Mondes caribéens

Un dimanche au cachot (Patrick Chamoiseau, 2007) : Analysis of a Palimpsest

[…] elle le fit entrer […] dans un de ces vieux cachots à demi enterrés qui avaient servi à mater les récalcitrants : ils plongèrent à quatre pattes dans son abîme. […] Anatolie chuchotait que tout le monde avait oublié […]. Liberté dit que les femmes n’oubliaient pas. […] C’est à partir de ce trou débondé que déferla sur nous la foule des mémoires et des oublis tressés, sous quoi nous peinons à recomposer nous ne savons quelle histoire débitée en morceaux.
Edouard Glissant, La case du commandeur.

Comme ces peuples réfugiés dans une pierre, je vais aboutir à quelques os perdus au fond de ces Grands-bois.
Patrick Chamoiseau, L’esclave vieil homme et le molosse. Avec un entre-dire d’Edouard Glissant. (1)

    Although the book cover indicates that Chamoiseau’s work is a “novel”, the complexity of this text is such that any attempt at defining its genre would yield meager results. Unfolding the multiple strata of this compelling, audacious and, at times, puzzling patchwork, any patient reader will witness creativity-in-progress.

Starting with the somewhat paradigmatic but unstable structure of one Sunday spent at the present-day Sainte Famille (The Holy Family), an institution for orphans and mistreated children located on the land where the Habitation Gaschette once stood, in Martinique, little by little, countless structures and traces appear to the reader’s imagination; (2) a reader who is actually guided quite early in her exploration by the first-person narrator who declares: “Dans la beauté du lieu, sous l’éclat de la pluie, je perçois le terrible palimpseste” (Dimanche, 30) (“In the beauty of the place, through the glistening rain, I perceive the terrible palimpsest”). (3) Having quoted Chamoiseau, however, I honestly do not think that readers could be blind to the palimpsestic architecture of the text, both words, “palimpsestic” and “architecture”, being used here in the strongest senses of the words. As I hope to demonstrate, in Dimanche, the palimpsestic dimensions actually function on multiple levels: temporal, thematic, structural, formal, stylistic, symbolic, historical (literary traditions included) and, ultimately, philosophical as well as ethical. The first part of this essay explores the most obvious palimpsestic features as they relate to time(s), themes, characterization and emplotment. Then, I move to various and somewhat complex intertextual levels as they are developed in Chamoiseau’s own brand of postmodernist writing. The third and last section is devoted to the overall philosophical discourse that, permeating the whole text, suggests an ever-present and all encompassing meditation on “beauty” in its relation to life and art.


   The outside page of this palimpsest offers the story created by the narrator’s efforts to establish contact with one of the children, Caroline, a young girl who has taken refuge in an old stone-cell, perhaps the old Plantation “cachot” (jail), as she often does, feeling totally alienated from everyone else in the institution. (4) Underneath this exterior surface is another Sunday, that distant Sunday conjured up through the twin-eyed vision of both the narrator and Caroline, with the figure of “L’Oubliée” (“The Forgotten 0ne”) at the center of the vision. (5) “L’Oubliée” was/is a young female slave from Plantation times who, at one point, as revealed in one of the buried layers of this multi-floored edifice, was imprisoned in the Plantation “cachot”; this young slave is endowed with remarkable endurance, dignity, and healing talents. While the name given her by the slave community alludes to the neglect she has suffered from the time she was born — her own mother having shown no sign of affection for her whatsoever –, the narrator ventures to suggest that, for the Plantation white folks, she was also Carole … or Caroline … At times, “L’Oubliée” is blurred with Caroline’s own figure in the narrator’s vision or, even, in the reader’s mind, depending upon the way each reader reacts to the writer’s techniques. Caroline actually becomes a sister-figure to the young slave. Among similar traits they share, worth mentioning is that both Caroline and “L’Oubliée” have been sexually abused by one male or the other in their respective environments, and not well treated either by some of their women folks. As mentioned above, throughout the day, the narrator tries to establish contact with the withdrawn, wounded girl, hoping to provoke in her some sort of reawakening, some sort of transformation, or perhaps healing process by leading her — and leading himself and the reader –, through shocking, uncanny encounters with many fragmented images from the past. In sum: looking again at the outer surface of the palimpsest, as the dream unfolds and expands throughout the day, the stone-cell-“cachot” actually becomes the womb of a visionary, although not prophetic, process for all parties involved in the maze of such a long and piecemeal story-making. Entangled within the chapters of the book and their respective headings, which indicate the various moments of the day — either in the present time or in the distant past — , are a myriad of mini-pieces. If reconstructed by the reader’s own work, these apparently loosely connected series of subjects, characters, events, places, objects, animals, plants, situations, etc. will bring out other palimpsestic structures within the main triadic framework built around the narrator, Caroline, and “L’Oubliée”. Such constant manipulations around time and space take the reader on a long dramatic journey, not devoid of suspense, between past and present, history and legend, ordinary and extraordinary perceptions, dreams and memories, while also making her, the reader, reflect on various types, or possible types, of literary activity.

