THERE ARE HISTORIES carved in stone, and then there are the stones of the land: rough and mute, containing traces of the men and women who passed over them, softening their ridges, leaving blood, hair, skin. There are official narratives — consecrated in colonial ledgers and history books — and there are the stories that people tell far from the ears of their colonizers. There are sites of cultural heritage, acknowledged and celebrated, and then there are the places, equally laden with symbolic weight, that no one wants to remember.

These distinctions preoccupy the Martinican writer Patrick Chamoiseau, who coined a term to combat the official Memory-with-a-capital-M enshrined in French history and culture: “trace-mémoire,” or “memory trace.” “Forget the old words,” he wrote in French Guiana: Memory Traces of the Penal Colony (Guyane: Traces-mémoires du bagne), originally published in 1994. “New ones are necessary.” 

In Beloved, Toni Morrison proposed her own neologism: “rememory” — the legacy of trauma etched into black people’s minds and bodies, the past that can’t be still. Chamoiseau’s memory trace is a similar concept: a dynamic subaltern transmission of experience. It’s always there, if you know where to look. To Chamoiseau, the memory trace allows a way into one of the most vexing and understudied horrors of the French colonial enterprise: the penal colony system that took the lives and freedom of thousands of men throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.

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Patrick Chamoiseau’s collected work — essays, novels, films, comics — is a landmark of cultural heritage in its own right, acknowledged by the heights of the French literary establishment, but still underappreciated by its more diffuse Anglophone equivalent. A quarter of a century after it first appeared, French Guiana: Memory Traces of the Penal Colony has been beautifully rendered into English by Matt Reeck, who is attuned to Chamoiseau’s strange lyricism. Like the original, this new translation presents 62 images of the now abandoned and slowly crumbling penal colony on the Guyanese Salvation’s Islands, taken in 1993 by the photographer Rodolphe Hammadi.

For Anglophone readers who likely know little of the French penal colony system, or bagne, Charles Forsdick’s introduction to the book is an excellent primer. Institutionalized forced labor camps, he writes, were essential to the French colonial order. Like the body’s digestive system, they allowed the metropole to both expel its undesirable components and transform raw material from the colonies into fuel for the colonial machine. The bagne at French Guiana was the most notorious of all the penal colonies. Under a rule called doublage, prisoners sentenced less than eight years were forced to remain on the island for the same length of time as newly free men, in a sort of quarantine. Any conviction of longer than eight years meant a life sentence.

As the storied history of France unspools, the penal colony runs its course alongside, a festering, unlit parallel track. Formally consecrated in 1854, from 1864 to 1897 the Guianese penal colony housed only prisoners from other colonial outposts — the 75 percent mortality rate was deemed too murderous for French convicts.

The bagne was active until the late 1930s, and Forsdick notes that political prisoners from Algeria were still being repatriated as late as 1961, the same year their countrymen were being shot and thrown into the Seine. Originally, it was meant for political dissidents, later it housed petty criminals and prisoners of war. Colonel Alfred Dreyfus did time on Salvation’s Islands after his unjust conviction for treason at France’s trial of the century.

Here, we see the collision of two types of French “memory” — the bad that has been acknowledged and hashed out versus the bad that was merely excised from the record. Colonel Dreyfus was Jewish. His conviction, motivated by pervasive antisemitism, was eventually overturned after significant public outcry. This remains one of the country’s most famous political moments. As Forsdick notes, Dreyfus’s cell on Devil’s Island is the sort that gets shown to tourists. In 1987, it was declared a monument historique, joining the ranks of such iconic heritage sites as the Palais Garnier, Notre-Dame cathedral, and the gardens of Claude Monet.

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Absent Forsdick’s introduction, you could come away from Memory Traces without absorbing any of these details about the penal colony. True to his project, Chamoiseau declines to reveal names, dates, statistics. “It’s a strictly Western naiveté to think something lost to time can be elucidated in descriptions of volume, mass, and surface,” he writes.

You would be left with no doubt, though, as to the particular shape of this horror. Memory Traces is a “project of affective history,” as Reeck writes in his translator’s note. The text is impressionistic and peripatetic, but the reader is regularly struck by moments of sharp, brutal clarity: “The whip’s odor of tar and vinegar, its odor of blood.”

Chamoiseau is one of the most inventive stylists writing in French, a pleasure and a challenge for translators. In an interview given at LitFestBergen earlier this year, he spoke of the writer’s “right to opacity,” and the translator’s duty to be a guardian of that right. Reeck, a celebrated translator of French and Urdu, has taken note, threading the gap between theory and poetry, and preserving Chamoiseau’s transitions from vivid descriptive writing into more formal, academic language.

Like Toni Morrison, Chamoiseau is attuned to the way those written out of the past haunt our present, troubling the official narrative. The writer detects the traces of French Guiana’s past in everything, lapping at our heels like a restless sea. “I hear the regular footfall of a boot, sometimes weary, always bored — O, warder!” he writes, wandering through the abandoned barracks. He moves fluidly between the past and the present tense, from third to second to first person, until you are hardly certain whether you means Chamoiseau or the reader or the prisoners who lived and died there.

