Narrating the City: Documentary or Fiction in Harrikrisna Anenden's la Cathedrale
Prabhu, Anjali, French Forum
La Cathedrale (1) was released in 2006, though its creation dates back to 1975. It was written by a then unknown teenage girl. The collection in which it appeared in 1976 was to launch Ananda Devi as a writer to be contended with. Today, she is a prolific author and an acknowledged member of the Mauritian intelligentsia, indeed of the Indian Ocean (as categories go). The truth is that Ananda Devi is, arguably, one of the most aesthetically engaged writers of the French language today. Refusal to conform and the will to push the limits of narrative possibilities at the level of genre, sentence, word, and image were already evident in the story written by the young girl. Now the author of works such as Le sari vert or Eve de ses decombres, which have gained critical acclaim, Devi is a sought-after writer well beyond the confines of her "regional" ascription to which the publishing and academic world might still hold strong.
The film version, however, is a strong instantiation of particularity, presenting the capital city of Port-Louis. La Cathedrale was filmed and produced by Devi's husband, Harrikrisna Anenden. While the subject of this essay is the him itself, I will make some references to the textual source material in pursuing further the question of genre. The him is a sensitive documentary of Port-Louis city life as much as, or even more than, it is the story of its protagonist Lina. The capital city is presented in this film as a "[s]ocial space [which] contains a great diversity of objects, both natural and social, including the networks and pathways which facilitate the exchange of material things and information. Such 'objects' are thus not only things but also relations. As objects, they possess discernible peculiarities, contour and form." (2) Lina serves as a figure to trace such relations and her movements give them a particular form that is quite literally tangible in the cinematic medium. Yet, despite such connection to the reality of the city, there remains an implicit quest for an untouched space that might change the course of history. Port-Louis was an important colonial port on the "inner route" for ships rounding the Cape of Good Hope and bound for India or the Indonesian islands. While the spice route had already made this port a halt, it was British and French interest in India and the subcontinent that gave the island its strategic importance in naval history. Port-Louis had a safer harbor than the neighboring island of Reunion offered, and thus it changed hands as a valuable halt for ships on this route. First "discovered" by the Portuguese and officially taken over by the Dutch, Mauritius was French and then claimed by Britain in 1810. This date definitively marked British supremacy on the Indian Ocean and, subsequently, in India. However, the long presence of French administration continued to be felt, with Britain preferring to leave most French systems intact in the ensuing years for the various populations that made up its colony: French, African. Indian, and Chinese.
It is no coincidence that Anenden has made numerous documentaries himself during his long employment with the World Health Organization (WHO). In fact, the film is most satisfying when considered in its subtle interrogation of documentary and fiction rather than as solely the story of Lina who is "in search of her identity," as the jacket description of the DVD informs the would-be spectator. The story is indeed of the young adolescent high-school dropout Lina, who roams the streets of Port-Louis to escape her unhappy home situation with a hypochondriac mother and a father who is engrossed in his work as a cobbler and seems to pay attention to nothing else. At the level of story, then, the film is rather idealistic. Lina is not materialistic, seems dreamy and unrealistic about her future, despises the busy people who forget to "live" and dances on the steps of the cathedral while living off the generosity of …
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Publication information: Article title: Narrating the City: Documentary or Fiction in Harrikrisna Anenden's la Cathedrale. Contributors: Prabhu, Anjali - Author. Journal title: French Forum. Volume: 35. Issue: 2-3 Publication date: Spring-Fall 2010. Page number: 115+. © 2008 University of Nebraska Press. COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale Group.