Patrick Chamoiseau (translation by Linda Coverdale)

University of Nebraska Press / 226 pages / 1 May 2003

ISBN: 0803214952

Some of the best things we are, the best things we’ve done, the connections that make us who we are, will never be recorded in newspapers or history books. The life we’ve lived and where we fit in, will survive only in memory. After those who knew us are gone, there will be no one to repeat the stories of our existence. Entire populations will vanish, only to show up in accounts of war or disaster. Don’t let it happen.

The people in Chronicle Of The Seven Sorrows will never grace the pages of school texts. The struggles and joys of their daily lives are almost lost to time. A culture rich in heritage, beliefs, and suffering has vanished. Only the ghosts and a few authors like Chamoiseau survive to keep the past from fading away entirely.

What a tragic loss, you’ll realise after reading Chronicle Of The Seven Sorrows; how we have cheated ourselves.

In Martinique there was a time when its people still listened to the voices of ghosts, dorlis, zombis. The undead were as much a part of their lives as the buyers in the marketplace, and sometimes, the only verbal link to their past. Painful memories of slavery, brutality, and stolen moments of joy, remained only beneath grave soil. And, while not everyone stayed to hear the song of their history, there were some who were unable to tear themselves away.

Pipi Soleil, king of the marketplace djobbers, was one of the enchanted. He was destined to become the master of masters of the wheelbarrow and to be lured away from that exalted position again and again by the spirit’s voices. The story of his life forms the core of this spellbinding and animated account of a lost time and way-of-life.

Chamoiseau’s words double back, cross over themselves, and sing like a late-night storytelling session. Each fantastic tale attempts to top the one before it. The conversational style recaptures the oral tradition and, like truly great gossip, captures the reader, too. The voice of Fort-de-France, Martinique’s vegetable market people spills out in a irrepressible tangle.

The living and the undead of Chronicle Of The Seven Sorrows speak in the distinct Creole tongue. Cloverdale’s translation retains that flavour and sound, which means you may spend some time flipping to the notes in the back of the novel. A word here, a phrase there, might need some translation, but the momentary pause is well worth detour; there is as much history in the notes as in the story.

The original words are essential, when you eavesdrop on Phosphore the grave-digger and Anatole-Anatole (father and son dorlis who engage in a bit of serial rape) as they listen to the sad murmurs of the burial ground’s technically dead residents. To miss the wrenching questions of the zombi Afoukal would be deprivation akin to his own.

So? More than half the population of Martinique was undead. Strange how much more life they embodied in the time before progress and government “assistance” turned them into fading shadows.

Fight back. Read every word of Chamoiseau’s you can latch onto. The voice of the shadows of Martinique will make you grieve for precious things lost, and hunger for just one more story to bring them back again.