Ben-Z Shek (review dale March 1980)
SOURCE: "Antonine Maillet and the Prix Goncourt," in Canadian Modern Language Review, Vol. 36, No. 3, March 1980, pp. 392-96.
[Shek provides an overview of Maillet's work, praising her style and use of language.]
Late in November, 1979, the Académie Goncourt announced that its prestigious annual prize for literature had been awarded to Antonine Maillet, the prominent Acadian novelist, playwright and short-story writer. This was the first time that the coveted honor, created in 1874 by the will of Edmond de Goncourt, (who, with his brother Jules, was a pioneer of the naturalist novel) was offered to a writer living outside France. Antonine Maillet won it for her novel Pélagie-la-charrette published in Montreal by Leméac and in Paris by Grasset.
Before having affixed to her name the label "Prix Goncourt", Antonine Maillet was best known as the author of the brilliant, moving and expressive series of dramatic monologues, La Sagouine, written in the rhythmic and colorful Acadian dialect of the Bouctouche region of New Brunswick, where she was born. This ancient speech (only slightly sprinkled with anglicisms and names of commercial products by La Sagouine), nearly extinct today, was brought to North America in the 16th and 17th centuries by the colons of Poitou and Touraine. Its peculiar morphology, phonetic system and lexicon were rendered inimitable by the outstanding interpretation of actress Viola Léger.
Maillet's writing career began more than 20 years ago. Her first book was Pointe-aux-Coques, a novel, published in 1958, and was followed by five other novels: On a mangé la dune (1968), Don l'Orignal (winner of the Governor General's Award, 1972), Mariaagélas, (1973), Emmanuel à Joseph à Dâvit (1975) and Les Cordes-de-bois (1977). Besides La Sagouine (1971), she has published six other plays, the short-story collection Par derrière chez mon père (1972), and her doctoral dissertation, Rabelais et les traditions populaires en Acadie (1971).
Antonine Maillet is both a product of, and a catalyst for, the cultural renewal among New Brunswick francophones. Her creative activity grew out of the burgeoning cultural and political awakening of the 1960's during which time the Université de Moncton was created, there took place the struggles of that city's one-third French-speaking population against the bigoted Mayor Leonard Jones, and, eventually, the Parti acadien was formed. Her books were published in parallel with the release of Pierre Perrault's film, L'Acadie, L'Acadie (1971), the records of Edith Butler, Calixte Duguay and Angèle Arsenault (who is from P.E.I.) and those of the musical group, "1755". Some feel that these movements of cross-fertilization have come too late to stem the tide of assimilation in New Brunswick, which has had a history of turbulent struggles to maintain the "French fact". Yet Antonine Maillet and the other creative forces of the Acadian renewal are determined to carry on. It should, however, be noted that they depend a great deal on material support from the institutions and public of Quebec, which certainly acts as the foyer of French-language culture in Canada, and whose own cultural flowering and growing self-confidence have been fundamental supports for the Acadian revival.
Maillet's novel, Pélagie-la-charrette, is in fact linked to a capital moment of her people's history, namely the expulsion in 1755 of the Acadians, mainly grouped then in Nova Scotia, by the British forces, and their scattering throughout the southern colonies of the Atlantic seaboard. This traumatic reference point is variably (and sometimes, euphemistically) called in the novel, La Déportation, le Grand Dérangement, l'Evénement, La Grande Echouerie, La Dispersion.
The novel is indelibly marked by the rhythm of continuity, which is its lifeblood and heart-beat. The dedication by the author is to her mother, Virginie Cormier, an identically named ancestor of whom is one of the characters, and the book ends with the inscription, "Bouctouche, le 23 juin, 1979, en cette année du 375e anniversaire d'Acadie". The very title, named after the heroine who will lead a ragamuffin band of remnants of her people back to Acadia during a 10-year-long trek on foot and in carts of all sizes and shapes, also underlines the dominant theme of continuity: "C'était coutume en Acadie d'apporter en dot une charrette à son homme, la charrette, signe de pérénnité."
The narrative structure, based on a lineage of chroniclers retelling the saga at a distance of 100 years (at the end of the 19th century and today, at the end of the 20th) is, too, one of continuity. The unobtrusive primary narrator in the present (who says symbolically "moi, qui fourbis [nettoie] chaque matin mes seize quartiers de charrette", relates most of the events of the epic return of the Acadians between 1770 and 1780 as they are told to her by her cousin, "le vieux Louis à Bélonie, dit le jeune",...
(The entire section is 2098 words.)