The team of literary editors around Barlen Pyamootoo, together with their publishers Precigraph and their mecènes have published a gem of a book (1). It is, as its title accurately portrays, a selection of texts written on Mauritius. And as you page through its 584 pages – it is organized chronologically – you realize it is not just an anthology but also a labour of love. The sheer hard work, the sheer literary skill, that has gone into the making of the book is breath-taking. And from time-to-time, as a sit at my computer in my den writing this, with the bread-fruit tree’s leaves on the tin roof, I pass my hand over the cream-coloured hard cover, just for the pleasure of its feel.
Texts from the earliest of Mauritius’ writings include gems by all manner of greats. There is an extract from Alexandre Dumas’ beautiful novel, Georges, one from Joseph Conrad’s haunting novella The Wheel of Fortune, an extract fromVoyage a l’ile de France by Bernadin de Saint-Pierre, the writer of the best-seller in its time Paul et Virginie, two Charles Baudelaire love poems Les Fleurs du Mal and A une Malabaraise, the Shah of Iran’s secretary Mirza Iteza Modeen’s Travels, an extract from Mark Twain’s travelogue Following the Equator and one from Charles Darwin’s scientific work The Voyage of the Beagle and from V.S. Naipaul’s scathing The Overcrowded Baracoon. From early on in the compendium, these famous writers are alongside Mauritian writers, now gone, including Charles Baissac the famous folklorist, and finally a selection of us contemporary Mauritian writers begin to join the chronology.
At the launch, Barlen Pyamootoo said they kept two rule-of-thumb criteria in mind, the literary merit of the writer in their judgment and that the text had a link to a particular lieu in Mauritius. This reminds us that Barlen Pyamootoo’s first collection, produced together with Rama Poonoosamy, in Immedia’s Collection Maurice, was called Le tour de l’ile en quatre-vingts lieux. That was in 1994, twenty-six years ago. And again, he is faithfully back to lieux. Anpasan, the Collection Maurice has come out as an anthology of Mauritian writing every year since. So hats off to Immedia and also to Barlen Pyamootoo for launching the Collection and for continuing his literary work up to the Ecrits sur Maurice.
The launch itself, held at L’Atelier Littéraire in St. Louis Street in Port Louis was a unifying event, happy to be able to be held in the six months hiatus when Mauritius has had no local cases of Coronavirus, in times when isolation has added to existing fractures that the past 30 years have begun to open up in Mauritian society. Almost everyone present at the crowded event had a mask visibly on hand but right now almost everyone felt it not necessary to wear it – a strange inter-regnum.
There were readings from three early texts in the book, acting like an aperitif to the book.
I suggest you go out and buy one at once. It costs Rs1,000. It would be the best present to give someone for the New Year. It is the unusual combination of both something to read through, while feeling the scope of literature broaden in Mauritian society into wider circles, even if not yet wide enough, and also a reference book. I can’t wait to read through it, and then to continue to refer to it as an encyclopedia.
Indeed, even without reading it, just paging through it, we are jolted by the reality that there is no reason now for the Education Minister to go on boycotting Mauritian literature in schools. There is no reason for bookstores to go on hiding Mauritian writings in corners, or letting them keep getting out of stock. And there is every reason for Mauritian writers and potential writers to keep at it, producing more and better work.
In his speech, Barlen Pyamootoo said who knows maybe they will do a bigger edition one day or something to that effect. This may just be a way of apologizing for omissions amongst the living. He did talk of not managing to get rights from Nobel Prize winner, Jean-Marie Leclésio’s publishers. But, if he was not just badine, there are perhaps one or two other gems to consider for an imaginary future edition? Dan Sleigh’s The Islands, set in the Dutch period where both Mauritius and Robben Island were lesser dependencies to the Cape when it was run by the Dutch East India Company, thus the title is these two islands, The Islands. And then the short novel set in Diego Garcia called A Lesser Dependency by Peter Benson. There is the literary novel The Book of Colour by Julia Blackburn and Romesh Gunesekera’s The Prisoner of Paradise about the interpreter to the Ceylonese Prince who was, in reality, banished by the British colonial authorities to Mauritius. But let this suggestion not detract from the immense beauty of the content of collection Ecrits sur Maurice 1708-2019. And may all Mauritian publications be as beautiful, in their own way, as “book objects”, as this one is.
(1) The team that did the meticulous work on the texts with editor Barlen Pyamootoo was constituted by Christine Ah-Fat, Flavia Doherty-Bigara, Evelyn Kee Mew Wan Khin, Sachita Samboo, Kavinien Karupudayyan and Kendy Chokeepermal. The Precigraph team mentions that mise-en pages was by Joan Kelly – it is fine work. As a book object, it is beautiful to touch, kind on the eye and has, in general, used seamless conventions for the layout. The two generous mecènes who made the ambitious venture possible are Jan Maingard and Raj Sanassee.