Mahagony: A Colloquy of French-American Voices
by Matt Reeck
Glissant, Édouard. Mahagony: A Novel, translated from the French by Betsy Wing. University of Nebraska Press, 2021, $19.95, 186 pages. ISBN 978-1-4962-0178-2
Mahagony, Édouard Glissant’s fifth novel, has been translated into English for the first time by Betsy Wing (University of Nebraska Press 2021). It is Wing’s third translation of a Glissant novel, and, along with Michael Dash’s The Ripening (La Lézarde, 1959; trans. 1986), the fourth translation of his novels to date.
Mahagony is a historical novel of the Americas, and, as such, can be read together along with other historical novels of the Americas. Those by William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy first come to mind. Faulkner is important because Mahagony was published for the first time in 1987, a year before Glissant began teaching at Louisiana State University, two years before Glissant traveled to Rowan Oak in Oxford, Mississippi, and nine years before the publication of Faulkner, Mississippi. In Mahagony, Glissant shows a similar interest to Faulkner’s desire to create a mythological society whose ethos governs the past, present, and future. As a novel of the Americas, Mahagony is also interested in documenting speech. Here, McCarthy’s novels from the 1970s and 1980s are good comparisons, as they likewise show a commitment to excavating rustic—rusticated, historical—forms of language.
Yet other writers come to mind as well. Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place is well known for its scathing critique of Caribbean tourism, but Glissant’s hilarious critique of Caribbean tourism in Mahagony predates that book by a year. And, as I will show, the novel’s formal innovations are tied to postcolonial strategies for decolonizing thought that can be found in more distant literary contexts. I am thinking primarily of the work of the Urdu writer Intizar Husain and the French multi-genre artist Abd Al Malik.
For or Against Written Forms
In his novel The Chronicle (Tazkirah, 1987), Husain (1925-2016), one of the 2013 Man Booker International Prize finalists, uses the chronicle as a form of alternative history, an indigenous history that records lives outside the bounds of official colonial History. In The Chronicle, Husain relies upon the two varieties of the South Asian chronicle: the hagiography with its spiritual and medical dimensions, and the family story as a personalized inscription of history. The South Asian chronicle can be read as an overlooked formal challenge to official historiography, Christian spiritual imposition, and even allopathic medicine.
Mahagony is a postmodern hybrid chronicle. The novel alternates between chapters written in the voice of the narrator Mathieu Béluse, Glissant’s stand-in, and chapters written in the first-person voices of the many characters whose composite history spans two hundred years of Martinican life. The novel begins with Mathieu ruminating upon the challenge of writing a history for an area overwritten and ignored by History: “Beneath the casual, sunny nature of the place, or rather beneath its affable banality, I thought I saw what made it obscure and hard to truly grasp, and just how risky any attempt at explaining it would be” (6). Mathieu sees that a two-pronged strategy is necessary that will both record “[w]hat people said” and “what was written.” Only the two records together will lead to a “legendary uprising” (7), which we can understand to be the coming to self-consciousness of a people—the goal of the novel, yet a goal that one novel can never realize, as the narrator acknowledges at the novel’s conclusion.
The chronicle is at once a guide for what Mathieu, the narrator, wants to do and a form to avoid. Mathieu’s musings on chronicles and chroniclers punctuate his chapters. Although Mathieu has said he will consult written documents, he remains suspicious of the interventions of chroniclers. In an ironic twist, Mathieu speaks against Glissant in his role as a chronicler; Mathieu suggests that Glissant is someone who wishes to see him as representative of something greater than he is: “[…] I didn’t know that someone who recounted stories—the chronicler—would soon take me (the image he had of me) as a character in his tales, over-simplifying my actions and making me impossibly exemplary” (7). While a chronicle is usually taken to be a historical account without analysis or interpretation, Mathieu suggests that any narration is interpretation.
History is invention, and while Mathieu scorns the characterization to which Glissant the writer subjects Mathieu the character, Mathieu has complaints about other narrative modes as well. In reference to the written summary of a fanciful narrative told by Gani—a maroon (escaped slave) and one of the three nominal heroes of the novel—Mathieu remarks that the “account had a neutral, mechanical tone. It was more a report than a dream” (141). Gani’s dream is stripped of its fabulous, mythical, imaginative parts—its very character; from Mathieu’s vantage, the manner by which the tale is told cannot be separated from its content.