Within the dual narrative elaborated around the two Sundays, one of the most outstanding substrata in the palimpsest is written around the “marronnage” theme. The idea and actuality of “marronnage” from one time to the other, one type of stifling society to the other, revolve around “L’Oubliée”‘s own family, namely her “manman bizarre” (“bizarre mom“), and “la Belle” (“the Beautiful One”), who is” L’Oubliée”‘s grand-mother, also called “L’Africaine”. Endowed with a seer-like clairvoyance, “La Belle” seems to have crossed the ocean by choice, in search of her deported daughter. Incidentally, her determination to prevent slave children from being born seems to be her main purpose in life. Around this family gravitate the old Plantation Master, father of “L’Oubliée” who will eventually molest her too –, his son — the Master –, and his own family, the sugar distillery workers — especially “the old man” — , another worker — Sechou –, many other slaves, the Story-Teller, the African gods, the Christian priest and his “Great Book” (“Grand Livre”), the stone-cutter — who built the plantation jail –, the porcelain seller — a freemason abolitionist, also called “the visitor”. In one of the final acts of this long drama, that visitor will try to break the “cachot”‘s lock to let “L’Oubliée” out (296, my emphasis). Soon afterwards, following her liberation, he introduces himself to her as Victor Schœlcher. (6) However, the narrator tells Caroline that the young woman “did not respond to him” (“je dis à Caroline que l’Oubliée ne lui a pas répondu”, 308).

Most important also in the “marronnage” landscape are the bulldog (“molosse”, “monstre”), the snakes (“les bêtes longues”), the datura plant (“datou”) — a plant with hallucinogenic powers –, and the stone motif. This stone motif is all encompassing, being very closely tied up with many elements in Chamoiseau’s text. As “jaw” of the jail (“machoire de pierre”, 112-113), it is associated with the terrifying dog used by the Master to assail slaves for one reason or the other especially in times of marronnage; but the stone structure is also perceived as a shelter and a gate to dreams (“stone-shell” — “coquille de pierres”, 137), and perhaps, even, paradoxically, as a symbol of liberation from the surrounding world, which includes yesterday’s Plantation society, today’s society on the island; even, also, the benevolent, charitable institution La Sainte Famille (at least, from Caroline’s point of view) and, probably, the French Department structure: we remember that a recurrent theme in Chamoiseau’s writings is how pernicious, if less visible, alienation is in the present-day administrative situation [See Ecrire en pays dominé (7)]. Ultimately, the stone stands as testimony to a land steeped in human stories and realities, whether it bears signs or not, from Amerindian cultures, for instance, whether it is engraved or not with names or other traces. In Dimanche, the stone is also part of a tomb filled with bones; together stone and bones evoke the long vital impulse going from inert matter to life through various steps and back to Mother Earth. And yet, the stone resists probing. It is a constant reminder that whatever vestiges may remain from the past, so little will ever be known; so little will be known about slavery, and about so many “Oubliées”: the stone remains as enigmatic as reality itself.

Indeed, there is room for a study of the fantastic in the text. For quite a number of pages the reader is tempted to believe that “L’Oubliée” bears the child of “the old man”, a very important character in the book, a man whom she imagines to be a lover rather than an abuser. However, at one crucial point in the story-line or rather story-meanderings, the reader witnesses the disappearance of the pregnancy signs with no childbirth. The pregnancy disappears when, from her “cachot“, she “perceives”, imagines that the “visitor” has unlocked the “cachot” to let her escape into the woods in search of the old man. Still in her dream and led by the dog, she will discover many bones, near the Stone — “that mineral force” (“cette force minérale”) — that seems to have magnetized the old man. The sight of a broken leg convinces her that he was not killed by the dog sent after him when he had escaped, but that he must have died from the wounds suffered during his run through the woods (210-211). In the next section (“Au-soir”), awakened from the dream and still in her prison, “L’Oubliée” touches her flat, childless body. Viewing the entangled images of the tale, the reader wonders whether the need to prolong the old man’s life by giving birth to his child ceases to be important for the young woman when she imagines him to have died free and reunited to the earth. Later, the dream will become “reality” when, also guided by the dog, Sechou, another maroon, will discover the old man’s bones, and bring them back to “L’Oubliée”. When the Master decides to extricate her from the “cachot”, the dog, who had become friendly to both the escapee (Sechou) and the young woman, will end up showing his fangs to the Master. Wounded and fearing for his life, the latter will have no recourse but to find refuge in the “cachot”. On one page of the tale “L’Oubliée” comes back to the Habitation, and continues her work as a caretaker and a healer. On another page, she is imprisoned again. Before the Master frees her a second time, and as mentioned above (p. 4), the “visitor” himself will attempt to break the “cachot”‘s lock. As “imagined” by the narrator, on Monday morning, at dawn, both the “visitor” and he, the Master, together, look at “L’Oubliée” crawling out of the “cachot” (296, 305-306). In his final remarks, the narrator notes that, one day, the Master had seen her walk out into the woods, and disappear. Legends around her figure will develop, and many stories will be told.

As the reader of Dimanche is prompted to explore the deeper strata of the palimpsest from the visionary bouche d’ombre open to both the narrator and Caroline, little by little, that reader senses that the fragmented, buried story or, rather, stories help Caroline deal with her own suffering and the repressed memories of the mistreatments which, as a child, she must have gone through. As night closes in on that Sunday, and as the reading/perceiving experience also comes to an end for all parties concerned, Caroline, the present-day maroon, willingly steps out of the stone structure, holding the friend/narrator’s hand, even, perhaps, helping him out, and looking calm, “docile” (312), as if reconciled with herself and her environment. The effect of this long and often painful eye-opening experience on the narrator, who is supposed to be a kind of savior, is by no means, I believe, negligible. Who helps whom? Who saves whom? The last few pages suggest that the stone structure has now turned into a friendly place where Caroline and the other children often come together to remove the weeds all around the small edifice, rearrange some stones, here and there, or, again, listen to the same story : the same story ?

