Big Bellybutton won't submit;Books
Alastair Niven welcomes a fictionalised account of growing up in Martinique
Patrick Chamoiseau is from Martinique in the Caribbean. He won the Prix Goncourt for his novel Texaco, and Derek Walcott has hailed him as the bright hope of the next generation. School Days (Chemin-d'ecole) is his fourth novel, if novel it be. Ostensibly an autobiographical memoir, in which Chamoiseau himself is the little boy at the centre, the story is told as a series of scenes in an unfolding education. Each one is narrated with the verve and the relish for eccentric characterisation of the born story-teller. There are no dates, few place names, and none of the pompous sense of the child being father of the man that colours so many adult reminiscences.
Chamoiseau has a flamboyant style that moves with ease from poeticised rhetoric to playground argot. He is wonderfully versatile: seldom does so short a book cover such a range of language. Translator Linda Coverdale wisely leaves certain expressions in the original French or Creole, and finds a solution to many of the linguistic challenges her author presents.
Unfortunately she does not avoid that slight stiffness and formality translators sometimes convey when their source prose is either purple or slangy, and Chamoiseau is both. "Mam Ninotte, accustomed though she was to devastations, flew right off the handle"; "Each child did his best to scrabble up to the summit of knowledge"; "the little boy witnessed . . . the impalpable destruction of Big Bellybutton". Chamoiseau's prose is literally brilliant, and it requires shining translation. This version, which Granta has bought in from the University of Nebraska Press, never allows us to forget it originated in another language.
This particularly matters in a book where language is as much the subject matter as the boy's developing sensitivity. Caribbean and African writing has produced many remarkable books about growing up - Michael Anthony's and Camara Laye's L'Enfant Noir, for example - but perhaps none in which the harsh dilemma of having to learn "correct" European speech at the expense of an indigenous patois is more dramatically encapsulated. "Whoever called a newspaper a jounal instead of a journal was branded for life. The slightest taint of Creole set off a merciless festival of mockery." It is a festival held on a battlefield, for Big Bellybutton will not readily accept the colourless disciplines of metropolitan France. He tells stories, frightens and dares the other children, challenges bullies, and is known as the Master of Nasty Things from the Creole Wildwood.
The adventures and terrors of childhood are beautifully re-imaged by Chamoiseau in this little masterpiece. Read it in French, if you can (and can get hold of a copy: Editions Gallimard, 1994). It is good to have it available in English (or American, actually), even in this slightly stilted translation, and I hope it will be the start of more Francophone writing from the Caribbean appearing in this country.
The forthcoming Caribbean series from Faber will include work that originated in languages other than English, and indeed other than French. Post-colonial criticism in this country has been largely focused on Anglophone texts, which is like experiencing Renaissance literature through English alone. It is good to see the change beginning.
Alastair Niven is director of literature at the British Council