Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Cajou's Reason: Michele Lacrosil and Post-War Intellectual Liberalism

Academic journal article The Romanic Review

Cajou's Reason: Michele Lacrosil and Post-War Intellectual Liberalism

Article excerpt

Les choses que l'on tait sont-elles moins pernicieuses? Michele Lacrosil, Cajou

Cajou, the eponymous heroine of Michele Lacrosil's second novel, to represent the very embodiment of racism. In her eyes the world is strictly divided along color lines, between a superior white race and an inferior black one. The child of an interracial marriage, Cajou inevitably turns this vision of the world upon herself, convinced she is doomed to failure because of her black ancestry. Lacrosil published Cajou in 1961, thus introducing the self-hating heroine to her public against the backdrop of an ever more visible rise to power in the former French colonies of Africa. It is not surprising that the work was subject to a considerable amount of criticism in this context, and indeed the extent of Cajou's self-degradation is such that it may be tempting to join contemporary readers, as well as subsequent critics, in characterizing the novel as the portrait of a madwoman. But to do so would be to risk being simplistic or even dismissive, and would obscure an important component of Lacrosil's narrative: that its formal composition as a series of first-person journal entries articulates not only a tortured investigation of the self, but a penetrating look outward at the society that surrounds Cajou. Closer examination of this critical undercurrent suggests that Cajou's acquaintances and colleagues label her discourse as neurotic not only because it is racist but more importantly because it exposes fundamental problems in their own discourse of social equality. Through this tragic heroine Lacrosil mounts a subtle and unexpected critique of the paradoxes that underlie certain strains of self-proclaimed liberalism in post-war Paris, and suggests further that Cajou's condition may in fact be symptomatic of her contemporary experience of negritude.

Michele Lacrosil published only three novels before effectively disappearing from public view at the end of the 1960s, but her brief oeuvre reveals a writer intent on exposing the painful realities of race relations in her native Guadeloupe and in metropolitan France. Her unwavering gaze on the damaging effects of colonialism is most distinctive in its portrayal of the individual subject, alienated and eventually destroyed by contemporary social conditions. In her first novel, Sapotille et le serin d'argile (1960), the young heroine recalls a series of traumatic encounters with the French colonial system during her school days and early adulthood in Guadeloupe. Most striking of these are repeated efforts to exclude and belittle her as one of only a few black students in an elite boarding school run by nuns. Sapotille chronicles these experiences while on board a ship bound for the metropole, thus laying the groundwork for the incisive look at Parisian society engaged in Cajou. In Demain Jab-Herma (1967), Lacrosil shifts from the introspective journal format of her first two novels to a third-person narrative. Here the focus is no longer the female self but a complex network of political and economic struggles amongst a group of men at a sugar factory in Guadeloupe. Threaded through this panoramic narrative, however, is the secondary but no less devastating portrait of the self-hating mulatto Cragget, whose sense of inferiority ultimately destroys him. Like Cajou's, his story plays out thematically the consequences of the formative experiences traced in Lacrosil's first novel, and points to the same tragic conclusion. Training her eye in turn on the educational system in Guadeloupe, metropolitan intellectual circles, and the complexities of an island economy, Lacrosil thus reiterates her call to attention to the destructive internalization of racism as one of the most lasting and urgent legacies of French colonialism.

Calou is certainly the most dramatic and sustained of these portraits, and as such has also received the most stringent criticism. Cajou is read primarily as a post-war Mayotte Capecia, as someone who fits a little too closely Fanon's by now infamous profile of the self-hating black woman attempting to erase her race through a relationship with a white man. …

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