The north wind in the icy ferns Patrick Chamoiseau

Celebration of the Word

Despite the announcement of the jacket, nicely illustrated with a black and white reverse photograph of Caribbean exoticism, The north wind in the icy ferns is neither the last novel by Patrick Chamoiseau nor the novel by the last storyteller. Indeed, even if there is a story, Chamoiseau rejects the designation of novel for that of narrative organism, as if the word of the writer were alive, as if the book should be, above all else, the breeding ground allowing words to take root in the fertile thickness of a language to then blossom and branch out in all directions, as well as a plant from the forest that covers the hills and peaks of Martinique. And much more than the story of storyteller Boulianno Nérélé Isiklaire, The north wind in the icy ferns seems to me a celebration of the Word, of its powers and its mysteries, which exulted in the voice of Boulianno when, during the funeral wakes, in the circle delimited by the torches, he paid homage to the deceased and invented tales, riddles , songs, etc. which pushed back Bazil, nickname of death in the West Indies, and allowed his audience, dumbfounded and subjugated, to go through the night of mourning in jubilation and the joy of a triumphant life…

Salutations to the angels, invocation of the rhythmic powers of the drum, imposed Creole formulations (in particular “Tiré mwen la!” to end the speech), etc. : the art of storytelling is a highly codified, almost ritualized form of oral literary tradition, and we can only recommend that the reader first read The storyteller, the night and the basket so much the story extends and embodies the reflections of Patrick Chamoiseau in this essay on the advent of the Creole word, sprung like a spark of humanity in the heart of the darkness of the slave plantation. One could even consider that the two works form a diptych and mutually echo each other by enriching themselves with meanings that risk escaping the reader who would be satisfied with the “romantic” component, narrating the quest of men and women launched research of Bolianno. Because Bolianno, even if he is at the heart of the story, is singularly absent from it, disappeared without a trace leaving a huge void in the heart of the hill community (the hills being, in Martinique, the foothills of the peaks and the volcano of Mount Pelée, which dominate the cities built on the coast and sheltered the first free slaves). Bolianno mastered the mysteries and held the secrets that allow the miracle of the advent of the Word and the defeat of Bazil, whose approach Bolianno seemed to foresee even before the sound of the conch shells announcing to the neighborhood the sadness of a death. Bolianno stood out from other storytellers, whose words simply help family and loved ones pay homage to the deceased and bear their grief; he alone was a master of the Word, whose art transforms those who listen to him, creating in their lives a before and after their encounter with Bolianno. The story is not intended to be romantic but intimate testimony, almost a confession, of an old man, who knew Bolianno, and was as if transfigured by it, and of whom Chamoiseau (who is sometimes challenged and multiplies footnotes) presents himself as the silent listener.

The story is divided into three very distinct parts of unequal length. The first evokes the questions of ordinary people faced with the disappearance of Bolianno, who has become an old man and has withdrawn from the life of the hills. No one knows where he is anymore, at the risk that his death (inevitable given his old age, like any man who has seen the flowering of bamboo twice) will cause the loss of his knowledge because Bolianno, contrary to custom, refused to train disciples, never responding to the solicitation of a young man eager to follow in his footsteps, whether he was a prodigiously eloquent talker or a masterful tambouyé. This part is full of testimonies, collected by the narrator and by Bébert, an old West Indian passionate about quantum physics and cosmology, who records and tries to order everyone’s memories. This part is like a kind of fabulous hagiography because the fervor of the discussions, which Chamoiseau transcribes in a polyphonic style mixing literature and orality, full of life and joy (even in the gallery of characters with sometimes improbable surnames!) is reminiscent of the writings on the lives of the saints, where ordinary individuals seek to articulate, in ordinary words, the transformation of their lives through an encounter with an extraordinary being, whose deeds, gestures, attitude and words marked in the depths of their being. Bolianno was nevertheless one of them, living among them and doing the same little jobs, but when night came and the circle (a lawond) was formed, the Word was incarnated in him, making Life triumph over Death, in the so much so that some are convinced that the deceased, exposed in his coffin, heard the words of Bolianno! It is difficult not to think here of a saint, or even of Jesus, son of the carpenter Joseph, a mortal man like any other but incarnating the Word and the Spirit…and moreover the narrator sometimes evokes Bolianno in terms of quasi-religious adoration , as with the formula “honor on his birth and respect on his name”. Also, the arrival of the “anecdote”, a young woman who remained unnamed for a long time and decked out with this pejorative nickname, a young West Indian student who had returned to the country to carry out a thesis on West Indian storytellers, and who dreamed of meeting Bolianno, their appears as a kind of sacrilegious catastrophe because she made them understand, without however having explicitly admitted it, that she dreamed of becoming a storyteller and wanted to know, in the confrontation with Bolianno, if she was really worthy of it. However, for the men of the hills, the question does not arise because the art of storytelling, for a fairly simple reason which is not in dispute, is necessarily a matter for men: to dare to enter a “lawond” and to confront Bazil and the power of the tambouyé, you need a “big pair of seeds”! Consequently, just as much to counter the pretensions of the “anecdote” as to ensure the survival of his art, they set out to find Bolianno in order to introduce him to Populo, an extraordinary young man, physically handsome, a good talker and master of the drum, to make him his heir.

