In 1988, Raphael Confiant introduced
the Martinican people to an almost unknown part of their own history
in Le Nègre et l’amiral. In this novel he speaks about
“an tan Robè”, that is, the Vichy Regime of 1940-1943
in Martinique and various forms of resistance to it. “An tan
Robè” was characterized by scarcity and restrictions
on civil liberties. Repression carried out by its representatives,
such as Admiral Robert, was so acute that Martinicans thought that
slavery might come back.
In a preliminary study, I concentrated on the historical aspect
of this novel. My present study analyzes why Confiant’s choice
of revisiting Vichy’s National Revolution is not only meaningful
historically, but also significant from a literary point of view.
I argue that the notion of resistance/dissidence and collaboration,
prominent in Le Nègre et l’Amiral, appears as an allegory
for Confiant’s dilemma: how to write in a culturally dominated
country and what language to choose to express his créolité.
This duality or dichotomy arises in contrasting the two narrators’
points of view this novel. This contrast also echoes the diglossic
situation in the French Antilles; Creole and French are both spoken
but only the latter is written thus creating a wide gap between
spoken and written activities. French is the language that is official
and revered, yet it does not always reflect the inner self, while
Creole is despised, yet nevertheless, often represents the people.
Confiant, writing his first novel in French, seems to give us a
hint, however the answer is not as easy or obvious as it seems.
The relationship between author, narrators and characters to language
contributes towards constructing and unraveling the representation
of self and the other, thus creating créolité.
The narrative structure of this novel echoes the diglossic situation
of the Antilles. Indeed, we have two narrators and thus two stories:
a personal story integrated into a wider, more official one. Pages
of another piece written by the character Amédée are
also inserted into the main body of Le Nègre et l’Amiral,
and at times, constitute whole chapters. The notion of duality should
then be emphasized. The two levels of narration give a specific
depth to the story. This dichotomy led me to wonder about schizophrenic
constituents of the writing process. What language, voice or character
should one choose? The narrator’s function lies in his rendition
of the characters’ lives and their ways of speaking, their
use of words. For this reason, I would like to concentrate on the
characters Rigobert and Alcide. At different levels, both of them
embody the myth of the “nègre marron”, who is
the ultimate resistant to the colonial and Vichy regime. The Vichy
regime forces hunt them down: One hides in the “mornes”,
that is, the mountains, and the other goes to St. Lucia to join
the Dissident and British forces.
Rigobert is a man who never went to school. He is depicted as
someone who has earned the right not to speak a word of French and
who is quite proud of it. Because he despises French and prides
himself about speaking only Creole, he could be viewed as being
representative of a pre-1988 Raphael Confiant, who was fighting
for his right to express himself only in Creole. Yet, the omniscient
narrator presents Rigobert’ stream of consciousness in French.
Paradoxically, we can even hear Rigobert, a character who does not
speak French, think in French.
“Il pensait en son for intérieur: “Moi,
crier: “Belles robes à dix francs! Pantalons escampés
en tergal ! Accourez, mesdames et messieurs de la companie. Venez
vite avant que le bonheur ne retire ses pieds ! », moi Rigobert
Charles Francis ? Je n’ai donc rien à faire de ma
vie, hein ? »
By translating instantaneously this character’s Creole thoughts
to the reader, the narrator demonstrates the necessity of making
the Creole message understandable to those who do not speak this
language. We may wonder why it is so important for the reader to
comprehend what Rigobert, a riffraff, has to say. While reading
le Nègre et l’amiral, we witness the “mythification”
of this character who has left the status to gain a more desired
one, that of the ‘marron’. Rigobert’s characterization,
the translation of his Creole stream of consciousness and his thoughts
seem to indicate that the narrator has decided to cope with the
dilemma of language by writing in French. Alcide’s depiction
will shed further light on the narrator’s strategies about
and relation to language.
