Cover image for Childhood = Antan d'enfance
Childhood = Antan d'enfance
Chamoiseau, Patrick.
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Antan d'enfance. English
Publication Information:
Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, [1999]

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viii, 110 pages ; 22 cm
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PQ3949.2.C45 Z46313 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Using the playful, orally inspired, and partially invented language for which he is renowned, Patrick Chamoiseau recalls the brilliant, magical universe of his early childhood in Martinique. At the center of this universe is his extraordinarily vigorous mother and her creative, pragmatic ways of coping with poverty and five children. As Chamoiseau presents these first impressions of an exceptional child growing up in a rich Creole culture, he also reflects in oblique but incisive ways on colonialism. He probes the boundary between reality and imagination, between the child's awakening understanding and the adult's memory of those earlier days.

Author Notes

Patrick Chamoiseau is fast emerging as one of the preeminent writers in the world today. His novel Texaco won the Prix Goncourt in 1992. Childhood covers the period just prior to that recounted in his memoir School Days (Nebraska 1997).   Carol Volk's many translations include Tahar Ben Jelloun's Corruption , Emmanuel Bove's Night Departure , and Amelie Nothomb's The Stranger Next Door.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

Novelist Chamoiseau's second memoir (after School Days) evokes his early childhood, beginning with the rainy night his mother (whom he refers to as the Prime Confidante) walked to the midwife's house to give birth to him, an incident he claims is responsible for his "melancholic weakness for rainy weather." The book is divided into two sections, "Feeling" and "Leaving," both prompted by the author's meditations on his life in Fort-de-France, Martinique. Chamoiseau leads the reader into "the bewitching period" of his childhood, describing it with the doting subjectivity of an older, more mature relative who refers to the child he was as "the little boy." This boy, who was fascinated with torturing insects and rats, found more creative ways to spend his time after a "city storyteller" exposed him to "the astonishing richness of Creole orality," a quality that now animates Chamoiseau's prose in this volume and in such novels as Texaco. Chamoiseau calls the apartment house in which he grew up "old as eternity." It was the center of a world in which "the mamas" washed their clothing in water drawn from a communal fountain and spirits summoned by "people-with-powers" could cause human sickness and otherwise wreak havoc. It was a world of poverty, but his boy's imagination could transform squalor into beauty and meaning. Chamoiseau admits he "sacrifices everything to the music of the phrase," so readers might do well to approach this book as if it were as much fable as memoir. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Excerpt Feeling Can you tell of childhood what is no longer known? Can you not describe but survey it in its magical states, recover its mystery of clay and clouds, of stairway shadows and mad wind, and bear witness to the enclosure constructed while, plucking off petals of mystery and dream, you were taking inventory of the world?     Memory ho, this quest is for you . And why this concealment, what is the meaning of these ruins, these empty landscapes, so wrongfully removed? Forgetfulness is on site, still clinging (powerlessly) and hunting the persistent emotion of fallen memories. What purpose does this plucker serve, leaving your high branches bare? Childhood is a treasure whose geography you never clearly reveal. In it you mix up eras and ages, laughter and the illusion of having laughed, places and sensations that weren't even born there. You conduct an orgy of faces and sounds, of pain and lace, snippets of stories with no real origin, of ambiguous beings, loved or hated. They were important and still are, so much do you sketch them, carry them, preserve them -- memory, why do you offer this treasure without ever really giving it? And when from somewhere beyond the visible a batch of memories flows, unannounced and uncalled, when the illusory reckoning of a happy time rises in a burst of wind, when one reexamines this bewitching period in which every scrap of world gave a reading of the world's possibilities, in which the very reality of the world was a vague swarm of ants, all crazed, and when one feels there more exiled than foreign--is it I who remember, memory, or you who remember me? Memory, let's make a pact long enough for a sketch, lower your palisades and pacify the savages, reveal the secret of the traces that lie at the edge of your brushy borders. I bring neither sack for kidnapping nor knife for conquest, nothing but intoxication and a mighty docile joy at the rhythm (flow of time) of your flow. Let's make a pact. Where does childhood begin? At the