- Voicing Memory: History and Subjectivity in French Caribbean Literature
This book by Nick Nesbitt is a strong piece of scholarship and provides a much-needed addition to the body of critical work on French Caribbean literature. Nesbitt's book is well-written and well-researched, and clearly demonstrates the breadth of knowledge that went into its creation. Ambitious in scope, this book's goal is not simply to provide literary and cultural analysis, but to situate French Caribbean literature—and its authors—within the framework of twentieth-century French thought. Thus he looks not only at authors of unquestioned stature, such as Aimé Césaire, but also at those of more recent vintage, like Maryse Condé and Daniel Maximin as well as the Haitian-American writer Edwige Danticat, and reassesses the cultural clout of such historical figures as the Guadeloupean anti-Napoleonic resistance leader Louis Delgrès. Such a range of subject matter allows the author to provide a wealth of literary and philosophical detail to buttress the varied readings he undertakes.
The primary axes of Nesbitt's approach to these readings are history and theory. On the one hand, his unearthing of historical detail allows him to successfully elucidate the formative roles played by African diasporic history, negritude, and Western philosophy in the diachronic representation of the French Caribbean [End Page 173] historical experience. More specifically, Nesbitt cites such thinkers as Hegel, Marx, Lukacs, Hyppolite, and Kojève as providing the key discursive tools that French post/colonial writers would draw on to dismantle the citadel of colonialism. Among French critics of more recent vintage, Sartre, Foucault and Bourdieu are shown to be pivotal in grounding and contextualizing inscriptions of the French Caribbean experience, as are a series of major twentieth-century political events. So while the vernacular memory of Louis Delgrès, for example, is shown to be increasingly subject to "the circuits of capitalist commodification" (69), Césaire's Cahier is inscribed as an overtly antitotalitarian work, framed by Kristallnacht and Stalinist show-trials and whose "images of blood, community, and racial solidarity" were aimed ultimately at their "determinate negation" (86). The appearance and growth of the journal Présence Africaine cements the "concentration of cultural capital" in the debate over "national" poetry for the francophone diasporic intelligentsia (109), a signal development framed by contemporaneous articles by such luminaries as Sartre, Gide, and Alioune Diop. In the case of the former, his introduction served as both bellwether and bad conscience of the French metropolitan elite, still bent on excluding nonhexagonal authors from well-deserved recognition; at the same time, Nesbitt posits Diop's contribution to the journal as being patently steeped in the engagement of Sartre's existentialist
philosophy, implicitly diluting the Africanist trace so crucial to Diop's thought.
In his reading of Maximin's L'isolé soleil, Nesbitt chooses to focus on the role of jazz in the text, which he sees as "a vehicle for the liberation of repressed sensuality and desires [. . .] a counter-model of subjective experience forged in the black vernacular" (150, 154). However, his characterization of Maximin's discursive framework for these musical excursions as "the frozen rigidity of language" appears to be a woefully inadequate description of the linguistic legerdemain for which Maximin's groundbreaking re-imagining of the Caribbean historical condition is justly renowned. Indeed, while jazz does play an incontrovertible suturing role in the novel, his attempt to situate this North American art form as the primary enabling framework for "the novel's principal project of articulating a Caribbean historical experience" (155) appears to sideline not only the centrality of Caribbean historical figures and events to Maximin's astonishingly lyrical narrative, but also Nesbitt's very recognition of "the narrators' desire to 'make poetry and history cohabit' [. . .]" (155). In his chapter on Glissant, Nesbitt bases his discussion of the author's "exploration of a dialectical experience of relation" on "the roughly contemporary writing of Malemort (1974) and Le discours antillais (1981)" (181, 178), extrapolating from this conjunctural...