The Antillaise’s Last SmileBy Patrick CHAMOISEAU Sofitel Paris Le Faubourg
I here announce the death of Marie-Caroline Eugénie Artémise, also known as man Artémise, and no doubt also as “Mimise” by those with whom she might have been close. To the latter, I say:
no need for sadness or regret, for as far as I can tell, although I wasn’t there by her side at the moment of her death, although I didn’t even know her and although I have little knowledge of the warm colors of her face apart from what I could discern from the photo that appeared in the local news section of the daily paper, it would seem that man Artémise died peacefully, in a state of something approaching happiness.
The journalist who wrote the obituary — I never read such articles, but in this instance I was compelled to give it close attention — was something of an amateur Sherlock Holmes, skilled at uncovering deaths of no significance, passings in which the corpses ended up at the morgue with no identification, no shred of a family tie, with not a thing from anyone, not the slightest crumb or even a creditor, before the Paris municipal authorities, sanctioned by the police, would then hand the body over to the diggers of unmarked graves. The journalist always managed to render these bodies interesting, although no one cared about them but him. He endeavored to endow them with the semblance of a story, whether bits of a legend from the Métro or a little parking lot tale, in which the ridiculously obvious strands of the intrigue could be traced to what the journalist pretentiously believed to be literature.
As I am sensitive to the spinning of such tales, I had never lingered much upon this section in Le Parisien Libéré , only skimming it from time to time before quickly forgetting it as I turned to the next page, until this strange occurrence when I was drawn to the photograph of man Artémise, and in particular by the “man” that preceded her name and thus confirmed what the photo had appeared to indicate, that she was Antillaise, a Creole from Martinique, Guyane or Guadeloupe, which the black and white photograph demonstrated, depicting her with hair styled like an old Parisienne but wearing a pair of Créole hoop earrings, which could in no way be mistaken for those of a tourist having just returned from the tropics but were in keeping with the lovely ways of a “femme matador,” because Créole hoops are only truly done justice by the arrogance of the neck, the jut of the chin, the sharp eyebrows and spicy pupils that are irrefutable evidence that the person in question is a “local.”
Also curious was the unusually extended length of the obituary, as if the amateur Sherlock Holmes had become so passionate about his normally mundane investigation that he had come up with enough material to finagle two full columns of space plus a photo from his editor. Seeing a photo of an Antillaise in Le Parisien was already in and of itself a minor event in my regular reading of the Sunday papers, as I am a triple exile from those far-off islands, having all my life felt above all “Parisian” — not “French,” but “Parisian,” because, I’m sorry to say, they are not the same, the essence of this indefinable thing that is called “France” being realized in Paris, where all the world’s peculiarities mix with the wonders of all the regions, localities, villages and hamlets that constitute the living matter of the hexagon. I say “triple” because not only was I not born in the French Antilles, but neither was my dad or my “manman”, only my “bonne-manman” grandmother was born there. And until today I have never set foot there, not out of indifference but because life within the walls of Paris provides an exhaustive summary of all human beings, of colonies in general and of the Antilles in particular; the truth is that I have never (at least not before the death of this man Artémise) even intended to visit the Antilles.
All of this to say that I don’t know her, and that if I am writing this death announcement, this burial note, it is not because of friendly or familial relation, but because of the link I feel with a lost part of myself that I thought had been put to sleep but that man Artémise
brought suddenly to life with her unconventional death. The Sherlock Holmes had discovered the little corpse on the zinc tables reserved for the new arrivals that had been washed up from the bowels of Paris during the weekend and landed here in the chilly wee hours of Monday morning. The first body Sherlock Holmes went to was hers, no doubt because her color was not that of an Arab deprived of sun or of who knows what sort of mulatto, but most unmistakably that mild-olive-banana-yellow that indicates an An ti llaise and that, for our Sherlock Holmes of the obituaries, signified the zouks/hot peppers/accras in which he had indulged during his travels in those exotic and French lands.
The police had already visited. They had performed their initial analysis, taken samples and filed reports, concluding that it had been a natural death, which opened a direct path to the common grave that was the final destination for the deceased who have no family ties. The Sherlock Holmes thus had plenty of time to examine the most trivial contents of her purse, where he found the small photo from pre-old-age (this image of a fresh, young woman accompanying the obituary of an elderly lady had contributed to the article’s strangeness). He must have been troubled, I imagine, by the charm exuded by the little photo, as I myself am, and he must have sensed the potential of a titillating intrigue, especially when he discovered in the death report that man Artémise had died on a magnificent sofa, in the glittering, luminous lobby of the luxurious palace Le Faubourg, in one of those chic quarter is of Paris frequented by the beautiful people. This was sufficient for Sherlock Holmes to feel the inspiration that had accompanied his greatest investigations. He was driven by the initial questions: How could such a stylish and neat old Caribbean lady have come to her final end in the lobby of one of the most beautiful hotels in Paris? Who was this person?