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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

The Rhum Agricole:  Distillerie La FavoriteLa Flibuste

www.rhum-lafavorite.com

The Book:  Solibo Magnificent by Patrick Chamoiseau

I’ve just returned from Martinique, where I sipped the island’s superb rhum agricole, La Flibuste, while reading books by its outstanding contemporary writer, Patrick Chamoiseau.

THE RUM (RHUM AGRICOLE)

This Vintage Cuvée 1984 brings a dark mahogany glow to the glass. To the nose, honeyed spice layered with caramel, oak, dried fruits. To the palate, an intricately rich but smooth amalgam of dark spice and fruit, with a quiet edge that lingers long and warm. I’m in awe of this exceptionally well-crafted rhum agricole. The rum (rhum) gods are smiling. (40% abv)

On our second day in Martinique we found our way to Distillerie La Favourite. The site was chosen in 1842 for its water supply, Rivière La Jambette, now not far outside what became the island’s capital, Fort de France. The visit proved a step back in time, an all-senses encounter with the long tradition of rum-making in Martinique. There was the ancient steam engine (the only one still in use in any of the island’s ten distilleries), the workers raking mounds of the sugarcane fibre waste (bagasse) used to fuel it, the bubbling, fermenting vats and their intoxicating aromas, the long lines of aging casks, and the relatively few holding La Flibustre, a collection of distinctive bottles nearby, waiting to be filled.

In 1905 the distillery was purchased by the Dormoy family, and four succeeding generations have taken charge of it. Today La Favourite is one of only two independent, family-owned and operated distilleries remaining in Martinique.

It was André Dormoy who fought for two decades to get the AOC (Appellation d’Origin Contrôlée) designation for the rhum agricole of Martinique. In 1996, the authorities in France finally agreed.

AOC designation protects the reputation of French regional food and drink by ensuring they are produced using standards that maintain their quality. In this case it designates the area of the island the sugarcane can be grown; bans the use of any substances that promote maturation of the cane; specifies restrictions on cultivation yields, irrigation, time of harvest, sugar content, as well as the methods of juice extraction and fermentation.

AOC Martinique Rhum Agricole is made from sugarcane juice obtained by grinding and pressing the freshly cut sugarcane, unlike most rums which are made from molasses. Its standards of production have allowed it to carve out a unique place in the rum world. The best of the Martinique aged rums are highly prized and La Favorite’s La Flibuste is a stand-out among them.

La Flibuste (translation: buccaneer) carries one of the oldest age statements of any commercially produced rum in the Eastern Caribbean. Our Vintage Cuvée 1984 has spent 30 years in ex-cognac oak barrels. Only 5,000 bottles of La Flibuste are available each year, making it a rarity among rums, and leading me to think I must get a second bottle to take home.

THE BOOK

Author Patrick Chamoiseau was born in 1953 in Fort de France, where he still lives. He has worked for years with young offenders, and has still found time to write several much-lauded books, including the masterful, Prix Goncourt-winning novel Texaco. An earlier novel Solibo Magnificent, published in 1988, appeared in English a decade later, expertly translated by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov.

Translation could not have been an easy task, for the novel is all about language and the role it assumes in present day Martinique. The language here, a French – Creole mix, highlights the vigorous linguistic interplay on the island and its impact on the survival of Creole as a distinct culture.

In 1989 Chamoiseau was one of three writers to issue the literary manifesto “Elogé de la créolité” in which forceful argument was made for the use of Creolese, the language of the ordinary people, if the island’s literature is to truthfully capture its culture.

Solibo Magnificent exuberantly reinforces that argument. The title character, a renowned Creole storyteller, lies dead in the first few pages, “throat snickt by the word” under a tamarind tree in the Savanne, the large park in downtown Fort de France.

It is to the Savanne that I took the book to photograph it, and it is here I imagined the parade of the 14 witnesses to the death, all suspects in what the police presume is murder. Chamoiseau takes the form of the crime novel and transforms it into an entertaining, verbally robust, earthy reflection on the survival of Creole customs and language.

The police probe is led by Chief Inspector Evariste Pilon, with  Sergeant Bouaffess and an inept pair of subordinates, doing the legwork. The witnesses demonstrate the diversity of Martinique society and include the author himself, “the word snatcher,” as he prefers to be thought of. The interrogations are intense, often brutal (two of the witnesses die), and in the end prove nothing. As much as it defies reality, the Chief Inspector is forced to conclude that Solibo succumbed to “word-strangulation.”

Is the novel suggesting that the island’s rich Creole oral tradition is destined to fade away entirely? Can the work of writers such as Chamoiseau help preserve it? It can at least capture it, hold the taste of it, echo the acoustic charms of it. Even if it is transposed to a different, a written, form.

Once the bulk of the story is told, Chamoiseau writes his “After the Word.” Here Solibo himself takes centre stage, in what is the book’s “tour de force.” It’s best to leave the last words to the storyteller, to the word snatcher.

“so kids if you see Solibo dead and Gwadloup comes to furrow his body bury him under a barrel of rum no crying kids ’cause under the barrel Solibo will be partying every drop of rum of the barrel of rum will flow down his throat for rum bury him under the barrel kids bury him under the barrel and when the priest comes to give him rum for his sprinkler Sobibo will be happy every drop of rum from the rum sprinkler will flow down his rum snout and if the priest says ‘et spiritus sanctus’ will you reply with the song?

SECULARUM IS RUM!”

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