In his new novel, Texaco, Patrick Chamoiseau gives the main characters the surname Laborieux, and it's as if he's daring us to ridicule him. At first blush, Texaco does indeed look like laborious reading: Chamoiseau repeatedly sends you scurrying to footnotes and the book's glossary to decipher its mixture of French, Creole and Caribbean dialects. His pun betrays his cockiness. He knows his dazzling prose is anything but tedious.
The novel begins when an urban planner ("the Christ") arrives at Texaco, a shantytown in Martinique founded by the aging narrator, Marie-Sophie Laborieux, on the oil company's property. Knowing that the planner has come to raze the settlement, Marie-Sophie tells him her life story, hoping he will instead decide to save Texaco. What follows is nearly 200 years of Martinique history. Marie-Sophie presents excerpts from notebooks in which she has recorded the memories of her beloved papa, Esternome, as well as her own recollections, which have been transcribed by Oiseau de Cham, a shadowy character whose name is a play on the author's own.
The adventures of Marie-Sophie and her father read like a souped-up cross between Cervantes and Joyce, the precise stylistic mix that the novel's token intellectual, Ti-Cirique, has despaired of finding in Caribbean literature. Here is Chamoiseau, for example, on Esternome's "ardent vanity": "Esternome was wallowing in his 'I.' I this. I that ... What do you know, Ma-am-o'-Science, of the laurels' perfumes, of the prickly ash and the river tree? I know. I.I.I." The novel is peppered with puns, folk sayings, insults, secret names and made-up words that give voice to the underground identities of Martinican mulattoes and former slaves.
In an afterword, the book's translators write: "If you can read Patrick Chamoiseau's Texaco, maybe we overtranslated it." Yet once you find your footing in its unique idiom, Marie-Sophie's story becomes a dizzying adventure. Texaco, which was written primarily in French, won France's most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt, in 1992. It deserves a wide audience here too. -- Salon