Alcide is introduced as a “maître-phraseur” who
is a middle-school teacher that attended the colonial school. Consequently,
he masters the French language rather well and from the start he
is opposed to Rigobert, the speaker of Creole and the symbol of
real manhood. Rigobert calls this teacher “une petite couille
de chien fer”, “un instituteur ou un sacré insignifiant
de cette marque » and « un freluquet ». Alcide’s
mastery of French seems to take away his manhood, whereas Creole
is linked to sexuality and manhood. However, this “maître-phraseur”,
who throws off French phrases in front of uncultivated black and
uses French to seduce loose women, will use Creole as the ultimate
weapon of seduction. Describing Alcide’s use of Creole, the
narrator cannot help but show us his enthusiasm, which stands out
as intrusive. Alcide’s words to Louisiane, a character he
is trying to seduce, are in Creole in the text. Those Creole words
are introduced by the narrator’s comments free speech: “en
Creole s’il vous plait!: ou sé an pil fam (vous êtes
une vraie femme)” between parentheses. Here, the virile impact
of Creole, as far as sexuality is concerned, is emphasized. Alcide
could use French to seduce, which would be the easy way to score.
Instead, he uses his personal, local language as a sign of resistance.
Contrary to Rigobert, he has a choice and he chooses Creole, which
pleases the narrator. French is not always the answer.
Despite being sexually diminished in Rigobert’s opinion,
Alcide is depicted as a womanizer. His taste for the other sex is
a reaction to his schooling and education in the colonial school
and to his ‘francisation’. His first act of transgression
is to use French, a culturally empowering language, as a mere means
of seduction, to sexually or romantically empower the uneducated
black men he knows. Alcide conveys his sexuality and his resistance
to the colonial and Vichy regime through his use of Creole. He has
a great appetite for women. His sexual drive, as opposed to Rigobert’s
near-celibacy, is also a metaphor for Confiant’s answer to
the dilemma of language. Rigobert, the real man, “le major”,
is shown masturbating in front of posters of white women. The image
of his semen splashed over his white playmates’ posters could
be perceived as the metaphor of an aborted communion and communication.
This is similar to writing in Creole when there is no one to read
the finished work. The personal gratification is great, the writing
process is pleasurable, however the lack of a reader is an excruciating
frustration. Rigobert’s masturbation in front of his posters
also represents the pleasure a man could derive from any foreign
beauty without the desire to incorporate her into his life. This
is also another type of resistance. Rigobert is not a character
who will have mulattoe children. He represents Confiant’s
will to keep the purity of Creole, and contrary to Chamoiseau, he
does not believe in mixing Creaole and French, that would result
in a “français-banane” or a bastard language.
What will happen if Creole is kept the way it is? The answer to
this question can be found in Alcide’s sexual drive and the
risks he takes to satisfy it. His choice of resistance is detrimental
to him: he looses his wife and contracts a sexually-transmitted
disease. After trying nontraditional, empirical forms of medicine
without success, he is cured by medical doctors. Alcide still cannot
stop having sex, so he decides to become pro-active and to wear
condoms. After a long search, Alcide transcends his dilemma. The
reference to the condom is important. His sexual problems and his
final choice of an effective way to be treated and protected could
also be perceived as an allegory of Confiant’s language choice.
Sex, symbolizing the Creole language, is inserted in a condom, a
symbol of the French language, thus allowing for climactic pleasure
to be reached. The condom metaphorically stands for communication
and the ultimate communion which is the understanding of the message
without the fear of the debilitating aftermath of a disease, or
the frustration of not being read or understood. The condom, covering
the sexual organ, will adapt to any size and is supposed to allow
for sensations. It may even intensify them, so that a man’s
sexual organ will be enhanced. More importantly, the condom prevents
reproduction. This flexible device is an obvious metaphor for créolité.
A bastard language is rejected for an evolved form of French. This
becomes obvious in studying the language of the narrator.
We have seen so far that the narrator translates Creole into French,
either directly or indirectly by means of parentheses. However,
in his discourse we also encounter standard French, broken French
and Creole. For the narrator, broken French is the language of black
people who do not like themselves. La race des nègres “se
haïssait elle-même à cette époque…,
elle préférait le français banane au Créole.
