BORN: Buctouche, New Brunswick • 10 May 1929
The price of fame can be high. In 1995 a fire broke out in Antonine Maillet’s Montreal kitchen.She called the fire department which, quite properly, asked for her name and address. The reply was Antonine Maillet of 735, avenue Antonine Maillet, the street named in her honour after she won France’s Prix Goncourt.
Not surprisingly, the operator believed the call was a prank and, when matters were sorted out and the engines finally arrived, the kitchen was beyond saving.Acadia’s greatest writer was raised in small towns in New Brunswick, where her parents were teachers and storekeepers.
Her education was in local schools, classical colleges, and, eventually, at Universite de Montreal and at Laval, from which she received a doctorate in literature in 1970. Briefly a nun, she lived and worked in Paris, toiled for Radio-Canada, and all the while wrote about what she knew and loved—her embattled people, her struggling nation, and the will to survive.
Almost all her work, from her first novel through her plays and her television and radio dramas, relies on a fictionalized version of small-village Acadia.Her prose is written in Acadian, a combination of modern French, sixteenth-century dialect, and localisms. Her doctoral dissertation had traced the impact of Rabelais on Acadian French, and she identified hundreds of words that survive nowhere else but in the Acadian patois.
In one of her stories, she didactically noted that Rabelais had a vocabulary of one hundred thou¬ sand words, many of which disappeared in France but persisted in Acadia. This heritage of language, she said, is “tucked away” in Acadia’s “own unconscious, ancestral memory…this language…is alive in us.” It is kept alive in Maillet’s work, sometimes self-consciously in its evoking of national sentiment. To her, Acadia still exists because of its storytellers.
Maillet’s best-known works are La Sagouine, which made her name in Canada, and Pelagie-la-Charette, which won her acclaim in France and throughout Lafrancophonie. The first, roughly translatable as “The Slattern,” is the story of a cleaning woman who tells her story as she scrubs the floor; a story of prostitution, poverty, marriage, and strong opinions about the class system of Acadia.
Maillet is always on the side of les pauvres and never on that of the tightfisted elites (including the clerical elite, which is viciously satirized), and her charwoman is the perfect symbol for her. Naive and wise, passive and resistant, the collective representation of the Acadians though an anti-Evangeline figure, La Sagouine won tremendous acclaim on its publication in 1971. The book was brought to life in a brilliant one-woman stage and radio performance by Viola Leger.
Pelagie-la-Charette is a historical saga, the tale of the epic return to Acadia from Georgia by a woman and her children and hangers-on. This 1979 novel, which has sold more than a million copies around the world, is the fictional return of Evangeline after the 1755 expulsion, a triumph over adver¬ sity that consciously sets out to recreate the history and mythology of Acadia and establish its cultural distinctive¬ ness.
The Prix Goncourt was her reward, the first ever given to a writer who was not a native of France. Its coincidence with the 375th anniversary of Acadian settlement made it all the more special. For Maillet, the recognition in France was recognition of the Acadian language, praise for the popular speech of Buctouche.
Although Maillet lives in Montreal, she remains an Acadian and a nationalist and to some extent an outsider.The Guide cultural du Quebec (1982) gives her an entry, but adds that it had to break its rule to exclude Acadians to do so Nonetheless, she is closer to the Quebecois than to the English-speaking.
In 1986 she spoke of the danger that Moncton might become an English city, but then she contrasted the three hundred English-speakers who turned out to celebrate the city’s anniversary with the eight thousand Acadians. “The English could not ignore that.” What did that prove? “It proves that there’s a vitality in the Acadians that the English people in Moncton no longer have.”
Yes, there is a reason to fear assimilation, but given Acadian history, it is possible that “we’ll be able to assimilate the others. When Rome conquered Greece, it was Greece that assimilated Rome!” If that ever occurs, it will likely be the product of an Acadian cleaning woman and her creator.