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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

Category Archives: Mauritius

The Rum:  The Arcane12 years old Extraroma

www.arcanerum.com

The Books:  The Prospector by J.M.G. Le Clézio

and The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah

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The tropical islands of Mauritius and Martinique are oceans apart, but one thing they have in common is an abundance of rum distilleries. I’m in Martinique, but feeling at home with Mauritian rum.

THE RUM

Eye-catching amber gold. On the nose a wealth of tropical fruit and spice — honeyed banana and apricot among them, with the spicy notes keeping the sweetness in check. On the palate, add to that coconut and wood, again tempered by peppery spice. Surprisingly fresh. You know you’re in the tropics! (40% abv)

Arcane Rum grew out of the collective ambitions of four friends — Thibault de la Fournière, Christian Vergier, Stéphane Aussel, and Laurent Berriat —  all professionals in the world of spirits. The career of the first had taken him to the prestigious “rhum agricole” distilleries of Martinique. From there came the inspiration for a new and different rum, made also from fresh sugarcane juice but distilled in another part of the world.

The year was 2007, the location chosen the small volcanic island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean just east of Madagascar. The island is multiethnic and multicultural, with French and British heritage predominating. It has just over a million people. Its climate and soil are considered some of the best in the world for sugarcane production.

From it has come a distinctive rum, not a duplicate of what’s to be found in the Caribbean. “We wanted to create a decidedly different product and not yet another old classic rum. . . We wanted a rum from pure cane juice to express this particular terroir giving naturally spiced, peppery rum.” The team chose Grays distillery in the north of the island as the one most in keeping with the product they had in mind.

The 12-year-old Extraroma uses the solera aging process, in which rums of different ages are mixed sequentially over a number of years, with product from the barrels containing the oldest rum eventually bottled off. In this case it makes for a fresher rum with less influence from the American oak barrels. It is indeed something different, immediately apparent when the extra aromas hit as you draw out the cork top for that first pour.

THE BOOKS

I knew nothing of the literature of Mauritius. In which case a good starting point would seem to be a work by a recent Nobel Prize winner with roots on the Island.

JMGJ.M.G. Le Clézio was born in 1940 in France, the homeland of his mother. His father, who had grown up on Mauritius (then under British rule), was away at the time, serving in the British Army as a doctor. Following the war the family settled in Nigeria. Le Clézio’s university years were spent in England and France, and subsequently he lived in the U.S., Thailand, Mexico, and South Korea. Through it all he retained an affinity for Mauritius. He holds dual French-Mauritian citizenship and has a home on the island.

Little wonder then that Clézio considers himself a man of mixed cultures. The Nobel committee called his work a “critique of civilizations.” His shifting focus often holds to account the contradictions of colonization, which on the one hand created sophisticated, cultivated societies, while on the other treated native people and their customs with blatant intolerance.

Alexis L’Etang, the young man at the centre of The Prospector (originally published in French as Le chercheur d’or, translated by Carol Marks) has grown up in the idyllic back country of Mauritius, though never far from the oppression of the sugarcane plantations. His uncle is a wealthy plantation owner, while his idealist father scrapes money together with the dream of bringing electricity to the remote region. A massive hurricane strikes, forcing the family to move and into further poverty. The father dies with another dream unfulfilled, that of following the maps and clues to buried treasure that came into his possession, left by a “Unknown Corsair.”

Alexis sets out to complete his father’s dream, sailing to the nearby island of Rodrigues, and undertaking what ends up being years of a painstaking search. For a time Alexis finds consolation in his relationship with a young native girl, Ouma, until an even greater circumstance changes the direction of his life – the First World War.

An adventure story of a sort, the novel reaches the level of myth at times, without sacrificing the immediacy of character and place. There is a sensual bittersweetness through much  of the novel, a melancholy borne of the past, of the frustrations inherent in attempting to come to terms with scars of Imperialist history.

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Mauritian history is also at the core of The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah (translated by Geoffrey Strachan). During the Second World War hundreds of European Jews crammed themselves aboard ships to escape the Nazis, only to be turned away from British-held Palestine and redirected to a detainment camp on Mauritius, then also in British hands. It is a little known story of the war, here seen through the eyes of Raj, a 70 year-old Indian Mauritian looking back to the event he had experienced as a young boy.

Young Raj, his mother and two brothers are victims, not of war, but of a brutal, alcoholic father. When both of Raj’s brothers are drowned in a flash flood, the boy struggles to grasp the slimmest thread of hope that his life can ever get better. It arrives in the person of David, a blond-haired Czech orphan boy looking out from behind the wire fence of the Beau-Bassin camp where Raj’s father works as a guard. Another beating sends Raj to the prison hospital, to a ward he shares with David. Despite the fact neither speaks the other’s language, the friendship is solidified. Their runaway journey is the crux of the novel.

NA623282Nathacha Appanah grew up in Mauritius, where she worked as a journalist before moving to Paris in 1998. The Last Brother is her award-winning fourth book. She has written a lyrical novel of two young innocents who find fleeting peace even as their childhoods are torn from them. Occasionally the symbolism of their journey seems imposed, but the story is never less than touching, memorable for its deeply-felt portrayal of boyhood betrayed by war.

The two books, taken together, offer the reader an intriguing view of Mauritian history, which, like the past of so many tropical islands, was far from that of a guiltless paradise.

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