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Notebook of a Return to My Native Land (1939)

by Aime Cesaire

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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454842,153 (3.95)14
Aimé Césaire's masterpiece, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, is a work of immense cultural significance and beauty. This long poem was the beginning of Césaire's quest for négritude, and it became an anthem of Blacks around the world. Commentary on Césaire's work has often focused on its Cold War and anticolonialist rhetoric--material that Césaire only added in 1956. The original 1939 version of the poem, given here in French, and in its first English translation, reveals a work that is both spiritual and cultural in structure, tone, and thrust. This Wesleyan edition includes the original illustrations by Wifredo Lam, and an introduction, notes, and chronology by A. James Arnold.… (more)
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English (6)  French (2)  All languages (8)
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Haiti where negritude rose to its feet for the first time and said it believed in its own humanity; and the comic little tail of Florida where they are just finishing strangling a negro; Africa gigantically caterpillaring as far as the Spanish foot of Europe; the nakedness of Africa where the scythe of Death swings wide.


Return to my Native Land by Aime Cesaire a single poem by the African activist. Cesaire was born in the French Caribbean country of Martinique. He earned a scholarship to Lycee Louis-le-Grand, created the literary review L'Etudiant Noir. Cesaire returned to Martinique in 1939 and taught at Lycee Schoelcher. One of his students would play an important role in the French colony of Algeria, Frantz Fanon. Cesaire played a role in his country's politics as a member of the Communist Party and later forming the Parti Progressiste Martinuqais.

Cesaire started writing Return to my Native Land (Cahier d'un retour au pays natal) in 1936 while while still in France. As a single poem it is rather long, but as a book it is short. Cesaire captures his feelings and emotions on returning to his home country after studying in France. Martinique is small. It covers 436 square miles and supports a population well under half a million people. Its history is typical of a Caribbean colony. Its native people were beaten down and expelled from the island. They are replaced with African slaves to work the new sugar plantations. The island changes hands from Spain in 1493 to the French in 1635, to the British during the Seven Years War and the Napoleonic Wars, and returned back to the French. The island suffered as a single commodity, sugar, economy which eventually lead to the freeing of the slaves in 1848. In 1946 Martinique became an Overseas Department of France and finally simply a department in 1974. It still relies heavily on French aid.

Cesaire was active in government and a communist for sometime. Some explanation communist is needed to understand exactly what it meant at the time. Countries like Martinique were under colonial rule and had little if any autonomy as a nation. There was also the much the same problems with the inhabitants of African descent after slavery ended, much the same as in the United States. The enlightened act of freeing the slaves was not followed up with assurances of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Cesaire makes this clear with the use of the derogatory term for a black man. Communism, as an ideal, took root in these environments. The promise of removing the yoke of colonial powers and the equality it promised all men was quite enticing. Here you have people who are being exploited and controlled by power thousands of miles away under a system called capitalism. To these people capitalism is not working so that simple leaves the alternative system. Their concerns are local and not exporting world wide revolution. They simply desired freedom.

Once you get a feel for the setting, which is very foreign for many, Cesaire's words take on new meanings and a cause. It is not difficult to see the similarity in Cesaire and Fanon. Their styles differ the sledgehammer of Fanon and the velvet hammer Cesaire, but both seek to find identity beyond colonialism. Cesaire write in a mix of prose and poetry all of it lyrical in rhythm and surreal. At times I felt as if I was on a raft in the ocean rocking on the rhythm and intensities of Cesaire's voice. The poem has a great feel to it that helps convey the pointed political and cultural messages. The lyrical feel reminded of reading the leaves of grass. You can lose yourself simply in the rhythm on the words. Here though, the message is as important as the art. Cesaire is more than just a voice calling for justice or the voice of protest. He is a French and captures that particular style that makes French poetry unique.

His literary style is classified as negritude a rejection of colonial racism and a term developed by Cesaire. He purposely chose to use the root Negre, the French equivalent to the American word “n*gger.” He took it as a proud title. Sarte said negritude is the Hegelian dialectic to racism. This is an interesting and unique look into colonial life and racism in a country other than America. Ceasaire writing is impressive. Berger and Bostock's translation seems to be spot on. Steerforth Press has done a great service re-releasing this translation. The only thing that would have made it better would be a more detailed introduction for those without the historical background. ( )
  evil_cyclist | Mar 16, 2020 |
Césaire's cri-de-coeur from early in his career, a breathtaking experiment in form and exploration of the neuroses of a black man who feels his own consciousness infected with centuries of racist colonial thought. One of the founding texts of Caribbean negritude. ( )
  jalbacutler | Dec 10, 2018 |
An absolutely astounding poem. A must-read for any student or fan of poetry.

