Texaco, a richly woven narrative tracing 150 years of postslavery Caribbean history, recounts the establishment and evolution of Texaco, a shantytown established, in close proximity to Fort-de-Prince, Martinique, by Marie-Sophie Laborieux. In his novel, which won France’s most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt, in 1992 and which has been translated into fourteen languages, Patrick Chamoiseau’s voice resonates in affirmation of Martinique’s Creole history and identity. Chamoiseau— novelist, playwright, and essayist—is profoundly cognizant of the complex process of métissage and creolization that has led to the development of a Martinican collective consciousness. Throughout Texaco, one is keenly aware that he wishes to chronicle Martinican society, history, and oral traditions through a literary language that is all-encompassing. The importance of memory as communicated through the spoken word reflects the distinctiveness of Creole culture, embedded in orality, and is underlined on every page of this lyrical, poignant, and powerful work. Much like the poet and diplomat Saint-John Perse, born in Guadeloupe, or the African American novelist Toni Morrison, Chamoiseau creates a universe rich in history, epic in its allegoric nobility, and compelling in its exotic fullness.
Texaco offers a poetic continuation to Au Temps de l’antan (1988; Creole Folktales, 1994), in which Chamoiseau reveals the magical power of the storyteller, once imprisoned by slavery and colonialism and wishing now to inform and amuse, to elucidate the past and the future. Texaco’s narrative is interwoven with short sequences—often in relation to the past of a particular character—and interspersed with extracts from the fictive notebooks of Marie-Sophie and the words of the urban planner. This framework is introduced by a short history of Martinique and of Texaco, a historical and mythical rendering of the past that includes allusions to the lives of certain characters as well as landmark dates such as the mass importation of black African slaves in 1680, the abolition of freedom decreed in the French colonies in 1848, the slave rebellion in Martinique in the same year, and the election of the renowned poet Aimé Césaire in 1945 as mayor of Fort-de-France, where in 1948 there were riots that led to an exodus to the site of Texaco. The documentary feel of these initial pages reinforces Chamoiseau’s intention to classify and articulate the evolution of Martinican land and society through the ages he has devised to reflect this development: the Age of Longhouses and Ajoupas (3000 b.c.e. to c.e. 1680), the Age of Straw (1823? to 1920), the Age of Crate Wood (1903 to 1945), the Age of Asbestos (1946 to 1960) and the Age of Concrete (1961 to 1980). Against this backdrop, the words and deeds of Chamoiseau’s characters serve to affirm Martinican belonging, identity, and society, which were born from centuries of colonialism and slavery as well as the cultural influences of East Indian, African, and Chinese workers imported to Martinique after former slaves refused to work in the fields.
Texaco is, consequently, an epic narrative of reality and fantasy, recounted by its heroine and founder, Marie-Sophie Laborieux, to Oiseau de Cham (an obvious wordplay on the author’s name), the Word Scratcher, as a result of the city council’s desire to raze the shantytown. Her story, a jewel of Martinican oral literature, is that of her quarter, whose name reflects the presence of the petroleum company, as it embraces her personal history, that of the island, and an abundance of other both anodyne and compelling details relating to important events and characters, such as the abolition of slavery, the eruption of Mount Pelée, the political ascent of Aimé Césaire, the poet descendant from former slaves, to the mayorship of Fort-de-France, the creation of Martinique as an official department of France, and a visit of Charles de Gaulle.
While endeavoring to reconstitute the death of a storyteller, Solibo Magnifique—a character depicted by Chamoiseau in his Solibo Magnifique (1988; Solibo the magnificent)—the Word Scratcher comes to meet his “Source,” Marie- Sophie, an old woman whose parents were a mulatto man and a black woman. Captivated by her mixture of Creole and French, by the sentences that whirl about her, he preserves—first in written form and then by recording—her narratives, which follow no specific chronology.
The novel opens in allegorical fashion, with an account of how the urban planner, known as the Christ, is hit by a stone while entering Texaco, now linked by road to what is known as...
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