memory of one's first glimpse of the world? At the splatter of the visible-landscape against the earliest consciousness? The Prime Confidante speaks of an evening begun in pains. The suitcase was ready since after All Saints' Day. The journey took place on foot along the Levassor Canal, in the direction of the municipal hospital. At nine in the evening, a Thursday, yes, under the arc of December rains and winds, the midwife plucked the first cry, and the Confidante of today welcomed the last bit of her bowels. That was her Creole way of naming the fifth and--resolutely--the last of her children. When, today, the latter expresses rather naive disbelief: But, Mama, why did you go there on foot? "Eti man té ké pwan lajan pou trapé loto-a?" "Where would I have gotten the money to pay for a car?" she replies, both proud and annoyed. The man has had occasion to retrace this path of his birth. Down the Rue François-Arago, past the pungent cheer of the fish market, then alongside the canal to the Pont de Chaines. He has also had occasion to taste Thursday evenings when nine o'clock finds Fort-de-France bathed in the yellowish points of the public light. He has had occasion, finally, to examine the December evening storms when they erupted on Thursdays, with the desire to note not a sign, but a familiar sensation, a resurgence of the primordial impression. In vain. The man today has a melancholic weakness for rainy weather, damp winds, and nights turning to rivers. He might even have been a poet, perhaps, had these too blatantly beautiful preferences not been in such bad taste. It was predictable in any case: the little black boy had nothing very special about him. Small, sickly, eyes without much light, consummating the art of whimsy, he set off catastrophes within himself at the slightest remark. He had a taste for being outside of the world, for remaining immobile on the roof of the kitchens, counting the clouds or transparently following the secretions of his pupils. During frenetic periods he climbed everything, like those marmosets whose corpulence, a little of the throat sound, and patience-trying energy he possessed. He was even (a vindictive older brother often affirms) a suckler until an age that defied reason. All day long, he is alleged to have vocalized this single cry on a cannibal beat: "Titac tété! Titac tété!" Without resorting to this lie, it would have been easy to predict the absence here of a true poet. His illusions alone deluded him into believing this babble during his adolescent crises. His only genius was as a killer. He was anointed (by himself) king of the spiders and ants, of the dragonflies and earthworms, victims, nonetheless, of his massacres. He was the Attila of the red beetles and of the big dark cockroaches called klaclac. And he waged a campaign against a colony of rats that was impossible to destroy. This killer has a history--and here it is. It's doubtful he is proud of it. It has its sources in periods of solitude inexplicable today, for the house was filled up. It was a large reef of wood from the north, stretching down the Rue François-Arago to the corner of the Rue Lamartine. At street level the Syrians, the owners of the building, had positioned their fabric stores. Right next to the entrance, opening onto the apartments' stairs, was a woodworking shop. The little boy never saw it but had always known of its existence: the carpenter, who went into sporting goods after a fire, had remained there, nostalgic for his bygone art. He conjured it up by useless repairs to every door and with ostentatious tools to warp the slightest nail. Behind his ear he kept an obstinate pencil. Standing on the doorstep of his store, his gaze lost in the crowd of madams seeking their customers, he used his pencil to take measurements of the world. No madam ever quite identified the object of this measurement. It was nonetheless precise: the fellow devoted time to it--arm extended, the point of his pencil emerging from between thumb and index, measuring the measure, measuring to measure, measuring, yes.... When the measurer died of a touch of congestion, no one thought to put the pencil in his grave. The little boy shed no tear; he alone knew the carpenter to be a wholesaler of sadness and measurer of an excess of ash. The staircase led upstairs to where the families lived, the Ma Romulus family, the Ma Ninotte family, the Ma la Sirène family, the Ma Irénée family, the invisible family of an invisible junk dealer, partner of a near invisible customs officer in a sporadic, but passionate as possible, love. The traveling dealer was rarely there. She wandered the English isles and American coasts, from which she brought back illuminated fabrics, objects neither French nor Catholic, and perfumes capable of stirring spirits and hearts. Her presence in the apartment was as discreet as her absence, more discreet even than the colony of rats populating the labyrinths of the wooden stairs. It was signaled only by the rustling of merchandise unwrapped at night and repacked in small quantities intended for resale. This filled the