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The Enchantment of Language : TEXACO. By Patrick Chamoiseau . Translated from the French and Creole by Rose-Myriam Rejouis and Val Vinokurov . Pantheon: 401 pp., $27 : SCHOOL DAYS. By Patrick Chamoiseau . Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale . University of Nebraska Press: 156 pp., $35 cloth, $13 paper

March 02, 1997|JONATHAN LEVI | Jonathan Levi is the author of "A Guide for the Perplexed: A Novel." He has just completed his third novel, "Blue Nude #1."

When his novel "Texaco" won the French Prix Goncourt in 1992, Patrick Chamoiseau could not have foreseen that it would appear in English at a time when language and art were sitting in the front row of the long-running American play of "race." Should the African American children of Oakland be taught in their local patois? Should black theater be for "colored people" only when the rainbow is not enuf? These American debates are giving John Grisham and "Les Miserables" runs for their money at bookstores and theaters around America.

Enter Chamoiseau with "Texaco" and "School Days," a narrative based on his childhood on the tiny Caribbean island of Martinique. Martinique is a little dot at the crossroads of the Americas and the Paris-Dakar axis, a department of France (with the same population as Oakland), a culture of freed slaves, imported East Indian and Asian workers, the remnants of a white master race and all the rainbow mixtures that desire and language can produce. Affranchis, bekes, capresses, engages, bekes goyaves, chabins, with their blend of intensely white and intensely black features, are only some of the delicate Creole variations of pigment and class that define the Martinican population.

Chamoiseau himself is black, a negre, and a cultural descendant of the black-pride movement of the Martinican poet and politician Aime Cesaire, who developed the concept of Negritude back in the 1930s, looking toward Africa for a literary and political solidarity to enfranchise the blacks of Martinique. But Chamoiseau's language is a curious mixed breed, enough classical French to please the Academy and enough Creole to paint his subject. It is a sophisticated mixture of music and meaning that leaves the debate of Martinique's northern neighbor in the dust of the playground.

A master storyteller, Chamoiseau needs this subtle and indirect language for his tales. Both "Texaco" and "School Days," his fictionalization of his youthful beginnings, are tales, gestes, with all the connotations that word carries of histories and heroes and daring.

Eighty-year-old Marie-Sophie Laboreux is the heroine of "Texaco" the novel and Texaco the shantytown named after the absent owner of the oil reservoirs outside City. City is Fort-de-France, the capital of Martinique. City is also the force that Marie-Sophie battles from her birth at the turn of the century, the force of authority, the force of French language and government, the force of impoverishment and assimilation.

In the course of her chanson de geste, Marie-Sophie sings the history of French Martinique; the history of her parents, born slaves before the abolition of slavery on Martinique in 1848; the history of her grandparents. It is a history that Marie-Sophie tells first to an urban planner who has been sent by City to renovate the shacks and alleys of Texaco; and then to the Word Scratcher, a man sometimes called Cham-Oiseau or King of Birds, the author himself. She speaks to the Word Scratcher:

" . . . [mixing] Creole and French, a vulgar word with a dear word, a forgotten word with a new word . . . as if at any given point she were mobilizing (or summarizing) her tongues. Her voice, like that of great storytellers, dipped into unclarity. In such moments, her sentences whirled at a delirious pace and I would not understand squat: The only thing left for me to do was let myself (shedding my reason) plunge into that hypnotic enchantment."

And Texaco, the language of "Texaco," is absolutely, magically enchanting. As heroic as the tales of Marie-Sophie, her papa, Esternome, and mama, Idomenee, it is Chamoiseau's chabin language that is the true heroine of "Texaco." Marie-Sophie's battles with City are nothing less than the wars between French and Creole, between the classic and the patois, the colonizer and the colonized. But neither she nor her Word Scratcher is a simple partisan of Negritude. Marie-Sophie fully recognizes the power and beauty of the European language. Her discovery comes while working as a domestic for a middle-class black family, from the children's teacher.

"With him (thank God! . . .), I learned to read and write. If the A cost me 13 yams and the B was only a dasheen, and then from C to Z all I had to do was arouse the pleasure he took in resisting ignorance and the volcanic agony of his libido. All for a kiss on the cheek of this tormented-nasty-one-despite-his-age (to excite me, he'd whisper one of those erotic flowers by one called Baudelaire)."

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