Solibo, that teeming exuberant spirit, bard of Creole storytelling, animator of the Fort-de-France marketplace, delight of his lovers and adept of the natural arts and one or two others as well, was looking shrunken and dispirited of late. He was rarely seen. Now, after rallying in one last all-night recitation, he drops dead.
Patrick Chamoiseau, the Martinican writer, makes himself fictional spectator and narrator in "Solibo Magnificent," a short novel that is both a meaty tale and a cry on behalf of a drowning culture. Waiting with a dozen other mourners, he visualizes Solibo's autopsy. The doctors, he writes, "cut his head bone open to pick the cream of his brain for the mystery of his death."
They cannot find the mystery, but Chamoiseau gradually lets it reveal itself. Written 10 years ago, "Solibo Magnificent" is a protest on behalf of Creolite against the overwhelming power of French and American influences. Chamoiseau, though, author of the teeming Martinican epic "Texaco," is no propagandist but a poet and novelist with a raffishly human and lyrical touch.
When Christ was born, the legend goes, the hills and woods of pagan Greece echoed with the cry: "Great Pan is dead." Solibo's death is the extinction of a Creole Pan, not by a monotheistic religion but by the monopolistic incursions of Western mass culture.
The theme is proclaimed at the end in a swelling eulogy and lament. Up to then, we get a picaresque and wonderfully chaotic series of accounts of the bard, his death and the comically horrifying efforts of Chief Sgt. Bouafesse and Det. Inspector Evariste Pilon to squeeze an epic event into the bureaucratic confines of a police investigation.
Chamoiseau has written in a mix of French and Creole, each given its value and contrast in an extraordinary translation by Rose-Myriam Rejouis and Val Vinokurov. (They did a similarly remarkable job with "Texaco.") He tells the story and enters it as a character: a writer who for months has haunted the Fort-de-France market, recording the words and stories of the market people. Solibo is mentor and teacher to the author-character as he attempts to capture the richness of his Creole heritage.
"Ti-cham" (little Shem) and "Cham-oiseau" (Shem-bird), Solibo calls his disciple with affectionate condescension, shape-changing the name as he shape-changes his stories. Nothing in the oral Creole tradition is fixed; it lives, breathes, alters from moment to moment. Hence Solibo's condescension: Chamoiseau is simply a "word-scratcher," rendering in a dead medium what is rich and wild.
"One writes but words, not the word," Solibo warns. "You should have spoken. To write is to take the conch out of the sea to shout: here's the conch! The word replies: where's the sea?"
Acknowledging failure, Chamoiseau does not fail. He gives us some of the sea. He fragments voices and narrative, and the reader gets the sensation of the back-and-forth that marks a Creole storytelling. As with the "oh yeahs" of gospel singing, the Creole story wields a rhythmic exchange between speaker and audience. "Misticrii?" the teller calls out, demanding attention; "Misticraa!" the listeners respond, giving it.
At the beginning we are told what happened: "During a Carnival evening in Fort-de-France between Fat Sunday and Ash Wednesday, the storyteller Solibo Magnificent died, throat snickt by the word 'Patat' sa! . . . That potato!" We are told, that is, but only at the end--Chamoiseau holds together his colorful chaos with a thread of mystery--do we understand.
Meanwhile, there is a profusion of stories. Solibo's friends recall him. Didon recounts a market incident: A poisonous snake unfurls from a pot and threatens an old woman. Solibo walks up to it with a murmur like bees humming around a flower. "Things had changed," Didon says, "there was no hunter and no prey . . . but two hunters."
Charlo tells of a pig that went berserk just as it was to be slaughtered. Solibo "hadn't even peeked into the yard when that Master Pig stopped squealing. Then, there it lay on one side, dizzy. Mr. Solibo talked to it while around my knife its heart slid into exile in the basin: dead without realizing it with the flesh nice and pink."
Sidonie remembers her lover. Later she married, "but my body's only got one season: Solibo." On the morning of his death, he had helped her make a shark stew; Chamoiseau's savory and inciting description of the preparations and the result stands with the greatest of food writing.
The friends evoke Solibo without speculating on the mystery of his death. The police brutalize the mystery. They arrest the friends as witnesses and suspects and whip up a storm of investigative hysteria. The book's finest characterizations are the contrasting portraits of the police sergeant and the detective.
Sgt. Bouafesse is a lusty middle-aged brute: corrupt, dictatorial and shrewd. Chamoiseau portrays him with both horror and sympathy as a leader in an authentic island tradition, though serving an oppressive authority. "He was made to be a chief but on the wrong side."
In contrast, there is Inspector Pilon, trained in France and a would-be intellectual. His reasoning, purely Cartesian and without a trace of understanding of his island roots, leads him into ludicrous misapprehensions. Chamoiseau portrays him as a pretentious fool, but the foolishness is not so much a personal quality as the environmental blight of colonialism, a blight the author recognizes in himself.
Pilon is self-alienated. He calls for teaching Creole in the schools but is horrified when his children speak it. He praises the great island poet, Aime Cesaire, without ever having read him. He talks privately of independence from France; in public he cheers every mention of Charles de Gaulle. "That is to say," Chamoiseau writes, "he lives like all of us, at two speeds, not knowing whether he should put on the brakes going uphill or accelerate going down."
There is no material answer to Solibo's death, though the police manage to kill two of the witnesses while trying to squeeze one out. After beating an old man most of the night, Bouafesse explains his torture formula: "Now we have to leave him alone, the meat on his bones will start to swell and he'll find out what kind of job we did on him."
Only after the investigation ends, fruitlessly, does Chamoiseau resolve the mystery in a mournful but lovely passage evoking Great Pan's second death. I quote excerpts because no paraphrase would do.
"The Magnificent had been losing his listeners in his latter days. Solibo wanted to inscribe his words in our ordinary life, but our life no longer had ears nor hollow where an echo could abide eternal. . . .
"He had seen the tales die, Creole lose its strength, he had seen our speech lose that speed that not one of the remaining storytellers ever brought back, he found himself submerged by the reality he had thought he could vanquish. . . .
"When you know that in his day he used to light up the sky every night with words, would break into day with them, and that now he would go without an audience for moonful and moonless nights, morning, noon, and evening, all year round, then you can imagine and understand: a stream of words must have been torturing his belly, rolling up in his chest, and waiting for that terrible moment in the Carnival when the hurricane explodes from his throat. . . ."