Solibo Magnifique by Patrick Chamoiseau | Editions Gallimard | 1988 | French
“Solibo Magnifique me disait : Oiseau de Cham, tu écris. Bon. Moi, Solibo, je parle. Tu vois la distance ? Dans ton livre sur Manman Dlo, tu veux capturer la parole à l’écriture, je vois le rythme que tu veux donner, comment tu veux serrer les mots pour qu’ils sonnent à la langue. Tu me dis : Est-ce que j’ai raison, Papa ? Moi, je dis : On n’écrit jamais la parole, mais des mots, tu aurais dû parler. Écrire, c’est comme sortir le lambi de la mer pour dire : voici le lambi ! La parole répond : où est la mer ? Mais l’essentiel n’est pas là. Je pars, mais toi tu restes. Je parlais, mais toi tu écris en annonçant que tu viens de la parole. Tu me donnes la main par dessus la distance. C’est bien, mais tu touches la distance…”* —Solibo Magnifique de Patrick Chamoiseau, pg. 224
When Solibo Magnifique dies in the first pages of his own story, it seems like an odd beginning for a novel. It is Carnavale—a holiday celebrated in February in the Caribbean—and Solibo is telling a story. He is, after all, a conteur, a storyteller who tells tales only to see them disappear on the wind and into the backs of the minds of his listeners.
When Solibo dies, at the beginning of the novel and in the middle of his story, his audience waits, still believing that he will return, that the pause is for dramatic emphasis. When they finally realize that this story has been cut short and will never end, the police swoops in, accusing the audience of murder.
The audience tries to explain that Solibo died from natural causes, from a loss of breath, but the police is determined to prove that he was poisoned. The story becomes not so much about Solibo’s life, or even about Solibo himself, but about the world he comes to represent: a world that is disappearing far too quickly, a world where the ephemeral is constantly struggling with society’s need for permanence, for documentation.
On one end of this spectrum, is Solibo who is content to tell his stories to his small audience, knowing that they will never be heard in exactly the same way again. On the other end, there is Inspecteur Pilon and his wingman Bouafesse, who try to rewrite the story to tell it the way it suits them—taking advantage of the lack of documentation to tell the story the way they imagine it.
What unfolds is a beautiful, poetic story about a man whose legacy could only be preserved through writing, but who had built a life around the inadequacy of writing. This tension is everywhere within the story, down to the relationship between the Patrick Chamoiseau, author and narrator, and Solibo, title character. Chamoiseau tries to imitate Solibo’s manner of speaking in his writing, but begins to understand that writing will never be able to capture every tone, every pause, every dynamic that Solibo’s stories could create.
For a non-native French reader, this story was challenging at times. Chamoiseau uses Creole to mimic his characters’ speech patterns, and while he often does a good job of translating, it made what was already a difficult read just that much more difficult. It also gave me access to a part of Martinique that often leads me to feel lost and unhinged. When I hear people talking in Creole, I rarely understand what they’re saying. The use of Creole, along with the translation, allowed me to become a part of this world, in a way that I or any other non-Creole speaking Francophone reader would not normally be able to.
I enjoyed reading the story and becoming acquainted with Solibo, even if I only met him through Chamoiseau’s writing after his death. That is the power of writing, after all, to make someone immortal—to make sure that we remember someone long after they have lost their breath.
* “Solibo Magnifique used to tell me: Bird of Cham, you write. Great. Me, Solibo, I speak. You see the distance? In your book on Manman Dlo, you want to capture speech through writing, I see the rhythm that you want to give, how you want to squeeze the words so that they ring on the tongue. You tell me : Am I right, man? Me, I say: We never write speech, but words, you should have spoken. Writing, it’s like taking a conch from the sea to say: here is the conch. Speech replies: where is the sea? But the essence isn’t there. I leave, but you—you stay. I spoke, but, you, you write by announcing that you come from speech. You give me your hand in spite of the distance. That’s good, but you’re touching distance.” – Solibo Magnifique by Patrick Chamoiseau, pg. 224 (trans. by Hana)