Anne Bihan, The Writer, a « Man Without Qualities »

« This whole literature is an assault against the frontier »
– Franz Kafka, Diaries [1]


If, as the Argentinean writer Juan José Saer [2] declares, « all narrators live in the same homeland, the thick virgin forest of the real, » if the writer must remain against all odds « the keeper of the possible » and « refuse to represent, as a writer, any kind of ideological interest, or aesthetic or political dogma, even though he/she is thereby condemned to marginality and obscurity » [3], the issue of identity might become a snare in which writing could be trapped and diverted from its only raison d’être: a human being exercising a radical freedom, expressed in a praxis that is, by definition, hesitant, uncontrollable and impossible for the social norm to appropriate, even in an « emerging, » supposedly « post-colonial » context where this insubordination – this experience of independence – also plays its role of major witness, in a manner that is perhaps even more perceptible than anywhere else.

What kind of a testimony is the act of writing? What does literature reveal, not only here and now in Oceania, but also in China, Africa, Latin America and Europe?

In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature in Stockholm on 7 December 2000, Gao Xingjian [4], who fought censorship and the almighty power of the Communist system, gave a categorical response to these questions: « What I want to say here is that literature can only be the voice of the individual and it has always been so. Once literature is contrived as a hymn to a country, the standard bearer of a nation, the mouthpiece of a political party or the voice of a particular class or group, it can be employed as a powerful, all-engulfing tool of propaganda. However, such writing loses what is inherent to literature, ceases to be literature at all, and becomes a tool serving power and vested interests, whatever the means made available for its diffusion and however successful its reach. »

Hence we have a voice, « inevitably weak »… « weak and discordant, » according to the author of Soul Mountain, borne by an « ordinary man, » a voice telling of the consciousness of what it is to be human and to be present in the world. In the daily practice of writing, this awareness finds its expression in the endless search for a language to tell « what has yet to be said. » It is thus a question of identity – understood as what gives things a name, identifies them – that is not fixed, once and for all, but rather ever changing, ever about to come.

This brings to mind the words of Jean-Marie Tjibaou [5] that have been repeated so many times over the past years that their intensity can sometimes fade: « Our identity lies in front of us » [6].

Of course, these words should not be diverted from their struggle for the recognition of « Melanesian man, » showing that there is « another way to express mankind, » subject, as he stated, to a « permanent reformulation. » To do so would jeopardise the noblest dimension of communication: that of dialogue between individuals. How can one individual among the throng of humanity go out and meet others without knowing who s/he is, without knowing the land(s) and the individuals whose history and permanence, but also whose creative power, s/he expresses, here and now.

By denying this fundamental need for an identity and a territory [7], the current globalisation process endlessly turns borders into walls punctuated with watchtowers and illusory identities reduced to their most deadly form, murderers [8].

« In front of us. » Jean-Marie Tjibaou was a great listener and a man of forgiveness, a peacemaker; the words he spoke still echo strongly in the debate that concerns us here. Because this « in front of us » turns out to be, in its own way, the keeper of what is possible. It expresses the refusal to be inward-looking or contained. It reveals the impetus for a permanent construction that is implied in the work of being human, which, as living creatures, we are called upon to carry out. It defines identity not by qualifying or characterising it, but by opening it up to the pulse of the living in which any kind of literature is interested. It is this pulse that any creative practice naturally seeks to tap and explore, from the Arnhem Land or the Lascaux frescoes to the birth of a literature, in the Western sense of the term, among societies some might regard as « deprived of writing, » about which we must never forget that, although quite different, they remain above all contemporary to one another.

In New Caledonia, is there such a debate about what literature is, or at least about what it should not be?

The society born from the Nouméa Agreement, still under construction, expects its writers to serve it and to help define itself. Although this society keeps them at a safe distance and on the fringe – despite the writers’ own complaints – it enjoins them to participate in the community of destiny to which it has officially committed itself to build.

As for the writers themselves, like the country’s other artists, they seldom have the strength to turn this society away, even though they are not happy being – subtly – commanded, torn as they are between their guilty desire to affirm their radical independence and their notable submission to the petty laurels handed out from time to time. They feel responsible and they are right in doing so, but as writers, they might get lost when trying to exercise this responsibility with regard to the community.

They are thus tempted to subject their writing to the affirmation of some « Caledonitude » or « Kanakitude » that should be immediately readable by the public at large. Their work is then bound to get bogged down in the mire of exotic clichés, thus contributing to trivializing – that is, destroying – the creative energy of a land that thereby loses any chance of making its unique presence heard. Losing this presence, however, would mean – for any of us – losing a bit of our humanity.

