Raga is a travel story, a collection of tales and legends, a synthesis of historical and anthropological studies, a book of testimonies and a political essay. It is part of the collection directed by Édouard Glissant devoited to “texts by writers who set out to meet people who were only accessible by water. “ The book begins with an invitation to consider the relationship between the explorers, the colonizers, and the people of the Pacific, in particular, those from the Pentecost Islands (now part of the Vanuatu Republic). The narrator explains that the island is called Raga emphasizing from the outset the complexity and linguistic autonomy of the place he is writing about.
A book on Nearness
The narrator of Raga is a visitor who learns, or re-learns, how to discover a new place. Dominique Fisher points out the narrator’s awareness of his limits as a new kind of travel writer, as a “passeur of culture”. His way of approaching Raga, his stance as a visitor, comes up against the limitations of exteriority (Fisher, 2015, 208). It’s important to remember that prior visits weren’t so benign. With the exception of the arrival of the first inhabitants who respected and called upon the island’s spirits, those who followed came with other intentions: to exploit and to destroy. It was the explorers, pirates, slave traffickers, missionaries, colonizers, anthropologists, pedophiles and tourists: all who had shaped a violent and indefensible model that would provoke distrust and suspicion that would in turn confront the narrator and invite him to examine his conscience. What to do ?
Raga, the garden
As the narrative voice passes from the narrator to his interlocutors in the indigenous communities, their vision rises to the surface of the text through stories, tales, legends, and crafts whose meaning is three-fold: economic, cultural and spiritual. The narrator, himself, begins to interpret the pervading signs based on what he recognizes and what he is learning. For example, he notices the garden economy that has gone to waste, which only reaffirms the plantation economy formerly imposed by the colonizers: “Today, Raga is a garden. People who arrive here by sea or air could believe they have found a primitive island, a sort of lost paradise untouched by Man. They cannot see any fields, and the coconut plantations along the coast are but relics of colonization” (R, 68). However, this first impression lacks the enrichment that comes only through observation. Observing the Islanders' economic life that is run by entrepreneurial activist such as Charlotte Wèi Matansué, and other women, who revived the craft of mat making, a craft whose artistic value was publically recognized at the Louvre during Le Clézio's residency in 2011. Observing the systematic depopulation in the New Hebrides (the colonial name for Vanuatu) that went from one million in 1800 to forty-five thousand in 1935 (R, 47). Observing the devastating effect of the blackbirds, the pirates responsible for slave trafficking and supplying a source of manual labor from the islands for cotton plantations in Australia and mines in New Caledonia (R, 50). The image of a lost paradise loses its tourist-brochure shine while not dismissing the spiritual and political meaning of Raga as a garden, a significance that isn't necessarily hidden but merely unnoticed, cultivated between the cracks of genocidal, colonial history.
If Le Clézio choses to dedicate a chapter to “The art of resistance”, it is because he knows the extent to which “the recent history of Vanuatu had been caricatured” (R, 105). To oppose this caricature, he sketches a multi-faceted portrait of resistance to everything that would cause the islands to sink into death and oblivion. For the author, the volcanic origin of the islands suggests “something new, precarious, imaginative” (R, 95) that imbues the inhabitants’ minds. While the volcanos created the islands, they are also the force that can sometimes swallow up its people in the ocean. Thus, the inhabitants learned how to marry their creativity to the precariousness of living on the edge of an abyss. One can resist the potential of disappearing by setting up, for example, stone statues that unite the memory of those lost to a spiritual survival, a voice that resists the cracks of time and those of the earth itself. If we consider that most of these edifices were exiled to European museums (R, 97), then it becomes clear that their silence was not self-imposed. Such silence becomes the very fabric of their arts, crafts, and daily life. A case in point is the tragic death of a woman whose husband consequently becomes mad, a narrative that becomes the fabric of Raga’s women’s resistance against forgetfulness as they weave their mats and choose a design that would symbolize their mythical love (R, 103). According to Isabelle Roussel-Gillet, Raga’s mythical dimension “affirms a collective and spiritual dimension thus creating a communal bond” (Roussel-Gillet, 2011, 120).
Although their resistance is diverse and involved, it is consequential. Throughout history, movements of revolt, brutally repressed, and creating creole languages like Bislama (the official language of Vanuatu), edifies “the ultimate, desperate, act of those who saw themselves condemned to servitude and extinction” (R, 107). After having outlined the history of political revolution and the process of ideas on sensationalism and consumption, the visitor comes back to a personal experience. During a visit to the village of Palimsi, he happened upon a young girl’s baptism (R, 114). Why include this event at the end of a chapter about resistance? In the eyes of the narrator, this ceremony signifies a free, collective act: “For a brief moment, the Palimsi River was the Jordan River - despite the distance in time, despite the weight of centuries, despite the wearing away of thought, and everything becomessimple and new.” (R, 116). The community affirms its right to choose their forms of resistance and their renewal.
The Travel Story as a Critique
Translation: Martha van der Drift
Translations of quotes in English from Raga are those of Martha van der Drift
BOUNOURE, Gilles, « Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, Raga : approche du continent invisible », Le Journal de la Société des Océanistes, 125, 2007, p. 336-338 ; FISHER, Dominique, « Raga, (en)vers (d’)une politique de l’approche », Contemporary French and Francophone Studies, 19.2, 2015, p. 205-214 ; LE CLÉZIO, J.M.G. Raga : approche du continent invisible, Paris, Seuil, 2006 ; RASSON, Luc et Bruno TRITSMANS, « Écritures du rivage : mythes, idéologies, jeux », L’Esprit Créateur, 51.2, 2011, p. 1-3 ; REY MIMOSO-RUIZ, Bernadette, « Les îles lecléziennes : mémoire et initiation », Carnets : Revue électronique des études françaises de l’APEF, 3, 2015 ; RIDON, Jean-Xavier, « L’île perdue : entre invisibilité et nostalgie » in Le Clézio : passeur des arts et des cultures, sous la direction de Thierry Léger, Isabelle Roussel-Gillet et Marina Salles, Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2010, p. 75-91; ROUSSEL-GILLET, Isabelle, J.M.G. Le Clézio : écrivain de l’incertitude, Paris, Ellipses, 2011.