minds of sleepers with a newspaper oratorio, the chinking of bottles, and the strange odor of genies in exile. But most of all her presence was signaled by the faithful customs officer, a little fat, a little sweaty, a little silent, very kind, whom the little boy of then thinks he saw laboriously climbing the steps of the stairs. In reality, thinking about it, he never saw him. He knew of him what was whispered nearly ten years later. Nor had he seen the traveling junk dealer (the apartment had been empty since before the little boy was even born), but his imagination could assign her an existence equal to the lingering aura of her distant passage. The other children were numerous, every family had four or five. They provided an explosive gang that raced down the hallway and stairs all the blessed day long. Which is why it is doubtful the little boy experienced periods of solitude, even if memories of his childhood begin, unfailingly, with moments of solitary immobility. This immobility would later instate him as an official observer of spiders, of ants, and of cockroaches -- before, of course, turning him into a killer. Under the staircase lay a zone of darkness favorable to shady lives. Piled there were demijohns, bottles, containers, packets of things that belonged to no one, or perhaps to forgetful families. From time to time, stacks of cardboard boxes signaled the arrival of Syrian products. Also found there were crates of every conceivable type, crates of cod, crates of red herring, crates of potatoes, which everyone concealed in expectation of a need. All this existed beneath a layer of dust, in an indescribable universe, until the day when Ma Ninotte (the little boy's mother) or Ma Romulus or Ma la Sirène, or else Ma Irénée, would be taken by a prophylactic rage and begin washing everything in a flood of water, showering it all with bleach and delivering heaps of refuse to the evening trash collectors. These sudden cleanings caused great upheaval. The little boy rediscovered a dead world beneath the tidying. Attentive and alone, he then watched as it progressively returned to its previous chaos, as life, with its receptacles and rubbish, brought it back to life. Spiders, ants, and cockroaches swarmed there. So much life in shadow enchanted the little boy. The spider webs unfurled in stiffened veils, shining, laden with the ashes of a dead moon. Broken by the daily recuperation of bottles, some twisted like ugly braids, while others unfolded into delicate embroidery, half effaced, shimmering in shadow, and revealing their cruelty by the subsequent disclosure of their trappings. Many cadavers hung there, dried-out trunks of pink gnats, of mosquitos, of tiny cockroaches, of yen-yen , of nocturnal butterflies caught in the snare of lace. It was all reminiscent of a celestial cemetery of tiny critters. The gravediggers were nowhere in sight and nothing seemed to be in charge. This enigma unraveled, boom, the day a fly happened to be ensnared before his eyes. The struggling insect shook the living, elastic geometry. Then the incredible happened. A long-fingered she-devil, finely attuned to the threads she seemed to be knitting, swiftly emerged from somewhere unseen, and pounced on her prey, fast as if gliding down a slide. The fly saw himself covered and ceased--poof!--to fight. The spider wove him a whitish camisole fast-and-simple, then stopped still. The fly had become a cocoon adapted to an indefinable manner of eating, which the spider practiced with hearty appetite. Once the feast was over, she went to take up position in the nerve center of her web, connected to the vibratory language of her trap. The little boy subsequently saw her, and others still, and the entire troop, decimate little winged beasts. They were capable of enveloping several almost simultaneously. They scoured their tattered rags of web, the indiscernible limits of which were fanatically precise. He learned to attract them by shaking points on these webs. They hurried forth, found nothing, turned, and swerved back toward their headquarters. During the lookout, they made repairs, casting off from the end of shiny threads spun from the abdomen. Often, they caught themselves on broken fringes and tied them seamlessly, without a knot. The astonished little boy saw the ruin take on a perfect texture, and already he wondered how such genius could be at the service of so much cruelty. Fascinated by these evil culinary habits, he became king of the spiders by furnishing them with edibles. It was for them that he captured flies with the help of cups lined with sugar. For them that he imprisoned in jars a thousand tiny tribes of mosquitos captured on black cloths. For them that he lived with an eye riveted to the dust of the slatted shutters, to the joints of the corridor, to the dead angles of the stairs, tracking the tiny beast worthy of the arachnean holocaust. When habit dulled the interest of these executions, he stirred up fun by posing one spider on the web of another, or by supplying them with insects armed with carapaces, which they then had to tackle