A work of immense cultural significance and beauty, this long poem became an anthem for the African diaspora and the birth of the Negritude movement. With unusual juxtapositions of object and metaphor, a bouquet of language-play, and deeply resonant rhythms, Césaire considered this work a “break into the forbidden,” at once a cry of rebellion and a celebration of black identity.
It was in April 1941, while passing through Martinique on his wartime journey to New York, that André Breton chanced on a long poem, “Cahier d’un retour au pays natal”, freshly printed in the magazine Tropiques. He at once declared it a masterpiece and the work of “a great black poet”. Its author was a young Caribbean writer, Aimé Césaire, and the native land of its title was Martinique, to which the author had returned after a long stay as a student in Paris. Composed in 1939, his poem would circulate in various forms until a definitive edition was issued by Présence Africaine in Paris in 1956. An explosive critique of French colonialism, it had become a central text of the Negritude movement.
In 1939, the island of Martinique was still an open wound, left septic after French rule. The poem pulls no punches. Now tremulous, now grating, the improvised text drums and jabs in spasmodic phrases and slogans. Each encounter, each twist of idiom, thrusts itself into the reader’s mind as a fierce challenge to understand and to empathize. Breton saw in Césaire’s writing “a quality of mastery in his tone” and was thrilled to discover that Surrealism could erupt in the tropics, the expression of a fresh poetics that shattered the even hum of French colonial discourse.
Césaire’s poetry makes for difficult reading. Its headlong progression is accretive and associative, full of repeated phrases and unsettling detours. Its ruling device is the surrealist image, in which words clash and flare, to create tantalizing moments of revelation, paradoxically offering meaning while undermining coherence. The text spills forth in searing details and tableaux, ranging from the whispered evocation of “a little line of sand” to the description of a poverty-stricken black man on a bus, whose decrepit state inspires in the poet disgust and shame, which swiftly modulate into anger. Martinique is an island lost but now found, as the young writer hammers out his portrait of a debased homeland crying out for recognition and redemption.
The poem’s uncompromising delivery was thoroughly absorbed and emulated by the translators John Berger and Anna Bostock, who wrestled its outbursts into a forceful yet faithful English equivalent. Their version dates from 1969. To this reissue are added six charcoal drawings by the late Peter de Francia, showing African bodies in poses suggestive of sheer torpor: yet we may take it that tropical languor is but a prelude to decisive rebellion.
Return to My Native Land is a monumental tome to our times, and this new translation by John Berger and Anya Bostock possesses the tropical heat of the poet’s sonority. Though, in his refrain, Aimé Césaire intones “the small hours,” there isn’t anything small about the raw lyricism articulated into this incantation of fiery wit. The translators convey the spirit of improvisation, yet, with a deftness of image and music, they deliver this book-length poem as a seamless work of art—an existential cry against a man-made void. What translates is the speaker’s revolutionary psyche on to the page—his fierce affirmation of existence through an eloquent clarity of the real and surreal. Nowhere is Césaire’s passion sacrificed; this translation is a tribute to the poet.