Anderson Tepper reviews 'Childhood' by Patrick Chamoiseau

By Anderson Tepper
Published February 23, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

"Memory, let's make a pact long enough for a sketch." Patrick Chamoiseau, the acclaimed Martinican author of "Texaco" and "Solibo Magnificent," offers this invocation at the outset of his latest memoir, which covers the years just prior to "School Days," his earlier reminiscence. Neither his memory nor his imagination disappoints him as they lead him back through the colorful streets and markets, the blinding heat and the pouring rain of a long-vanished Fort-de-France. "Memory, are you taking off?" he asks later, in a light-infused riff that echoes the Vladimir Nabokov of "Speak, Memory."

And memory does take off in this buoyant, mischievous portrait of the novelist as a little boy, in the years when his life revolved around the daily rhythms of his four siblings and his epic mother, Ma Ninotte, whom he calls "the Prime Confidante." From his perch at the window of their "noble" and "dusty" house ("situated in the midst of the city, it filtered the city"), the young Chamoiseau absorbs the sights and sounds, the wretchedness and wonder, of a modernizing Fort-de-France "that was beginning to cement its eyes shut." From the Syrian shopkeepers to the bewitching storytellers steeped in an oral tradition, Chamoiseau catalogs the myriad impressions of Caribbean life and celebrates the rich conglomeration of influences that made up the Creole culture of his island world.

"Neither Europeans, nor Africans, nor Asians, we proclaim ourselves Creoles," the writer and his colleagues Jean Bernabé and Raphaël Confiant declared emphatically in "L'Éloge de la Créolité," their literary manifesto of 1989. Now, looking back, Chamoiseau introduces us to the people behind that idea -- the country-bred figure of his neighbor Jean-Yvette, for example, whose spellbinding nighttime stories "came to us from Caribbean memories, from the swarming of Africa, from the diversities of Europe, from the festering of India, from the quakes of Asia, from the vast touch of the peoples in the prisms of the open islands, the very sites of Creolity." Boldly and happily, Chamoiseau's Creole synthesis dances atop the ruins of both the French colonial past and the shopworn, confining negritude -- the race-centered aesthetic of many French-speaking black intellectuals -- propounded by Martinique's poet-president, Aimé Césaire.

"Childhood" is a beautifully etched memoir, as engaging and inventive as the shape-shifting Creole language ("a universe of canny resistance, of salvational cruelty, rich with several genies"). And while Chamoiseau is certainly enjoying his ascension in the realms of Francophone literature ("Texaco" won the 1992 Prix Goncourt in France), he continues to fashion himself, with a knowing wink, as more "Word Scratcher" than accomplished author. Yet there is certainly the touch of a Caribbean Rabelais in his riotous voice. With such champions as John Updike and Milan Kundera trumpeting his significance, it looks like he has just begun to stir things up on a grand scale. Chamoiseau, one might ask: Are you taking off yet?

Anderson Tepper

Anderson Tepper has written for the New York Times Book Review, Time Out New York and Paper magazine.

MORE FROM Anderson Tepper

Related Topics ------------------------------------------