Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Chamoiseau first gained attention as a Martinican writer whose main interest is in interpreting and promoting Creole language and culture in essays, fiction, drama, autobiography, and folk tales. Texaco, his most ambitious work, earned for him France’s most prestigious literary award for a novel, the Prix Goncourt, upon its publication. In addition to making him known to a wider audience, Texaco confirmed his status as one of the foremost contemporary authors of the French Antilles, alongside his mentor Edouard Glissant, Maryse Condé, and others. Among its many accomplishments, Texaco is notable for having brought the native languages of Martinique into the mainstream of French and Francophone literature. Whereas the great Martinican poet Aimé Césaire (who appears briefly in the novel) championed the notion of a pan-African cultural identity expressed via the French language, Chamoiseau tries instead to represent specific, local cultural identities by mixing French and non-French linguistic elements. Francophone literature generally has shied away from using as much indigenous language and dialect as Chamoiseau incorporates into his novel, which therefore sets a new standard for the literary representation of cultures of which the spoken languages rarely appear in print.

Chamoiseau does more than create a linguistic mix that is relatively new to literature. The synthesis of lyricism and realism, exemplified by the vivid depiction of the interior lives and magical beliefs of his main characters, juxtaposed with a harsh analysis of their poverty and of the economic exploitation of the Martinican population, presents a major literary achievement. The character of the Urban Planner is symbolic of the novel as a whole. A simple bureaucrat who was sent by the government to sanitize and thereby destroy the shanty town of Texaco, he is mistaken by the inhabitants to be Christ himself come to save them. Under the strange spell exerted by this hybrid, decaying, yet dynamic world, he indeed becomes converted into a would-be savior. From a faceless agent of power, he metamorphoses into a human being who identifies with the marginal population he had previously deemed insignificant. In this way, he symbolizes the mix of French and Antillean, master and slave, future and past that the novel achieves on such a large scale.