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Metaphor and Memory in the Work of Patrick Chamoiseau Lorna Milne FOR BLACK WRITERS OF THE ANTILLES, the most consistently preoccupying foundation narrative to which questions of identity can be linked is not a supernatural cosmogony but a collective memory — however mythified—of the real, lived experience of slavery. Authors from Césaire to the current generation evoke images of that beginning in ways which suggest not only the traumatic nature of a memory which refuses to disappear , but also its continued influence over the structures of the Antillean imaginary. Focusing on the Martinican writer Patrick Chamoiseau, this essay will show the extent to which the memory of slavery provides a paradigm which consistently configures the way in which repression is imagined and expressed in his fiction. However, as slavery is relatively rarely an explicit major focus in his work,1 close textual analysis is necessary in order to demonstrate the pervasiveness of the memory and the precise configuration Chamoiseau gives to it. This will be done by examining two important metaphors through which slavery is chiefly represented in Chamoiseau's texts: on the one hand, the image of "l'abîme," the abyss which swallows up both people and individual identities; and, on the other hand, the "womb" where a new being—the Créole—is formed. Both metaphors are rooted in references first to the slave ship, and then to the plantation. In the case of the ship, the two images are juxtaposed to suggest the classical structural model of symbolic death and rebirth which so often indicates the passage of an individual or a society from one state of being to another.2 The fact that the "devouring" hold of the slave ship occupies the lower part of the vessel, its darkness, and the atrocious conditions which prevail, strongly recall the descent into hell or into the tomb which precedes rebirth in mythical scenarios and rites of passage. Thus the "cauchemars des cales négrières" are described in Chamoiseau's L'Esclave vieil homme et le molosse (85)' as "les abysses"; while Chamoiseau himself, dreaming of the slave ship in the autobiographical Ecrire en pays dominé, refers to it systematically in terms of descent: "chute" (133), "effondrement," and "le sans-fond" (167). At the same time, however, the darkness of the ship's hold, and especially the fact that it is suspended in water, also evoke the traditional symbolism of the womb which, in mythical systems, often parallels that of the tomb. In this 90 Spring 2003 MlLNE great womb, according to Chamoiseau, the individual is reduced to the simplest expression of existence; he undergoes there "le roulis continuel de la mer, sa déconstruction irrémédiable des espaces intimes, la lente dérade des mémoires qu'elle engendrait. La mer qui pénétrait les chairs pour en contrarier l'âme, ou la décomposer" (EVHM 33). Following his "déconstruction" or "décomposition," therefore, it is a new being who is reborn at last from the inferno, tomb, or womb. Chamoiseau and Raphaël Confiant underline this effect in their Lettres Créoles: Celui qui débarquait après l'utérine traversée se retrouvait dans une situation où son nom, sa religion , sa langue, ses valeurs, son explication du monde étaient soit invalidés, soit en grande partie inopérationnels. Il ne débarquait pas dans un autre pays mais dans une autre vie. Tout était à refaire, à reconsidérer. (81) In a passage of the novel Chronique des sept misères which echoes this, the close association between the ship, the abyss, and the womb is even clearer. Here the ghost of the slave Afoukal says to the twentieth-century protagonist, Pipi: Imagine cela: tu descends du bateau, non dans un monde nouveau mais dans UNEAUTRE VIE. Ce que tu croyais essentiel se disperse, balance inutile. Une longue ravine creuse sa trace en toi. Tu n'es plus qu'abîme. Il fallait vraiment renaître pour survivre. Quelle impure gestation, quel enfer utérin |...|! (153) Afoukal also articulates here another important characteristic of the image of the abyss in Chamoiseau's work: the fact that the slave who undergoes...


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