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Axel Gauvin: Un Nègre à Quartier Trois-Lettres [Three-Letters District]

Gauvin’s first novel is a fairly light and humorous novel, albeit with serious undertones, not least because of two deaths in it. The title comes from the fact that the district in which it is set is properly called Saint Leu but, as Leu has three letters, it is affectionately known as the Three-Letters District. Though Gauvin wrote it in French, as opposed to Creole, it does use a large amount of Creole and local expressions, with only occasional footnotes as explanations. Gauvin was criticised for not using Creole and, as a result, he translated this book himself into Creole, with the Creole title of Kartié-trwa-lèt.

The District is a poor district and Gauvin tells the stories of the poor people, struggling to make a living. Fishing is one of the main sources of income and we start with Pierre, a young teenager, who is eager to accompany his uncles Maxime and Kaèl on their fishing trips and occasionally does. He will later become a permanent fixture, after his father has died and he has become the main breadwinner for the family. Pierre’s father, Ticien, is not a fisherman but an itinerant mason, who has to travel round the island for his work and often does not return home for a week or two. When he does, he likes to bring something useful that he has found, such as an old Manufrance catalogue or an old tyre. The family can look at the catalogue, even though Ticien is illiterate, and dream of all the things that they would like but cannot have. The tyre can be cut up for rough sandals. Ticien’s wife is Louise and her sons, Pierre and Jules, adore her. However, later in the book, when Ticien returns home drunk, she will go off with Tonin, proving that she is still attractive to men. Tonin will pay for his actions.

Drunkenness is a key theme of the novel. We meet Tonin early on, as a tenant of Mme Nénès. Tonin is not an ideal tenant, being lazy and, of course, a drunk. Mme Nénès seems to have an affection for him, though she makes him sleep outside when he does return home drunk. When he gets fired, apparently for no reason (he says), he goes off to the grocery store of the Chinese Chane-Lame and, with his friends, spends his time drinking and misbehaving. After his fling with Louise, he will later become an election stooge, pretending that the mayor has converted him to his policies, though he was initially against him. For this he will be paid a thousand francs. Louise will try and get a job with the doctor and his wife but, initially, they hire Manda, though she will get fired when the doctor’s wife suspects that her husband is having an affair with Manda. In a very funny scene, Manda insults the doctor’s wife in public. When the doctor’s wife accuses her of being dirty, she pulls up her skirts to reveal impeccably clean underwear and challenges the doctor’s wife to do the same. She nearly does but her hesitation will result in her being made fun of for many months to come. It certainly is an enjoyable novel, a slice of life of the poor people of the island, their language and their ways, their struggles and their humour. Sadly, it has not been translated into any other language, apart from Creole.

Publishing history

First published by L’Harmattan in 1980
No English translation