Not all details of such a thick word construct are easy to interpret, or are even meant to be interpreted in a clear-cut fashion. Stimulating is the difficulty of following multi-eyed visions throughout the text: to the imaginary landscape sketched out by the narrator’s and Caroline’s twin-eyed vision, are added other dreams, thus, those perceived by “L’Oubliée”, but also by the porcelain seller — “the visitor” (who, incidentally, is shown taking notes reflecting his philosophical and political leanings), and even by the Master. The complex entity represented by the narrator/educator/writer/reader (writer turned reader) constitutes a foursome whose opinions, decisions, and argumentation often compete with one another in the story-making process. This entity is as much involved, more involved perhaps, than all the other textual entities, in the descent into the cave, into the abyss of an obscure past with many indescribable, undecipherable, unknowable pages except through a few fragile, although tenacious traces, signs, half-words, half-vestiges, true or false vestiges and realities and, most of all, through the very arduous task of seeing, not with but through the eye, to paraphrase one of William Blake’s well known lines. Constant, in this search, is the attempt, mixed with frustration and doubt, and riddled with questions of all kinds, to write a useful, meaningful book, first for himself, the writer, as “human being” as well as textual voice, and for the reader. And yet, ultimately, the only reality is the complex albeit wandering vision, several times called a “delirium”, perceived by the narrator/educator/writer/reader who, through the power of Imagination — often called “that Warrior” –, borrows multiple eyes, sensations, feelings, reasonings, images, from the invented characters, beings, objects, and tropes:

[…] ce dimanche de L’Oubliée avait été bredouillé. J’avais parlé avec la cacarelle qui me tordait, les angoisses, les frissons et les doutes. Je n’avais jamais eu que rarement la voix claire. C’était une non-histoire. J’avais seulement incarné dans ce cachot la douloureuse liberté que L’Oubliée était forcée de s’inventer. Sechou, le Maître, L’Oubliée, le visiteur, le lecteur, l’écrivain, l’éducateur, je les avais laissés me traverser en plusieurs mailles avec l’aide de mon spectre Guerrier. (316-317)

[…] that Sunday about “L’Oubliée” had been mumbled. I had spoken with the colic that racked me, with the anxieties, the shudders and the doubts. Only rarely had I had a clear voice. That was a non-story. In this “cachot” I had embodied nothing but the painful freedom that “L’Oubliée” was forced to invent for herself. Sechou, the Master, “L’Oubliée”, the visitor, the reader, the writer, the educator, I had let them all traverse me through several links with the help of my specter, the Warrior.


   In the second section of this essay, I will attempt to make a few suggestions regarding Chamoiseau’s text as it relates to postmodernist writing or, more generally, and probably even more appropriately, to fiction writing as palimpsest. Here, Gérard Genette’s title: Palimpsestes. La Littérature au second degré, may come to mind, as well as the ironic use and critique of “founding texts” by many. (8) As Cilas Kemedjio reminds his readers in a 2002 article, the study of intertextual linkages that run through Caribbean literature is by no means a new topic. (9) With respect to Chamoiseau, Kemedjio quotes a passage from the first section of Ecrire (a book which, by and large, may be read as a kind of intellectual autobiography) in which he, Chamoiseau, declares having had in his young days a perception of the world largely based on “a Western construct” (“construction occidentale”, 44). As indicated in that chapter subheading, such a statement indeed refers to a time when “the child who was reading is going to have to reread everything” (“Où l’enfant qui lisait va devoir tout relire” — italics in the text). In fact, Chamoiseau’s writings have for long revealed complex and subtle relationships to both “canonical” (Western) and other kinds of texts (my emphasis), often themselves highly ambiguous with respect to the “canon”, especially those written in Europe-born languages, including texts by Caribbean authors who surround him or have preceded him, or authors from various regions of the world and read in translation, whenever needed. Perhaps such features are increasingly visible in Chamoiseau’s work, although they were quite evident already in the vast Sentimenthèque (Ecrire) to which Kemedjio is referring. Also, of course, his interest in “oraliture” as well as in artistic works other than literary is no trivial aspect of his ongoing creative endeavor. I would like to add rapidly that I do not see how such complex interminglings could have been, could be avoided; and this, certainly not in the Caribbean context only. Such interminglings are part of human (hi)stories, past and present, although, of course, the degree of tragicity attached to one historical, cultural development or the other is an obviously related, immense, and most important matter. Within the parameters of the present analysis, Linda Hutcheon’s description of “historiographic metafiction” might actually prove helpful when analyzing Chamoiseau’s own brand of postmodernist intertextuality, although it would be foolhardy to read her work as a recipe manual in the arduous task of reading such a free spirit as Chamoiseau is. (10)

a) At the most simple level, the digressions about other texts, writers, thinkers, artists, etc., in Dimanche, will stand out as metatexts which, depending upon the kind of reader one is, will appear either helpful or unnecessarily disruptive. If appreciative of this technique, the reader will first realize that the many personae surrounding the narrator are part and parcel of the intertextual/metatextual network; and secondly, that, in this kind of “novel”, establishing boundaries between text as narrative proper, intertext, and metatext may very well be a dead end. (11)

