Oral language -- fluid, ribald and freewheeling -- is the unabashed hero of Patrick Chamoiseau's most recently translated novel, "Solibo Magnificent." To the author's credit, his handling of this highly intellectual conceit is also entertaining. Written in 1988, before Chamoiseau won the Prix Goncourt for his brilliant novel "Texaco," "Solibo Magnificent" opens with the mysterious death of the eponymous storyteller, who is eaten up by "this new time, when things only survived through writing." Although the police are delighted to have a bona fide murder investigation on their hands, the natives of Fort-de-France, Martinique, believe that no crime has been committed. They say Solibo's throat has been slit by the word and that he has strangled on his own silence.
What interests Chamoiseau is the gap between the official story of Solibo's death, which is documented in police lingo and formal French, and the characters' drunken and endearingly philosophical explanations of what happened. The conventions of police inquiry are rendered nonsensical once they're translated into terms the witnesses and suspects understand. When one is asked: "What is your age, profession, and permanent address?" Chief Sgt. Bouaffesse translates: "The Inspector asks you what hurricane you were born after, what you do for the beke, and what side of town you sleep at night?" Another undercuts the wisdom of the whole investigation, saying, "To look for who killed Solibo can get at no truth. The real question is: Who is Solibo?"
Chamoiseau is a cunning and original writer, but not always a likable one. One problem with this early novel is that Solibo, who's known for enigmas and elusiveness, is mysterious to the point of tedium. Ditto for most of the witnesses. Chamoiseau serves up endless nicknames and word play, but very little that counts as motivation or character development. Thus, the death of Solibo is too much of a parable. It appeals to the brain instead of the heart.
That said, what Chamoiseau does best -- and he does this incomparably well -- is create an idiom that bridges the contradictions of the world of Martinique. His demotic style is as brightly lit and oversized as a Lichtenstein canvas ("He brings his fist to his mouth (snap!), bites himself (hramph-grmn!) and shakes his head"). The energy of Chamoiseau's sentences and the freshness of his wildly inventive language are infectious. By the final pages, the novel has developed a beauty and power independent of plot or character; it captures the headiness of speech itself.