The Great Camouflage"We must dare to point out the Caribbean stain on France's face, since so many of the French seem determined to tolerate no shadow of it."Mount Pelée, Martinique, 1912
In the 1930s and 40s, Francophone Caribbean intellectuals critically engaged French surrealists across a series of publications. Refusal of the Shadow: Surrealism and the Caribbean
, edited by Michael Richardson and published by Verso in 1996, collects key texts from this exchange, beginning with the first and only issue of Légitime défense, the journal of the Sorbonne-based Caribbean Surrealist Group, published in 1932.
Among the readers of Légitime défense, which was quickly banned by French authorities, were Aimé and Suzanne Césaire and philosopher René Ménil. All three would return to their native Martinique, where in 1941 they established Tropiques, a publication central to the development of the concept of négritude. The journal, Michael Richardson writes, "would function simultaneously on three ideological levels: as a focus for a developing black consciousness in Martinique; as a covert locus for the anti-Vichy struggle (during the war Martinique was ostensibly administered by Vichy); and as a journal of international surrealism."
The editors of Tropiques were drawn to surrealism from different perspectives. For [Aimé] Césaire it was essentially a poetic tool, a means to use language, and a moral sensibility. Surrealism affirmed something he had long felt; it was, he said, "a confirmation of what I had found through my own reflections." For Ménil and for Suzanne Césaire, on the other hand, surrealism was more of a critical tool, a means of reflection that would provide them with a critical foundation from which to explore their own cultural context.
Below we present Suzanne Césaire's "The Great Camouflage," published in Tropiques nos. 13–14 in 1945, a remarkable lyric essay on the history of the Americas and the African diaspora and the social relations of race, color, and class in Martinique.
Crammed against the islands are the beautiful green blades of water and silence. Around the Caribbean Sea is the purity of salt. Down there in front of me is the pretty square of Pétionville, planted with pine and hibiscus. My island, Martinique, is there, with its fresh garland of clouds prompted by Mount Pelée. There are the highest plateaux of Haiti, where a horse is dying, struck by lightning in the ageold murderous storm of Hinche. Nearby, his master contemplates the land he used to believe was solid and generous. He does not yet realize that he is participating in the islands' absence of equilibrium. But this outburst of terrestrial insanity illuminates his heart: he starts thinking about the other Caribbean islands, with their volcanoes, their earthquakes and their hurricanes.
At that moment a powerful cyclone starts to swirl in the open seas off Puerto Rico in the midst of billows of clouds, its beautiful tail sweeping the length of the Caribbean semicircle. The Atlantic flees towards Europe in great ocean waves. Our little tropical observation posts start to crackle out the news. The wireless is going mad. Ships flee — where can they go? The sea swells, this way, that way, with an effort, a luscious leap, the water stretches out its limbs as it gains greater awareness of its watery strength; sailors clench their teeth and their faces are streaming wet, and it is reported that the cyclone is passing over the south-east coast of the Haitian Republic at a speed of thirty-five miles per hour as it heads for Florida. Those objects and beings still just out of reach of the wind are gripped with apprehension. Don't move. Let it pass by...
In the eye of the cyclone everything is snapping, everything is collapsing with the rending sound of tumultuous events. The radios fall silent. The great palm-tree tail of fresh wind is unfolding somewhere in the stratosphere where no one will follow its wild iridescence and waves of purple light.
After the rain, sunshine.
The Haitian cicadas consider chirping out their love. When not a drop of water remains on the scorched grass, they sing furiously about the beauty of life and explode into a cry too vibrant for an insect's body. Their thin shell of dried silk stretched to the limit, they die as they let out the world's least moistened cry of pleasure.
Haiti remains, shrouded in the ashes of a gentle sun with eyes of cicadas, shells of mabouyas, and the metallic face of a sea that is no longer of water but of mercury.
Now is the moment to lean out of the window of the aluminium clipper on its wide curves.
Once again the sea of clouds appears, which is no longer intact since the planes of Pan American Airways pass through. If there is a harvest in process of ripening, now is the time to try to glimpse it, but in forbidden military zones the windows remain closed.
Disinfectant or ozone is brought out, but it hardly matters, you'll see nothing. Nothing but the sea and the confused lay of the land. You can only guess at the uncomplicated loves of the fishes. They stir the waters, which give a friendly wink to the clipper's windows. Seen from high above, our islands assume their true dimensions as seashells. The hummingbird-women, the tropical flower-women, the women of four races and dozens of blood ties, have gone. So too have the canna, the plumiera and the flame tree, the moonlit palm trees, and sunsets seen nowhere else on earth ...
Nevertheless they're there.