Cover image for Seven dreams of Elmira : a tale of Martinique : being the confessions of an old worker at the Saint-Etienne distillery
Seven dreams of Elmira : a tale of Martinique : being the confessions of an old worker at the Saint-Etienne distillery
Chamoiseau, Patrick.
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Elmire des sept bonheurs. English
Publication Information:
Cambridge, Mass. : Zoland Books, 1999.
Physical Description:
49 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 24 cm
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Seven Dreams of Elmira is a vivid and hallucinatory fable by widely acclaimed author Patrick Chamoiseau. Based on interviews and participant observation, it takes as its canvas the everyday lives of workers at an antiquated rum distillery in Martinique, and the haunting vision that appears to a select few. The tale is situated at the crossroads of many island social groups, and more specifically, at the intersection of the themes of slavery and economic exploitation. Beautiful and haunting in its language, mystical and lush in its evocation of Creole island culture, and profusely illustrated with color and black and white photographs by Jean-Luc Laguardigue. Published in France by Editions Gallimard, Seven Dreams of Elmira will appeal to readers who love Patrick Chamoiseau's magical novels, Texaco and Solibo Magnificent.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Twentieth-century positivism has relegated legends--those instructive stories of the past whose factuality can't be ascertained--to children's literature. Three newly translated examples show that legends can still fascinate adults. Martinican novelist Chamoiseau (Solibo Magnificent, 1998) offers pure legend. A centenarian retiree from the Saint-Etienne rum distillery discusses the sightings of a "dramatically beautiful" young woman by drinkers of the high-proof liquor. She--Elmira--makes a person realize his incompleteness, for which she represents the ideal fulfillment. Once seen, she becomes the object of a quest that never succeeds, for she reappears to none. The narrator has never seen her, yet he is content, believing that Elmira spurs him, like the others, "to find our quiet happiness." Complementing the slight, flavorful tale are the kind of illustrated board covers often found on children's books and a suite of magnificent photos by Jean-Luc de Laguarigue, half black-and-white portraits of old people from the distillery town and half color images of the distillery and wall signage, including the Saint-Etienne rum label with its image of Elmira. It is all real, you see. Even more real is the story of Climene, an Italian immigrant to Canada in the 1930s. Climene journeys to Montreal to marry fellow villager Adelmo, who has preceded her. She carries his child. But he has married another woman. With the help of the family of a woman she met on the boat coming over, Climene gives away the child, integrates herself into the Italian immigrant community, marries the kindly Beppo, and prospers. All the while, she carries a double torch, with one flame for Adelmo and their child, another for her home village. Finally, she returns to Italy. Meanwhile, with her material success have come some heart-wrenching and door-closing events. Yet at last she is content, "alone and free." The point of the story is much the same as that of Chamoiseau's folkloric tale. Spare diction and candor save it from cloying sentimentality and make it a work of art. A prizewinner in Canada and Italy, it debuts in English 23 years after original publication. Orsenna and Arnoult's History is more fantastic from the get go. Eric Clapton, no less, drops in on an archaeologist digging where the remains of Lucy, the oldest human yet discovered, were found. The bone-grubber has the Beatles on the box when Clapton arrives--hold that bit of info. When the guitarist beds down, he dreams great moments in guitar history, from ancient Egypt to Woodstock, where the focal character is Jimi Hendrix, about to wake the last-day crowd with "The Star-Spangled Banner." After Clapton awakes on December 31, 1999, all the pickers except Jimi, who "has gone too far" (Y' dig? Hea-vy!), materialize for a big jam with . . . Paul, George, Ringo, and even John, arriving in a pink helicopter. This is a legend about the power of music, man! That is a worthy enough thing to be about, though middle-aged air guitarists are probably the story's ideal readers. It was loved in its homeland, France, but then the French--and some Americans, it's true--love Jerry Lewis. --Ray Olson

Publisher's Weekly Review

