Research in African Literatures 35.1 (2004) 206-208
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De la Guyane à la diaspora africaine: écrits du silence. By Florence Martin and Isabelle Favre. Paris: Karthala, 2002. 205 pp. ISBN: 2-84586-282-2 paper.
As Florence Martin and Isabelle Favre state in their introduction, the literature of French Guyana has not received the attention it deserves in the field of francophone studies. They attribute this in part to the stereotypical image of French Guyana: it is known beyond its border mainly for the penal colony in Cayenne and the rocket launching site in Kourou. They note as well that France has seriously neglected this [End Page 206] DOM (overseas French department) plagued by poverty as well as the serious health problems of mercury contamination of the rivers and AIDS.
Adopting the concept of marronnage, the tactic of subversion that originates with the marron (fugitive slave), the critics follow the traces-mémoires of Guyanese rebellion against colonization depicted in its history and literature. Pursuing this path, they find that scholarly activity in this realm has been done primarily by Guyanese, thereby remaining almost exclusively within the Guyanese community. As francophone scholars approaching the literature from the outside, they wish to call attention to a textual production that blurs the boundaries between written French and spoken Creole, myth and history, poetry and theater.
The two critics begin their study of Guyanese literature by focusing on D'Chim-bo, a historical figure and literary symbol. An African immigrant to Cayenne in 1858 (more than a decade after the abolition of slavery in the French colonies), he was pursued by French authorities for robbery, rape, and murder a few years later. Caught, tried, and executed for his crimes, D'Chimbo's capture and death were first recorded by Frédéric Bouyer in a Parisian journal in 1866 and repeated in the journalist's travel diary published the following year. In both reports, D'Chimbo is depicted as a depraved savage. In recent years, however, the life and death of the legendary figure have been given a new reading by Guyanese writers Serge Patient and Elie Stéphenson. Patient's novel, Le nègre du gouverneur (1972) and Stéphenson's plays, La nouvelle légende de D'Chimbo (1984) and Massak (1991), refute Bouyer's portrait of the fugitive, transforming him from thief and murderer into Guyanese hero.
In the first chapter devoted to D'Chimbo, Martin charts the transformation of the condemned criminal into legendary folk hero via oral tradition. She notes that Bouyer had "read" D'Chimbo's body for signs of bestiality—an apelike body, a bull's neck, pointed teeth—as well as tattoos and bullet scars that Bouyer believed were proof he was impervious to bullets and impossible to defeat by ordinary means. The French journalist, however, denied him the power of speech. D'Chimbo's physique caused fear, not his words. In contrast, Patient and Stéphenson depict the fugitive as someone who mastered the colonizer's language; they show him to be a man, not a demon. In the second chapter, Favre extends the analysis of D'Chimbo's rehabilitation by focusing on Stéphenson's commitment to the collective conscience of the Guyanese community. In poetry, theater, and music, Stéphenson reveals a strong identification with the land and history of French Guyana, and therefore with the project of revising Guyanese written history originally recorded by the French colonizer (90-91).
In the following chapter, Favre turns to Guadeloupean writer Daniel Maximin's L'isolé soleil (1981), thereby broadening the scope of the critical study. Examining the historically based novel set in Guadeloupe, a text imbued with surrealism and feminism, the critic notes that solid historical and literary references inform the novel but that its originality lies in its integration of feminist theory (124). In my view, parallels between Maximin and Stéphenson call for analysis since Maximin rewrites the history of Guadeloupe—slavery, resistance, oral transmission of historical events—just as Stéphenson reinterprets historical events of...