Culture & Conversation

The literature of small places

French-African author Marie NDiaye was the first black woman to win the Prix Goncourt in 2009

French-African author Marie NDiaye was the first black woman to win the Prix Goncourt in 2009

According to Wictionary, the idiom ‘gone the way of the dodo,’ has pretty well gone the way of the dodo. Extinction. Not until I got to Mauritius in early June did I realize the actual bird was indigenous to this island in the Indian Ocean, until it was killed off by Dutch colonists in the 17th Century.

Far from ashamed, Mauritians are eager to keep images of the squat, somewhat dumb-looking beast in every traveller’s face – as lawn ornaments, on mugs, stamps, decals, towels, cakes et cetera. The historical Dutch are extinct here too, so maybe the bird’s absence speaks to the effort of persistence. The island was uninhabited by humans when the Dutch arrived in the early 16th Century. They spent decades trying to set up civilization, finally giving up. The French took up the mission in 1710, re-naming it Isle de France and establishing tropical cash crops, worked by slaves. A century later, they were ousted by the British, who held on until Mauritius became an independent republic in 1968.

Surrounded by the Indian Ocean and far from everywhere except the French island department of Réunion, Mauritius is about four times the size of Montreal island, with a smaller population (1.2 million). It’s prosperous, lovely and as busy as an anthill, a country that punches above its weight in many categories.

The ancestors of most Mauritians (68 percent) came from India in the 19th century to work on sugar plantations, engaged under contract to replace slaves who had either run away or been freed by abolition in the 1830s. The main spoken language is theirs - Mauritian Creole, a mixture of French, African and Asian languages though it is rarely written. English is the official language, taught in government schools. French is more popular, especially as a cultural medium.

Bookstores are hard to find and full of pulp fiction, though with a little digging, I found gold.

Marie NDiaye, an African-French writer, was the first black woman to win the Prix Goncourt in 2009 with Trois femmes puissantes. Both the title and advertised genre are misleading. It’s really three stories, the most complex taking place inside the head of a male protagonist, a young French man, tortured by fear that his African wife is leaving him, their young son in tow. It’s an emotional thriller; a marginal man’s violent, desperate urges brilliantly dissected.

Men versus strong women is NDiaye’s theme. A young woman answers her estranged father’s call to the African village of his birthplace, where she uncovers terrible truths. The final story inhabits the consciousness of a desperate young widow struggling to survive alone. Exquisite writing.

Nathacha Appanah was born in Mauritius (1973) but like many middle class Mauritians of her generation, pursued higher education in France. A journalist in Lyon, she has published four novels. Les rochers de Poudre d’or dramatizes an important chapter of Mauritian history: the arrival of thousands of indentured labourers from India in the mid-to late 19th century.

The action begins in India, where various destitute people are induced by rumours of glory and gold to sign a five-year work contract and ship out to Mauritius. It’s a grim story, beautifully told. Though the hardships at both ends appear no worse than those faced by Quebec’s Irish immigrants who fled famine around the same time, Appanah dwells on deception and disillusionment, which puts her squarely within the tradition of French fiction.

Her novel confirms something I’ve noticed: Mauritians are proud of their paradise, yet quick to denounce island thinking, the politics and long-simmering skirmishes between factions, neighbours, families. Beach towns are choked with luxury condos, construction is booming, although this time of the year (temperate winter), they’re ghost towns.

If Mauritius has a strong imaginative hold on those who leave, there’s more than geography behind the phenomenon. Helen Morgan’s lovely book, Blue Mauritius: The Hunt for the World’s Most Valuable Stamps, tells the fascinating story of how some of the first postage stamps produced here by the British became multi-million-dollar collectors jewels, their origins growing more fantastical with each generation.

Still on the shelf

Le sari vert, by Mauritian Ananda Devi.

In progress

The Black Book, by Orhan Pamuk. A true master, to be savoured, noted, re-read.

Read & footnoted

A Delicate Truth, by John le Carré (2013): entertaining. The crime is up-to-date, lone wolf characters, reliably predictable.

La fête de l’insignifiance by Milan Kundera (2013): A desultory lunge at fiction, definitely insignificant, scarcely a feast. His recent collections of essays are much better.

Inferno, by Dan Brown: hilariously bad, abandoned on p. 64.

50 Great Short Stories (1952), mostly ghoulish, dated. Aldous Huxley’s tale of a womanizing toff is wicked. Read The Gioconda Smile here.

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Guernica Editions will publish Holy Fools, a novella and two stories by Marianne Ackerman in the fall of 2014. 

 


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