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Solibo Magnificent

We read Solibo Magnificent for class. I have a link to more info about the book in the sidebar. Perhaps it’s because this week’s reading was different in format than most of what we’ve been working with, but this essay felt somehow refreshing to write. I enjoy literary analysis, and I actually might have gone overboard with it in this piece.

Patrick Chamoiseau makes  novel for the oral culture of Martinique in Solibo Magnificent. This oral culture is set against a predominantly written one, and is split along language lines: Antillean Creole (oral) and French (written).

A creole develops between groups of mutually unintelligible languages as a pidgin, mainly for trade purposes. A handy way to distinguish a creole from a pidgin is by generation – a creole can be a speaker’s first language, while a pidgin always comes from an intermingling of speakers’ native languages. Creoles are born into a society, a culture, while a pidgin is the interaction between groups. Creoles develop first and foremost as an oral culture, similar to the development of many other languages and dialects. Antillean Creole is a French-based creole that draws from several Eastern African language families, the Carib language, and other Romance languages; and is spoken throughout the Caribbean in various forms.

Chamoiseau is a writer from Martinique, a department of France. French is the official language of Martinique, but Creole is still a common language for Martinique, though not in a formalized sense. It is still predominantly oral, and is tied into peoples’ culture – Creole produces connotations of low-class, and a lack of education. Chamoiseau writes in favor of kreyol, Antillean Creole, as a “worthy language”, and has attempted to produce a literature for it. Solibo Magnificent is an excellent example of this. The novel takes place during Carnival, in 1960s Fort-de-France, Martinique. Solibo Magnificent is a famed storyteller, and is discovered dead in the midst of a speech. A police investigation into the perplexing situation ensues, and constitutes most of the novel. We, the readers, discover witnesses, a motley group of drummers, vendors, characters, entrepreneurs, philosophers, activists, and the author Chamoiseau himself; there are the police, Creole-born but struggling to become civilized through their French. As the higher-ups assigned to the case, Chief Sergeant Bouafesse and Chief Inspector Pilon, delve into their conspiracy theories of how the witnesses poisoned Solibo, they come upon a startling discovery. Solibo was “snickt by the word” as the caring witnesses explained it originally, choking on his own Creole. This isn’t comprehendable in French – Pilon and Bouafesse are confronted with the loss of their own cultural awareness as their story fades. The novel closes with a “transcript” by Chamoiseau of Solibo’s final utterances in a permanent form, the written word.

Chamoiseau writes predominantly in the French language, with artistic liberties and variations (he claims to have invented a new dialect, “freole”), and portrays the French language as one of prestige, and official going-ons. Pilon/Bouafesse as French literacy (police reports, refusal to recognize Creole) There are the bumbling policemen, who influence a significant amount of the story, including its structure: we are, at times, simply reading a French police report of the death of Solibo Magnificent. Even with French, orality is given sway, as Bouafesse’s booming voice will stay with me far longer than his penmanship. Why does Chamoiseau establish even the antagonists of his story as oralists? Because of Solibo.

Solibo Magnificent is a powerful symbol for the oral culture of Martinican Creole in the novel. His name, meaning “[M]an fallen to his last peg-and no ladder to climb back up” (46), is given him by the community, by housewives and another venerated storyteller. He, a charcoal salesman, is looked upon within the society of Fort-de-France as a magical stranger and mesmerizing storyteller. Furthermore, they draw him into their lives, for results that are mysteriously spiritual, such as when Solibo feeds a neighborhood with a single shark (a few loaves and fish…). Solibo himself claims to exercise and see “the Word”, while he questions Chamoiseau’s (“a word scratcher”) ability to even “touch the distance” between a writer and “the Word”. It is Solibo’s voice that is transcendent.

Chamoiseau, in this light, becomes an in-between, because he seeks to invoke “the Word” of orality through his own writing. Perhaps the power of Patrick Chamoiseau comes through listening.


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