The early and formative years of the novelist Joseph Zobel, who died aged 91 in June, remind us how far his native Martinique, now a modestly prosperous Caribbean outpost of the French Republic, has travelled since the poverty-stricken early twentieth century. It was into a life of extreme deprivation that Zobel was born on 26 April, 1915, in the southern town of Rivière-Salée. His mother was a wet nurse to the white Des Grottes family, owners of the sugar plantation where his father also worked, and so the young Joseph was looked after by his grandmother, herself employed to cut down weeds around the sugarcane fields.
The grinding poverty of colonial Martinique forms the subject of Zobel’s most celebrated novel, La Rue Case Nègres, translated as Black Shack Alley. In this explicitly autobiographical story Joseph appears as the narrator José, while his indomitable grandmother, M’man Tine, is herself. The novel traces Joseph’s real-life experience of hunger and discrimination, but also the intelligence and ambition that allowed him to break though the island’s class and colour barriers, escaping the plantation through education. Zobel attended the village school and excelled, being admitted to Fort-de-France’s prestigious Lycée Schoelcher, the only poor black pupil among the capital’s light-skinned middle-class children.
Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of his mother and grandmother, Zobel passed his baccalauréat and, unable to afford university in France, took a local government job before being offered a supervisor’s post at the Lycée Schoelcher in 1938. The Second World War saw Martinique ruled by the pro-Vichy Admiral Robert and a period of hardship and repression as the US Navy blockaded the island. It was at this time that Zobel began to write: short stories, articles, autobiographical pieces, mostly with an emphasis on his rural childhood. Conscious that the French Caribbean colonies, with their Paris-oriented intellectual elite, had little tradition of indigenous literature, he looked to the writers of the Harlem Renaissance and Haiti for an authentically “black” voice.
His first novel, Diab’la, a tale of rural poverty, was summarily banned by the Vichy authorities as subversive. When they fell, Zobel was appointed press officer to the new Gaullist governor, and with the end of the war saw his novel published. By then he had left for Paris, where he studied at the Sorbonne and worked at a school in Fontainebleau, at the same time writing La Rue Case Nègres, which finally appeared in 1950, having been turned down by Parisian publishers Julliard, Albin Michel, and La Table Ronde as too “Creole”. Published by Jean Froissard, it won the Prix des Lecteurs the same year.
In Paris, Zobel had met fellow writer Léopold Sédar Senghor, later to be elected president of Senegal in 1960. Senghor suggested that the Martinican should experience African life, and Zobel jumped at the chance, working as an administrator and head teacher in schools in Casamance and Dakar and then, after independence in 1960, for the state radio service, where his programmes were heard all over Francophone Africa. With his impeccable and mellifluous French (he “lost” his Creole accent), he was at one time in charge of training radio announcers. In Africa, Zobel continued to write, later publishing Si la mer n’était pas bleue (1982) and Badara (1983), based on life in Dakar.
In 1974, Zobel moved to Cévenol, near the small town of Anduze in southern France, where he took up poetry as well as starting a pottery business with his son, Roland. Fame unexpectedly arrived in 1983 with the film version of La Rue Cases Nègres. Directed by Martinican Euzhan Palcy, the low-budget production perfectly captured the mood and language of the novel, winning seventeen international awards, including a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival.
In retirement, Zobel was a much-loved local figure as well as a star in Martinique (the lycée in Rivière-Salée was named after him). He produced further poetry, took up sculpture, and diplomatically professed to knowing nothing about Martinique’s vexatious political and literary feuding. The sudden death of Roland in 2004 darkened the Cévenol idyll, but Zobel is remembered there as a gracious, if reluctant, celebrity, and in Martinique as the writer who both understood and transcended poverty. He is survived by his daughter Jenny and son Francis.