I wonder how many culture-pilgrims have journeyed to Martinique since Texaco won the Prix Goncourt in 1992, to see whether a shanty town of that name really exists. The novel may be a lush documentary or it may be a historical romance: we can't be sure. In any case, it is likely to change the way we think about the lives and circumstances of millions of people living on the periphery of large cities in underdeveloped parts of the world. With its mangrove-like proliferations and sinuous shapes and rules, the quartier of Texaco is the urban embodiment of black memory. That memory, dislocated and improvised, does not include Africa. The story begins with chaos in the belly of a slave ship, continues with the slave cabins scattered around the Grand-Case, the first incarnation of City - or l'En-ville - to which Texaco later appends itself, and goes on to trace the faltering attempt, after Abolition, to create a separate society in the hills. It culminates in the mass gravitation back to the edge of l'En-ville, an orderly 'Western' centre which, Chamoiseau says, is only given meaning by its turbulent margins. And these, in turn, need l'En-ville 'like having a breadfruit tree by the hutch'.
LRB 22 May 1997 | PDF Download