Salomon Atoll in the Chagos Archipelago. Charles and Anne Sheppard, University of Warwick/Wikimedia Commons

They sat around the plot, as peaceful as seabirds. Their hands plunged into woven baskets, pulled out coconuts that they set on their skirts. Always the same gestures: raise the machete, split the fruit with a sharp thrust, husk each half before putting it on the ground, the meat exposed to the sun. Then the men would take the copra to the mill. Grindstones pulled by donkeys drew out a thick oil as the husks burned in the furnace.

“The clocks set the time for the day,” Mollinart explained. “Work starts at dawn, around six fifteen, and stops in the early afternoon. Then the Îlois go and fish or cook or do who knows what. Come along.” They walked up to the workers.

She had turned her back too late; Gabriel recognized her immediately. Marie-Pierre Ladouceur.

Seeing her dance amid the flames two days earlier, he’d been overcome by dizziness. The woman was ravishing. Dark skin with gilded hues. A round face. A supple body, her legs freed. It was too much. That skirt hiked up, swishing, those shrieks, those men around her… And her name! It was like a spell that a witch in a book casts on you.

“We export tons of copra every year to Mauritius and the rest of the world. One of your tasks, young man, will be overseeing production with me.”

The administrator raised a hand to the women to wave to them. Marie turned when she saw him.

Her startle hurt him. Gabriel bent over quickly. The headscarf holding back her hair revealed her protruding, smooth forehead. Her lips were rounded in a small, sullen moue. But one detail alarmed him. Below her cheeks, small dimples formed tiny wells of love. He felt uncomfortable and kept up with Mollinart so as to get away from her.

“Apart from Pointe de l’Est, where we are, and which is the heart of the island, there are two other villages. Well, you know what I mean by villages. Paths with shacks on both sides. Pointe Marianne to the south and Nouva to the north. On the main island and the islets that make up Diego Garcia, there are about a thousand inhabitants.”

Gabriel nodded and followed Mollinart. He came upon a room where a dozen or so children of all ages were playing. He recognized Makine Tasdebois in a corner. The administrator stopped.

“See? I don’t even have a teacher for them. In any case, as soon as they’re old enough to work, the kids help their parents with fishing or at the mill.”

Mollinart then showed him the forge, the infirmary – three beds in a row in a small sheet-metal shack, two boxes of medicine right on the ground, and an old stethoscope gathering dust – the cemetery adjoining the church, protected by century-old banyans, and the garage of his villa, which had been turned into a telecommunications office.

“Here is where you can send telegrams to your family.” 

Gabriel thanked him.

“Well, I think you’ve seen all there is to see. Shall we turn to serious matters now?”

In the dimly lit room, towering heaps of registers threatened to tip over. Gabriel took them down one by one to organize them in chronological order. They were mainly account books, documenting business transactions between Diego Garcia and Mauritius, all written in English, records of the transfers of slaves deported from Madagascar to the Chagos. He opened one at random.

Date: 17 December 1819
Name of the vessel: Ship Constance
Name of the owner: Mr E. Fouquereaux
Domestic servants accompanying their Masters or Masters’ family: 5 Males – 9 Females
Place of destination: Diego Garcia
Permanently transferred: 5 Males – 7 Females

Such horrifyingly precise volumes would be a dream come true for historians. He set them aside in a locked cabinet, then collected all the active account books, apart from the most recent one. Sitting at his small desk, he checked off the list of provisions for the Sir Jules, as Mollinart had asked him to. In the livestock section, his pencil hovered. On the wedding night, the Îlois had pounced on the unfortunate ox’s meat; even Father Larronde hadn’t denied himself the pleasure, but seeing the blood trickle had been enough to deter Gabriel from even a bite.

I’d like to know your thoughts on the referendum. How do you feel about the matter? You were there just a week ago. It’s no secret, I’ll have you know, I’m rather close with Gaëtan Duval.”

View over Diego Garcia, Chagos, taken during ISS Expedition 6. Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center

Overcome by a wave of sadness, he shut the register. His existence wasn’t all that different from that game of skill Évelyne had always begged to play when they were little: after scattering a handful of sticks on the table, they had to pick them up one by one without moving the others. He did better at those games than at real life. What could his sister really do in Beau-Bassin while he wore himself out recording goods in this thick old book? He’d send her a telegram as soon as he could.

“Well, my boy, is it going well?” Mollinart didn’t even glance at what Gabriel was writing as he hunched over a small table from which he pulled out a carafe of whiskey and two huge glasses. “Let’s have us a talk, man to man.” Again. Whether he was on Mauritius or Diego Garcia, conversations didn’t really happen except over a bottle. The administrator pulled a chair over.

“My wife, well, you’ve likely figured that my wife comes from a family that’s rather… how to put it…”


“Exactly. Very prim. Talking politics at the dinner table simply isn’t done. But here, we’re not at the dinner table, are we?”

Mollinart had a knack for setting his fellow men at ease, and this casualness didn’t displease Gabriel.

“I’d like to know your thoughts on the referendum.” Mollinart had a sip of the drink, which he’d swirled. “How do you feel about the matter? You were there just a week ago. It’s no secret, I’ll have you know, I’m rather close with Gaëtan Duval.”

Of course. The leader of the Mauritian Party. Mollinart supported him, as did the rest of the Creole bourgeoisie. 

“If Mauritius gains independence, there’ll be upheaval everywhere, even here, on the Chagos. I don’t know what the British will do, but one thing I know for sure.” His eyes narrowed. “The copra trade may well be affected.”