(Provided by publisher) ( )
  tldegray | Sep 21, 2018 |
Aimé Césaire is one of the key figures in postcolonial literature, and his Cahier is one of its seminal texts, discussed on just about every course on the subject. In fact it's so seminal, and its historical importance and relevance to later generations of writers are so well explained in the textbooks, that it's scarcely ever necessary actually to look at it. Which is a shame, because as well as being a key moment in literary history, it is an interesting and rewarding poem in its own right.

It's a surprisingly modest work in scale: a free-verse poem that takes up about thirty pages in print, so that it's not at all inconceivable that it would fit into an actual "notebook" in manuscript. To summarise something that can't and probably shouldn't be summarised, Césaire, who was studying in Paris at the time, imagines himself revisiting Martinique, watching what's going on at the break of dawn ("au bout du petit matin") from the point of view of a sparrow-hawk. And what he sees is not attractive or nostalgic: everything is tainted with dirt and disease and the damage done by slavery and colonialism. He looks back in time to see slaves being tortured by landowners, or Toussaint Louverture in his cell in the Jura (surrounded by the "white death" of snow). He thinks about a black man he has seen on a tram in Paris, apparently crushed by his sense of inferiority, and he comes to the realisation that blackness - Négritude - is something to celebrate and assert. The "great black hole" he wanted to drown himself in a little while ago is now the place where he can fish out and exploit "the night's malevolent tongue".

There is a lot of anger here, but it's expressed in surprisingly beautiful and complex language. Césaire was a poet first of all, even if he did end up devoting the last sixty years of his life to politics. You can get a lot of enjoyment out of the sweep and rhythm of his words, and the baffling variety of registers he uses. Unfortunately for us, he was also trained as a classics teacher, and had a habit of pillaging the remoter reaches of the Latin and Greek dictionaries for words that ought to but didn't - as yet - exist in French. When you read Cahier, it is often more difficult to come to terms with these obscure classical coinages than with the handful of specifically Caribbean terms he uses. At a few points this leads to real problems: crucially, for example, no-one has ever been quite sure what Césaire meant by the last word of the text, verrition - it possibly has something to do with turning or sweeping, but if so, why is it qualified by the adjective immobile?

(Rosello mostly translates these words into equally obscure or made-up English terms, to preserve the difficulty of the original. Thus verrition becomes "revolvolution". This is probably a trick you can only get away with in a parallel text: in a standalone translation it would be rather baffling.)

Eighty years on, it's easy enough to see the blind spots that weren't so evident in 1939 when the first version of the Cahier appeared. There's a lot of declamatory Whitmanesque penis-waving, and not much role for women in Césaire's view of the world; many people have pointed out how négritude's simplistic race-based focus forces it to overlook many of the ethnic and social complexities of the Caribbean, and more recently Patrick Chamoiseau and his co-authors in Éloge de la Créolité have challenged Césaire's exclusion of Creole language and culture. (Chamoiseau's novel Texaco is in many ways a direct challenge to the attitudes expressed in the Cahier, but it is careful to treat Césaire the person and politician with considerable respect and affection.)

The Bloodaxe edition comes with a very comprehensive introductory essay by Professor Rosello, who also did the parallel text translation. Without taking sides noticeably, she sets out the background to the poem's composition and discusses its reception and current (1995) views of its importance, and provides a fairly comprehensive bibliography. One rather striking omission is that she doesn't get into any detail about the textual history of the poem, beyond remarking that it first appeared almost unnoticed in a review called Volontés in 1939, and that it only really came to the attention of the critics in a new edition with a preface by André Bréton in 1947. From what I've read elsewhere I know that Césaire revised the poem quite heavily on at least three occasions, so it seems at least odd not to mention which version of the text is being used and why.

If you can live with that, this edition seems to be a very good way to approach the poem if French isn't your first language. Rosello's translation is fairly literal but by no means plodding, so depending on how good your French is, you can switch back and forth between the original and the translation quite comfortably. ( )
3 vote thorold | Jan 24, 2016 |
Groundbreaking for its time but because of my bad French as much as the passing of years it didn't speak to me. ( )
  poingu | Jan 23, 2016 |
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» Add other authors (10 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Aime Cesaireprimary authorall editionscalculated
Berger, JohnTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bostock, AnnaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kunene, MazisiIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rosello, MireilleTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Aimé Césaire's masterpiece, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, is a work of immense cultural significance and beauty. This long poem was the beginning of Césaire's quest for négritude, and it became an anthem of Blacks around the world. Commentary on Césaire's work has often focused on its Cold War and anticolonialist rhetoric--material that Césaire only added in 1956. The original 1939 version of the poem, given here in French, and in its first English translation, reveals a work that is both spiritual and cultural in structure, tone, and thrust. This Wesleyan edition includes the original illustrations by Wifredo Lam, and an introduction, notes, and chronology by A. James Arnold.

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