This linguistic abundance extends to manmade structures, the natural world, even light and shadow. Chamoiseau imbues the prison with human characteristics, writing of “the living skin of the walls […] with gaping wounds,” “iron joints like prosthetic limbs.” Roots “scar” the prison, “pulling inconceivable lifeblood from stones and cement — the sap of what couldn’t be extracted from hearts and souls.” The darkness is “womblike”; walking through the courtyard is like finding yourself “inside a disemboweled ship that has foundered in the red earth.”

On Devil’s Island, each thing is its own contradiction. Prisoners beg for the light, but the light betrays the depths of their subjugation; darkness “covered up heinous and silent deaths […] but they also assuaged childish bewilderment…” Stones break bodies yet are themselves worn down. Beyond, the sea beckons: it both “imprisons” and “promises the chance of leaving.”

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Chamoiseau goes in search of graffiti etched onto the sides of the prison buildings, and finds murals, names, and numbers: “[T]he years scratched into the walls…” These traces, though, present a problem of interpretation. “What does this number 26 here mean?” Chamoiseau asks, inspecting the writing: “What, this 25? Some are effaced, some remain. The figures combine with drawings, with scratches, with black moss; they cover the skin of the wall with their disturbing tattoos…”

The prisoners’ etchings survive and testify, but their meaning is unreachable. The distance is too vast. A memory trace is not a time machine. Chamoiseau has been in the habit of bringing the reader into the beating hearts of the men who once inhabited the bagne, but now, as the essay draws to a close, he disrupts that identification, questioning his own assumptions of their inner lives: “What happened here? This place of horror? This place of pacification? There’s no way to know now. We don’t understand much of it anymore. We can only perceive these presences and their shattered meanings.”

So writing falls short; it always does. Declaring his pen to be an insufficient portal into the past, Chamoiseau calls for oral historians and “artists gifted with color” to illuminate the memory traces contained within the bagne of Cayenne, to “stop [their] erosion […] and to give them life.” This, I suppose, is where the photographs come in. Rodolphe Hammadi’s images reveal another layer of the overlapping and fragmentary meanings articulated by Chamoiseau, a different sort of memory trace. The sturdy buildings depicted in the photos lend weight to Chamoiseau’s sentences, providing a spatial geometry to accompany the meanderings of the text, and their emptiness is given shape by Chamoiseau’s articulations of the abuses and daily indignities that occurred within: “[T]he stench of bitter soup, scraps of spongy bread, and the wasting away of despairing bodies in fetid corners.”

Hammadi’s photos are striking: melancholic and eerie. Palm fronds paper the floor of a cell, one hanging lopsided through its window, which retains only the faint outlines of bars. Lichen stains the walls. Vines hang like frayed rope or driving rain through the roof of the old canteen. The paint is unevenly chipped, revealing a palimpsest of pinks, yellows, rust browns. If the goal is to express the multitudes contained within a hidden past and their lingering impact on the present though, I have to disagree with Chamoiseau: photography alone cannot provide a fuller account of the penal colony’s “formidable abstraction” than his own conscious experimentation.

More than anything, Hammadi’s images foreground time and the erasure of the intervening years. They testify to the reality of this past, but looking at them, it’s hard to feel like the small daily acts of punishment and resistance that once occurred here still animate the present. These things happened, yes, a spectator might respond, but they happened in another world.

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It’s been decades since these photos were taken, and now we are living in another world entirely. As Charles Forsdick notes in the introduction, in the 26 years since the photo-text’s original publication, the French Guianese penal colony has “benefited from major heritage initiatives,” its sites cleared, restored, and turned into a museum.

I have to wonder what Chamoiseau thinks of this development. Can a museum properly pay tribute to the multifarious realities of the bagne, or does it serve the purpose of freezing that reality in time, flattening it and holding it up to the light, as a lepidopterist might a butterfly? Does the enclosure of these spaces into heritage sites risk estranging them from the present, when similar structures are being recreated today?

The deportation of political dissidents and criminals under the penal colony system was recently recapitulated in France’s attempt, in 2015, to strip French citizenship from people convicted of terrorism. The proposed law, known as déchéance, led to the resignation, in protest, of Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, herself born in French Guiana in 1952, as the penal colony’s last prisoners were still being repatriated to France.

In 2020, there is a new generation of island prison camps, new sites of sequestration for a state’s undesirables: Guantanamo Bay, where prisoners of the American government are held in violation of their rights to habeas corpus; Manus Island off of Australia, which keeps asylum seekers at arm’s length from their destination; the refugee camps in Northern France — islands on the land where men (many former colonial subjects) live, rejected from French society but unable to move on to other shores.

In one of these camps, I saw a graffito written in French that read: “February 2016 — France is killing and imprisoning its former slaves.” The graffiti that Chamoiseau found on Devil’s Island may have resisted interpretation, but as memory traces go, this one was clear.

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Piper French is a writer living in Los Angeles.