Saturday, May 09, 2009

Book Review: "Journey to Mauritius"

Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre is best known for his romantic novel Paul et Virginie (1787), but his 1773 epistolary account of the 28 months he spent on Mauritius (which led him to set his later novel there) has been re-translated by Jason Wilson and issued as Journey to Mauritius (Interlink Books, 2003).

Wilson's forty-four page introduction to Saint-Pierre's life and works is somewhat unevenly written, but provides important context. The work itself consists of a series of letters and short essays covering Saint-Pierre's travels to and from Mauritius and his time on the island itself. Topics of particular focus include geography, natural history and observations on geology, agriculture, botany and zoology; remarks on commerce and colonialism, and a stinging indictment of plantation culture and chattel slavery (which might have been even more powerful had the author expressed even an ounce of reticence at using two slaves to carry the two hundred pounds of gear he required for his various jaunts around Mauritius).

The account itself is fascinating, and Bernardin's consciousness of his own educational shortcomings is refreshing: several times he drops discussions after admitting that he knows nothing more about the topic. Wilson has at times added annotations to expand on Saint-Pierre's comments - more of these would have been quite useful in identifying other plant and animal species mentioned in the text.

In this re-translation of the text, Wilson has incorporated additions Saint-Pierre planned to incorporate in a second edition of his narrative, to have been published in the late 1790s (but which never saw print). These additions should, in my view, have been handled differently, by setting them off from the original text somehow. Also, Wilson's various excisions from the text, including much technical detail, don't necessarily improve the narrative (I found a sampling of letters from the original 1775 English translation by John Parish both more readable and complete).