for some time before abandoning a part of their web. To do so, they patiently modified the lines of force, sending the trapped invader tumbling. Then he set about snipping the threads at points that destroyed the equilibrium out from under the panic-stricken creatures. Finally, before the age of fire, he began killing them. He had discovered the miracle of matches and the power of the flame. The house was made of wood. Fires, along with floods and cyclones, made up the pantheon of Creole horrors. Ma Ninotte, who cooked in the apartment over a gas burner, performed a precautionary ceremony before lighting it. She began by silently moving the children aside. Slowly and majestically, she pumped the fuel, then, her eye sharpened, wielding a tiny needle, she unclogged the opening through which the flame would be fed. After a circular glance around, she proceeded to the lighting stage. And therein lay the mystery. For a split second the world was suspended on the edge of an intersection where everything was possible, especially disaster. Every living being prepared to make a run for it. Many were the cases of children singed bare, of shacks that disappeared in the gasp of flame, of lamps explosive as chabines . As a result, Ma Ninotte waxed philosophic about the power of fire, speaking sententiously in fifteen proverbs and three fine expressions. All this sufficed to inspire the little boy to steal a match, and then a box of them. It was underneath the stairs that he explored the hazy reality of a flame: an orange impatience filled with transparencies and deep reds, arising from nothing, feeding on the wood of the match and suffocating on its own vitality. To contemplate a spark cast him into the antiquity of a preworld, into a pit of memory suddenly awakened to the most muffled fears. The little boy discovered anxieties within himself existing since time immemorial. He felt them flicker and grow silent to the sacred rhythm of the diminishing fire. Each match, aside from its mystery, brought him a rush of fulfillment, which he speedily sought in the next one. The box was gone in a snap, unless, before the last match, his dreamy stupor had permitted the fire to lick his finger. Then he dropped everything, horrified, his imagination torched, fleeing from the box as if from some hole into hell. Soon he returned, like the honeybee to her honey, and dipped into this dangerous happiness. But this age of fire was late in coming, in any case it followed that of massacres born directly from the discovery of the flame's power. It was later that he would learn that this force could be--for the tumults of childhood--a source of serenity. The flame devastated everything. A miracle. The spider webs went up like straw. The spiders themselves were deified into shooting sparks. The little boy, master of the fire, made a clean sweep beneath the stairs. He was drunk with total destruction, drunk with savoring the enigma of a spider escaped from the cinders of its web. The spiders, although regularly set aflame, reproduced according to a law he liked to maintain on the level of a mystery (it was one of his rare virtues, this taste for pacts with incredible beings; he never lost it). Incited by a dearth of spiders, he brought fire to the cockroaches and ants. Columns of ants frequented syrupy remains on the bottles. Beneath the flame they lost their invisible pasture and were unable to converge for an et-cetera of minutes. Their hills went mad, oozed in every direction, and especially into the darkness of a newfound individuality. Nothing is more frenzied than ants ejected from their collective conditioning. Fire alone has this capacity to strike at their instinct and project them into themselves, onto themselves. As for the cockroaches, they either lost their wings in the crackling or rediscovered a frenetic usage of them. The child had to flee many times from beneath the stairs when his flame, having penetrated an inhabited chink in the wall, provoked first an emotional reaction from the larvae, then the flight of taciturn klaclac and of the venerable red roaches. They flew to attack his face, disgust him with their thorny legs, and inflict on him the indelible offence of their frightened musk. Who can say how many matches were consumed for the spiders to become rare, for the cockroaches to emigrate to the kitchens, and for the ants to bury themselves in oblivion. The little boy remained alone with his now useless weapon. He then set fire to corks, bottle labels, plastic, whose twisting he loved to observe. One day he lit a flame just for the sake of it, thus penetrating, yes, ever so gently, into the serenity of the magic age of fire. The tool age was that of the Gillette blade. Papa was an elegant one. He shaved himself close and cultivated either a moustache or sideburns, depending on the fashion. He wielded foam and a screw-top razor, which had to be fitted with a daily blade. These blades, after their brief tour of duty, piled up useless. The little boy soon discovered their capacity to cut through anything. Since he couldn't very well shred the