Texaco  – ★★★★★
“You say “History” but that means nothing. So many lives, so many destinies, so many tracks go into the making of our unique path. You dare say History, but I say histories, stories. The one you take for the master stem of our manioc is but one stem among many others.…”
“Some books shine through times, forever stirring spirits” [Chamoiseau, 1992/7: 325].
Some books have such a distinct, authentic voice, which tells of the plight of ordinary people, that they cannot fail to move their readers, defying logical book analyses. Martinique-born Patrick Chamoiseau wrote such precise book, with such a distinctive voice at the core of it, and it is called Texaco, published in French in 1992 (translated by Rose-Myriam Rejouis and Val Vinokurov in 1997). This undoubtedly great book, which received the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1992, reads almost like a fable, rather than a story, and evades strict categorisation. What can be said for certain is that the novel is undeniably powerful in its transmission of the emotion and the message. Told through the voice of the high-spirited, determined, but disadvantaged woman Marie-Sophie Laborieux, it presents a turbulent period in the history of Martinique, the French overseas territory, and focuses almost entirely on individual lives and life episodes. At the centre of this story, which spans from 1823 to 1980, is, at first – Esternome, an ex-plantation slave, and, later, his daughter, our narrator, – Marie-Sophie, who are both determined to survive through extreme hardship and discrimination to fight for their loved ones’ and their people’s right to live and enjoy freedom on their native soil. Sometimes the story reads like a highly subjective, almost chaotic, but matter-of-fact narrative, and at other times it takes a form of a strangely lyrical and poetic piece, which is even similar to a national ballad. The story may even sometimes appear in the form of a cry or a lamentation, a strange ode to the Creole culture, language and tradition. The impressive thing is that whatever mode the novel employs or impression it gives, it never loses its vitality, its importance, its power, its emotion. This is the story of and by the generations who fought hard for their right to exist and prosper, and it is this unique perspective which makes this book so exceptional.
Texaco is really a tale of two cities – Saint Pierre and Fort-de-France, – and its inhabitants. The story is divided into two parts and a number of sections that reflect a particular time period (none of them are too long): The Age of Straw (1823 – 1902); The Age of Crate Wood (1903 – 1945); The Age of Asbestos (1946 – 1960); and The Age of Concrete (1961 – 1980). At the beginning of the book, the focus is the city of Saint Pierre, and we read how Esternome, Marie-Sophie’s father, is freed by his owner because of his act of bravery, even before other slaves on the plantation are given their freedom through the official proclamation of abolition. At that point, Esternome finds himself in an uncertain place – no longer a slave, but still not having sufficient freedom and opportunities to earn a living. The city becomes one of his options to survive in this world, and he starts to make a living through carpentry jobs, moving on to become a “scientist” of buildings, and later, building huts for others in the country. Texaco is also a tale of obsessive love, and Esternome’s love for a former slave girl Ninon is as moving and it is destructive. “That is life, meowed my Esternome (his daughter writes), that’s all there is and nothing else, to live the showers of one’s passion” [Chamoiseau, 1992/7: 108].
The novel is great in contrasting the city-living with the country-dwelling. The city is seen as belonging to békés or white Creoles of Martinique, and only mulattos seem to know more or less how to survive in that strange environment. “The békés had reduced this earth to a frightful circus whose laws they guarded” [Chamoiseau, 1992/7: 50], writes Marie-Sophie. With the impending abolition of slavery, there is also a rise of the confusing and complex race/class system. “My Esternome learned to label each person according to his degree of whiteness or unfortunate blackness” [Chamoiseau, 1992/7: 70], says Marie-Sophie.
The interesting thing is that the story is set among great changes happening – the abolition of slavery proclamation followed by the increased industrialisation (the rise of factories); with the slaves’ liberation come different problems and people are forced to choose either starvation in the fields or hardship in the city. We see the changes through the eyes of Esternome, a man’s point of view, and then his daughter Marie-Sophie, a female viewpoint, giving us an interesting perspective on the drastic changes happening. Thus, the second part of the book is about the city of Fort-de-France and the focus is Marie-Sophie herself. When grown-up, she follows the path to the city to make the living like her father did before her. We follow her part-time jobs in the city, and that is where she also finds her first “love”. It is also in the city where she “embark[s] on the unknown world of books”. Knowledge and literature do play a part in this story, and our heroine grows fond of books, which later enable her to understand the broader political implications of the situation of her people. France is both far and near, and Sophie-Marie assumes the role of a fighter against the city to determine her people’s rights over the land. Marie-Sophie almost single-handedly oversees the rise of Texaco, and becomes the centre of resistance in that village, a leader in the environment where “there were a thousand wars to wage merely to exist” [Chamoiseau, 1992/7: 320].
Much has been previously said about the obscure language sometimes used by Chamoiseau to tell the story – his free use of French mixed with Creole and some linguistic inventions. It is for that precise reason some people criticised the novel. However, it can be argued that the book is intentionally written in an unusual prose to give voice to Marie-Sophie, an uneducated daughter of ex-slave who went thorough hardships and vulgarities in her life, but without losing hope to achieve the best for herself and her people. At the beginning of the novel’s first part, Marie-Sophie states: “Say what you will, do what you will, life is not to be measured by the ell of its sorrows. For that reason, I, Marie-Sophie Laborieux, despite the river my eyes have shed, have always looked at the world in a good light” [Chamoiseau, 1992/7: 33]. The language reflects her style of expression, maybe influenced by pressures which once left her no choice but to be emphatic and loud in her demeanour/statements. The narrative was also said to reflect African rhythms and melancholic Caribbean ballads.
Marie-Sophie’s sometimes imperfect sentences only make the story so much more authentic and powerful, with much emotion felt. Some passages are, indeed, puzzling, but the linguistic freedom also reflects the freedom sought by people in the novel. Each sentence is almost to be savoured as a special form of poetic beauty, and what some people may view as incomprehensible or difficult-to-read paragraphs, may actually point to authenticity, lyricism and an original way to tell an important story. The narrator is the person who lived through it, and Texaco feels almost as real as any non-fiction. There is a “living life” in the narrative, and Marie-Sophie herself considers the subject of writing her book. In the story, she was advised to write “simply”, but, instead, she wrote from her heart in the only language she knew. The narrative may sometimes be unclear, but it is real and it is hers. It is as though a heart or soul writes, making a special tribute to the Creole culture (culinary delights, hut-making techniques, etc), despairing about the fight for freedom, and questioning identities. “I wrote feelings which mingled verbs the way sleeper-women do. I wrote colours like Rimbaud having visions. I wrote melancholy which reinforced mine. I wrote blinking howls which made my ink run by” [Chamoiseau, 1992/7: 360], says Marie-Sophie. The narrative has many melancholy notes, but it is also full of hope. “With necklaces and jewels, ribbons and hats, [the people] were erecting in their soul the little chapels which would at the right time stir up the fervour of their short-lived rebellions” [Chamoiseau, 1992/7: 81], and “carrying freedom is the only load that straightens the back” [Chamoiseau, 1992/7: 101], writes Marie-Sophie.
Texaco is a classic novel written in a distinctive prose. It is about people trying to survive and accustom themselves to the growing societal changes, while also trying to combat unfair regimes imposed on them. It is an original family saga, which carries an important message and voice, which, even if fictional, is still needed to be heard. Inspirational and moving, and having as much political and cultural observations as poetical wisdom and historical insight, the book becomes all about finding that one small rebellious voice, that with patience and commitment has the potential to grow to become the voice of the generation.