The first evident posture is that of the true-to-life narrator who, as we know, happens to be an educator and a social worker. Throughout the day, this narrator receives cell-phone messages from his friend Sylvain, the institution’s director, (12) who, very worried about Caroline’s condition, had summoned his help. However, this narrator, as speaker but also as “moi” (“myself”, 122), often dissociates himself from the educator and, moreover, adds many ironic, even sarcastic clins d’oeil to the writer. In turn, the writer, as reader (133), a reader of many other texts that have preceded him or that surround him, including his own, as well as the present text that is in the process of being written, makes countless digressions about his many encounters with other writers, artists, thinkers, historians, politicians, militants, etc. (see b) below). “Reader” is here a particularly momentous term, since, each time the word appears on the page, you and I, as readers, are drawn into the “other” writer/reader’s thoughts and comments in an inescapable sort of complicity. Actually, in the third section (“En-midi”), along with this educator/writer/reader framework, the same narrator wittily suggests quite a few other potential and self-appointed roles such as: “le musicien raté, le juriste réticent, le gourmand compulsif, le peintre-sculpteur échoué, le Marqueur de Paroles, le jardinier en herbe, journaliste bénévole, conférencier, militant écolo … […]” (133 – italics in the text — “the failed musician, the reticent lawyer, the compulsive eater, the unsuccessful sculptor-painter, the Word Inscriptor, the apprentice gardener, the unpaid journalist, the lecturer, the ecologist militant …”). However, in the last but one section (“En-nuit”), he, the narrator, explains that, at the end of that Sunday, he finally came to realize that only “that desire to help a child without knowing exactly how” had provoked him into conceiving the whole story (“[…] ce désir d’aider une enfant sans trop savoir comment”, 282). For this accomplishment, again, he thanks “le Guerrier de l’Imaginaire” (“the Imagination-borne Warrior”), that part of himself which, at times, urges him to leave behind all the other selves, selves devoted to many battles waged under one name or the other, one mask or the other, or from within one life experience or the other. (23, 282-283. See also the excerpt from pages 316-317 quoted above, at the end of section 1).

b) It seems that four major intertextual levels are at play in Chamoiseau’s text.

b1) Dimanche contains implicit allusions to previous accounts of slavery and post-slavery times in the New World. There is, for instance, a section presenting a record of the various names given to people according to their skin-colors: “Mulâtre”, “Quarteron”, “Mamelouque”, “Sacatra”, “Marabou”, “Griffonne”, “Griffe, “Chabin”, etc. (24-26 and elsewhere). I am also thinking, for instance, of several graphic torture scenes that could be taken from some horror movie, or from some cheap, sensational pseudo-literary piece of writing. One might wonder whether such sequences are useful; and yet, recast in the context and mode of Chamoiseau’s work, I believe that such tableaus contribute effectively to the reading and, therefore, thinking experience. As to the “cachot” figure, Glissant’s readers will remember that, in La case, Anatolie Celat begins to “perceive” the past when, led by his initiator, Liberté Melchior, he steps into an old Plantation “cachot” where he learns from Liberté’s mouth that “[…] le passé comme l’avenir étaient tout entiers dans ce rond de cachot.” ([…] “the past as well as the future were all there in that round dark hole”.) (124-126 — see the longer quote presented above, on page 1, as an epigraph). And, of course, we know that “marronnage” is a theme central to Glissant’s fiction, with powerful symbolic figures at the center of his discourse, such as the dog, the snake, the tree, the stone … (very important figures, also, in Césaire). (13) The reader will thus remember that, in Glissant’s Le quatrième siècle, the pursuit of Longoué by the pack of dogs reaches a climax near the Morne des Acacias (44-45). (14) In Chamoiseau’s own previous work, L’esclave, whose sections are intertwined with un entre-dire d’Edouard Glissant, the reader hears many of the same echoes, acacias included (32). However, whereas, in “L’Oubliée”‘s dream (Dimanche), Sechou also encounters the acacias (196-200, 232), in the more reliable? story proposed by the narrator, when Sechou returns to the “cachot” to be near “L’Oubliée”, the reader finds out that Sechou had not come across a single acacia (295). On the other hand, in both L’esclave and Dimanche, the old man dies from his wounds [in L’esclave, the dog licks his broken leg without attacking him — 136-137].

b2) Many readers will be able to detect paraphrases directly inspired from previously published works or popular sayings and legends. For instance:

— “[…] chargé de bruit et fureur” [“[…] laden with sound and fury”], 178. “Il tremble de bruit et de fureur” [“He trembles with sound and fury”], 238. (Faulkner: The Sound and Fury, 1929. The title of this novel is taken from Macbeth’s soliloquy in act 5, scene 5 of Shakespeare’s Macbeth)

— “[…] cette obscure clarté qui tombe du ciel ouvert”, [“[…] that obscure lightness that falls from the open skies”], 270. (Corneille : Le Cid, 1636, “Cette obscure clarté qui tombe des étoiles”)

— “Le grand pays est en elle (la Belle), elle le tient dans ses bras, elle le soigne, elle entend ses chants et ses soupirs…” [“The big country is in her (“la Belle”), she holds it in her arms, she nurses it, she hears its songs and sighs…”], 285. (Césaire, Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, 1939/1956)

— “L’accouchée périssait sur la paille de l’espèce d’hôpital quand l’Oubliée surprit la bête lovée sur elle. Qui la tétait. L’Oubliée hurla de terreur. La Belle surgit et plutôt que de trembler elle salua le démon” [“The parturient was languishing on the straw of that hospital of sorts when “L’Oubliée” came upon the beast coiled up on her. Sucking her. “L’Oubliée” screamed with fear. “La Belle” came forth, and without trembling, she greeted the demon”], 51. (Glissant, Soleil de la conscience, 1956)

— “Hormis le bien, ils peuvent tout faire” [“Except for something good, they can do anything”], 139: a sarcastic statement made by the Master and reminiscent of: “Hormis lu bien, lu nègre peut tout faire”: Sentence favorite d’Adélaïde Seigneur, dame de la petite bourgeoisie de couleur du début de ce siècle]. [“Except for something good, the negro can do anything”: The favorite saying of Adelaïde Seigneur, a lady of the colored lower bourgeoisie from the early years of this century]. (Glissant, Epigraph to Malemort, 1975)

    b3) The most prominent intertextual/metatextual dimension is the monumental library shelf built into the book and represented most strikingly by comments on Saint-John Perse, Faulkner, Glissant, Césaire, Fanon, and Chamoiseau himself, as author of L’esclave (Dimanche, 54). Thus: “Je vois Saint-John Perse et Faulkner qui passent à côté du cachot, qui le devinent mais n’osent le regarder” (“I see Saint-John Perse and Faulkner walking by the “cachot”; they feel it but do not dare to look at it”). And:

