French Book Recommendation: 'Cahier d'un retour au pays natal'
Cahier D’un Retour Au Pays Natal By Aimé Césaire
Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1939), the most famous work of Martinican poet and politician, Aimé Césaire, is a masterful piece of writing which examines the past, the present and the future of black identity in a postcolonial world. The Cahier takes the form of a free verse poem the length of a novella, which is split into three sections. The first examines Martinique, the island which is ‘étalée’ (‘splayed out’) and ‘inerte’ (‘immobile’), degraded from years of oppression. Césaire’s words wander through the towns and streets, even peering into his own family home, at his mother, who works tirelessly to provide for him, before turning to the second section, where he contemplates the idea of leaving this place to study in France. Finally, in the closing pages, he addresses his retour au pays natal (‘return to his native land’), continuously highlighting Martinique’s denigration but suggesting that there is hope for the island’s future.
Throughout the poem, Césaire delves into the minutiae of what it is to live as the descendant of a slave, turning it over, picking it apart, and finding his own way of explaining it. Although he writes in French, the language of the coloniser, he strives to escape the limitations of its Eurocentric structures, working to undo its status as a form of domination over the victims of African diaspora, and make it a way in which black people can truly express their experiences. Through this unique use of the French language, he is able to introduce his readers to the concept of Négritude, a process by which black people may hope to draw on their common ancestral roots and experiences, in order to find a shared identity, which binds them together even if their native communities and cultures have been scattered across the world.
The Cahier was partly inspired by French Surrealism (find out more HERE), and like the members of this movement, Césaire takes objects, places and peoples, teasing them away from the definitions and characteristics that we would normally associate with them and giving them new meaning. Through reformulating the significance which has been imposed on certain ideas and objects, he overturns accepted norms and forces his reader to question whether the seemingly natural order of the world is indeed so natural. For this reason, the Cahier is a work which provides an utterly new and revolutionary way of viewing society, and reading it constitutes a step towards better understanding that there is not one single, right way to see the world.