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Carl de Souza: The cyclones of history

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In each of his novels, the writer plunges his everyday heroes into the whirlwinds of Mauritian history.

Intense cyclone Carol, which devastated the island on 28 February 1960, was the worst in living memory in Mauritius. The country found it hard to recover, particularly because a less powerful storm had already hit one month earlier. This was the year – 1960 – that gave its name to the sixth novel by Carl de Souza: L’Année des Cyclones (“The Year of Cyclones”). Three different narrators tell the story of sugar plantation owners in the north of the island, near Piton. A family storm in the midst of a cyclone, a metaphor for individual people caught up in the whirlwinds of History.

 

Fascinated by history

Carl de Souza likes to interweave his plotlines with the history of his country. “I’m fascinated by history,” he says. Le Sang de l’Anglais (“The Blood of an Englishman”), his first novel published in 1993, recounts the fate of a German disguised as an Englishman in Mauritius during the Second World War. The next novel describes the difficulties of a long-standing family of Creoles living under the same roof as a family of recent Muslim immigrants. In Les Jours Kaya (“The Kaya Days”), de Souza uses the bloody riots in Mauritius after the death in 1999 of the Rasta singer Kaya, an emblematic figure of the Creole community. En Chute Libre (“In Free Fall”) retraces the rise and fall of a badminton player – Carl de Souza has been a fan of the sport since childhood – against the backdrop of the decolonisation years.

 

From biology to literature

Carl de Souza was born in Rose Hill in 1949. His father’s family came from the Indian town of Pondicherry, and his mother’s from Angers, France. “I am a typical example of Mauritians who come from all over the world and are often of mixed race. My father was a police officer and my mother a primary school teacher. She symbolised sternness, he, for all his uniform, was a dreamer. They moved home frequently. I spent my youth surrounded by trunks and makeshift furniture.” Like his parents, the young Carl devoured books, enjoying Charles Darwin as much as he did Graham Greene. He left for England to study biology, which he taught on his return to Mauritius. “But I felt a dichotomy in my life between the rationality of science and the reverie of literature; I wanted to reconcile them both. So while still teaching, I began to write short stories.” One of them was awarded the prix Pierre Renaud in 1986, which sparked his literary career.

 

“Writers are lucky in that they can make the silences speak.”

 

“Delightful ghosts”

Like many of his compatriots, he was tempted by exile, but now he says he is “no longer bothered”. “When you live on an island, he admits, there’s a kind of shutting in, a lot of internalised conflicts and unspoken resentment. But writers are lucky in that they can make these oppressive silences speak. You have to get away from the clichés straight out of tourist brochures, you have to describe the reality of daily life in Mauritius.” In his last novel, the writer speaks of the fate of those Mauritians who left the island when it became independent in 1968 for fear of seeing the country under the domination of the Indian population. Some members of his family left to settle in Australia: “They have an outmoded vision of Mauritius and have kept the traditions from before the independence. If they had to come back here, they would find it difficult to readapt.”

L’Année des Cyclones takes place on a former Piton sugar plantation. Carl de Souza’s grandfather was the accountant there, and the novelist, who often went there during his childhood, has very fond memories of it. Four years ago, he came back to settle near the ruins of the old factory. He now lives on the land of his ancestors, among the banyans and the “delightful ghosts” of his childhood.

 

By Antoine de Gaudemar
Photographs Claude Weber