Patrick Chamoiseau’s “Winter in Martinique”

Archive editor Erin Overbey shares a gem from The New Yorker archives, “Winter in Martinique” by Patrick Chamoiseau, from the 1997 winter issue.

When I was a child, in Martinique, my mother, Ma Ninotte, kept pigs. They were little cochons-planches, fattened all year long and destined for the Christmas feast—a singsong time, filled with sausages, chops, pâtés, stews, and roasts. The pigs were fed on leftovers, green bananas, useless words, nicknames; they scarfed up the seasonal fruit peels, and we children lavished a kindly tenderness on them. Sometimes they escaped from the kitchen, which had become a pig park, and dashed into the streets of Fort-de-France. We could always catch them in less than an hour. In Fort-de-France, everyone knew how to corner a pig, and the countrywomen were able to stop them by calling out a single old word. Everyone knew, too, that a family’s survival often depended on the skinniest, slightest little pig.

All pigs were different—some were more engaging or mischievous than others—and my brothers and sisters and I didn’t love all of them equally. In our shared memory, though, there was Matador. He arrived a bag of rattling bones and turned into a charming monster who laughed at the world with the eyes of an old man. He loved chocolate, soup, loving scratches, and Creole songs. And he became huge. When he escaped into the city, he was like a rolling boulder. One kindly fellow who sought to corner him found himself driven into a pole. Others were dispatched into gutters. When Ma Ninotte, followed by her brat pack, caught up, one of Matador’s victims asked her, “Tell us, Ma’am, what seventh species of animal is this, if you please?” Another said, “He’s a sower of sores, a liver boiler, a rheumatism starter, a filth-maker, and, if you don’t mind my saying so, Mrs. So-and-So, an ill-bred bastard of a beast.” We finally rounded up Matador on the banks of the Pointe Simon, opposite the white man’s warehouses, where he had stopped to suck down unceremoniously the scrumptious emanations of a salted-meat barrel.

As December approached, a parade of snivelling delegations implored Ma Ninotte to excuse Matador. Ma Ninotte responded, with a feigned rage (for she loved Matador as much as we did), “Tianmay soti en zèbe, muven”—“Get away from my feet, you brats.”

A dog dressed as a man was the killer—a certain Marcel. He seemed to exist only as Christmas approached, when he became a pig slaughterer. We had become so attached to Matador that when the fellow appeared we greeted him with cries of hatred. He had brought no implements; he had come, as he did every year, to agree on a price, a day, and a time. He arrived by day, in his white visiting shirt. As usual, he called up from the first step, “Ma Ninotte, how’d the pig do this year?”

Then began a long wait, the most terrible of our childhood. December arrived, with its winds, cold drafts, swollen noses, upset stomachs, fitful coughs, and old flus. We remained vigilant. We counted the knives and the tubs, but Ma Ninotte seemed to be preparing a pigless Christmas. She tended to the peels of her orange liqueur. She prettied her salted ham, her conserves, the other delicacies she had accumulated in her cupboard while awaiting the days of joy. But we never heard her promise anyone even the smallest chop. The air was trimmed with scents from cake ovens and the steam of fricassees. We saw her buy neither the peppers nor the sack of onions nor the coarse salt nor the herbs that announced the evil Saturday of the fattened pig.

Marcel must have worked in the middle of the night, because he was long gone when we awoke and found no Matador but just a whitish, bloody mass, which Ma Ninotte then cut up with her broad-bladed knife and distributed in newspaper as gifts to the other families in our building, and to the doctor who cured us, to the pharmacist who gave her medicines, to the Syrian shopkeepers who helped her out of jams. The rest was for her, in the form of cured meats, roasts, chops, the pig’s head, and sausages, which we had neither the stomach nor the heart to eat.

I have no memory of the pigs who succeeded Matador. Suffering is a harsh vaccine: it must have prepared us not to get too attached to Christmas pigs. 

(Translated, from the French, by Carol Volk.)

Published in the print edition of the December 22 & 29, 1997, issue.

See https://www.newyorker.com/books/double-take/2020-holiday-classics-from-the-archive

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