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Barlen Pyamootoo: The cosmopolitan island

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Far from being mere exotic clichés, Barlen Pyamootoo’s novels are a candid re?ection of the daily life of people from all four corners of the globe.

Mauritius is not a big island; it’s difficult to hide there. And yet one day after lunch, instead of returning to his shop in Centre de Flacq, Anil just vanishes. His wife, Mirna, refuses to admit that her husband is not coming home. The police have no leads. After a two years' wait, she eventually gives in to the advances of a member of the government when suddenly the long-lost hus-band reappears… Published in 2017, L’île au poisson venimeux is Barlen Pyamooto’s fourth novel. It is a journey into the everyday life of the island and its ordinary people: shopkeepers, office workers, police officers and local government officials. A disenchanted life, a mixture of boredom and intrigue, gossips and vote-catchers, which breaks with the usual exotic clichés about Mauritius.

Like his character, Barlen Pyamootoo was born in Centre de Flacq, in 1960, into a Tamil family. He is part of the new generation of enduring French-speaking Mauritian novelists, together with such names as Ananda Devi, Nathacha Appanah, Carl de Souza, Shenaz Patel, etc... His father kept a grocery-bazar, which collapsed after the Independence, after which he did odd jobs to earn a living. His mother came from a very poor background and only learnt to read and write as an adult. The third of eight children, Barlen Pyamootoo was 12 when his mother left home to work in Germany. 

Literature and consolation

The adolescent found consolation for his misery from the separation in books: “We shared our house with a school teacher. On leaving the place, he left some books, late 19th century novels, and physics and chemistry textbooks. They gave me a liking for reading. My brother too used to tell me stories, like the Trojan War. I loved Hector, and cried when Achilles killed him. That was my introduction to literature. Years later, I told my brother he had saved me because he allowed me to dream. It didn’t matter where the stories came from. Literature needs no passport.”

For Barlen Pyamotoo, Mauritians, because they come from all over the world, are cosmopolitan by nature. In their way of living, dressing, making music, even of eating: “It’s the poor man’s cosmopolitism,” he laughs. As a child he heard people speaking French, Creole, Tamil, Bohjpuri, Chinese and English. His mind was opened not only to others but also to the call of the sea. “I like to have my roots in several worlds, in Mauritius and elsewhere at the same time. Mauritius is a hybrid country, it’s Creole. We are from here and from else-where, we are ‘dimoun’, people of the world.”

In 1977, Barlen Pyamootoo left the island to go to Strasbourg with his father, where there was a large Mauritian community. There he studied French and Linguistics, and then began to teach. But he was homesick. In 1994, he returned to Mauritius to write, and settled in Trou d’Eau Douce, where his mother had bought a house. Five years later, aged 39, he published his ?rst book, Bénarès. It all takes place in one night: two friends are driving around Mauritius with two prostitutes they have picked up. A minimalist tale, full of memories and ghosts, which he later adapted for the cinema and directed himself. His next novel, Le tour de Babylone, tells of an imaginary journey in Iraq between two wars. The french title is drawn from a reproach the writer often heard from his father, when, as a wandering child, he was late coming home: “Quel tour de Babylone as-tu encore fait?” (“Wherever have you been wandering around?”).

Literature needs no passport

Barlen Pyamootoo’s novels are journeys into the mind, rooted in Mauritius, but in an imprecise manner to avoid any realistic identity.

Although he often travels to other places, Barlen Pyamootoo writes only in Mauritius. The place of his origins, where his father, returning from exile, still lives, and where his mother, who also came back, was killed by a bus in 2006 a deeply unfair, violent trauma for the writer, who paid her a poignant tribute in Salogi’s. Does he ever suffer from isolation or insularity? “Sometimes, he answers. The sea is like prison bars, it’s suffocating; it shuts you in. But at the same time, it’s the whole wide world, right in front of us. That is what I love so much about Mauritius: we come here, we go away, and we come back.”


By Antoine de Gaudemar
Photographs Claude Weber