The Great Camouflage is most welcome. Non-Francophones sorely needed to have access to Suzanne Césaire’s writings, and the translating work of Keith L. Walker and editing by Daniel Maximin deliver. We thank them for that.
Gratitude out of the way, readers of this small volume will not fail to notice the overabundance of men (that is, the non-mention of relevant women) in what could have been a more astute recovery and framing for a general Anglophone audience. Fact: Suzanne Césaire need not be recovered for academic audiences. That work has already been done by Marie-Agnès Sourieau, Maryse Condé, Smita Tripathi, Kara Rabbitt and other women, not to mention the widely disseminated edition of the full run of Tropiques by Jacqueline Leiner. Here, except for a short poem by daughter Ina, Césaire’s work is framed on both sides by, well, men. We cannot even say that this was the case during her run at Tropiques, where she was accompanied on several occasions by Georgette Anderson, Jeanne Mégnen, Lucie Thésée, and Lydia Cabrera.
Perhaps these statistics would not be such a shortcoming were the language (of Maximin in particular) not to betray a masculinist optic. Yes, Suzanne Césaire was (and still is) surrounded by men enraptured by her beauty … but that is perfectly irrelevant. She has no need to be framed under the banner of eros when we are trying to grasp the relevance of her thought, even as that thought itself is often erotic. Walker’s much more measured “Translator’s Introduction” lists the many variants of the Great Camouflage or détournements that Césaire unravels for us in her writings—Gallic humanist values, brilliant technology, the Vichy regime-within-a-regime, geography, art—but neglects the one that resurfaces in this edition: male desire.
The introductory text by Maximin is rife with infelicitous turns of this sort. In the opening pages we arrive quickly at her wedding day, with a description of the dress she was wearing. This is followed by a note on her “sun-filled beauty and power, visible in the sparkle of her eyes and the radiance of her hair,” a beautiful line in some contexts, perfectly irrelevant here. When referring to Jenny Alpha, Gerty Archimède, and Suzanne Césaire together, he calls them “seductive while refusing to be seductresses, fiancées of Dionysius more than sisters of Eurydice” (p. xxxii). While Maximin tries to accommodate these feminizing gestures to Césaire’s own rapprochement to Frobenius’s “plant-woman,” we may feel that the gesture neglects the universalizing form of the feminine that Césaire deploys and reinscribes her in the graceful suffering of the woman of beauty.
The seven essays by Césaire that follow the introductory frames, which represent her total essayistic output in Tropiques, are in turn followed by selected writings by André Breton, René Ménil, Aimé Césaire, and finally, Ina Césaire. Ostensibly these writings are meant to either contextualize or pay homage to Suzanne Césaire. The contextual fragments are short and do very little other than frame Césaire as a woman of genius among a cadre of towering men and an artistic family who loved her. Given that the volume is small, we can justify these inclusions as a certain kind of filler, but we wonder, why not signal the already present body of critical work on this author?
That said, I hope that readers of this review who have not had a chance to read Suzanne Césaire’s work because of language barriers or for any other reason, will obtain a copy of this book.