Language and Literary Form in French Caribbean Writing. By Celia Britton. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. 2014. x + 220 pp. £70. ISBN 978-1-78138-036-9.
In this compelling book Celia Britton further develops a methodology which has always been central to her work: the study of what is theoretically and politically at stake in the formal and linguistic analysis of postcolonial literary discourses. The chapters cover a large and heterogeneous variety of topics, authors and genres in French Caribbean writing, analyzing works of Glissant, Césaire, Ménil, Chamoiseau, Confiant, Depestre, Condé, Schwartz-Barth, Pineau and Maximin. In the Introduction, the author stresses how the relationship between postcolonial studies and the formal analysis of literary texts has often proved problematic, despite the strong influence of the (post)structuralist linguistic turn and the initial concern of postcolonial critics with the matter of developing a literary counter-discourse. However, during the last decade, the attention to language and literary form in postcolonial writing has become a more and more important area of research, charged with potentialities for future analysis. From Britton’s perspective, a greater attention to the formal aspects could help to renegotiate the relationship between postcolonial literary texts and the political, producing a more nuanced and less schematic understanding of it. A formal and linguistic analysis, avoiding self-referentiality, should help to overcome an ‘easy automatic correlation between the formal features of a text and its possible political significance’ (p. 4). This leads to consider the redefinition of realism and realist novel in Francophone postcolonial literature, in a way that is alternative both to naturalism and Western experimental novel, such as the nouveau roman, sometimes asserting a re-evaluation of realism itself. For instance, in the interview closing this volume, Maryse Condé considers realism as a way of combatting ideological stereotypes and exoticism, also through the use of irony. In her praised novel Traversée de la mangrove, analysed in Chapter 5, Condé breaks the conventional codes of literary discourse, but her irreverent transgression and dismantling of cultural stereotypes entails an even deeper engagement with the real.
The first three chapters of the book deal from different perspectives with the issues of difference and exoticism, starting from the seminal work of the review Tropiques, then moving to the créolité movement and the role played by the ‘postcolonial exotic’ in the current marketing of Caribbean literature for a Western audience. This raises a key question in the field of postcolonial studies: how to enhance a cultural aesthetic that sustains autonomy and difference, avoiding the risk of becoming trapped into forms of auto-exoticism, including folkloric and nostalgic visions of cultural identity, ambiguously aimed at the consumption from the metropolitan readership. In Chapter 1, Britton explores this matter from different angles, such as the Negritude’s ambivalent attitude towards primitivism, ethnography and surrealism. In Chapter 2, this ‘abnormal type of exoticism applied to their own society’ (p. 27) is analysed in the créolité movement, more specifically in Solibo magnifique by Patrick Chamoiseau and Le Nègre et l’admiral by Raphaël Confiant. In these novels, the authors risk to repeat cultural stereotypes about the Antillean other, producing a more attractive and ‘authentic’ version of them for the Western literary market. This line of analysis is further developed in the third chapter, where Britton considers the tropes of taste and consumption in relation to the marketing of Caribbean literature and identifies one of the main ‘ideological apparatuses’ of the neo-colonial domination in the age of global capitalism: ‘to consume the Other as a commodity which is valued precisely for its difference’ (p. 59).
It is hard to account in such a small space for the amplitude of Britton’s investigations, which are always sustained by an original and effective use of analytic tools offered by a wide range of literary theorists and philosophers (Bakhtin, Barthes, Benveniste, Lacan, Althusser, Deleuze and many others). The second part of the book collects a series of illuminating essays on Édouard Glissant, who has always been a point of reference for this scholar, taking into account his novels and essays from Le quatrième siècle to Une nouvelle région du monde. In particular, the last chapter opens an innovative and fruitful approach to his oeuvre, considering from a philosophical point of view the complex entanglement between the work of art and the real. This book gives us further confirmation that Britton is currently one of the most important and prolific scholars in the field of French Caribbean literature.