Distinctly French: the Subaltern travel to and from City in ‘Texaco’ and ‘Pere Goriot’

5 Apr

Patrick Chamoiseau, in choosing to write ‘Texaco’ using shifting points of view, jumps in time, switches in tone and dialect and circularity, achieves what Spivak upholds in her seminal ‘Can the Subaltern Speak (1)?’, which is the creation of a multi-facted narrative where the multiple Creole identities represented (in ‘Texaco’) tell their own story in their own language, at their own pace and in a manner closer to their own oral traditions versus the format or style of western fiction. (Spivak’s criticism was that ‘benevolent’ Western intellectuals can silence the subaltern by attempting to speak for them).

In ‘Texaco’, City is evoked frequently, and one such time is when the “city which was not City” is described in opposition to the Quarter and its hutches—“There was a constant going and coming between the Quarter of the Wretched and the City’s heart. City was the open ocean. The Quarter was the port of registry” (172). We are also given Esternome’s own version of City—

“City’s a quake. A tremor. There all things are possible, and there all things are mean. City sweeps and carries you along, never lets go of you, gets you mixed up in its old secrets. In the end you take them in without ever understanding them. You tell those just-off-the-hills that that’s how it is and they eat it up: but City has just gulped you in without showing you the ropes. A City is the ages all gathered in one place, not just in the names, houses, statues, but in the not-visible. A City sips the joys, the pain, the thoughts, ever feeling, it makes its dew out of them, which you see without being able to point to it. That’s what City is and that was Saint-Pierre.” (173-174).

With this thought in mind while reading Chamoiseau’s ‘Texaco’, I was immediately struck by the similarities between its thread involving descriptions of movement to and from City, and a similar thread in works of French Realism, such as Stendhal’s ‘The Red and the Black’ and Zola’s ‘Germinal’, but for the purpose of this blog post, specifically, Balzac’s ‘Pere Goriot’.
While ‘Pere Goriot’ is not considered part of the post-colonial canon, I’d like to argue that the issues of class, economic status, place and identity raised by the inhabitants of Maison Vauquer, and Eugène de Rastignac’s own constant battle to enter and be accepted by the bon-ton in Paris, in an effort to move away from both the Bucolic South of his youth as well as from the stench of poverty of the neighborhood in which the Maison Vauquer stands, speak to concepts of Subaltern, a field of Post-Colonial studies that focuses on individuals and/or communities that exist outside the hegemonic Center, often but not always represented as City.
Balzac himself was said to have been influenced while writing ‘Pere Goriot’ by the writing of James Fenimore Cooper, who at the time was known for his representation of Native Americans and their often violent interaction with civilization, a theme that certainly influenced Balzac’s use of characterization and dichotomies within ‘Pere Goriot’. It is in the juxtaposition of ordinary citizens against an omnipresent, all-powerful, mysterious City that I feel contains some of the seeds of Subaltern Studies and literature.
At the end of Pere Goriot, the reader is shown an incredibly epic scene: Goriot is dead, and Rastignac finds himself on a hill (I believe he reached here after a walk through the Père-Lachaise cemetery, post-funeral) overlooking Paris, which Balzac lays before him as a glittering, beautiful entity. He starts off towards his dinner with Delphine de Nucingen (which has social implications all of its own) but not before (at least in Loesberg’s interpretation) yelling out, “À nous deux, maintenant!” (“It’s between you and me now!”), presumably directing this challenge at Paris.
Chamoiseau gives Marie-Sophie the ability to co-opt and subvert this idea of challenging a city:

We shoved our way about next to City, holding on to it by its thousand survival cracks. But City ignored us. Its activity, glances, the facets of its life (from every day’s morning to the beautiful night neon) ignored us. We had vied for its promises, its destiny; we were denied its promises, its destiny. Nothing was given, everything was to be wrung out. We spoke to those who looked like us. We answered their call for help and they answered ours. The old Quarters held hands, going around City, families joined them, exchanges linked them. We wandered around City, going in to draw from it, going around it to live. We saw City from above, but in reality we lived at the bottom of its indifference which was often hostile.

The descriptions of movement to and from City gives Chamoiseau’s characters the agency to vocalize what they win and lose in every movement, and allows for multiple narrators and identities in a way that creates a multilinear and thus more authentic subaltern narrative. This more authentic narrative is a feature that distinctly belongs to writing that arises out of the “Overseas Departments” of France, which according to the New Internationalist, Chamoiseau interprets as another form of colonialism (2). I’d like to argue that Subaltern Literature written from within these Overseas Departments (like Martinique) is uniquely placed to vocalize multidimensional stories and narratives in a way other colonies or ex-colonies are not, because of the outlier moving to City (outside moving in) aesthetic that is so firmly a part of French culture, including French colonizing culture, first written about by French Realism authors such as Zola and Balzac.

(1) http://www.mcgill.ca/files/crclaw-discourse/Can_the_subaltern_speak.pdf
(2) http://newint.org/features/2001/10/05/texaco/

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