March 30, 2013
Memorandum on My Martinique: Aimé Césaire

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Just prior to war breaking out, Aimé and Suzanne Césaire abandoned Paris for Martinique and there they became teachers. With him, Césaire brought new copies of his major poetic work, Cahiers d’un retour au pays natal, one of which was soon to end up in André Breton’s keeping when the three met while Breton and his family were interned in Martinique en route to New York City.

What madness in my dream of a marvellous caper
above this baseness!
Yes, the white men are great warriors,
hosannah for the master and the castrator of negroes!
Victory! Victory I tell you; the vanquished are content!
Joyous stench and songs of mud!
By means of an unexpected and beneficial internal
revolution I honor now my uglinesses.

Cahiers d’un retour au pays natal is the key literary element—together with polemical and political elements—in Aimé Césaire’s lifelong anti-colonialist project that led him to become mayor of Fort-de-France and deputy to the French National Assembly. As Milan Kundera puts it in an eloquent essay on Antillean surrealism: “Césaire is doubly a founding figure: two innovations (the political and literary) meet in his one person.”

This epic poem was to occupy Césaire over the next decade and a half as he reworked the text to create at least four major versions from its initial publication in 1939 to what now occupies the disputed role of definitive version, published in 1956. Put crudely, the 1939 Volontés edition is informed by Christian imagery, the 1947 English/French Brentano and French Bardas versions (which differ significantly) are informed by surrealist imagery, and the 1956 Présences Africaines edition replaces some of the surrealism with Cold War rhetoric. As Alex Gill has shown, however, the 1939 core remained stable through each edition though the poem-palimpsest reflected Césaire’s constantly developing interests and loyalties.

Surrounding these versions is a cloud of translations in multiple languages, with three major English versions and a fourth, based on the original 1939 text, to be published at the end of April by Wesleyan University in their ongoing series of surrealism translations.

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The relatively unknown translation published by Éditions Brentano, however, occupies its a unique niche as the first English version of Cahiers. During the war, André Breton in VVV and Yvan Goll in Hemisphères (based in Brooklyn) had worked to raise interest in Césaire’s poetry. It made sense that they would cooperate with Brentano’s, the famous New York bookstores that ran a French imprint during the war and would also publish Breton’s Arcane 17. Together they published the Brentano translation in 1947, with Lionel Abel’s text overseen by Goll.

Goll and Breton had a fraught history: Twenty years earlier, they had battled over use of Apollinaire’s new term “surrealism.” Temporarily they set aside old arguments, and Goll published Breton’s writing in his journal as well as working with him on the translations. This would not last, however, as Brentano’s began to contemplate a French-only version that Breton argued against strongly.

At the end of the dawn, the starveling hill, and nobody knows better than this bastard hill why the suicide abetted by his hypoglossus choked himself by inverting his tongue so as to swallow it; why a woman seems to float on her back in the Capot River (her brilliant and obscure body settles docilely at the command of the navel) but she is only a bundle of sonorous water.

The bilingual version was duly published in 1947 in an edition of 1,000 on high-quality paper which still looks pristine in the copy on hand at New York’s Schomburg Center. No translation of Cahiers—with its mix of registers specialist vocabularies, neologisms, and attentiveness to sounds—will be perfect and this version has its lapses, most notably in translating “négritude.” But the Abel/Goll translation is still a striking work and the only one based on this wartime surrealist version of Cahiers, which itself has never been reprinted. For a sample, check out the opening pages.

Aimé Césaire, however, was not to be known in U.S. for his literary work over the next decade. A wire service piece that ran in The New York Times on November 2, 1948 indicates that it was Césaire’s party allegiance, not his poetic genius, that struck the U.S. media. In a hyperventilating churn of Red paranoia and racism, the article referred to a “Negro lynch mob” that hacked to death a white plantation owner and noted that: “The few thousand whites [on Martinique], however, are frankly afraid of the effect of Red agitation among the 500,000 Negroes.”

Aimé Césaire was singled out as a ring leader:

"The chief West Indian representative at the court of European communism is a Fort de France mulatto laywer, Aimé Césaire, who is one of the Communist members of the Chamber of Deputies. Local boss is the Mayor of Fort de France, 38-year-old Georges Gratian. Couriers arriving regularly from France keep this astute politician and intellectual abreast of world communism’s latest policies.

"The local Communist organ ‘Justice’ faithfully proclaims the Moscow party line, but Red strength at the polls here is based on local Negro goals as interpreted by communism—assimilation, nationalization and education. The program is carried out by classic techniques: tight control of unions, energetic ward politicking and carefully staged violence."

Although the Cuban revolution was a decade off, in 1946 Haiti had gone through a revolution coinciding with a visit and speeches on surrealist liberty by André Breton (whose influence, it seems, was to inadvertently provide moral support). The thought of communists in the United States’ backyard overrode any cultural interests.

English translations of Cahiers d’un retour du pays natal

Memorandum on My Martinique, translated by Lionel Abel and Yvon Goll, (Brentano, 1947)

Return to My Native Land, translated by John Berger and Anna Bostock (Penguin, 1969)

Return to My Native Land, translated by Emile Snyder (Présences Africaines, 1968)

Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, translated by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith (Wesleyan University Press, 2001)

The Original 1939 Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, translated and edited by A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman (Wesleyan University Press, 2013)

Sources

Bridging the Middle Passage: The textual (r)evolution of Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal" by Alex Gill in Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, March 2011.

Encounter: Essays, by Milan Kundera (Harper Perennial, 2011), quoted from p. 85

History of the Surrealist Movement, by Georges Durozoi (University of Chicago, 2004)

A Politics of Neologism:Aimé Césaire” in The Predicament of Culture by James Clifford (Harvard University Press, 1988)

Uprising Feared in French Indies,” The New York Times, November 2, 1948

Photograph of Aimé Césaire from VVV, #4, 1944

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