What does the text of Patrick Chamoiseau's Texaco say about the promise of the Hills?
For the blacks and mulattos of Patrick Chamoiseau’s Martinique, the alternatives are not pleasant. The City, always capitalized to emphasize its prominent place in the culture the author depicts in his novel Texaco, represents both upper-class society and its own form of enforced servitude. It is a place to which the desperately poor rural communities – the people of the Hills – aspire, and from which many have escaped. It is a complicated arrangement, combining elements of ancient Creole culture, the legacy of slavery, the only-partial emancipation brought about by the abolition of that dehumanizing practice, and the imposing presence of modern-day colonialism in the form of the oil depot that gives this region and the novel its name.
Marie-Sophie, the novel’s narrator and conscience, devotes considerable energy to her description of the Hills and their importance to the history she is conveying. Texaco, of course, eschews a straightforward linear narrative in favor of alternating eras and perspectives. Much of the text involves her descriptions of her father, Esternome, and his relationships with women. Esternome’s most important contribution, however, is his linkage to the past. In Marie-Sophie’s narrative, her father represents the difficult transitions from slavery to “post-colonial” capitalistic exploitation. It is in relating the history of Esternome that Marie-Sophie depicts the cultural, economic and spiritual importance of the Hills. The Hills is a community built into, or on to, the rugged cliffs overlooking the City. They represent both freedom and a different type of servitude, one more akin to the concept of serfdom than to outright slavery. A reference to the spiritual importance of the Hills is provided in the following passages:
“We behaved according to the Noutéka of the Hills that my Esternome had described to me in detail, in communion with the open spaces right outside the hutch, to the rhythm of the moon’s seasons, the rain and the winds. And we wished, confronted with City, to live in the spirit of the Hills, that is: with our single resource, and better: our single knowledge.”
. . .
"Our light house frames (tested in the Noutéka of the Hills) allowed us to hook on to the most extreme points of the cliff. We knew that this way would promise each hutch almost direct access to the wind, a panoramic opening on sky and sea; this took care of the claustrophobia which our stacked-up proximity sometimes brought on. We knew how to do things like that since a cartload of time ago."
The paradoxical nature of the Hills is suggested in the following passage in which Marie-Sophie discusses the complicated balance between freedom and continued, albeit more indirect, enforced servitude to those higher-up the societal hierarchy:
“No waste of space in Texaco. Every last centimeter was good for something. No private land, no collective land, we weren’t the landowners so no-one could pride themself on anything besides the number of hours, minutes, seconds of his arrival.
“In our mind, the soil under the houses remained strangely free, definitively free.”
The promise of the Hills lies in their physical and emotional separation from the City. The latter, as noted, is where the promise of some level of increased affluence is located, but is also where the vestiges of colonialism survive most prominently. The Hills, in contrast, promise a sort of freedom from tyranny, but in a seriously economically-destitute package.