Uncomfortable truth

For many years, Joseph Zobel’s novel La Rue Cases Negres was banned in his home island of Martinique. James Ferguson explains why

Illustration by James Hackett

When researching an obituary of Joseph Zobel, I was intrigued to read that his classic novel LA Rue Cases Negres was banned in Martinique for twenty years after its publication in 1950. It struck me as odd that a novel of any sort should or could be proscribed in a département of France (which is what Martinique became in 1946), and doubly odd because the island was at that time under the political tutelage of Aimé Césaire, the great poet and exponent of négritude (a sort of literary Black Power). How could this book, which so powerfully evoked the poverty and injustices of colonial Martinique, be censored by a black-dominated administration?

I was grateful to Jenny Zobel, Joseph’s daughter, who contacted me after the obituary appeared. It wasn’t, she explained, a case of political censorship; the fact was that the békés — the white minority who controlled the island’s economy (and still do, according to some) — didn’t like the book, and refused to sell it in their bookshops. La Rue Cases Nègres was simply unavailable because those who pulled the economic strings wanted it that way.

The novel was naturally anathema to the white elite, as it tells in uncompromising terms what it was like to grow up poor and black in a colonial society that was based on exploitation and discrimination. The squalid conditions in which the narrator and hero José grows up — both in the cane-cutters’ barracks and the nearby town — are unsparingly described, as is the daily struggle to afford food. The contrast between the plantation yard and the salubrious white suburb of Didier, where José’s mother works as a domestic servant, could not be more extreme.

But there was another reason why the book wasn’t to be seen in Martinique’s few bookshops. And that was that local book-buyers (and there weren’t that many in the 1950s) simply didn’t want to read novels written by fellow Martinicans, as they believed they would be no good. According to Christian Filostrat’s foreword to the English translation of Zobel’s book (Black Shack Alley), “it was simply not profitable to stock a product that no one bought or read. To see the work of someone one knew was from the colony aroused feelings of anguish and collective apprehension since, a priori, a colonial writer could only imitate one of France.”

So it was that Zobel’s tale of a poor boy struggling against (and beating) the system went largely unnoticed in his native Martinique while winning plaudits in France, where a taste for “exotic” literature ensured a friendlier reception. Indeed, the book came perilously close to disappearing altogether. As Zobel moved to Africa and began a new career in broadcasting, his literary reputation in France (and by extension Martinique) faded.

Yet one Martinican reader was able to get hold of a copy. Her name was Euzhan Palcy, and at the age of fourteen, so she relates, she read La Rue Cases Nègres. The book was to stick in her mind as she studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and then at the Louis Lumière School of Photography. With the backing of François Truffaut, she was able, while still in her twenties, to raise the money for a film version of the novel she had read some fifteen years earlier.

All of which came as something of a surprise to Zobel, who by now had moved to southern France for what he thought might be a quiet retirement. He instinctively liked the young director and, according to Jenny, trusted her for her integrity. The film was shot on a low budget (less than US$1 million) in Martinique, with Zobel present for some of the production.

It was a huge hit, garnering rave reviews in the US, Europe, and the Caribbean itself. Garry Cadenat as José and 76-year-old Darling Légitimus as M’man Tine won particular plaudits for their performances, while the film itself was honoured at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival. Perhaps more importantly, it was the first Caribbean-made film based on a Caribbean novel, and the first full-length film made by a black woman director.

The film took Martinique itself by storm. Jenny Zobel recalls that the queues outside the main cinema were longer and noisier than those for ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, which had been released shortly before. Here, after all, was a film that for the very first time showed Martinicans their own island and their own people in a realistic and unsentimental fashion. Zobel became, rather belatedly, something of a celebrity, invited to give talks and sign books. His work, not least La Rue Cases Nègres, enjoyed a new lease of life, with new editions and fresh interest from a generation of readers interested in “Third World” literature.

The story itself is enduring. A boy, born into the crushing poverty of the plantation, is inspired by the self-sacrifices of his long-suffering grandmother and mother to attend school and work his way out of a life that offers nothing. Along the way he encounters hostility born of racism and the obstacles imposed by a colonial education system, but he is also helped by his selfless relatives and by his own curiosity and thirst for knowledge. As he reaches the end of his schooling (filled with works by Racine, Corneille, and the other greats of the French classical canon) he begins to realise that there is another literature:

. . . pertaining to the lives of black people — those in the West Indies and in America; their history and the stories surrounding them. Those books had aroused in me more curiosity and deeper passion than all the stories of the lives of King This and King That, their wars and their deaths, that I learned and forgot continuously.

Here, more than almost anywhere else, we see that we are reading the story of Zobel’s own life. For it was he who discovered the authentic black voice of Richard Wright and the writers of the Harlem Renaissance and wanted to write something similar about his native Martinique. “Everything in it is autobiographical,” Zobel later said, and it is perhaps the authenticity of the lived experience that gives the novel its intensity.

The békés — or their descendants — probably no longer view Zobel’s novel with such suspicion today. After all, the plantations and barrack yards have largely given way to hotel complexes and suburbs, and there is little of the desperation that Zobel and his contemporaries knew. He would doubtless be amused to learn that Martinique’s four-star Plantation Leyritz Hotel, a luxury complex constructed in the grounds of a seventeenth-century sugar plantation, offers its well-heeled residents air-conditioned bungalow accommodation — in a row of buildings called Rue Cases Nègres.