around 120 pages, this is a much less daunting proposition than Texaco, and one that gives some insights into Chamoiseau’s considerable literary talent.

There have been many accounts of childhood in the Caribbean (indeed, one might say that this is a minor literary industry in the region), but few are as evocative or as poetic as Chamoiseau’s. For one thing, his is an urban childhood, not the bucolic village life so often recalled by other writers, and one that is neither idealised nor sentimental. He is much more interested in recreating and re-imagining the very feeling of being a child: the sights, sounds, smells, and sensations that we dimly remember and which sometimes resurface involuntarily in a moment of nostalgic recall.

But Chamoiseau is aware, too, that recalling and re-telling are as much acts of the imagination as simple memory, and that, as such, they are subject to the storyteller’s art and to his use of language. Childhood, with its meditation on how we remember the past and how we put it into words, thus forms part of one of Chamoiseau’s recurring themes (to be found in Creole Folktales and Solibo Magnificent): the role of the storyteller in Creole culture.

The memoir also works purely on the level of memoir, suggesting with imaginative intensity the experience of a Caribbean childhood. The child — always referred to in the third person as “the little boy” — lives a life of fleeting but profound sensations: the smell of freshly washed laundry, the sounds of the street, the hot and heavy hours of the afternoon when Fort de France takes a collective siesta. When he writes of that most evocative of city sounds, the opening and shutting of the shopkeepers’ metal grilles, the sense of place is almost tangible. As it is when he describes lying in bed listening to the distant hooting of taxi drivers.

Like all childhoods, this one is made up of long periods of solitude and introspection, punctuated by moments of excitement and drama. Chamoiseau tells poignantly of the rituals of Christmas — the excitement of the manger and the promise of feasting — but also of the macabre fate of the family pig. He wonders at the mysteries of adult behaviour, at the rituals surrounding rum drinking, at the resilience of the tough women who run the families in his neighbourhood, at the inscrutable life of the Syrian merchants who run the shops. He recalls the nasty habits enjoyed by most small boys: the sadistic torturing of insects, the long and fruitless wait to trap a rat, the sneaky attempt to pocket a few illicit centimes on a visit to the corner shop.

What Chamoiseau so successfully conveys is the sense of wonderment at events, little and great, that characterises the child’s perception of the world. Whether the rage of a hurricane or the malevolent-looking crabs that inhabit Fort de France’s canals, natural phenomena are a constant source of curiosity. Stimulated by trips to the cinema (where the kids identify with the white cowboys rather than the “indigenous” Indians) and superstition-laden folktales, the imagination knows no bounds, and fact and fantasy become blurred. What to the adult eye is a dreary tenement building is “a vast palace with perennial resources . . . where we discovered the world in its secret splendour”:

Situated in the midst of the city, it filtered the city. It knew how to combine light and shadow, mystery and truth. Sometimes the warmth of its old sap exhaled in the Sunday silence. It still bears our scratches and graffiti, it stores our shadows in its shadows and still whispers to me sometimes (but things that are by now incomprehensible) when I go there.

With a richly resonant prose style, spiced with Creole inflections and the sounds of the street, Childhood reveals much of Chamoiseau’s stylistic ingenuity and explains why Texaco created such a stir when it first appeared. Ably and sensitively translated by Carol Volk, it shows us not just the ability of an individual writer, but the richness, linguistic and imaginative, of a particular culture — creolity. That you hardly notice you are reading a translation is in itself a tribute to that translation, and one cannot ask for more than this.