The writers are all the more impatient to make themselves heard, seen, and acknowledged as they are acutely conscious of the race against time in the lead-up to the referendum on self-determination announced by the Noumea Agreement. Anything and everything can then be lumped together under the heading of what is called Caledonian literature. Narratives and personal testimonies [9] are put on the same footing as the painstaking search for an intimate connection between language and the world. The outcome of a writing workshop or some nice story for children receives as much praise as an entire volume that reveals a voice committed to casting off the finery of mere facade.

Any attempt to exercise a critical judgement in the public arena is more or less perceived as an attack aimed at the country in the process of self-construction. Those born here do not dare to do so, although that does not mean that they do not think about it sometimes. Those who have come here from elsewhere are often too busy trying to get accepted, trying to get an accolade – even if this sometimes means giving up all illusions and their own internal demands.

If, however, after the unavoidable period of silent listening, and while making sure that one always keeps in mind the fact of one’s ignorance – something that is confirmed any time we encounter the Other –, one dares to question these (phoney?) truths, one is rejected with a rare violence. Non-Kanak natives are the people who feel the least secure in their identity, and they are also the ones who are the most prone to dismissing the views of the « outsiders » as worthless. In so doing, they hurt themselves much more than the so-called « outsiders, » rejected on account of what illegitimacy? They hurt that part of themselves whose difference with the Kanak world they should not deny; they should rather sever the connection of this difference to one of its roots, admittedly the most distant, but no less real than the others. Woe betide the « outsider, » especially if he or she is French and finds words to speak of this land in which s/he was not born [10], and if s/he does so without justifying him- or herself in one way or another.

If complete confusion reigns in the so-called « emerging Caledonian literature, » the discrimination is nonetheless made deep inside some people’s minds, or behind the scenes of those circles that appear and disappear with the passing alliances. These alliances are seldom freely chosen in any case, subject as they are to formidable taboos that are left unsaid, and to people looking over their shoulders, sometimes even insulting one other in the media. These insults are basically xenophobic, and symbolically murderous. We are far from the « thick virgin forest of the real » that is supposedly the common homeland to be explored and shared by all.

With such reasoning, what would they do here, in New Caledonia, with people such as Beckett, Kundera, Fondane, Cioran, Césaire, Senghor; Kateb Yacine and so many other migrant writers who are geographical, linguistic and cultural migrants? The work of these writers is celebrated precisely for having sprung from two, three and even four « I »s.

I must dare say, as a « foreigner » who has been « visited » – a resident here because this country lives in me – that writers, whatever their points of difference, or indeed their complete opposition to such a way thinking, must accept urgently to engage in discussion about these questions, without taboos or aggression, in a public arena, free of passion.

The stakes are high.

Literature, or what passes as such, is indeed far from being « an assault on the last earthly frontier, » as Kafka declared. It runs the risk of becoming another soulless slab of stone contributing not to a new agora or a common destiny, but rather to the construction of one more wall blocking out any open perspective on the island’s future. What seeks to be an assertion of identity in fact, paradoxically, ends up denying the age-old xenophile intelligence of Pacific island societies.

People committed to writing regularly stumble into the pitfalls mentioned by Juan José Saer and Gao Xingjian. Their writing becomes a tool put in the service of a struggle whose validity I do not aim to judge while asserting that this fight nonetheless traps, restricts, and diverts literature from its reason for being.

What is this reason?

Obstinately, we must remind ourselves to make, humbly and obstinately, the weak voice of one individual among other individuals heard: an individual who may be Caledonian, Oceanian (or whatever), but whose main purpose is to remain the « keeper of the possible, » committed to his gigantic task.

This task does not consist in speaking of an identity that exists prior to writing.

This task cannot aim to build any kind of citizenship.

It is a task whose goal for the writer is to be him- or herself, and to be in the world, completely.

When writing, that is all that matters.

Being a Person.

Becoming human.

Wanting to be alive, absolutely human and alive.

Striving somehow to become « Do Kamo, » the man who is alive, the true human, in a number of Kanak languages.

In so doing, the individual marches forward, saying « No » to all that threatens what is absolutely alive, absolutely human [11].

Then, and only then, literature might help to open a door, perhaps more than one door. From it, a small fragment of mankind living here now might become a bit more aware of itself, finding the words to express itself in a different manner and to name the world differently, looking directly at itself, laughing at itself, shedding collective tears for the dead, and celebrating the living.

Then, and only then, this small fragment of mankind might recognize itself as a people, as a nation, as a community sharing a common fate, the same « weak and harsh » voice, the mark left by the glowing solitude of this individual among other individuals, whose only worth consists in standing in the night, free, as a sentry, simply happy when, from time to time, a fellow human’s hand is held out to his or hers. An indeterminate, non-descript person. A man without qualities.