curtains, the mattress, or the books of his elders (who already found his existence trying, to say the least), the boy went off into his kingdom beneath the stairs, to cut off the legs of the surviving spiders and few remaining ants. He operated on the cockroaches (crucified with needles) for serious illnesses of which they were unaware but which justified a dissection in due and proper form. In addition to sicknesses, he sought hearts, lungs, blood, bones, a brain, a soul, ideas. He verified whether spiders and cockroaches could live without heads, or without stomachs, or without pieces of their legs, or whether a spider's head could function without the spider, or whether cockroach wings were capable of an orphaned flight. He could have advanced science if the desire to understand hadn't been replaced too soon by the dark taste for cutting. The age of the blade was also the bane of the earthworms, whose obstination to live in scattered pieces puzzled him, and that of the dragonflies, captured on the clotheslines where the families hung their laundry to dry on sunny days. The hour of the dragonfly precedes that of the sun. It accompanies the dew--an evanescent unction that seeps from the earth (no one sees it fall) and covers the world in glittering drops. The little boy noted this mystery when a desire to follow Ma Ninotte, off on an urgent morning mission, propelled him from his bed before dawn. Through the window in the hall, from which the inner courtyard, the tubs, and the roofs of the kitchens were visible, he saw the sky and the top of the wall, crowned with grass growing from nothing, pensive shrubs, and minuscule flowers. And it all appeared varnished beneath the rising of the barely warm sun, the wind circulating sea scents and nocturnal secrets. He breathed them in as if taking them into his open spirit, these wonders that for him were the sole structures of the world. One of the most beautiful wonders were the dragonflies. How was it possible that a city, before its heat, could inspire such immobile grace in the wind, so much glittering finesse, ocher reflections, green reflections, silent and secret life that vanished with the slap of the sun? Straight shiny wings visible when at rest and big eyes, velvety and matte, almost melancholy. Oh, how the dragonflies worshiped the drops! On the reflective puddles they quivered, dripped, celebrated mass for the water like desert travelers remembering their longest thirst. After capturing them and cutting off everything possible, the little boy adopted their ways. Anointing himself priest of their ceremony, he developed a taste for honoring the dew like a secret of the nocturnal humors of the earth and the sky. Certain dragonflies whispered to him that to this august mixture had to be added the tear of a star, but he never went for it, not because he didn't believe it but because it wasn't good, he believed, for a priest to seem to swallow the foolishness of his flock, even if they were, as he concluded at the end of his daydreams, absolutely right. A cloud of dragonflies (frequently) announced a day of steady westerly winds and of fine rain. The roof of the building being no longer very hearty, Ma Ninotte accompanied these watery days with the catch-as-catch-can plan, intended to save the apartment from flooding. First there were two tubs positioned in the living room, one next to the buffet that was losing its varnish, the other beneath one of the two windows whose weak joints permitted drops of water to descend, at first hesitantly, then almost continuously, as the rain stretched into eternity. The ceiling darkened with rings, limited here and there by patches of paint still flesh from the New Year's coat. The walls of the facade, quickly soaked, released a glossy, oozing substance that had to be collected in rags on the floor. The ceiling of the bedroom whose windows overlooked the street was, in and of itself, a catastrophe. It required so many tubs, rags, pots, pans, glasses, and sometimes even umbrellas that Ma Ninotte had hung up a large oilcloth. She had connected it with a string from the Syrians to nails planted in the four corners of the room. During the inclement weather the little boy, abandoning the staircase and the kitchen roofs, contemplated the progressive curve of the oilcloth beneath the weight of a pool of water. Yellowish at the start, as it aged the water thus collected tended toward chicken-caca brown. During the rainy months Ma Ninotte didn't empty the sheet: the operation was delicate, dangerous, and difficult. It demanded a concentration that this warrior negress, in her perpetual struggle with life, applied to other emergencies. The water stagnated in its plastic chalice, growing blacker as the rains and days passed. In the warm weather that followed, its evaporation left a dusty, blackish residue, a most unglamorous setting for the slightly discolored chips of paint. Thus, at the start of each rain, Ma Ninotte, followed by her little boy, inspected the kitchen, the dining room, and the two bedrooms, verifying the placement of the tubs, the dampness