Weighing in at 30 pages of text, with an additional 34 pages of Laguarigue's photographs (17 in halftone, 15 in color), Chamoiseau's latest offering is a wisp of a tale, as ephemeral as the Creole spirit-creature it invokes. Inspired by the recollections of workers at the renowned and nearly sacred Saint-Etienne rum distillery of Gros-Morne, Martinique, Chamoiseau lyrically elaborates the story of a benign and beautiful spirit-creature called Elvira, whose mysterious presence haunts the place. Isidore, a simpleton who does menial chores at the distillery, is the first to catch a glimpse of an evanescent something, at the workers' annual rum-tasting. Fated ever after to attempt to recapture the experience, he only manages to be "uprooted by raving rum, howling over the lost vision." A few other workers see Elmira, then try to evoke or describe her, only to fail. Possessing a "variable beauty, fluid like the ocean lifting its acclamations to the sky," she is known to leave her witnesses "not terrified, but dependent forevermore." The unnamed narrator has never seen ElmiraÄperhaps, she speculates, because she lacks "some degree of innocence," but she herself is a memorable character. More than 100 years old, she is one of the few remaining workers who still holds all the secrets necessary to produce a successful batch of rum. No word is superfluous here, and as in his previous works (Texaco; Solibo Magnificent), Chamoiseau delights the reader with prose that begs to be read aloud. Names like Th‚olomŠne, ColocomŠde, At‚thonaseÄrecall the luscious tones of Martinican Creole. Supplemented by photographs of the weathered old distillery set deep in palm-covered hills, and by soulful, somber portraits of Gros-Morne residents, this is a small but lovely addition to Chamoiseau's works available in English. Agent, The French Publishers Agency. First serial to Transition. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One A century of tales float above the Saint-Etienne distillery, like clusters of bamboo in a bottomless ravine. Secrets hover there, too--a ball of secrets linking 1893 to the present. The old workers make out like they know them, but only I truly preserve them in my memory. For I have known the cutting, the hoisting, the mashing. I've brewed the ferment in the vats. I've worked the distilling column. I've seen the hot liquid being tested, put the rum in casks, and served as tilbury driver to the founding békés . I've seen it all. Handled it all. Heard it all. Oh, I've got loads to tell: enough to set your teeth on edge or make your heart flip. But I'll have nothing to do with the dimwitted blabbity-blah of those good-time Negroes (tongue in the breeze, head in the clouds); they know nothing of miracles, only useless facts. Many have begged at the door of my hut for the secret of that Gros-Morne rum that has made us the world's envy. They were wasting their time. I didn't tell them a goddamn thing.     It's just that telling that secret isn't even a possibility. Of course I could talk about the matchless soil of Gros-Morne, with its high yields, the seven benedictions it receives from the sun. Here, the cane is more loaded with syrup than a New Year's Eve: it's good for sugar, and even better for rum. And then you have to know how to cut that cane, talk to it as it falls, bundle it the right way, offer it to the grinders with due respect. You have to find the murmur of the wort in the long fermentation vats. And then there's the holy rite of distillation, which preserves in the spirit of the rum the mysteries of earth, grass, fruit and fine spice--everything the sugarcane absorbs as it rises toward the sky. It's an accumulation of little secrets: I know them all without knowing their heart. Every one of us who has hoed this earth, each of us over a hundred years old, owns a part of it. As if a Mama-light, opening in our memories, had seeped into our movements: an old knowledge, a true carnal knowledge that gives the rum a soul which no machine in the world could form. And so I'll go away from here without revealing a thing. I'll leave behind my yam ditches and sun-bleached mule, but I'll take with me my parcel of truth, just as Old Man Simonnet, the long-time head of the distillery, went off with his. Those who think I'm going to spill the beans can just go to sleep right now: even if I did give away my bit of the secret, the sharpest and craftiest wouldn't understand a thing without the other bits. Legends, secrets, a thousand tales. So many! ... Hmm, hm, hm, sometimes I just have to chuckle to myself. I'm thinking of Zolbè the gravedigger (who pushed the hand-trucks) begging the priest the bury him right in the soil next to his hut, and who, all stiff and dead as he was, spread his arms in a Long-Live-de Gaulle to keep from going into his poorman's coffin. When they finally managed to stuff him in there, he swelled up with such rage that the coffin split apart like a custard apple. The priest had to give in and bury him the way he wanted, in the blissful clay of the Gros-Morne that bathes our plantations. Hmm, hmm, hm.     I'm thinking of Théoloméne the sorcerer, who used to work with the fertilizer. He had conjured up a something-or-other to hold off the dry season and that something-or-other came in the form of a blaze on the seventh stroke of midnight that burnt down his hut, broad knife, chickens, rabbits, dishes, shed, and himself, Théolomène, standing in the middle of all that with his arms folded at the spectacle of his own consumption. We scurried around him with our hearts in our throats, throwing water, throwing sand--not to save Théolomène, Hmm, hm, hm ... but so the fire wouldn't reach the dry straw of our cane.     