Death on the donkey (“Le Mort sur l'âne”), by Nicolas Cavaillès
What is toponymy? What do place-names tell us about places? Via this unusual topic, Nicolas Cavaillès’ Death on the Donkey offers a unique perspective on Mauritius and its geography.
A man of letters
Nicolas Cavaillès is what we call a man of letters. He is a translator, a publisher, a literary critic, and a novelist, and he combines these many hats with plenty of successes, such as his first novel published by the Éditions du Sonneur, Life of Mr Leguat (“Vie de monsieur Leguat”), winner of the Prix Goncourt de la Nouvelle in 2014.
After skilfully addressing the theme of childhood (The eight Schumann children (“Les Huit Enfants Schumann”)) and taking a fantastical approach to the mystery of whale leaps (Why whales jump (“Pourquoi le saut des baleines”)), Nicolas Cavaillès took on the toponymy of Mauritius with Death on the Donkey.
An unusual epic
Death on the donkey is the unusual epic tale of a donkey – or “bourik” in Creole – who isn’t like the others. Harnessed to a rotting corpse, Cavaillès’ donkey wanders across Mauritius without a destination. His perambulations are a pretext for a return to the island’s less scenic toponymy.
Indeed, for Nicolas Cavaillès, the names of the sites reflect the twists of history. They are the first sign of a disappearing wild world, exhausted by man and his civilisation. The author shares his disillusionment with this lost paradise, not without humour.
Looking for the Creole past
To collect all the material necessary for his subject, Nicolas Cavaillès spent six weeks on Mauritius, searching for the island's toponyms, which are particularly evocative of its Creole past, accompanied by the writings of Barlen Pyamootoo, a Mauritian writer, and those of Monchoachi. It is to this Martinican poet and essayist, in whose work we find the same attention to place names, that the book is dedicated.
The plot of the book is inspired by an anonymous nineteenth-century Creole tale, which recounted the story of a donkey carrying a corpse on its back. Through this cultural loan, Nicolas Cavaillès pays a kind of tribute to the island’s Creole literature.
An invitation to travel
Death on the donkey does not take us on any ordinary trip. While the exotic settings and the quirky situations described sometimes coax a smile, the background is nevertheless painful. Through figures of style and self-referential techniques, Nicolas Cavaillès, dissolves the decadence of our societies into a backdrop, which by striving to build too much ends up destroying everything.
Neither a historical tale nor a novel, Death on the donkey is a journey of the mind. Like the ass traversing the island’s roads, the author’s thinking seems to sail freely among the chapters of this philosophical tale, which engages in an almost metaphysical reflection on the link between that which is named and that which names it.
Winner of an Institut français Stendhal Residency, Nicolas Cavaillès was in Mauritius from late August to early October of 2016.
The Stendhal programme allows french authors or authors living in France to travel to a foreign country and work on a writing project related to that country.