Impossible de trouver normal que de tels endroits aient pu donner naissance à des œuvres comme celles de Césaire, de Glissant, de Perse, de Fanon, de Faulkner… Il me faudrait en faire un roman. Seul le roman peut tenter de comprendre, c’est-à-dire d’envisager en ombres et lumières. (312)

Impossible to find it normal that such places have actually given birth to such works as Césaire’s, Glissant’s, Perse’s, Fanon’s, Faulkner’s… I should make a novel out of it. Only fiction can attempt to understand, that is to say, to envisage reality in its shadows and lights.

    Other shelves bear the names of a rather large number of figures, other writers, artists, musicians, social militants, historians, philosophers … Thus: Moreau de Saint-Méry, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Descartes, Pascal, Francisco le Magnifique and Patrick Saint-Eloi — two present-day Antillean singers –, Mile Davis, Haendel, Mozart, Bach, Liszt, Berlioz, Chopin, Lamartine, Tocqueville, Saint Augustin, Henry James, James Joyce, Cervantès, Van Gogh, Millet, Wilfredo Lam, Freud, Segalen, Kafka, Kundera, Primo Levi, Soljenitsyne, Matisse, Schœlcher… From all these metatextual comments, the reader gathers that many illustrious predecessors are no objects of parody or pastiche — in the narrow sense implying merely humor or ridicule — but, rather, have become powerful inspirations for thinking and research, as well as stepping-stones for the author’s own creative endeavors. (For instance, see 126, 132-136: “Poétique du hoquet”, 239-240, 267-268: “Entrecroisements”, 316-317: “L’Ecrire”). Besides, as pointed out earlier, the reader will notice that Chamoiseau often blurs the distinction between canonical and non canonical texts or works of art, in the way one could talk about Euro-centric cultures versus ex-centric cultures. Surely enough, readers will notice that Rosa Parks is the only “historical” female named in the metanarrative [and, if I am not mistaken, M.Yourcenar and S. Schwarz-Bart are the only female writers to appear in Chamoiseau’s Sentimenthèque (Ecrire)]. Although meditating on Chamoiseau’s male political unconscious may not be devoid of interest, suffice it to recall here that the centrality occupied by women characters in Dimanche will no doubt stand out both as a reminder of the marginal status to which many have been relegated in most societies, and as an assertion of their vital roles in all societies (See section 3, below, for further detail).

b4) Finally, and in close relation to the above, one intertextual/metatextual aspect is linked to the discussion of various narrative techniques and devices which have been used by many fiction writers, or could be used, and to the discussion of whether one method or the other could be judged as effective, or more, or less effective — such as interior monologues, stream of consciousness, and dialogues (for instance, see 184-185).

If, as I have indicated earlier, irony permeates the treatment of subjectivity and authorship in Dimanche, indeed, a highly self-reflexive piece of work, in the first place, irony is grounded in the writing project itself: early in the text, the narrator informs the implied reader about another book he had been dreaming about, a pseudo-epic kind of story (28-29). Overall, irony is clearly manifest vis-a-vis realist conceptions of literature, constructions of “grand narratives” based on solid images of the past, already known and stored in the writer’s mind, so to speak, stories engendered and bequeathed by a godly kind of author. Whereas Sylvain, the Sainte Famille‘s director and friend of the narrator, the earnest, responsible, realistic, devoted professional, needs a real, coherent and well documented story, a convincing case, both in History and fiction, in great contrast, for Chamoiseau the artist and even the reader of History, there is no possible confusion between textual referents and actual, “real” references. On the last page of the book, you and I, the readers, will learn that the archeologist in charge of historical monuments and sites has declared that, no, that place was not, could not be a Plantation “cachot”: “ça change tout”, Sylvain then complains to the narrator [“well … if so, it’s all different, isn’t it ? “]. The last line of the novel presents the narrator’s response: “Ah… et ça change quoi ?” [“Really… what difference does it make?”].