I'm thinking of that poor devil we saw coming from the woods in the middle of the harvest season. He was covered in mushrooms and a shirt of vines. No one knew him from Adam, not at Gros-Morne nor anywhere else on the Caribbean earth. The Stranger wanted a sugarcane to suck on come hell or high water (just one Saint-Etienne cane! ...) before going back to wherever he came from, to that place no reality could convey. He seemed sad as a sea urchin. He spoke a Creole from the depths of memory, the kind only a long-gone-ancient (forgotten by death) could claim to recognize, Hmm, hm, hmm ...     I'm also thinking about evenings after the cutting, when exhaustion sent us staggering back to our huts, and about that she-devil who suddenly appeared from the edge of the Man Roi cliff. She came white on a white mule, slowly climbing arse-backward up the cliffside. Clippityclop clippityclop clippityclop. She didn't look sad or lost or abandoned; she just wore the deathless solitude of immortals, and a spectral boredom. The old ones had seen her, and the old ones' old ones warned each new generation of our distillery workers about her in every age of our distillery. And still, every time she appeared, everyone found himself with his heart in his throat, Hmmm ... Clippityclop clippityclop clippityclop.     I'm also thinking about Colocomède, that big teddy bear of a man. He was a good mason. All by himself he had built the reinforced cement smokestack that scatters the steam of Saint-Etienne above the bluffs like a victory palm. A good mason, but he had a sweet tooth. In the middle of the harvest he threw himself on a hand-truck full of our sugarcane stalks to swallow them whole, without even really chewing. He would have wolfed down the whole thing if I hadn't grabbed him by the Adam's apple, Hmm, hm, hm ...     I'm thinking, oh I'm thinking about Mam Améya Sérénise, a good, simple woman who worked her whole life washing vats and then doing the bottling. One of those days-not-to-be-believed, we saw her wake up, get dressed as if for Palm Sunday, take a very pretty bouquet of hibiscus and two bottles of our Saint-Etienne, and walk with a determined step toward a place in the depths of the woods from where no one in the world would see her return. Old Man Simonnet didn't even cry for her--as he said, with two good bottles you take along your own Heaven, even behind the Good Lord's back, Hmmm, hm, hm ...     I'm thinking about Pè Dèdè, who drove the tractor with its big wheels that came from France. He was the only one in Gros-Morne who could treat snakebite. He guarded the secret of his medicine so tightly that he finally took it with him to the grave, without a sigh, without regrets, but also without managing to hide the fact that his power against the Beast contained a few drops of our Saint-Etienne. Hmm, hm, hm, I'm thinking, I'm thinking ...     A load of small, laughable things that we lived with around the distillery. They blended with the noises of the boiler, the blasts of steam that streaked the countryside, the fragrance of the rum spirits that made the cane mash bubble. I still live with those thoughts: they bring back a life of labor and crown my memory, laden with the heady aroma of the first cane flowers. Life becomes cheap when you pass a hundred. The sun doesn't fill you with wonder anymore, not even when it rises above the pear trees, in the fog off the red lands of Tracée, Deux-Terres, Bois-d'Inde, Dumaine, Bois-Lézard, or Glottin, where the nutmeg trees are so rich that the leaves explode in blue bursts amid the green. No more wonder, just an expectation beyond desire. We feel it when we--the old workers from this plantation--gather around a bowl of punch made with our rum. Then we climb Morne-Calvaire to look down on the expanse of our Gros-Morne: to see it spread toward Fonds-Saint-Denis, Marigot, Sainte-Marie; see it extend in an abundance of breadfruit trees and litchis toward La Trinité and Le Robert; see it fall toward Lamentin and Saint-Joseph in purple swathes of sugarcane, mango trees, and well-raked lawns. From that height, it's a joy to see the smokestack of our distillery in the blowing trade winds, the herky-jerky of its century-old machines, the anthill of its trucks heading off to deliver our nectar, which makes distillers throughout the Caribbean weep tears of respectful rage.     