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French Forum 27.1 (2002) 154-155

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Book Review

Cahier d'un retour au pays natal

Aimé Césaire. Cahier d'un retour au pays natal. Edited by Abiola Irele. 2d edition. Columbus oh: The Ohio State University Press, 2000. lxxiii + 158 pp. Introduction, commentary, notes, maps.

In a paper I delivered not long after the appearance of the first iteration of Abiola Irele's critical edition of Aimé Césaire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (Ibadan, Nigeria: New Horn Press, 1994), I noted that, for better or for worse, the paratexts surrounding recent editions of Césaire's poem had grown to such proportions that they now dwarfed the text itself. Mireille Rosello's critical edition and translation of the Cahier (Notebook of a return to my native land [Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1995]), which had also recently been published, contains, like Irele's text, about three pages of "paratext" for every page of "text." I suggested that the sheer mass of the critical apparatus in English in these editions signaled the institutionalization of the Cahier in anglophone universities, since, unlike purely critical texts, they at least ostensibly had the publication of the poem as their starting point and were aimed at students. For some, the institutionalization ushered in by such editions comes at a price; one colleague who heard my paper commented that editions such as Irele's run the risk of revoking the text's droit à l'opacité. Irele's several lines of commentary for every verse of the poem can be seen to constitute an attempt at such total (and totalizing) understanding that the poem becomes flattened.

This second edition, published by Ohio State (as a result of Irele's desire to see his edition more broadly distributed in the Americas), pads the already substantial paratext to the first edition with a new preface that responds to the types of comments cited above. It is perhaps in reference to a review by Bridget Jones who sees lapses into "deadening prosaic comment" in the notes (Modern Language Review, 92.1, 1997: 212-13) that Irele restates his objective in preparing this critical edition: to allow students access to a highly allusive work whose connection to a particular historical context may otherwise be lost on them. He then wisely allows the text of the first edition, otherwise more or less unchanged, to do the talking. As in the first edition, Irele brackets the 1956 version of the Cahier with, on one side, a preface and an introduction and, on the other side, stanza-by-stanza and sometimes word-by-word exegesis followed by detailed primary and secondary [End Page 154] bibliographic information. The introduction expertly balances commentary on the political and aesthetic context in which the Cahier was written (including a brilliant, condensed take on the European intellectual climate of the 1930s [xxiv], as well as the acknowledgement of Suzanne Césaire's role in the composition of the poem [xxxv]) with broad analysis of the poem as a text whose explicitly political dimension is "not the 'residue' of a poetic quality . . . but is the very core of the poem's thematic development and the conditioning factor of its emotional tone (xlix)." The notes that follow the poem provide explications of the stanzas and then work to elucidate particular references, neologisms, images, etc. While Irele does not break new interpretive ground at every turn, his reading of the poem and its context is always deeply informed and compelling. It is also rarely tendentious, a difficult feat with a text that has been the subject of as much commentary as the Cahier has.

It may have surprised Irele, then, to find his seemingly unpolemical critical edition the subject of polemical reviews. The problem may stem from the way in which this edition is positioned. The title on the book cover indicates that it is Césaire's poem that readers have in their hands, yet the poem occupies very little physical space in the book. (Most of the reviews of the first edition presented the text as...


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