“The Last Days of Richard Wagner”, by Roland Brival or the burning questions of racial identity

Writer, poet, playwright, artist, Roland Brival has enriched Caribbean creation for more than forty years with his multiple talents

“The Last Days of Richard Wagner”, by Roland Brival or the burning questions of racial identity

Writer, poet, playwright, artist, Roland Brival has enriched Caribbean creation for more than forty years with his multiple talents. A precursor since the 1970s and 1980s of shows combining visual arts, theater and music, he has always liked to surprise by interweaving genres, places and eras.

His new novel, The Last Days of Richard Wagner, is no exception to this rule. Two protagonists come together across space and time. The first, a modern-day writer named Jérôme Soulanges, in the midst of a crisis of inspiration. While passing through his native island of Martinique, he discovered, thanks to a librarian friend, a manuscript dating from the 19th century and unusual to say the least.

Composed of a series of letters, the text is the life story addressed to his sister by a certain Barnabé Morel – the second protagonist – former slave from the West Indies freed during the abolition of 1848 and valet of the great musician Richard Wagner during his last months of existence. Morel traveled around the world to Europe. He recounts the way he was treated under the composer's roof and in his town of Bremen, experiencing disdain for his condition as a servant coupled with persistent racism.

But Morel's level of education soon arouses the curiosity of Wagner who, progressing relatively in "friendship" with his valet, gradually opens up to him about his professional and sentimental memories to the point that he asks him to transcribe his intimate confessions: “Do you hear me, Barnabas, I, Wagner, the man whom all revere like an idol, I was this unworthy, greedy, devious creature, and whose misdeeds I will not tell you only to try to free my soul from it. »

Brought back above all to its color

Struck by the historical content of the manuscript, disconcerted by the relationship established between the white composer and his black valet, Jérôme Soulanges wanted to seize this opportunity to construct a new novel. He embarked on research and settled in turn in Bremen then in Venice in the footsteps of Wagner and Morel. But what plot can be found to bring such a project to life? And how can we generate interest in this surprising relational exception for those who know the dark side of the German musician?

“What could the memoirs of a black valet have in common with the life of one of the greatest maestros of all time, Wagner, the cursed man, shaken to the firmament of his glory by his sulphurous reputation as an anti-Semite and, later, by the admiration shown to him by Hitler who saw in his work the inspiration for the philosophical foundations of the Third Reich? »

But Soulanges persists in his project, becoming aware of the reflections that the manuscript gives rise to in him, a man of mixed race by his origins but who, wherever he goes in the Western world, remains, in this 21st century, brought back above all else to his color: “I am white when I go to Normandy to visit my maternal grandparents (…). I am black when I arrive in Martinique (…). In Europe, wherever I go, it is in the guise of a black person that the man in the street perceives me”…

Already reluctant to the idea of ​​a book evoking the German composer, the publisher of Soulanges is skeptical of the idea that it could also raise burning questions of racial identity which appear to her in advance to be reductive. Will Soulanges' literary project see the light of day?

Roland Brival engages in a clever exercise in interlocking with this eighteenth novel, superimposing eras and narratives, interweaving texts. The writer in fact narrates the gropings of a novelist himself leaning over the life story of a servant into which are inserted the confidences of the one whose scribe he is... and of whom we do not know if the latter really has exist !

The existence of a racial hierarchy

As in a period costume film, Brival allows us to apprehend with a precise and subtle pen the atmosphere of the European courts and residences of the 19th century. We visualize this context down to the smallest detail and we imagine what order the daily “black experience” could have been in circles convinced, after decades of slave predation, of the existence of a racial hierarchy giving them superiority. .

Trained throughout his life, educated, cultivated, Morel creates surprise among his interlocutors and finds himself, generally in vain, having to fight against countless preconceptions, like this time when he responds to a visitor's denial regarding the massacre of indigenous peoples during Christopher Columbus' voyages of discovery:

“- Enough, Mr. Morel! gave me the joke. The official story is the truth generally accepted by all, and you are not going to pretend to rewrite its pages! »

– Do you know, sir, this phrase from Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “I often tell fables, but I never lie”? He looked at me with a stunned look (…). »

At the same time, Jérôme Soulanges also had to defend his novel project many times to his editor. We end up understanding that the mise en abyme proposed by Brival carries a meaning that goes beyond the very structure of the novel. Indeed, by bringing together two temporal periods and by showing the strong emotion that the content of Morel's manuscript provokes in Soulanges, the writer underlines the persistent imprint of racism and demonstrates the decline that the idea of ​​"races" produces for humanity.

“The world that is preparing demands from us a revolution even more radical than that of the end of the war of the sexes: the abolition of racial gender. My journey through black identity will only have led me to the discovery of an even broader identity, one that men have shared since the dawn of time and which to renounce would mean the loss of all humanity. » concludes Soulanges.

The place given to Richard Wagner can no longer be read as an attempt at indulgent rehabilitation of the musician, but as an invitation to nuance. No individual in the world is entirely driven by evil or good, Brival reminds us. No more than anyone in the world can or should be reduced to their skin color alone.