Yes, this is what remains. This distillery, this rum: we're the ones who made it, all of us together, each one under the weight of his poverty, each with his own secret that is linked to the secret of the Earth. It makes us laugh to see the new workers puff up their chests over the incomparable brilliance of our rum: they still think they have something to do with it. But there's a century of other lives in there; a century of patience, work, and intelligence; a grace that reaches beyond vanity. We gather together like this, fewer and fewer with every burial. Each of us promising the others that nothing, not the police and not the clergy, will stop him from slipping a bottle of Saint-Etienne into the crate of his last journey, and three drops in the incense, and seven more in the holy water--enough to let him walk toward the other side with a valiant heart and his soul in the right place, and especially with the one absence we all share: Elmira! ... Elmira of the seven splendors and every grace. She's the one I wanted to talk about. Isidore Adélodaine saw her first. He was a kind of simpleton to whom Old Man Simonnet had given a simpleton's chores: taking care of the garden, pruning the plants, hauling the manure, picking up the cane trash, and other insignificant tasks he handled with a seriousness that made him seem almost normal. Isidore was the first to discover the celestial Queen of our rum, not because his taste buds were keener but just because of his greater innocence . Every season, we would gather around the first distillate at 160 proof. Old Man Simonnet was there, wearing his gold watch, but he wasn't alone. There were also the Aubéry-ghosts who had owned the distillery at its origins; they stood milky-white near the wine heater, alongside other béké ancestors who looked like pirates. The shadows of the machines shimmered with all the souls who had worked there before: the ones who'd kept the books in the plantation grocery; the ones who'd cut eternities of sugarcane; the ones who'd bundled it; the ones who'd worn out hand-trucks and carts carrying it; who'd tamed the red brilliance of the forge; who'd made the steam boiler rumble; who'd kept the hydraulic mill running under the fury of the canals; who'd directed the raising of the pulley; the masons; the carpenters; the mechanics; the coopers; the ones who filled the vats and the ones who filled the bottles; the accountants and foremen; the managers and tilbury drivers; the ox-herders and mule-keepers, big blabbermouths on Saturday payday; the drainage-tank workers; the newly arrived koulis , housed across the river, who nobody went to see; the master-distillers who orchestrated the spirit of our rum in the chaudfroid of the coils. All those people! ... The population of Saint-Etienne down through the ages came together like that, around the first droplets pearling in the copper kettle. Even a few souls who didn't belong to the plantation watched the ritual: prisoners under police guard who'd stopped off on our property before being delivered to Saint-Joseph; men and women who drifted in from the four corners of the country, because once in their lives (unforgettable! ...) they had tasted our rum; those who had heard tell of it; those who wanted to know what it was like; the Syrians who'd crisscrossed the commune with their wheelbarrows; the Chinese grocers who'd sold the rum bit by bit in corner stores; the former mayors of Gros-Morne--Thaly, Vautor, Nazair and Maugée--who still maintained their chauvinistic pride.... All those people, all those people coming from the exiles of life.     We didn't find that crowd of zombies especially comforting, but even so we could feel they were benevolent, like the thousand-year-old trees scattered over the fields.     And so: the annual anxiety over the first droplets. Had our rum lost its magic? Had some old Negro medium cast an evil spell on our cane? Had some mishap of sun or earth ruined the splendors of its flavor? Had some bitterness in the column damaged its aftertaste? We tasted it with those fears in our hearts. I said tasted , not guzzled. You put a drop on the palm of your hand, rub it hard, and breathe it in fast to catch the scent of a possible misfortune unawares. Then, eyes closed, you let the second droplet coat your tongue, reach your eyes, then spread the full array of its succulence through your head. That's how we did it. That year, one of my very first, everyone was happy. We cried out, Woulo! The rum had gone beyond good: it careened into those raptures that the master-distillers acknowledge by saying, Yeah Yeah Yeah . Well, Isidore Adélodaine the simpleton, instead of saying Yeah Yeah Yeah , began to murmur, both eyes staring at some creature unseen by the rest of the gathering, even by those who could make out the zombies from the distillery's first century, ghosts who know every gasket, every chain. The simpleton glimpsed something more. Then he saw nothing. Desperate, he begged for just one more drop, and again he saw what he had seen, which appeared to make him happy: not the joys of an unfettered rummy or the psychiatries of buggers-who-see-pink-elephants, but a happiness-glow radiating from within.     Ho, the simpleton was trembling easy!     