Patrick Chamoiseau's ''Texaco'' is a novel made of stories unrecorded in any history book, for they are stories ''beneath history,'' telling of love, sex, work, murder and political action among the black slaves of Martinique and their descendants. Both true and fabulous, the stories constitute a personal and communal record of black experience on the island from the early days of slavery through its abolition and beyond -- a record more real than ''history,'' which is a formal, impersonal narrative.
The central story in ''Texaco,'' about the life of Marie-Sophie Laborieux and her papa, a man named Esternome, is told in more than one voice but mainly by Marie-Sophie, a 20th-century woman who vividly remembers her ancestral origins. Her tales are written down with ''shameful anxiety'' by Mr. Chamoiseau, himself of black Martinican heritage, who is called Oiseau de Cham in the novel. He is desperately concerned not to betray the life he is seeking to preserve.
Written words -- diaries, letters, notebooks -- are regularly quoted, but Marie-Sophie's living word is the heart of the novel. And it is she who raises the book's central thematic preoccupation, which is language. Early on, she describes her schoolteacher as ''a negro blackman transfigured into a mulatto, transcended to the white through the incredible power of that beautiful language from France.'' This is a magical phenomenon that Marie-Sophie sometimes considers contemptible, sometimes ravishingly wonderful.
The novel returns obsessively to the power, beauty, frustrations and extreme political importance of language -- specifically the French language, and its relation not only to racial identity but to what the translators refer to as ''Mulatto French'' and ''Creole French.'' Rose-Myriam Rejouis and Val Vinokurov's translation into English of such a complex original is brilliant in its musical integrity and imagistic precision. It is also faithful to the novel's exuberant, unrestrained excess. Mr. Chamoiseau bewails the impossibility of capturing the word that is the life, yet one feels he has left nothing out of ''Texaco,'' neither history nor History. In his comprehensiveness and his allegiance to the sweep of experience, his model is Montaigne.
Marie-Sophie's story begins in the present day with an act of violence: ''Upon his entrance into Texaco, the Christ was hit by a stone.'' Texaco is an ''insalubrious'' shantytown named for a nearby oil refinery, and the so-called Christ is a city planner who has come to bulldoze this slum in the name of progress. Not surprisingly, he is perceived by the people he encounters as ''one of the riders of our apocalypse, the angel of destruction of the modernizing city council.'' After he is set upon and stoned, he is carried to Marie-Sophie, an aged matadora -- a woman of authority in the community, an ''ancestor and founder of this Quarter.'' When he explains his mission to her, she realizes that she must ''wage . . . the decisive battle for Texaco's survival,'' and that her word is her ''only weapon.'' Plying him with rum, she begins to tell her stories: about her carpenter father and her blind mother; about her life after their deaths, living with families for whom she must work to pay her keep. She also tells how, enthralled by music, she was seduced by one musician and raped by another. She tells how she learned to read and to love books, how she became a founder of Texaco.
The city-planner Christ is meant, one imagines, to be seen initially as the god of suffering, annihilating local customs and beliefs in exchange for abstract redemption. In his words, he would ''rationalize space, and conquer the pockets of insalubrity.'' But Marie-Sophie reminds him that the values and poetry of her people are the very fiber of their community; this legacy must not be sacrificed to bulldozers and sterile housing projects. Although the Christ is eventually converted by her arguments, this figure of salvation is still a profoundly ambivalent one. Thus he mirrors the relationship between Christian France and the multiracial, multilingual descendants of black slaves, who have fashioned a sizable part of their identity out of the manner, traits and blood of their oppressors.
The metaphysical nightmare of inauthentic identity haunts the novel; indeed, it is embodied in Mr. Chamoiseau's own phrases, as he makes a European language speak for these Afro-Caribbean souls. In one of his epigraphs, he says that ''literature in a place that breathes is to be taken in alive.'' The irony here is of the most bitter kind, for it suggests the dangers of literary or cultural enslavement on the part of those who were once physically enslaved. But ''Texaco'' is no less African than European, a distinction that is not easy to discern.
Picasso bends visual forms the way Billie Holiday bends a note, and what they have in common can be traced to African artistic invention. But the way in which Africa qualifies Mr. Chamoiseau's European language involves a different kind of syncretism. When he describes a necromancer, whom he calls a Mentoh, he says that such beings ''lived among humans without any noise or smell, in invisible ways.'' Notice that they are not simply invisible: they are invisible in ''ways.'' This notion is unnerving, since it means that you don't necessarily ''see'' the Mentohs, even if they are physically present. In other words, Mr. Chamoiseau's reader must accept the terms of an occult duality that is drawn from Africa yet depicted in European language.
The idea becomes clearer and more concrete even as it becomes more complex. Marie-Sophie says that her grandfather, a slave, could be in two places at once -- at work and with his lover. The overseer never noticed her grandfather's absence. He had invisible ways. The implication, at the deepest level, is that all slaves and their descendants are in some sense Mentohs:
''It's still difficult,'' Marie-Sophie tells us, ''to imagine the slave Power on a plantation . . . the Power waking by a bell, going to bed at the designated time, receiving the Sunday morning Mass and free Sunday afternoons in order to roll the ka-drum, dance like snakes, eat up salt cod in a stale peppery oil. To this my Esternome replied that a Mentoh never was a slave. You could, Marie-Sophie, wear chains on your feet but imagine good game flying over your head. . . . Free in the midst of misfortune, Papa continued murmuring (in a tone so strange it seemed he couldn't believe it himself), the Mentoh preserved what remained of our humanity. He was the fuel for a fight without heroes and whose heat can only be measured today by the cruelties conceived by the bekes in order to cripple it.''