of the rags, the resistance of the oilcloth. Sometimes she leaned out the window to estimate the length of the downpour ("A-a fout la pli-a ka fésé ko'y jodi-a!"), then returned to her cooking without worrying unduly about the sky's charades. Anastasia, the older of the two sisters, went to warm her bed in the company of a doll made by Ma Ninotte in days of destitution. She didn't play with it anymore but couldn't live without it. A tall câpresse-chabine with big hair, it was she who took command when Ma Ninotte wasn't around. Her long hands were so tapered as to make the slightest rap painful. To transgress her dictates was a sign of temporary insanity. Her authority was invincible; she had inherited from Ma Ninotte an aptitude for conquering life, for foreseeing everything, for knowing everything, for organizing everything, to such an extent that Papa (French-language spinner and Master of the Art of the Creole nickname) called her "the Baroness." The second sister was Marielle, a kind of dark, vaguely Indian-looking capresse , a champion in the ancient art of competition basketball, who lost herself in photonovels and in books without pictures. This one (Papa had nicknamed her "Choune") seemed to live outside the house, outside the world, regulating her life as a function of demands whose clock was at the center of herself. According to her, we were called upon to live according to our hearts, to do or not do as we pleased, the only rules being never to sleep on her bed or to touch her comb or her belongings. Steady in mood, maybe even blasé, she remained difficult to surprise or to interest. The first of the two older brothers (called "Jojo" by Father the nicknamer) remained, during the rain (and the rest of the time as well), seated at the table in the dining room. In the midst of a cluster of books and notebooks, he waged a continual war against algebraic formulas. He covered hundreds of pages with them, scattered here-there-and-everywhere. Each of us picked one up on occasion to experience the anguish of confronting these senseless signs on which the genius (otherwise indifferent) adolescent seemed to confer all power for explaining the world. The second older brother, Paul, ever at war with the Baroness, sat on the stairs at the end of the hall, right in front of the widow Ma Romulus's landing. There, his head between his knees, transistor to his ear, he fell into a kind of rhythmic hypnosis in which only his toes and fingers seemed alive. He was a fellow who explained the world through music, but he seemed to have lost his ear for the melody of the rains. He had put together a guitar that produced sounds via horsehair threads. And these sounds sufficed for him to leave the earth and head for places known to him alone, places filled with an intoxicating oxygen. This gave him the opaque look of visionaries and a similar lack of aptitude for washing the dishes. In fact--the Baroness finally had to admit--the child was a musician. Troubled by the silent struggle between the oilcloth and the aerial pond, the little boy lay down beneath it, on Ma Ninotte's big bed, provided Papa wasn't taking his nap. He stared at the yellowish lump that grew heavier, both afraid and impatient to see it break under the weight. He imagined, full of fright and delectation, the hard shower that would almost knock him out. Sometimes he climbed on a chair to tickle the oilcloth with the tip of his finger. The plastic always seemed too weak, and the shower imminent. So he climbed back down quickly, feverishly, to lie directly beneath it. All the apartments were subject to the same inconveniences. The house was as old as eternity, it seems: the little boy never met anyone with a memory long enough to recall a time of splendor. He always wondered, for example, what the initial paint--which no one remembered--had been like. At his birth there subsisted a color of indefinable chemistry, chipped according to its relations with the sun, a source of dust and of a slightly vinegary odor. During dry spells it looked like remnants of ash. In the rain the air filled with woodsy smells, and the enigmatic paint, saturated with dampness, took on a grayish, velvety or rough, hue. It then became nourishment for a mass of insects, which emerged from somewhere -- frightened by the rain, exalted by the rain -- and spent their fearful moments running through the walls, which turned into a playful breeding ground. Ma Ninotte and Ma Romulus were the biggest busybodies. They sometimes took it upon themselves to describe the unpleasantries of the rain to the Syrian, the owner of the apartments. In their presence the latter took refuge in a quasi-cataleptic meditation. Only his lip, stretched around a fine cigar, indicated that he was still there. Ma Ninotte and Ma Romulus, baffled, forgot their rage. And when the Syrian, suddenly resuscitating, bid them farewell for the umpteenth time ("Okay, well, I'll have a look at it soon"), they never dreamed of reacting as they had imagined a thousand times they would: sending the mountains of fabrics flying, grabbing his bush shirt