However, such irony and playfulness in Chamoiseau’s work neither mask nor suppress nor destroy the seriousness of the concern shown here for History and its stories (non fiction stories included), nor do such irony and playfulness conceal the wish to see something positive happen in society regarding human relations. Such irony and playfulness do not alleviate the anguish felt and expressed, not only when facing the gaps, the lack of true knowledge, or the inexpressible dimensions of the contact with reality, any realities, but also when facing “that which is impossible to live, impossible to say, that dizziness […] “, that impossible, that dizziness actually translated in the recurrent image of the hiccup ([…] un impossible à vivre, un impossible à dire, un vertige […]”, 133-136). In our respective cultural and reading backgrounds, surely, you and I, the readers, will remember many stories related to Chamoiseau’s subject-matter, which is, therefore, created and shaped, first, by the thirst to find ways to perceive and put in words the painful, hidden, hardly known or unknown past, no doubt, but also, and as imperatively, by the thirst to probe the mystery of the human psyche in its relation to oneself, others, and the surrounding world; and, crucially, by the thirst to write — and, therefore, leave a history-grounded trace — about it all. Whether background stories may be oral or written, may be appreciated or not in one given cultural milieu or the other, from the point of view of form, metaphor, style, tone, emplotment, events, and/or ideology, he, Chamoiseau the author, implicitly seeks to subvert some of them (for instance, those grossly misrepresenting murderous aspects of the conquest and colonization of the New World, dubious interests in the exotic Other, texts dealing with “marronnage”, and so on.). On the other hand, Chamoiseau’s handling and very creative critique of some very cherished authors, including those with whom he can only entertain particularly ambiguous contacts, bear the mark of a grateful filiation and/or affiliation. Therefore, while questioning the continued or renewed relevance of one text or the other, especially those that resonate most loudly within his own human and socio-historical predicament, or, while inciting the reader to ask questions about the way such texts ought to be read, so that some sense may come out of the writing and reading processes, Chamoiseau by no means tries to minimize the importance of the “founding texts” that may be inscribed one way or the other within the palimpsestic structure. It is also clear that, under his pen, “text” ought to be taken in the broadest sense of the term, ruins, stones, bones, and tombs included. He encourages each living mind to continue viewing all texts with intelligence as well as an interest devoid of futile reverence or nostalgia and, at times, scorn or even hatred, while confronted with the urge, as life goes on, to inscribe more texts over the perceived signs, some, many, hardly visible or half-extinct. Such “displacements” — his own word, “déplacements” –, from image to image, from sound to sound, from memory to memory, from story to story, little by little, contribute to enlarge “our intimate land” (“notre pays intime”, 302). Giving a chance to these new perceptions, hoping that they will breathe new life into human creativity and, even, human purpose, is the reason, I suppose, why we keep reading.


    In relation to the above, I also think a case is made by Chamoiseau’s enterprise regarding the bond, if not pre-existing for all imaginations, at least, worth promoting, between Esthetics and Ethics, which, far from denying the inescapably ideological aspects of the work, of all works, makes it even more compelling. That bond will become

most evident when facing the overarching theme present in the book, namely the meditation on beauty; a term, beauty, needless to say, which is neither philosophically, esthetically, nor culturally innocent. The metatextual excerpt from Dimanche I am quoting below (a note written “much later” by the porcelain seller) gives the gist of what sort of beauty Chamoiseau is dreaming about:

La beauté est toujours neuve, c’est son signe. Elle se renouvelle et renouvelle toujours, et c’est pourquoi on ne saurait la définir. Elle ne peut entraîner ni tyrannie ni barbarie, quand on la cherche toujours et qu’on ne l’arrête pas. De la chercher toujours vous confie à la grâce, cette grâce en nous comme elle fut chez Mozart, cette grâce partout comme une légèreté. Qui vit avec la beauté vivra haut, vivra neuf, verra toujours passer l’inhumain et le crime, ne sera aveugle à aucune tragédie. Car la beauté quand on la cherche toujours n’est jamais dans un contre de la vie, jamais hors d’une plénitude de vie, elle demande au contraire que l’on soit dans la vie, attentif à toutes ses plénitudes […]. (280-281)

Beauty is always new, such is its sign. It renews itself and always brings about something new, and that is why it remains indefinable. When sought after and left unrestrained beauty can give rise neither to tyranny nor to barbarity. Whoever will persevere in the pursuit of beauty will find grace, grace as Mozart knew it, grace, featherlight and ever-present. Whoever lives with beauty will live high, will live anew, will always witness inhumanity and crime, and will never be blind to tragedies. Indeed, when sought after unremittingly, beauty is never in a counterposition to life, never cut off from the fullness of life; on the contrary, it demands of us that we be at the heart of life, attentive to all its appeals […].

     As revealed in the last section of the narrative, and as already mentioned, the porcelain seller, “the visitor”, is no other than Victor Schœlcher himself who, in “L’Oubliée”‘s dream, will set her free, who, in the narrator’s and Caroline’s twin-eyed vision, will try to break open the “cachot”‘s lock while Sechou, the maroon, chooses to disappear into the woods, one more time (296). Some readers might find such a development, which gives so much weight to Schœlcher’s figure and to his liberating influence, to be politically questionable. Considered by many as father of the assimilationist ideology, to this day, Schœlcher’s legacy has remained controversial. As we know, one of his strongest advocates, Aimé Césaire, has left powerful arguments in his defense. (15) Let me propose that, before discussing Schoelcher’s assimilationist ideology, it would be advisable to remember how strong his abolitionist views were, and how articulate he was in his fight against slavery. He was an advocate of departmentalization at a time when many French citizens probably spent very few of their days, if any, thinking about the plague of slavery, let alone about abolition as a worthy cause. It is also noteworthy that, as a character in Chamoiseau’s text, he acquires full awareness of his kinship with the slave owners: one memorable scene — in which he and the Master engage in a conversation about common interests and even common experiences — shows him suddenly overwhelmed by nausea and shaken up by hiccups (135). I believe that one possible reading of Chamoiseau’s text is to understand that, in the author’s “poetic intention”, (16) this enlightened visitor appears to be receiving at least as much as he gives. His consciousness has been raised to a point of no return; his view of humankind and of the world has been altered for ever. Indeed, while the slaves have taught him what the strength and beauty of the human spirit can achieve, concomitantly, as he writes in his diary, this experience has kindled in him “the only star that is worth anything at all” (“la seule étoile qui vaille”), the knowledge that such depths of inhumane treatments of others must disappear from the face of the earth. What he has witnessed “is the sign that we must start something else, above all, that we can do it” (“[…] c’est le signe que nous pouvons commencer autre chose, surtout que nous le pouvons”, 281).

