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Down to the Roots of Humanity

Martinican writer Édouard Glissant doesn’t tell. Édouard Glissant undoes and unspeaks. Glissant defies the laws of linear progression. During the 40 years he’s been striding along the paths of creolization—the meeting place of many ethnicities, chief among them French- European, and West Indian-African—Glissant has abjured a static, definitive version of things, the better to lose himself in the profusion of reality.

Glissant’s trademarks are his intermingling of eras, his interlacing of facts and stories, the teeming abundance of language, and the vital force one finds in Ormerod, his latest novel, published this year by Gallimard in Paris. A novel that resembles Glissant himself: complex, moving, disconcerting.

If Édouard Glissant doesn’t tell, then, unsurprisingly, we can’t tell much about Ormerod. All that’s certain is that the work owes its title to an Australian friend of his, Beverley Ormerod. Her sister married one of the plotters of the coup d’etat in Grenada in 1983 that led to the American invasion of that small Caribbean island.

Quietly, the odd sonority of the phrasing weaves a subtle link to the Antilles. From there, the reader must “leap from rock to rock, from island to island, from former times to the present and times that are already future, run out to the open sea and embrace the surroundings.”

Everything else in the book is but a pretext, Glissant stresses. For, he asks, “What does human breath...have in common with animals and the wind, a bumblebee, an opossum, a hummingbird, and Flore Gaillard, the tragedy of Grenada in 1983, and an angry bull?” His answer to his question comes quickly: “The Caribbean archipelago, which offers itself and then slips away.” Everything is there before us, from the first page on, from “the cry of the world” to “the burst of primeval wind.” Ormerod, carefully deconstructed, can only be guessed at.

And yet there is history in Glissant’s book. There is Flore Gaillard, the rebel from Saint Lucia whose “humanity has melted away in the woods” around 1793 and whose life story the author depicts through little dabs here and there. A slave raped by Bellac, her master, Flore Gaillard revolts and becomes leader of a gang of bandits. The gang sows terror among the colonial plantation owners, with the blessing of the revolutionary French.

Alongside them, in the woods where they have hidden, are a few whites. They have come to fight the English troops who are trying to seize Saint Lucia, and they want to force the obedience of the planters who are hostile to the new republic back home in France. And yet, in the darkness of the root tunnels of the forest, the rebellion soon loses its inspiration. It’s no longer “the Revolution, but the hell of banditry,” a “war without rules” that tacks back and forth among peaks and isolated hills as Flore leads her band, “zigzagging, but along a more or less straight line.” 

So much for Glissant’s first historical “pretext.” His second is the aborted revolution in Grenada in 1983, when American troops arrive to put an end to a brief Marxist, pro-Cuban experiment that, according to the United States, threatened the established order in the Caribbean.

The tragic destiny of Grenada’s former Prime Minister Maurice Bishop echoes that of Flore Gaillard: with no picturesque description or highly colored portrait, in a language less creolized, less sensual than that of Patrick Chamoiseau or Raphaël Confiant, but more poetic. And always, in the background, the voices of Nestor’o Sourde-fontaine, the humble social security employee who comments on and dissects the tangled stories, his friend Apocal the poet (the author’s double), and young Orestile, who dreams Flore Gaillard’s epic battles.

Glissant never falls into the trap of the clichés of anti-colonialist literature. Flore herself is more a “trace of tortured nature,” who has “mingled her being with the lianas, the greenery, the rocks, and the sands” than a “memory of the misery of the men and women of that past time.”

The time for militancy has passed. “There are two ways of presenting things,” Glissant likes to say. “An implicit and an explicit way. For my part, I think that poetics happen through the implicit, not by what is obvious. What I would criticize, if I were called upon to do so, is the willful character and the stageyness of this creolization of language.”

In Ormerod, space is all that matters. Time no longer has any importance: “And in any case, we revolt at learning to unreel time as if along a cord, in order to unpick the strands of its connections; and we do not lie at rest in the softness of passing time, being neither frigate bird in the wind, nor fallen palm frond cradled in the red mud of a swamp.”

Glissant doesn’t like to analyze or classify. Even less put things in order of importance. Linear time, he stresses, is something the white man worries about. “For a long time,” he said in an interview in 2000, “the history of Martinique was summed up by a list of its governors. As if that were all there was. We experienced a loss of historical memory.”

To enter Glissant’s (non)story, strewn with outgrowths and digressions, the reader must penetrate a jumble of eras as Flore moves through the tangled vines, and be willing to plunge in over his head in a verbal mangrove swamp. The reader must abandon any desire for a chronological story and let herself be enveloped by “winding skeins of speech.” Even if that means being submerged in a tumultuous sea of words.

For Ormerod is indeed the archetype of  “poetics,” as the author defined the term in Le Monde incréé (The Uncreated World), in 2000: “poem and tale in one, where landscapes pile one on another, where histories link up, where languages mingle their original stocks.” Perpetual motion, like that of creolization, this “unstoppable process, which mixes up the world’s matter, which joins and alters the cultures of the humanities of today”—and which is quite different from static “creoleness,” which Glissant rejects.

This creolization at the foundation of his work “cannot stand still, stop,
or commit itself to essences, to absolute identities,” and draws its value from the unexpectedness of the creations it inspires. Down with “rooted identities,” Glissant cries, for the “single root kills everything around it.” For him, rather, “the rhizome, or tuber, which stretches out toward other roots without killing them.”

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