The second, which forms the longest part of the book, is the story of this quest which leads a small group of three people (the narrator, Bébert and Man Delcas, an old woman who has mastered the art of basketry) towards three huts, each likely to be Bolianno’s final resting place. These huts are in the middle of the jungle (as it is true that Martinique, which was nicknamed by Christopher Columbus the island of flowers, is very densely wooded and covered with lush vegetation) and difficult to access. Very quickly, this ascent becomes symbolic of a return to basics, as if the primitive forest also harbored identity roots. And it is this importance granted to the forest which constitutes the singularity of the story, compared to the essay The storyteller, the night and the basket where the word still remained locked in the shackles of the slave plantation, as if the forest were the real deep matrix of the West Indian identity, where the triple encounter, a mixture of alliance and confrontation, of the Caribbean Amerindians had taken place ( whose presence is very strong in the story, through their relationship to the forest but also to basketry, which conceals signs of power), of the brown blacks who found their freedom there and, also, of the French colonists who had taken possession of the island. The description of the march to Bolianno is not a realistic progression through the jungle; even if Chamoiseau evokes the fatigue of the body, it is clearly a spiritual journey where everyone finds their deep identity, which Bolianno had already revealed to them without them becoming fully aware of it. Because all three, Bébert, Man Delcas and the narrator carry within them secrets and doubts, and the light of a truth born of the encounter with Bolianno. The jungle of Martinique becomes a metaphysical place where all the potentialities of the Word are embodied and Chamoiseau, who never ceases to proclaim in each of his books his dream of a language capable of speaking all languages ​​and of a fusion of imaginations in the Whole World, mixes all eras and all cultures. In the mists that stagnate around them seem to move all the creatures of African tales and legends, the monsters of Gothic stories, the heroes of Greek and Nordic mythology, etc. and even Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit! Chamoiseau also allows itself to reclaim, by slipping in a few subtle spikes that would probably have escaped me if I hadn’t lived two years in Martinique, certain symbols of identity claim such as the three colors red-green-black…

The third part, the shortest and entitled “Gloriyé Boulianno”, is that of revelation, like an apotheosis. I will not reveal, so as not to spoil the reading pleasure, how Bolianno will be found in one of the huts, which all three – especially the last – seem to be at the crossroads of several dimensions, like a place in a state of quantum superposition (the quantum physics being one of the keys to reading the world by Bébert!) but the roles of the “anecdote” and of Populo, which set in motion following our three protagonists, take on increasing importance during the story, which also becomes that of an initiation and self-revelation, which breaks down prejudices. It would be an exaggeration to speak of “feminism” in the conclusion of the story, but Man Delcas (rich with a braided fan that was once given to her by Bolianno) and the “anecdote”, finally named Anaïs-Alicia (who was also that of an important character from the novel Biblical of the Last Gestures, which I have not read but which my wife, a fervent reader of Chamoiseau considers a masterpiece equal to the greatest novels of Garcia Marquez), will be the two who will touch Bolianno’s truth with their fingertips and place his body in the ground, so that it can take root and truly blossom again, making life triumph over our mortal condition, while the cold north wind blows like Death passing and moving away…

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The north wind in the icy ferns Patrick Chamoiseau

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