In Dimanche, the meditation on beauty is, in the first place, embodied in the figure of “L’Oubliée”, a subject, in both senses of the term — character and themewho attests to the non-frivolous dimension of art but, also, to the severe demands put on any human action as well as on any artistic endeavor. In two words, the proposition is such: the beautiful, whether in life or in art, cannot be attained without much attention being paid to the tragedies of life, injustice and oppression being most crucial elements in such tragedies; and that some individuals succeed in achieving a slow but real reconciliation with the surrounding world is said to be, in Dimanche, the highest degree of human beauty. The working out and inscription of this kind of “truth” appear to be the basic but essential element of Chamoiseau’s “terrible palimpsest” and, as the seeing/reading/writing cycle develops, become engraved in the image actually projected by the two female protagonists: Caroline and “L’Oubliée”. Drawing near to his last words, the narrator pays an explicit homage to many women folks who have lived and are living in his homeland: “femmes marginales, de connaissance et de sagesse […]” (“marginal women, women of knowledge and wisdom […]”, 315).

This text is certainly not steeped in “melancholy”, (17) that is in a morbid incapacity to “relate” (18), act, and be; it is not, it cannot be a socially disengaged work of art, despite the writer’s irony regarding his own craftsmanship. Most important also is the concept of freedom emanating from the text. As the “writer” declares in a passage where, this time, he seems to have the upper hand over the “reader”, the breaking out of chains always goes through an inner liberation, from what people “know within themselves and about themselves” (“[…] ce qu’ils savent en eux-mêmes et sur eux-mêmes”); and also, from being able to decide what to do or not to do, risks and uncertainty included (269). It is as if Chamoiseau were telling his readers that freedom requires a poetic soul, an acceptance of doubt, of the obscure, of the impossibility of interpreting, unveiling reality, once for all: “that unstable reality where nothing appears sure ‘but the uncertain thing'” [“cette instable réalité où rien n’apparaît sûr ‘que la chose incertaine’ (Chamoiseau quoting François Villon in Ecrire, 113-114. See also Dimanche, 316-317)]. Finally, another strong impression left on the reader’s mind is the suggestion, common, no doubt, to many other creative works, past and present, that art is one of the best allies humans have in their attempts to achieve a reasonably healthy mental survival in this life: Un Dimanche au cachot, or story-making as catharsis and, actually, antidote to melancholy. (19)

Perhaps some readers will deem Chamoiseau’s artistry to be somewhat too visible. I suppose Hutcheon would include such artistry in, as she puts it, “the general postmodernist paradox of a discourse which uses and ironically abuses, asserts and denies the conventions within which it operates” (150). For instance, the kind of hallucinatory experience with which the reader remains associated may appear to be a rather well controlled “delirium”. Moreover, confronted with the myriad fragments propelled onto the page like one hiccup after the other, the reader will have to piece together a rather complex puzzle, sometimes painstakingly. I do not doubt that this kind of reading experience was consciously devised — hoped for — by the author. To some readers the mastery present in Dimanche will seem even greater than the mastery to be found in many “grand narratives” they may have in mind. However, the degree of control that goes into any creative process, the balance between control through thinking and language and, to borrow some of Marguerite Yourcenar’s words, that “magie sympathique” (“sympathetic magic”), that trancelike union with one character, one figure or the other, is probably what the artistic mind is all about. (20) I, for one, do not regret that many authors, dead or alive, provide evidence that powerful thinking, exact reading (of oneself and others), and elaborate design are in no way alienated from the Warrior’s poetic invasion.


(1) Patrick Chamoiseau, Un dimanche au cachot (Paris : Gallimard, 2007); Edouard Glissant, La case du commandeur (Paris : Seuil, 1981), pp. 124-126 ; Chamoiseau, L’esclave vieil homme et le molosse. Avec un entre-dire d’Edouard Glissant (Paris, Gallimard, 1997), p.135. From now on: Dimanche, La case, and L’esclave.

(2) La Sainte Famille is a real institution whose address is listed on the web (italics in the text).

(3) The verb “percevoir” evokes a strong sensory experience.

(4) The word “cachot” is difficult to translate. 1) It suggests a place where someone is being hidden away (from the French verb “cacher”). 2) It has also being used as a synonym for prison, or dungeon, or jail. In France, many old chateaux’s “cachots” or dungeons were actually called “les oubliettes”. 3) A third meaning — quite interesting in the context of Chamoiseau’s text — refers to a dark place in a house where a child would be kept isolated as a punishment for some mischief. 4) When referring to the outlandish, decadent, hellish Habitation, one of the most important characters in the book, the porcelain seller, also called “the visitor”, uses the word “oubliette” (141). Worth mentioning is the fact that Chamoiseau, in real life, received degrees in Law and Social Economics, and has held positions as an educator and a social worker around Courts dealing with Juvenile Justice; in the book, the narrator also calls himself an “educator”.

(5) The translation does not do justice to the French: 1) the gender is not indicated; 2) the word “Oubliée” evokes obliteration from memory as well as neglect or even abandonment.

(6) Victor Schœlcher (1804-1893) was born in Paris in 1804 into a family of porcelain manufacturers, originally from Alsace. Sent on business to the Americas by his family, in 1829-30, he then visited Mexico, Cuba, and the southern United States. In 1840-1841, he visited the Caribbean for the second time: Guadeloupe, Martinique, Jamaica, Antigua, Domenica, St. Thomas, Haiti, and Puerto Rico. Appointed Under-Secretary of State for the Navy and the Colonies in the 1848 Provisional Government, his actions contributed greatly to the unanimous adoption of the decree abolishing slavery in France and in its colonies (April 27, 1848). From 1848 to 1850, he served in the Montagnard ranks (the Left) as Deputy for Martinique and Guadeloupe. A staunch republican, an advocate of women’s rights, an opponent to capital punishment, he went into exile at the time of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup d’état. Following Napoleon III’s abdication, he was re-elected Deputy for Martinique. In 1875, he was elected senator for life.

