The third in the Mauritian cycle after Le Chercheur d’or* and La Quarantaine*, the novel Revolutions (2003) encapsulates many of the central features of Le Clézio’s writing. As a polyphonic text covering whole centuries and continents, it calls into play an immense variety of narrative voices, of interwoven stories and of modes of narration: letters, ships’ logs, personal stories, diaries and official reports. Le Clézio’s writing is characterized by the use of ordinary language, illuminated at intervals by passages of a more literary nature.
In a novel divided into seven parts, the quest of the principal protagonist, Jean Marro, an adolescent during the Algerian War, intersects with the epic account of his ancestor, Jean Eudes Marro, a soldier in the French Revolutionary Army. The two trajectories are structured around the motifs of a journey and of departure. Jean Marro, the fictional double of the author, is presented from the outset as a solitary being, suffocating within his family and within the claustrophobic atmosphere of Nice. As a child, he visits his Aunt Catherine whose oral accounts of her childhood at Rozilis nourish his dreams of travel and trigger a quest for his lost roots. At the age of sixteen, he is awakened to historic reality, to the violence of the Algerian War, to racism and to sexuality. It is during this period that he discovers pre-Socratic thought and this will mark an important stage in his quest for identity.
In this search for reality and for a promised land and in flight from an Algerian War in which he is not directly involved, Jean leaves France to study medicine in London. Here he encounters a xenophobic population engulfed in violent conflicts between the different communities. In the Elephant and Castle district, he comes up against the extreme poverty of the lives of the immigrants. Keen on widening this exploration of the real, he settles in Mexico in 1968, the year of the student revolution. Here he discovers Amerindian thought and is alerted to the cultural and economic oppression suffered by the indigenous population. After the brutal attack by the police on the students at Tatlelolco, he leaves Mexico. His final journey with his wife, Mariam, takes him to the island of Mauritius where he visits the sites of his ancestors and uncovers the secret of Rozilis and of his origins. The clausula suggests the departure of the couple for another territory and the promise of a child.
This journey of discovery by Jean Marro alternates with the embedded narrative of Jean Eudes Marro. At the age of eighteen, the narrator enlists as a volunteer in the Breton regiment and, after taking part in the Battle of Valmy, he returns to Brittany to find the region plunged in dire poverty and in the grip of terror. Disillusioned with the revolutionary cause, Jean Eudes embarks in 1798 for the Isle de France in the hope of beginning a new life. Confronted with a racist society where the slaves are reduced to the state of animals, he leaves the capital Port-Louis in 1824 to settle in the interior of the island where he establishes the plantation of Rozilis, a kind of solitary retreat governed by the ideals of the French Revolution. The second story entitled “Kilwa”, in which the slave Kiambé recounts her initial rape in Mozambique, her voyage to Mauritius, her bondage, her period as a fugitive, and finally her emancipation is a very concrete illustration of the horrors of the slave system against which Jean Eudes Marro is fighting and whose own account is inspired by the true story of Le Clézio’s ancestor, François-Alexis Le Clézio.
The vision of history: the echo structure
The interweaving of the two narrative threads calls for a paradigmatic reading whereby each fictional plane finds its echo at another level of discourse (Cavallero, Salles, 2006). The reader is struck by the ceaseless repetition of the same images, the same narrative configurations, and by a composition that recalls Maurice Ravel’s Boléro, a work to which the text refers (415). For instance, a parallel can be established between the Algerian War and the French Revolution, between the conflicts associated with decolonization in the twentieth century and the colonial conquests of the eighteenth century, between the student revolutions of May 1968 in France and of October 68 in Mexico, and between the latter and the massacre of the Indians by the conquistadors at Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco. The notebook in which Jean Marro records the press reports on the Algerian War can also be compared with Jean Eudes’ nautical diary where he describes the movements of the ships in the Indian Ocean, witnesses to the turbulent history of the region. And it is poverty, cultural oppression and slavery that characterize both the colonized population of the past and the migrant populations of modern states. In the same way, similarities emerge at the level of the trajectories of the characters in their struggle against injustice and nationalism and in their quest for their multiple roots.
This echo effect, the persistence of violence and of racism across the centuries, suggest not only a denunciation of European colonialism but also a calling into question of the very concept of historical progress linked to a forgetting of the past. The historical anchorage of the two dominant narrative threads, the importance accorded the victims of history, can be regarded as a critique of European ideologies based on the notion of national identity or a single root and on the rejection of cultural difference. The narrator attacks the abstract language that underpins these ideologies favouring the non-dualistic approaches characteristic of pre-Socratic and Amerindian thought. Rejection of the Other is associated with the pursuit of purely conceptual values, with the separation of language and lived reality. For example, the text condemns the egocentricity and xenophobia of the students preparing the baccalauréat in philosophy (141-142), (151-52). For Jean Marro, on the other hand, language is a material force, a bond that links him to the world and to the cosmos (201-202).
Through the embodiment in concrete situations of the notion of “métissage” (mixing of cultures) and that of interculturality, the author draws attention to what brings together different individuals and different cultures. Several critics have examined the relationship between this novel and the thought of Édouard Glissant in a development of the concepts of rhizomatic identity, of Relation and of creolisation (Salles, Martin, Van Der Drift).
The quest for origins; a narrative of initiation
As Bruno Thibault has pointed out, Jean Marro’s quest for identity can be regarded as a journey of initiation whose goal is to relive the experiences of his ancestor: at the end of the text, the protagonist returns to the land of his ancestors and merges with the figures of Jean Eudes and of Aunt Catherine. The island thus becomes the scene of the discovery of his plural roots. It is a cyclical structure that foregrounds the initiatory function of pre-Socratic thought evoked in the quote from Parmenides: «“and for me, it’s all the same, where I begin. Because there I will return” (100; 526).
This identification with his ancestors is presented as a return to the space of origins, a regressus ad uterum, symbolized by the act of diving into the pond (544), followed by a symbolic birth. The same journey of return and of renewal characterizes the act of sexual union, presented as an experience of absolute freedom (5227). But, as Marina Salles and Claude Cavallero have pointed out, Revolutions, like many of Le Clézio’s novels, has an open ending: for Jean and Mariam, the journey deep into the past is not the expression of nostalgia, but a necessary detour providing a fresh impetus, the point of departure of a never-ending journey towards the real and towards oneself.
The themes of intergenerational memory and of transmission of cultural heritage are embodied in the figure of Aunt Catherine, presented as “the last witness, the memory of Rozilis” (107). It is Jean whom she has chosen as the repository of her memory, his task is to reenact the story of his ancestors. Transmission is linked to the theme of metempsychosis, to that of the revolution or transmigration of the soul: “It is he who is in you, who has returned to live in you, in your life, in your thoughts. He speaks in you” (54-54). Paradoxically, it is the memory of the body that collapses the frontiers between past and present, between self and the material world and that, whilst associated with the space of origins, is also a creative, performative force, orientated towards the future.
The struggle against forgetfulness becomes a central theme of the book : Aunt Catherine’s stories, linked together in a spiral structure, are repeated in cycles: when her memory fades, it is Jean who takes over the role of storyteller. One might also note the central role played by the transmission of intergenerational memory in the story of Kiambé.
At the structural level, the interweaving of narratives, the network of multiple memories highlights the importance of the memory of the Other in the quest for identity and in resistance to injustice. The unfolding of the narrative trajectories of the protagonists illustrates the key role played by cultural heritage and the memory of text, oral or written, in this struggle against forgetfulness and in the quest for a better world.
Translation: Bronwen Martin
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