by the collar, telling him to his face (as they said behind his back): "La Syrie siguine siguine andièt!" They returned somber, willing themselves reassured anyway. To Ma Irénée, who awaited the news on her doorstep, they reported in stereo: "The Syrian said he's going to have a look at it soon." And the house went back to normal: the shuddering wood rotted by water, the crackling of tin beneath the seasonal downpours, the chanting of Negresses before their dangerous stoves, the smell of cooked sugar, the chattering, the radios tuned in until the batteries wore out, and the sudden stampeding of children rushing to sit at the bottom of the stairs, facing the street, and who, half an hour later, launched into another stampede, only to sit down again at the top, drunk with the racket they made on the wooden steps. Their ascents and descents were so regular that Ma Romulus behind her Singer, Ma Irénée in her kitchen salting her fries, Ma la Sirène with her rosary, and Ma Ninotte struggling with her pots and pans were able to keep close track of time. If not for that, from August to November, between the drops, the rings, the tubs, the rags, and the Syrian's meditations, time would stand still. Once, I vaguely remember, the Syrian dispatched a carpenter to repair the roofs. This bitter black man lugged his tools in a soft leather bag. He entered the house with the look of not quite believing the pupils of his eyes. He used his toe to gauge the somewhat tired strength of the stairs. Observing the assemblage and planks and beams (impeccable carpentry work, of an ancient science that has already been collectively lost), he grumbled: "Joy bel kay!" What a house! while remaining appalled that anyone, in these times of rains, fires, and cyclones, could persist in living in something other than a cement blockhouse. The black man, he explained, had already done his time in straw huts, then in wood huts, then in asbestos cement huts.... Given his predisposition for being wiped off the surface of this earth, those types of houses were never really the Good Lord's blessings. He had read in some philosophical work some business about little pigs, and he explained to Ma Romulus (who wasn't even impressed) that cement was the bearer not only of the future but also of a finer way of life. A carpenter by chance, today he was a cementer by vocation, that is to say, out of a sense of the modern and a vision of the future. And he concluded: The only little pig that escaped the wolf had built a house of cement. "What wolf are you talking about?" gnashed Ma Romulus. "There ain't no wolves here!" "It was an allegory," he responded, "you can substitute a snake." "I've never seen a snake eat a pig," protested Ma Ninotte. The carpenter, distressed, stopped trying to converse with so much ignorance and pulled out his professional pencil. Each family explained to him its miseries, showed him the leaks, the rings, the swellings of the walls, each one gave him an accounting of liters per week and of drops per second. He listened with an air of comprehension. Then he went up to the attic to access the roof. The opening was located in the hallway, smack in front of Ma Irénée's door. He raised the hatch and, before the stupefied boy, forsook his ladder for the dark space beneath the tin. There was a silence before the agony. The carpenter began to scream, then to whimper, then to curse a colony of things that were scratching him, biting him, raising around him a hoopla of dust. He descended head first and began running, uttering a rare malediction. He returned some time later, pressed by the Syrian, and took care to evacuate ancient toothless cats, twenty-two bats, and a passel of rats not so nasty as all that. Then he got to working, installing new tin sheets, filling in others, repairing the gutters. One could see him hanging from the edge of the facade, without even a rope to close his tomb, working with a what-do-I-care attitude until the job was done. At noon, he remained in the attic. We could hear him regaling himself alone, naming each of his mouthfuls: "Hmm cod, hmm red beans, hmm peppers." He refused all invitations but wasn't above accepting the bits of fried fish hoisted up through the trap door. When he left, we awaited the next rainfall with anxious computations, bets, and numerous evaluations. When it came, nothing very new occurred: the house still leaked, but not in the same places, and it took everyone some time to readjust the tubs beneath this diluvian revenge. For the Prime Confidante, this story is all rubbish. There was never the slightest rat beneath the tin roof, nor the slightest cat; at most there might have been two or three bats, judging by the soaring of a twilight wing. But that could just as easily have been the sound of a zombi. And when the carpenter went up to the attic there were no problems, and the proof of his incompetence is that he was able to work at his ease. "Too bad if it's a lie," argues the shameful scribe.     "It's not too bad, it's a lie," she responds, unwavering. (Continues...) Copyright (c) 1993 Éditions Gallimard.