» Yet, the narrator’s langauge is surprising and seems
to be a broken language, therefore we may wonder if the narrator
conveys self-loathing or even if Confiant has not betrayed his ideal
of defending Creole, as some critics have suggested. The narrator
does give a clear definition of what français-banane is:
a flawed translation of Creole into French by people not able to
master French, but using it to show off or increase their prestige.
The narrator’s French, even if not always standard, is far
from being flawed. For instance, the narrator presents a character
that presumably has lost his mind, saying Il “est tombé
fou.” The reader’s first response is to see this French
as incorrect. However, in the dictionary, one of the meanings of
“tomber” is “devenir”, to become. So if
you can “tomber amoureux” (fall in love), why not “tomber
fou”? This notion of fall (“chute”) is more appropriate
for expressing Creole experiences. So the narrator’s language
is characterized by a literary diglossia. He inserts a Creole experience
into the narrative, that is, a language into another language which
is usually perceived only as a carrier.The narrator becomes what
Glissant and Chamoiseau call “un marqueur de parole”.
The main voice deconstructs the myth of the glorified, rigid/inflexible
French language and that of a Creole despised because of its inadequacies.
At the same time, the main voice deconstructs social dictates of
the dominant language: it constructs the myth of the créolité
of language. The narrator’s perception of History grounds
all characters from different backgrounds to the same “mythified”
story, the same language and the same voice, that is, “we”.
For him to write in a culturally dominated country is to write his
own story, from an inclusive expressive cultural point of view -
the “we”, “nous”. He conveys the collective
legacy through his voice, thus, “he” becomes “we”.
The voice that is singled out is Amédée’s,
the subaltern narrator. Amédée, a brilliant, former
student who got a scholarship to study in France, is, ironically,
a writer who cannot write: “C’est un écrivain
en mal de mot”. In France, he comes in contact with the elite
of the black renaissance which makes him realize the extent of his
alienation. A painting seen at a white friend’s house, “le
Nègre de Géricault”, is the emblem of his dilemma
and the mirror of his inner turmoil: “Je suis cet homme! Oui,
ce nègre-là, hésitant entre le grand mirage
blanc et la tendresse du giron nègre.” He never know
which culture is best for him or which identity he should endorse.
He fails to complete his novel and on top of that, the pages he
writes are destroyed by the woman he loves, Philomène. Amédée
wants to be his people’s spokesman, yet he is unable to do
so as he cannot choose a language. He is only close to Creole when
he is having sexual intercourse with Philomène because she
makes love in this language. Sex is once more a metaphor for the
choice of language. His respect for French is too strong which stems
from his upbringing. His father loathed Creole and forbade his children
to speak it: “Zoulouter la langue française”
was out of the question. So a distance is established between the
first person narrator and the despised Créole. In his narrative,
he is clearly an outsider of the collective he wants to define,
despite his attempts to belong.
Amédée’s inability to be a spokesman is echoed
in his inability to have a child with Philomène. He thinks
she is sterile, while she systematically gets rid of any unborn
child. Here again arises the problem of aborted communication. Nothing
can be born out of their relationship as they do not speak the same
language or share the same background. This situation parallels
the author’s refusal of cross-breeding, depicted by Rigobert’s
masturbation. From the start, Amédée’s personal
narrative is doomed because it is flawed. First, he rejects Creole,
then French, and consequently he has no language to carry his voice.
His narrative then disintegrates, as he has no medium to convey
his feelings or thoughts.
The analysis of the narrative levels in Le Nègre et l’Amiral
allows us to see how Confiant challenges the norm in rejecting the
myth of a static language. He manipulates and structures words for
his own purposes, showing how flexible French can be. The use of
two different narrators echoes the diglossic situation of Martinique
and the author’s personal dilemma. The omniscient narrator,
through the validity of his collective language, fights not only
for the preservation of a language, but also for its evolution.
The first person narrator personifies the voice of self-conflict
and also shows the difficulty of establishing one’s identity
in the colonial era. Doing so, he paves the way for the authors
of Créolité. The author of Créolité
wants to go beyond what has been accomplished by various Martinican
writers who have demonstrated their mastery of French. Now it is
time for Martinicans to adapt French to their own needs.