Another moment invokes a criticism of colonial ethnography. The novel looks back to a statement in Sun of Consciousness (Soleil de la conscience, 1956; trans. Nathanaël, 2020) where Glissant projects the need to write postcolonial autoethnographies. In Sun of Consciousness, he states that “I am already the ethnologist of myself” (16). Then, in Mahagony, Mathieu admits to being like “an ethnologist in the land he is studying” (45). These two citations recall Glissant’s comments after winning the 1958 Prix Renaudot for La Lézarde in which he stated that “one uncovers [dévoile] a people at the same time as one tries to understand oneself.” This is the task of autoethnography. This is also the implicit task of the novel: for the writer, for Mathieu, to understand himself as an individual in relation to a culture with which he identifies.
The novel is an indigenous chronicle with a dispersed point of view, but it is also a reformed postcolonial autoethnography. These forms combine into a self-consciously subjective record of polyvocal testimony. This narrative mode acknowledges that the performance of a story, or the manner in which a tale is told, is vital to the story itself. Knowing a society cannot be separated from knowing the people and their ways of speech.
This hybrid form of chronicle and postcolonial autoethnography will be familiar to readers of metropolitan French minority writing. Abd Al Malik’s La Guerre des banlieues n’aura pas lieu (The war in the suburbs won’t happen, 2010) and Camus, l’art de la révolte (Camus, The art of the revolt, 2014) demonstrate similar uses of dispersed authorial perspective, testimonial compilation, and hybrid forms outside of generic conventions. Abd Al Malik has cited Glissant’s influence on his work on many occasions, and in this conjunction of formal strategies, we see again how the revision of form is an integral strategy for decolonizing thought.
The chronicle and the autoethnography are referenced as formal models, yet through a hybrid compositional strategy, a new form emerges, which I call the colloquy. The novel ends with Mathieu returning to a meditation on narrative form and history. While the narrative “wound its way […] with its mixed and many voices” causing the readers (and Martinicans themselves) to “sometimes […] lose the path” (169), nevertheless the “back and forth” among the many voices “corresponds to our moods.” This polyvocal testimony represents an “infinite passing on of singular voices” (170. The novel proposes the colloquy—a spiritual and material conversation extending over generations—as a new form.
This is a novel about telling, and about tellers, as much as about characters. Mathieu, as the narrator, is a default center of attention due to the structural authority that he leverages. But Mahagony does not have a clear hero. Gallimard’s advertising webpage for the novel describes the book as being three connected maroon narratives, and the novel does provide a timeline marking the dates of these maroons—Gani, Maho, and Mani. But, arguably, the tellers are the “heroes.” Eudoxie, Hégésippe, and Lanoué tell Gani’s stories. Papa Longoué, Artémise, and Adélaïde tell Maho’s stories. And Odibert, Marie Célat and her daughter Ida tell Mani’s stories. The voices of these characters capture the reader’s attention as much as the specific plot details of their narratives.
The absence of a classical hero directs our attention, in fact, to Fredric Jameson’s Antinomies of Realism (2013) where he theorizes two forms of storytelling: the plot-driven hero’s tale (he calls it the récit) and the affective, descriptive roman. Mahagony is an affective roman. But as a colloquy, it is a formal variant of the roman that needs to be written into histories of the novel.
As the translator of Poetics of Relation (Poétique de la relation, 1990; trans. 1997), Betsy Wing will be forever remembered in conjunction with Glissant. Yet her work as a translator of Glissant’s novels has not been as widely recognized. Wing’s translations of Glissant have been the single most important element in bringing Glissant to the Anglophone world, an amazing accomplishment, historical in scope. While Glissant, like Flaubert, deserves to have twenty-six translations of a single title, surprisingly Wing is the only translator to have translated any of his novels into English since Dash’s first translation thirty-five years ago.