Mr. Chamoiseau is, I believe, suggesting that the difference between the African and European worldview is in the relation of experience to abstraction, the African relation being experientially richer. John Storm Roberts puts it in a slightly different context in his book ''Black Music of Two Worlds.'' The Swahili language, he points out, ''has no indigenous word for music'' because ''the idea of 'music' has never been abstracted from the things to which it belongs'' -- which are everything that is essentially human. In a similar fashion, Mr. Chamoiseau's novel would write life, the music of his people's being.
Consider, for example, this description of a plantation's great house:
''The Big Hutch rose in the center of the outbuildings, sheds and straw huts. From it poured the fields, gardens, the coffee-sown lands climbing the slope of trees (with precious wood). It dominated the whole, seemed to inhale all. The oxen's exhaustion, the slaves' despair, the cane's beauty, the mills' soft hiss, this mud, these smells, the rotten bagasse existed in order to feed its magnificent airs of power. The men, catching sight of it from every nook and cranny of work, acquired the furtive looks that we would come to have at the Cities or their cathedrals. The manager and the chiefs walked with increasing nobility upon approaching its steps, their injurious throats became oily smooth, and they took their hats off under the porch. The Beke himself didn't get so much respect. In the fields, cut out of the distant facade, his silhouette seemed frail or feeble -- but, by the Big Hutch, on its doorstep, he was invincible.''
The mixed metaphor -- ''poured the fields,'' ''climbing,'' ''seemed to inhale all'' -- is the communal apprehension of the place. To apply the logical consistency of European conventions to this description would enforce a kind of detachment, a degree of abstraction from an edifice that is at once creative and consuming. It would make the place more written than lived. The Big Hutch shapes people's gestures, feelings and perceptions. It lives. And so it isn't the property of mere writing or of an author independent of a community.
Mr. Chamoiseau's description is at once grand, banal and delicately ironical. He knows how he sounds: doubleness plays in his voice, and his comedy mixes contempt and pathos, vital pleasure and tragic vision. Celebrated in Europe (particularly in France, where ''Texaco'' was awarded the Prix Goncourt in 1992), he has been compared to modern masters like Joyce and Kafka, as well as Salman Rushdie and V. S. Naipaul, but his prose is more accurately described as Rabelaisian: erudite, vulgar, stupendously energetic. Yet the story is driven by an African beat, its syncopation measured like the percussive claves of its music. Just as you hear his sentences, you must hear the whole book; the differing intensities in the flow of its story, its ''nonlinear'' history, add complexity to the melodic line.
''My papa Esternome hadn't done school,'' Marie-Sophie declares at the end of one section. ''In his pumpkin he only had carpentry methods at his disposal and nothing of the 50 dozen pages of the dictionary useful to make a sketch of what happened.'' At the beginning of the next section, however, the text flows backward, echoing an earlier description of sexual ecstasy in a country hut: ''Probably because it resembled her night job too closely, Oselia did this to him only once.'' Because she was sleepy in the afternoon, the only time she was available to Esternome, she gave herself passively, leaving him ''disheartened,'' producing ''a languor more terrible than a broken heart.'' The melody then flows forward. Esternome ''dissipated'' his sorrow drinking in taverns, and ''sunk into the dark voluptuous turmoil of wanderings.''
Now, as moment follows moment, Mr. Chamoiseau tells about the mulattoes and freed slaves in St.-Pierre, called simply ''City,'' among whom Esternome wandered. Many had fled the plantations, and some were ''forever coming back from a wonderful stay in the sweet land of France where the slave creature was becoming human again. A weak-hearted beke had taken them there. In the ports of Nantes, of Le Havre or Bordeaux, they had been able to learn strange know-hows (wig making, silversmithing, clockmaking), acquired some feel for accounting, unraveled the skeins of law, reading and writing. Sometimes they became lawyers or got positions wearing top hats.'' Without conventional transitions, with only the melodic flow, Esternome wanders out of sight of the narrative, vanishes into the turmoil of the city.
Later, when the slaves are freed, Marie-Sophie records in her notebook that ''in Creole we know how to say slavery, or the chains or the whip, but none of our words or our riddles can say Abolition. Do you know why, huh?'' The former slaves can't say it or think it because freedom hasn't been their experience, and what ''abolition'' means to those who have the word isn't what it means to those who have suffered in its absence. Having heard of ''freedom,'' the former slaves go looking for this enticing new entity. There is hysteria in the streets, and soldiers fire on riotous crowds. Esternome's new lover, Ninon, tears open her blouse, offering her chest to the guns, and screams, ''Kill me.'' Some former slaves think freedom is a palpable thing, others make nothing of it at all. Mr. Chamoiseau puts their spiritual condition succinctly: ''Turned mineral, their lives rolled out no carpet for the blinding dice of fate.''
He could, of course, describe their shock and anguish by employing a psychological or phenomenological analysis, but then he'd be surrendering to abstraction what belongs to life -- or surrendering to the perspective of the oppressor what belongs, in moral principle, in reality and in truth, to the misery, humiliation and outrage of his people. The sentence he does use is concise, itself mineral-hard, but also unrestrained in feeling and thought. The many such sentences in ''Texaco'' make it obvious that Patrick Chamoiseau won't submit to the language of his country's colonial rulers. Instead, he humanizes it. A powerful artist, he can do no less.
Leonard Michaels's most recent books are ''A Cat,'' ''To Feel These Things'' and ''Sylvia.''