Unnuth’s Les Empereurs de la Nuit was published in its translated version (Aslakha Callikan-Proag) by Editions de l’Océan Indien for Mahatma Gandhi Institute in 1983. It contains 16 short stories or « chroniques mauriciennes ». This article gives a rough idea of the author’s methods and concerns to those not familiar with his writings.
Cane-cutter Ramcharitar, 60, is worried to death with the arrival of a bulldozer in the sugarcane field in L’homme à la moustache épaisse ou l’intermédiaire. The « gigantesque démon d’acier » (p 47) which he hates « rugissait en son for intérieur, déchirant son cerveau tel une roche » (p 47). It is destructive like a beast « arrachant ici et là arbres et roches » (p 50). The machine « crevait les tympans à tous les travailleurs » (p 50). This suggests that they’re intrigued and unprepared to see machines taking over their work. They hear that soon canes will be cut by machines. They’re scared of losing their jobs.
Mechanisation was a real issue in the days when the sugar industry was our main economic activity. Workers were asking themselves what would happen to their future. It’s this apprehension that the writer is evoking. And what will happen to « la pioche » which « pendant deux siècles et demi, a apprivoisé une terre intraitable » (p 52)? It made the island green and they fear that this emblematic tool is now « menacé de licenciement » (p 52). Symbolically, the bulldozer is innovation and change while the digging tool is the suffering and the perseverance of our ancestors in transforming the island into fertility. The pickaxe carries connotations of sacrifice and livelihood while the bulldozer means destruction and the end of a way of life.
The villagers see the necessity to adapt to changing trends in agriculture, the old man does not. For him, the bulldozer is a danger. The government needs its land to build an airport but Ramcharitar strongly opposes the idea: no financial compensation plus a larger piece of land can replace his ancestral possession. He’s emotionally attached to it. Parting would be like cutting every link with the sacred memories of his forefathers.
The story is evocative, bringing to our mind faithful images of rural life and the daily struggles of simple villagers. It is rich in local colour. We see Ramcharitar consuming rice and « brèdes chowray » and the « chatni bringelles » (p 48) prepared by his wife. We also see him turning his goni into a ghoghi, a sort of improvised overcoat. Its strength lies in its authenticity. The conflict is between men and machines, tradition and modernity, attachment to the past and the irresistible waves of development accompanied by change.
Terrain Glissant is about a politician’s double life. Not wholly satisfied with his wife, the Minister is secretly having an affair. The woman’s daughter is studying in England. Who is settling the fees and sending a monthly stipend? The Minister. Since 7 years they’ve been sharing wonderful times in French, Japanese and Canadian hotels. He intends including her in his next official trip to Mexico. « Tu verras Madame Arlette pour tes vêtements. Mon P.S. se chargera du reste. » (p 163).
Betrayal, outside sex, disintegration of family values, the nature of politics, power, are major themes that emerge. The author wants us to look beyond the superficial. Often, we turn politicians into cult figures, basing ourselves on our perception of them from the exterior. In reality, they have their awful aspects too. The story is eye-opening.
Jeune fille à l’ombre tells the frustrations and the guilt of a 24-year-old girl who is systematically rejected by suitors because she is unattractive. She’s haunted by the idea that she may remain unmarried. But Time teaches her to adjust to taunts. It’s admirable that she doesn’t become worse in her predicament. On the contrary, she grows. She stops cursing her fate and looks reality in the face. She adopts a positive attitude, telling herself that elegant girls aren’t necessarily happier than her: two of her friends have known break-ups. Madan, the young barber, smiles at her whenever he passes by. Is he interested? Or is he merely mocking her ugliness? She resolves to ask him. Meanwhile, her heartbeat is resonating with hope. What will happen next? The cliffhanger ending adds to the interest of the story.
Kalawti’s dilemma and her optimism are vividly brought out. Most of the time, she’s under the neem tree, sewing, reading or daydreaming. The tree reflects the girl’s situation: it is flowerless, the fruits are inedible, from the roots to the leaves, it is bitter, yet it provides shade and drives away illnesses. Now, if people choose to see only its negative qualities, the fault rests with them. The author also uses the tree as prop to reveal the girl’s moods.
La Disparition du Tika has appearance and reality as theme. 3 friends are stealing tomatoes behind the house of Sumiya, a loose woman, at night. The door opens. They see an indistinct figure coming out. The woman closes the door. Sudan, 20, one of the robbers, places his bag on the narrow path and hides behind it. The man approaches, hits against the bag, falls on a heap of stones and on the boy himself. The latter feels liquid oozing out of the stranger’s forehead. The man runs away, unrecognized. The next day, Sudan attends a religious ceremony. He finds two elastoplasts on the forehead of the… priest. The story is humorous and light but hard-hitting in its message and biting in its irony.
I like the skill with which the writer exposes the follies of people and the ills of society. He draws a picture of the world where everything is upside down to shock us into awareness so that we can change for the better. His characters, and the situations in which they find themselves, are not removed from the real world. On the contrary, they are very much a part of it.