Generally, Glissant’s novels present to the translator the challenges of poetic polysemy; variations of dialect, register, and vocabulary; and serpentine syntax and agrammatical incompleteness. These factors combine in such a way that each and every sentence presents a myriad of possibilities for the translator—possibilities that furnish good reason to translate in different ways. This idiosyncratic inventiveness is on display everywhere in the book. Wing’s translation is also full of inventiveness. Mahagony’s specific challenge comes in registering in English the great variety of French-speaking voices in the novel, and Wing provides nuanced voices for the various characters. Here is a sample of five characters-cum-narrators in the novel.
Adonie at ease and calm. Adonie in torment. […] Adonie who walks in the lace of the big house. Just like Emerante, she doesn’t hear the whispers at night. She is apart. Her plant is planted in a ground that has no place. All women are woman. (30)
Getting myself together to tell the whole truth of a child’s fruitless life. Dates are no use for torture unless Thursdaying or Sundaying the written line or putting down the month’s when of it. (34)
Ho ho, you there … Can you believe a man has put in so much slipper time to understand what is known, he had ground patience in the mortar of stubbornness, he gets up at midnight to talk to the powers, he walks out at four in the morning to pick a leaf in the pure strength of its pharmacopeia … not to mention he can walk in the fourth direction. (67)
I, Adélaïde, have been thinking about this, I’m not happy with the name we know him by. A name that comes with a curse. Why Maho, Maho what? (77)
Ida is always, always singing. A great joy climbed into my body, it floated over my gully. I walk around in the dirge, my voice rising above it. I have known for a long time how to go beyond time … (125)
Certain differences can be immediately seen; the words read like dramatic monologues—each voice distinct from the others. These excerpts force us to reconsider one of the novel’s principal questions, namely, how the characteristic ways that individuals speak are internal to narrative, are integral to narrative. Since the book argues that the manner of telling cannot be separated from what is told, then translation is implicated in that question as well. Where does the Frenchness of the voices go? While, it is true, the inflections of each character cannot stretch beyond French into English when English does not present parallel sources of invention, nevertheless, the translation can (and Wing’s does) maintain distinct voices as crucial markers of the novel’s polyphony.
Mahagony is a novel of the Americas. We could read all of Glissant’s novels in this way, at least up to Tout-monde (1993), which, due to its global, planetary aspirations, breaks into a new dimension. The fact that the readership for Glissant’s novels in English has continued to lag behind that of his critical essays continues to puzzle and frustrate. Perhaps it is because these translations have been published by academic presses, which have acknowledged limitations when it comes to promotion and distribution. But perhaps it is the unintentional but nevertheless impactful denial of Glissant’s place as an American novelist—as a novelist of the Americas—that stifles our ability to see how his goals, strategies, and novelistic effects are consistent with many other novelists of the Americas.
Mahagony breaks the mold of national literatures. The novel is a medium (a seer, a link) between Glissant’s past and future works; its publication marked the beginning of what may in time be known as the most important decade of his publishing life. As a novel of the Americas, its stories and its voices resonate as American ones. We can only hope that Wing’s dedication to Glissant’s novels will in time lead other translators and publishers to publish further translations, and their general neglect in the “early years” of his work’s life in translation will in hindsight appear as a regretful but momentary lapse of cultural judgment. In this case, as well, we can hope that Wing’s retelling in English will lead us to reappraise Glissant as a novelist and will add further reason to consider him as a foundational twentieth-century writer of the Americas.
 The decade begins with the first publication of Mahagony (Seuil) and includes the publications of Poétique de la relation (1990), Tout-monde (1993), Faulkner, Mississippi (1996), Traité du tout-monde (1997), Wing’s translation Poetics of Relation (1997), and the second printing of Mahagony (Gallimard) in the same year.
Matt Reeck is a translator, poet, and scholar. He won the 2020 Albertine Prize for his translation of Zahia Rahmani’s “Muslim”: A Novel. He has won fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the PEN/Heim Translation Fund, and during Spring 2021, he served as the Princeton University Translator in Residence. He has published seven translations from the French, Urdu, and Hindi.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, June 8, 2021