Suddenly he saw nothing more, and all his weight settled back into his drooling flesh; his gaze became unsteady, blinded by memories. No way to make him tell what he'd seen. He held his secret close like the hiding place of a treasure. He tried to recapture his ecstasy with rum stolen from the warehouse, which he swallowed without periods or commas. Rum demands measure, and measure gives the fullness of taste. A rum punch takes a good six hours to penetrate a soul. Six hours, between the midday punch that wards off the sun's madness and the punch before your evening soup, the commander of your dreams. But he, the simpleton, could no longer wait for that fruitful crossing. From glass to glass he chased after his ephemeral bliss. But what he had seen wouldn't return, and so he overdid it. We found him at the foot of the kapok tree, uprooted by raving rum, howling over the lost vision without which his life was now just dead wood.     I went to see him with two cronies one Sunday. Just before the mass in town so he could reveal to us, on an empty stomach, what the Saint-Etienne had shown him. We were expecting sinister marvels: the bloody path to some Dutch pirate treasure, the whereabouts of a Provençal jar bursting with gold and jewels under a pyramid of bones. We dreaded the prophetic nightmare of a leper or some other dangerous calamity. Using signs (the burden of simpleness had blocked his throat), he told us only that he'd seen someone. Just someone. That that someone was one of those dramatically beautiful matadors who open an unbridgeable gap in your life. The human being is incomplete. I know this: I'm more than one hundred years old and still I'm not fulfilled. You make do as best you can with a few tricks and two or three false passions, but you remain incomplete, unfinished like those barren plum trees yellowing in distress. Faced with that creature, the simpleton had a vision of something that had always been lost to him. He heard his own voice, which he knew nothing about; he became aware of his words, lost in a ditch deep within himself. What happened to him worried us: for a woman to arouse such emotions in that innocent flesh meant she was more than just special. We tried to see her ourselves, without really expecting to. That day we forgot all about mass. In the empty distillery, sitting near the coils, we invoked the Divinity with bowls of punch made from our rum. To take Saint-Etienne in your mouth, follow its detonation inside your cheeks, dream its slow flight throughout your body. Then wait. Our rum had reached wicked heights. We could feel it. We were living it. But we didn't see a thing. Sometimes we devined a volatile presence in the ether of tastes, but still there was no creature.     Suddenly, Paulo Atéthonase began to talk gibberish.     To talk gibberish the way you talk gibberish in the face of the unseeable.     A surplus of life. Something outside reality that leaves you, not terrified, but dependent forevermore. He saw the creature . He spoke to her in words from a language that was not proud. He walked toward her. He wanted to touch her. She seemed to treat him with kindness, gave him a smile, a caress with her eyes, a generous gesture that, in dissipating, left our Paulo like a man abandoned by the Earth itself, waking alone on the burning rock of the Savane des Pétrifications.     We brought him back home. There, we first had to hold him down to keep him from guzzling entire bottles in search of the Young Lady. Shrouded in his blissful memory, he managed to speak of her. I say "speak," but that's not really it. He tried to evoke her. It was a difficult thing. She was a kind of high yellow, but also quadroon, but also mulatress, but also koulie , but also Caribbean, but also Negress, vaguely Chinese and Syrian, a variable beauty, fluid like the ocean lifting its acclamations to the sky. She wore the twisted plaid head scarf of old Saint-Pierre tradition, embellished with a brooch and a pin. A short-sleeved blouse of embroidered white cotton, threaded through with lace and red satin. A full pleated skirt raised over a mocking hip, and an underskirt of velvet or alchemical silk. He saw she was wearing sandals with embroidered uppers and white lisle socks rolled down at the ankles. He saw her bare throat with its necklace of gold beads. He saw her eyes shining like a bois-canon leaf before a rainstorm. Her thick, thick hair billowed from her plaid headdress down to her Creole earrings. And then she smiled. Not some little pucker of earthly sympathy, but an enveloping, magnetic smile, as in the time of the great rains. She was woman, mama, matador, saint, haughty, marvelous, a tabernacle of hungry lives.... That was how Paulo described her, all unglued as he was, following the demands of the far-flung zones of his mind and the wounds life had inflicted on him. We peered around us, trying to see her. Some had another glass of Saint-Etienne right then and there. But they experienced only the ritual pleasure. The girl was capricious. Not at just any moment, and not with just anyone. You had to deserve her, according to rules our lawbooks and our bibles did not recognize. (Continues...) Copyright © 1999 Patrick Chamoiseau.