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The Great Camouflage: Writings of Dissent (1941-1945) by Suzanne Césaire

by Daniel Maximin, Editor; Keith L. Walker, Translator
Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 2012
104 pp., illus. 3 b/w.  Trade, $60.00; paper, $18.95
ISBN: 978-0-8195-7088-8; ISBN: 978-0-8195-7275-2.

Reviewed by Allan Graubard

In Martinique from 1941-1945 a very small and marginalized group of poets and intellectuals banded together to produce a journal that will have lasting influence not only on the island, its culture, and its politics but also on the development of a broader movement for racial equality in Africa, the United States, and elsewhere. In the pages of this journal, Tropiques, Negritude, in its initial evolution, joins with surrealism, and a forceful new chapter in sensibility appears. Its principal animators are Aimé Césaire, his wife, Suzanne Césaire, René Ménil, and George Gratient.

For those interested in Francophone history in the Caribbean, Aimé Césaire and René Ménil are touchstones. Less known, but now finally published as they were for Tropiques, are Suanne’s Césaire’s seven essays. Nearly 70 years after they appear in the journal, they are translated into English for a slim volume that speaks of her and her time. How these essays speak to us and to our time is something to consider.  And readers of the volume can do just that. At the very least, the synthetic activity of critique grounded in a poetic perception of independence and community, or of a convulsive poetry framed by such critique, will enliven us; we who seek similar values despite their “virtual” presence.

Similarly, the title of the volume, the same from a major essay of Mme. Césaire’s, also holds up a mirror. For her, the “great camouflage” is simply the way things were in Martinique. A society come from slavery that held the ideals of freedom promulgated by the French Revolution close to its heart still finds itself coerced, controlled and distorted by colonialism, racial indignities, political backwardness, self-deception, and, as Keith Walker, the translator, notes in his introduction, “inauthenticity, bad faith, psychological and affective aberration, and cultural zombification.” Of the French language yet not accepted by France on equal terms, the island and its culture evolved as a possession, finally of the Vichy government during those war years; a government reviled and on the run post-WWII for its collaboration with Fascism.

For the Césaires, Aimé and Suzanne, and their friends, with the first issue of Tropiques there is no going back to the way things were and, in the larger scheme of events and interpretations, little possibility of accepting anything less than what their desires portend in the various ways that they can realize them––in their living, their sensibility, their literature and their politics.  No longer is it possible to support, however passively, or even more simply to endure their colonial status quo, with the greater world convulsed by war, and their tropical island infected by its repercussions.

Their fortuitous meeting with André Breton, André Masson, and Wilfrado Lam in 1941 – the first two in exile from France, the latter returning from France to his Cuban homeland -- comes both as a mutual recognition in this light and as a means to enjoin their projects with allies, which includes Jean-Paul Sartre somewhat later on.

In this mix is Suzanne Césaire, wife, mother, teacher, intellectual, writer whose keen intelligence, honesty, confrontational fervor, and facility with metaphor, a principal means to evade censorship, is telling; at least until the journal is suppressed in 1943 for having surpassed the bounds of acceptability as a “cultural” organ, but yet continues on.

This volume, thus, serves a real purpose beyond its engagement with a relative lacuna in Francophone scholarship. That Suzanne Césaire is eclipsed thereafter by the emergence of her husband as a major poet and politician – Aimé Césaire being elected mayor of Fort de France in 1945, a position he holds for 56 years – leaves her in shadow until her death in 1966, a mere 50 years of age.

What she could have accomplished as a writer we will never know. That we have these seven essays – from her use of the German ethnologist Frobenius’ study of Africa and her view of  André Breton, to her critique of Martinique poetry, her acclaim of surrealism in 1943, and her defenestration of the “camouflage” that characterized the place she comes from -- is enough to draw us to her.

We should also remember this, when considering Suzanne Césaire, Tropiques, and those she held close:  Their world is not our world. The possibility of rebellion in the name of a poetic has become a cliché, something we expect from culture, something just a bit too easy. It wasn’t for them. Critique, which they sought to build from several perspectives as a kind of provocation at least equal to their constraints, is now reserved for academics, a few critics, and their readers, or appears at large and vanishes with little lasting effect. The alienation and devaluation she found then as impermissible and struggled against has certainly changed, and while uniquely present for us has also gained from technology a bearable, even entertaining projection. We are less free, more overworked, and consistently preyed upon by a composite of factors we have some but never enough control over.

Unlike Suzanne Césaire, however, we find it difficult to counterpose the pressures of the quotidian with even a metaphorical horizon that is something more than the compromises we make, compromises we expect others to make as a matter of course and which inevitably saps our eccentricities and our passions, however intensive or diffuse they may be.

As Suzanne Césaire well knew, power sustains by camouflage and mimicry when it has little need of direct force. It absorbs what opposes it the better to compel from that opposition the nourishment it needs. And freedom, this grand category that we have all too much lost the scent of, as a collective project and a subjective necessity, in all its concreteness, was yet her driving force. Lucky we are that she portrayed it well enough in these essays now available to us.

The volume closes with tributes to, and discussion about, Suzanne Césaire by André Breton and André Masson (drawn from their book Snake Charmer), Réne Ménil, Daniel Maximin (a writer associated with the publishing house Présence Africaine), Aimé Césaire, and her daughter Ina Césaire.

Last Updated 1 December 2013

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