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Natasha Soobramanien: Paul & Virginie, come back to life

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For her first novel, published by Gallimard in France, Natasha Soobramanien, a young Englishwoman, daughter of Mauritian exiles, chose to revisit the work by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, transposed into our modern world.

In spite of her Mauritian origins, Natasha Soobramanien has never lived in Mauritius. She was born and bred in London. Her first view of Mauritius was through the story of Paul et Virginie, which her mother read to her when she was little. At home, there was an old bound edition in French of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s book, with old engravings that ’fascinated’ her. Natasha Soobramanien would often look through the pictures and dream of what she saw. It was only much later, when she had learnt enough French, that she read the book by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. The tragic, almost mythical dimension of the plot distressed her, of course, but not the paradisiacal description of the île de France. The lack of criticism of slavery in particular angered her, especially as Bernardin de Saint-Pierre made many an acerbic remark on the subject in the diary of his travels.



Revisit the myth  


It is therefore no surprise that after studying literature and creative writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, Natasha Soobramanien chose for her first novel to revisit Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s work. “Mauritius for me is like a hinterland I’ve only been to once or twice and therefore don’t know very well. I’ve read everything that could take me back to my origins. When I began to write, I imagined a new version of Paul et Virginie transposed to the modern day. I drew my inspiration from the British novelist Jean Rhys who wrote, in her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, a sort of prequel to Jane Eyre, telling of the childhood of one of the secondary characters in Charlotte Brontë’s novel. Basically, my novel is an exercise in cannibalism. I have used a literary myth, and also a Mauritian one, and although I’ve kept the structure, I’ve completely changed the rest. Paul and Virginie have the same mother. They left the island as children. They are not white but mixed race. They are not teenagers, but young adults. The original novel was very pastoral, mine is very urban. Bernardin de Saint-Pierre was a French colonialist on the island for a short time, I am English, the daughter of Mauritian exiles.”


Figures in exile


In the late 1960s, Natasha Soobramanien’s grandparents emigrated to England and stayed there. Their more ancient origins are from China, India, Scotland, France and Portugal. Natasha Soobramanien’s father worked in the Air Force, and her mother was a bilingual French-English secretary. Her two heroes, Genie and Paul, represent two figures in exile. Paul idealises his childhood memories in Mauritius, he is obsessed by the ghost of his dead half-brother. Inconsolable, he returns to the island where he believes he really belongs. Genie, who sets off to look for him in their native land, she knows how to adapt, she’s English, even though she’s attached to her roots. For her, there is no paradise on earth. “Paul and Genie are at an age when you forge your identity, and try to find your home, where you belong”, explains Natasha Soobramanien. As Genie says in the novel, “Everyone was illegitimate in this illegitimate island – this half-blood child of England and France, abandoned to grow up wild under the tropics.” 





Today, she’s working on a new novel about Diego Garcia, an atoll to the south of the Chagos Archipelago, which remained under British ownership, but for which Mauritius claimed sovereignty. In the past few decades, Diego Garcia has become a US military base. The deported inhabitants of Chagos had to leave the archipelago for Mauritius or the Seychelles, and most of could did not bear this forced exile. They demand that the US base should close so that they can return home. Some died suddenly, from no apparent cause. They say the “sagren” killed them. “Sagren” means sorrow, the pain of loss, regret for paradise lost. The very feelings that consume Paul, as resuscitated by Natasha.

By Antoine De Gaudemar
Photographs Nathalie Baetens