Édouard Glissant (1928-2011) was a Martinican poet, essayist, and novelist who is recognized as one of the most important writers and thinkers in the French and Francophone world. Translator Betsy Wing’s previous translations include Glissant’s The Fourth Century (Bison Books, 2001), The Overseer’s Cabin (Bison Books, 2011), Poetics of Relation, and Black Salt, among the works of many other writers.
Glissant’s newly translated book is Mahagony: A Novel (Nebraska, 2021), which was recently listed in the New York Times under Globetrotting and New & Noteworthy. Below is an excerpt of a chapter from Mathieu’s perspective.
Trees that live a long time exude mystery and magic. As if they were creating strong potions of happiness and calamity in their ripe old age, stirring together heaven and animal nature, and using these mixtures to control us and come to our aid. An herb’s magic is perishable; a potion made from it can only work on bodies, be useful for love or for doing harm to others. But a tree, though more reserved in how it serves, makes understanding possible for us. Because a tree slowly reads the forest out to us, letter by letter, multiplying everywhere its depths.
A tree is an entire country, and if we ask which country, we plunge immediately into the ineradicable darkness of time where we struggle to clear our way painfully through branches that hurt and scar our arms and legs indelibly.
So for a long time I confused mahogany and ebony trees, because I’d first encountered them as furniture or blocks of wood, made indistinguishable from each other by being squared off or worn by time. Had I no idea that one of them was what we knew as the acajou? We don’t see trees until we have situated them in their history, until they have spoken to us in our language. An old tree’s very being is hidden from us as long as we have never tried to walk around it, starting again with some bit of bark to reconstitute the entire timber aloft. Which is what I will try to do here.
We are confused by smell as well. Right at the spot where you leave the town called Lambrianne by one chronicler, though I know its name is Le Lamentin, which was highlighted in the old days by the stench of its sugarcane factories, now a town caught in a tangle of roads, housing developments, an airport’s commotion and the nostalgic effluvia of a sugar mill’s closing, right where you took the path up to Pays-M êlés there stood a silk cotton tree. This giant thrusts its roots out of the earth forcefully in spiraling, vertiginous curves. It bursts out as wildly as do our stubborn memories. It has the musty smell of thorns and of breadfruit which is too green, the fragrance that I recall as a mixture of acacia, acajou and mahogany.
The smell of time disturbs us. Each gust of wind strikes us with its braided fabric— we can’t tell one whipping from another. Just as for years on end, differentiating the mahogany, essential to this story, from the three ebony trees marking the boundary of the story’s drama, was of no interest to me.
The young man I was then didn’t connect the elements produced together in that sort of place. That is, he saw no need for them to be put into words. Possibly, at that time I knew the official names and perhaps the given names or, more likely the local nicknames of a few cane cutters around there, one or two ladies who kept shop or worked together sewing linens, some farrier charged with caring for the mules. But the confused lineages of the Longoués or Béluses, the Targins or Celats didn’t matter to me yet; I hadn’t yet plunged into that maelstrom. I didn’t see what was the same and what separated times and generations in the stories hurtling down through time, dates, regroupings— whole families veering off into different patronymics—t he places with names each one wilder than the next: La Touffaille, a clump fixed in its dry season, Barbès le Mouchoir and its sooty rum bars— I didn’t distinguish solitary actions destined for derision from communal actions soon sunk in denial, the ringing tones of everything that, sometimes in sheer exhaustion and sometimes in fierce daydreams had given nuance to the air surrounding the leaves and branches, had split the wood of the huts, dulled the hills. To say nothing of the fact that the nuance was simply because the air here had a taste of cane syrup, emanating, no doubt, from an occasional burst cauldron in some nearby sugar factory tucked between a gully for mules and a field of para grass for the bulls and heifers. Even during that period of famine there were habitations where bulls and heifers were being fed and where the almost green milk flowed from under the cows in sticky streaks on grass that looked blue.
I knew already that the ebony trees had hidden under a cover of moss the chipped blade that Anne Béluse found again without looking for it, the one he used to accompany the shouts of Liberté Longoué, whose wild passion stopped there in a curtain of rain. But occasionally I would come back to the mahogany in thought; it too had a place in my imagination. Yet there was a growing heat rising from the past that was no illusion; it was as if its still lively atoms, rubbing against each other, created an outrageous hullabaloo. Then I would cling to that one tree, using the beautiful, obvious fact of it to escape. I would return to the chronicler’s text only to end up in my original suffering and chaos once again, as if I too were spinning inside the space surrounded by the ebony trees.