(7) Chamoiseau, Ecrire en pays dominé (Paris : Gallimard, 1997). From now on: Ecrire.

(8) Gérard Genette, Palimpsestes. La Littérature au second degré (Paris : Seuil 1982).

(9) Cilas Kemedjio, “Founding-Ancestors and Intertextuality in Francophone Caribbean Literature and Criticism”, Research in African Literatures, Vol. 33. No. 2 (Summer 2002): 210-229.

(10) Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism. History, Theory, Fiction (New York and London: Routledge, 1988). As emphasized by Hutcheon: “Historiographic metafiction […] is overtly and resolutely historical — though admittedly, in an ironic and problematic way that acknowledges that history is not the transparent record of any sure ‘truth”‘ (128-129). “Most postmodern writing shares this implied ideological critic of the assumptions underlying nineteenth century-humanist concepts of author and text, and it is parodic intertextuality that is the major vehicle of that critique” (129). “[…] interdiscursivity would perhaps be a more accurate term for the collective modes of discourse from which the postmodern parodically draws: literature, the visual arts, history, biography, theory, philosophy, psychoanalysis, sociology […]”, (130). “Historiographic metafiction, while teasing us with the existence of the past as real, also suggests that there is no direct access to that real which would be unmediated by the structures of our various discourses about it” ( 146). “In historiographic metafictions, all the various critically sanctioned modes of talking about subjectivity (character, narrator, writer, textual voice) fail to offer any stable anchor. They are used, inscribed, entrenched, yes, but they are also abused, subverted, undermined”, (189).

(11) I am here reminded of Glissant’s note in Le discours antillais (Paris : Seuil, 1981): “Le roman ni le poème ne sont s’il se trouve nos genres. Autre chose est peut-être à venir” (199, note 8).

(12) The book is dedicated to “Mimi and Sylvain Marc. And to all the Sainte Famille children” (as well as to a few other people.).

(13) See Bernadette Cailler, Conquérants de la nuit nue. Edouard Glissant et l’H(h)istoire antillaise (Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag,1988); and Proposition poétique. Une lecture de l’œuvre d’Aimé Césaire (Sherbrooke: Naaman, 1976).

(14) Glissant, Le quatrième siècle (Paris : Seuil, 1964).

(15) See Victor Schœlcher, Esclavage et Colonisation. Avant-propos de Ch.-A. Julien. Introduction par Aimé Césaire. Textes choisis et annotés par Emile Tersen (Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, 1948); also, Césaire’s presentation to the National Assembly on December 17, 1982: “Intervention dans la discussion du projet de loi relatif à la commémoration de l’abolition de l’esclavage” — Loi nº 83-550 du 30 juin 1983 relative à la commémoration de l’abolition de l’esclavage ( Here is an excerpt: “Les phrases clefs de son œuvre me paraissent être celles-ci : ‘Si l’on dit une fois que ce qui est moralement mauvais peut être politiquement bon, l’ordre social n’a plus de boussole. La violence commise envers le membre le plus infime de l’espèce humaine affecte l’humanité entière. La liberté d’un homme est une parcelle de la liberté universelle […]’. Et je ne résiste pas à la tentation de le citer encore : ‘La liberté individuelle est antérieure à toutes les lois humaines : elle fait corps avec nous, et aucune puissance imaginable ne peut consacrer la violation de ce principe naturel. L’homme a le droit de reprendre par la force ce qui lui a été enlevé par la force, l’adresse ou la trahison ; et pour l’esclave, comme pour le peuple opprimé, l’insurrection est le plus saint des devoirs’. C’est de phrases de ce genre qu’il faut partir, je crois, pour comprendre l’œuvre de Victor Schœlcher. Je veux dire qu’il faut admettre une fois pour toutes qu’à l’origine de son engagement militant il y a d’abord une postulation éthique et une exigence morale. Aussi bien est-ce le même mouvement qui porte Victor Schœlcher vers les ouvriers de son pays, les ouvriers de son temps, victimes désignées d’un capitalisme sauvage, et vers les Noirs d’Afrique, raflés par la traite, ou les Noirs des Antilles et d’Amérique, dont le travail et la sueur alimentèrent jadis ce que les marxistes appellent ‘l’accumulation primitive'”.

(16) An allusion to Glissant’s book of essays, L’intention poétique (Paris : Seuil, 1969).

(17) As Jean-François Lyotard puts it in Moralités postmodernes (Paris : Galilée, 1993) : “Elle (la fable postmoderne) n’est même pas un discours critique, mais simplement imaginaire […]. Et c’est ainsi qu’elle se fait l’expression, presque enfantine, de la crise de la pensée aujourd’hui : crise de la modernité, qui est l’état de la pensée postmoderne. Sans prétention cognitive ni éthico-politique, elle s’octroie un statut poétique ou esthétique. Elle ne vaut que par sa fidélité à l’affection postmoderne, la mélancolie. Elle en raconte le motif d’abord. Mais aussi toute fable est mélancolique puisqu’elle supplée à la réalité” (79-94).

(18) I am using this word thinking of the triple dimension associated by Glissant with “relation”: “relayer”, “relater”, and “relier” (“to relay”, “to relate”, and to “link”).

(19) Julia Kristeva, Soleil noir. Dépression et mélancolie (Paris : Gallimard, 1987).

(20) Marguerite Yourcenar, “Carnets de notes”, Mémoires d’Hadrien, 1951 (Paris: Gallimard, 1974), p. 330.