– Nouméa, October 2003


1.  The title of this essay is inspired from the title of Robert Musil’s novel, The Man Without Qualities (1931). [back to text]

2.  An Argentinean writer exiled in France, Juan José Saer has published Le mai argentinLes grands paradisNadie nada nuncaUnité de lieuL’ancêtreL’anniversaireL’occasionPoésies and L’art de raconter. [back to text]

3.  Juan José Saer, Una literatura sin atributos (1986), from the French translation by Gérard de Cortanze, Saint-Nazaire: Arcane 17, 1985. [back to text]

4.  The Case for Literature, speech given by Gao Xingjian when he received the Nobel Price in Literature in 2000. Among other works, Gao Xingjian has written Soul Mountain. He is also a playwright. [back to text]

5.  Jean-Marie Tjibaou was a Kanak intellectual who launched what has been called the « Melanesian cultural awakening. » He was also a pro-independence leader, and one of the signatories of the Matignon-Oudinot Agreement. He was assassinated on 5 May 1989 by a fellow Kanak who regarded this signing as a betrayal. [back to text]

6.  Jean-Marie Tjibaou, La Présence kanak, Paris: Odile Jacob, 1996. [back to text]

7.  For further information, read Dominique Wolton, Penser la communication, Paris: Flammarion, 1997. [back to text]

8.  Amin Maalouf, Murderous identities (Les identités meurtrières, Paris: Grasset, 1998). [back to text]

9.  The point here is to try to make the notion of literature clearer. The purpose is not at all to create a hierarchy or to deny the interest of these life stories, or testimonies, that become books, as they are a necessary part in the construction of a shared memory. The eminently fictional dimension of any memory, either of the self or of the world, should not be forgotten. Everyone knows the more or less conscious revisionisms that can be brought when mixing past events, which can only be captured in a vague and fragmentary way, with their representations.

Some of these accounts, of course, can become autofictions, in which language becomes predominant as the events and feelings recounted turn into writing material, colors on the painter’s palette. What is interesting is how they go together, classify, interact, vibrate, resound. This is what gives a painting power and a book its strength.

The same goes for what is called « adolescent » or « children’s » literature. On the one hand, we have stories whose main quality – and it is not the least – is that they are shared by a generation of readers who thereby acquire common references. On the other hand, we also have some stories, sometimes the same ones, that will reach a level where the words and the world match enough to transform the former and the representation that the readers have of the latter. [back to text]

10.  Béniela Hombouy, a Kanak philosopher, wrote these remarkable words in the preface to the new edition of the 1952 text by Jean Mariotti, A Quest for a harmonious life with Nature in the Melanesian world, by Jean Mariotti (La conquête du séjour paisible, Nouméa: Grain de sable, 2003): « Why could not someone who is culturally different, the White man in this case, do better than I in putting into words, translating my inner, personal, fundamentally original thoughts? Even if some ambiguities remain, they do not take away from the fantastic nature of the adventure. Quite the opposite. » Further on, in the same presentation of the new edition, Hombouy stresses what he regards as the legitimacy of Jean Mariotti: having written not « about » but « through, » and « with » Kanak culture. He has listened and has let himself be visited. [back to text]

11.  Nowadays these threats are numerous, from the wall being built in Palestine to the violated rights of the most ancient people on Earth, whose children, as Alexis Wright has noted, having lost all hope, hang themselves to live electric cables in the main streets of isolated Aboriginal communities saturated with alcohol. They destroy themselves just like so many young people do here in New Caledonia.

Thus Alexis Wright in Australia, Alan Duff in New Zealand, Sia Figiel in Samoa, but also Salman Rushdie in his exile, and so many others, even here in New Caledonia, say « No. » They do not try to convey an idyllic, exotic or nostalgic picture of the world. They try to find words to say what threatens that which is absolutely human, absolutely alive in us: a fair, lively, and human language that reveals and enlightens, but also collides, shocks and delves into the deepest recesses of our inhumanity.

In so doing they commit themselves without relinquishing any part of the experience expressed by Wright, the author of Plains of Promise (Plaines de l’espoir) and The Pact of the Raimbow Snake (Pacte du serpent arc-en-ciel), who writes, in Believe in the Unbelievable (Croire en l’incroyable): « I often realised that nobody could accompany me in my travels, as I often took an alternative path – the perilous one. It was not necessarily the shortest one, but I felt that it was the closest to the country’s reality. »

Alexis Wright would thus be similar to Saer and Gao Xinjian: they are alone, forever alone and yet inhabited, visiting and visited, a keeper of our possible humanity. [back to text]

This essay by Anne Bihan, « The Writer, a ‘Man Without Qualities’, » was first published in Litteramaohi in 2004. The English translation by Clémence Veyret (revised by Peter Brown), is published for the first time with Île en île where the original text, « L’écrivain, un « homme sans qualités » », as this translation, have been published with permission by the author (and translator).

© 2004 Anne Bihan © 2005 Anne Bihan et Île en île



mis en ligne : 22 juin 2005 ; mis à jour : 29 octobre 2020