Patrick Chamoiseau has written a luminous book in memory of his mother


A review by Isabelle Rüf for Le Temps. Click here for the French original.

The black hole of absence engenders a deep reflection that goes back to the origins, to the stars, to Homo sapiens and the memory of slavery.

At the core of this sumptuous book, there is the death of the mother, Man Ninotte. An already long, still unspeakable absence, it represents a black hole from which emanates a reflection in circles and spirals that summons the stars, prehistoric times, the memory of slavery and of childhood.

A reflection carried by the breath of another absent one, Edouard Glissant, who died in 2011, but which contains nothing mournful or nostalgic, perhaps sometimes driven by anger but and anger expressed through lightness and tenderness. An epic and a great poem, though, in the end, Chamoiseau asserts that “I know the misfortune of not being a poet, but do possess the grace to wish I were one.”

Looking at the stars of his Caribbean sky, the Martinican writer has detected the hollow left by the impact of celestial bodies, the debris that has sprung fromo this crash and the open crater left behind. Out of it has come La Matière de l’absence, which calls itself a novel but could also be called an “essay” or a “philosophical reverie.” The impact of death, the matter it stirs up – memories, emotions, transitions – and the crater where all this matter is absorbed.

“Those who live long feed on absence,” the Baroness said at the gates of the cemetery. The Baroness is the eldest in a family of six, the one who shared with Man Ninotte responsibility and authority in this matrifocal society where men seem lost. Her role here is to contain with the grandiloquent air of a school mistress her little brother’s bold dreams, to preach common sense and temper with humor his grand plans.

We will not learn much about other family members, except for Jojo the algebraist, the musician. Others are confused in the “cluster” they belong to. “Everyone found himself wading through the rubble of what suddenly became useless to him, and lying everywhere.” The cluster is a fuzzy set of people – small groups of Neolithic hunters, Native Americans fleeing newcomers, brown slaves hidden in the hills, a scattered family – who gather or disperse as needed. A core “flexible, open, fluid.”

The cluster is bound up with Trace – trail of slaves hidden in the hills, marks in the landscape or in memory, drum or dance that recalls Africa, jazz improvisation – the opposite of the monument, the archive of the fixed and definitive: “the Trace is composite gasoline, fragile, uncertain.

The story is built around Ninotte Man, “all-terrain warrior” expert in barter, laundry, linen service, soups and cakes, care of plants, one of those who heal or bring happiness through their beauty. In perpetual motion, without room for tenderness, but always concerned, in her roughness, with her children’s happiness. Her life draws a portrait devoid of folklore of Fort-de-France in the 1960s, when the country still penetrated the city.

Social differences stemming from slavery are still alive there. The memory of the slave, the slave ship, still lies under the surface, just like that of the missing Amerindian peoples who disappeared with the development of  colonization. They survive in the funeral rites, tales, songs, the blow of the conch, the shells that serve as funeral trumpets.

His mother’s death is a point of departure from which Chamoiseau  explores human confrontation with death, the invention of rituals, marks, narratives with which to conjure it. Similarly, humans have responded to beauty – nature, beings, lights – through music, drawing, dancing. A dizzying sequence in which movement leads to the mysteries of the origin.

Beautiful pages are devoted to Edouard Glissant – who knew before Chamoiseau how to “privilege listening, a participating perception, the questioning spiral which always spun anew when confronted with the background of terror that is the Caribbean, but which in turn enlivened the sudden appearances of beauty. ” Because, when it comes to stars and prehistory, the slave trade, exterminated languages, of the once-upon-a-time of childhood, La Matière de l’absence is also open on the present, because “everything is connected to everything .”

With anger, too, since “grandiose inhumanities, massive regressions (like the hold of the slave ship, the American style of slavery, Nazi camps, ordinary genocide, or the damnation that Europe imposes on those migration to it),” are always possible.

In the 1980s, in the wake of Césaire and Glissant, Chamoiseau began to compose work whose scope extends into this new book. In their wake and with others, he created a language that incorporates rhythms and Creole vocables, words from ancient languages that don’t impede readability. In 1992, the Goncourt Prize gave Texaco very welcome visibility. The three-volume A Creole Childhood is now a classic. With this latest book of mourning and jubilation, of great generosity, Chamoiseau open “traces” for an open approach to the present world.

Chamoiseau, La aMatière de l’absence, Seuil, 366 p.

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