Despite the wide-open window, Gabriel could hardly breathe. No breeze refreshed the room tonight. He’d been tossing and turning for at least an hour, his neck ablaze. The foam of his mattress exuded the foul smell of warm sweat. He ran a hand over his torso: dripping. Everything that day had been oppressive. Marie Ladouceur’s moue, the books threatening to tip over, the image of Évelyne, all the way down to his conversation with Mollinart. And to cap it off, a fly was buzzing around his ears. He shook the mosquito net, but it made no difference, the bug’s hum amplified by the night’s quiet. Gabriel suddenly sat up in bed. That memory. A slap.

Slouching at the kitchen table, he watched the fly, noted its iridescent, blue-green tones. Its feet were kneading a crumb of coconut cake he’d bought on the way home from school. Its proboscis was dripping a clear liquid over the sugar before sucking it up. He swatted it away with the back of his hand. With a thud, the insect stuck to the window.

After finishing his cup of tea, Gabriel set his hands on the table and got up. It was time. He went into the sitting room. In his club chair, a glass of Chivas in his hand, his father was reading the paper and grumbling. Gabriel sat in front of him. He was ready. In his head, he’d run through his line of reasoning ten times already: London was a world capital; the most reputable lawyers were trained there; Benoît was already at Cambridge and could help him settle in there; he promised to work hard to honor the family name; his mastery of English was unimpeachable. The father turned the newspaper page, still utterly absorbed. In the beveled tumbler, the ice had already melted, turning the whiskey pale.

“Good god!” Léon suddenly said. “Listen to this, Gabriel: ‘1967 will be a decisive year for Mauritius’s future,’ declared Governor Sir John Rennie on January 5, 1967. At the request of Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II, the Mauritian people will be asked to vote on August 7 and decide whether or not Mauritius should become independent after 157 years of British colonial presence in the territory. Her Majesty’s government is not unaware that the winds of change are already blowing across the world. India, Nigeria, and Kenya have already…’” He threw Le Cernéen onto the table. “Independence? That’d turn everything upside down.”

Gabriel picked up the paper, glanced over the headlines. So the rumors were true: Mauritius would soon be able to separate from the United Kingdom. A referendum. British control was hanging by a thread. And maybe that was one further argument to leave.

An independent Mauritius? Honestly, that’d be a catastrophe. Might as well hand the keys to the whole place right over to the Indians.”

The father downed his whiskey in a gulp. “Ludna!” The maid rushed in. “Another,” he ordered, his shaky hands pulling a cigarette out of his jacket pocket. Ludna made her way into the kitchen and came back with a full glass. “And the ice?… You have to spell everything out for this Mozambican.”

The dark-skinned nénène went to get a bucket of ice and some tongs. The father had always talked this way about nursemaids and gardeners. “Fat Creoles,” as he called them, were spared nothing. Gabriel offered Ludna an apologetic smile, a small one, almost a grimace, which the poor woman clung to before leaving.

“An independent Mauritius? Honestly, that’d be a catastrophe. Might as well hand the keys to the whole place right over to the Indians.”

“But Gaëtan Duval would allow no such thing,” Gabriel said.

“Right you are. The Mauritian Party would never put up with such a possibility.”

The father took another swig of whiskey, and Gabriel saw his opening. It was now or never.


Évelyne was standing in the doorway, a book in her hand, proud of making such an entrance. Gabriel clenched his teeth. Their father hated when she spoke like the commoners; at La Jalousie, only the staff were allowed to speak Creole.

“May we ask what has delayed your return?” their father asked. His sister was still in her Lorette collège uniform, a sky-blue and dark-blue plaid dress and a white blouse that made her look like a little girl even though she was nearly fifteen.

“I took the bus to keep a friend company.” She was asking for it, Gabriel knew.

“A friend? What sort of friend makes you get on the bus?”

Évelyne swung her schoolbag and dropped it on the sofa, her eyes ablaze. “Savita Balasamy.”

Gabriel blanched; she needed to be quiet.

Their father opened and shut his mouth a few times, as if unbelieving. “You’re befriending an Indian girl?” He sprang to his feet and slapped her hard. The act was a shock. Évelyne brought her hand to her reddening cheek, doing her best not to cry.

“I knew it!” she said, running out of the room. “I knew that was how you’d react!” Their father’s furious yells redoubled as he followed her into the hallway.

“Stop it, Papa, stop it!” Gabriel shouted as he grabbed him by the arm.

Évelyne disappeared into her room.

“I won’t have my girl hanging around Indians! Am I clear?” Then he turned and went into the kitchen, where he poured himself more scotch, his hands shaking.

For months now scenes of this sort had been playing out; the atmosphere in the home was becoming unbearable. Gabriel looked down. That was when he noticed, on the sisal rug in the kitchen, a brown stain. Upon closer consideration, it looked like a bloodstain, in a teardrop shape. The sound of a clenched fist hitting the table forced him to look up.

“A Neymorin woman hanging around a Malbar, well, I never…”

Gabriel forced himself to follow the man into the sitting room, where they settled back into their chairs.


“I don’t want to hear a word of it!”

That was Gabriel’s best chance gone. England was firmly out of reach now. A leaden silence settled over the room.

As he mulled over that scene – why did she have to go and bring up Savita, too? – a gentle buzzing reverberated in the room. That damn fly. After circling once or twice, it landed on the paper. Its velvety body touched the photo of Sir John Rennie. And suddenly, as if insane, it started scratching at the governor’s baleful eye.

from An Impossible Return (Amazon Crossing, £8.99)

Caroline Laurent is the bestselling Franco-Mauritian author of Rivage de la colère, winner of the Prix Maison de la Presse 2020, the Prix Louis-Guilloux 2020, and the Prix du Salon du Livre du Mans 2020, and now published in English as An Impossible Return. She also co-wrote, with Évelyne Pisier, Et soudain, la liberté (And Suddenly, Freedom), which won the Grand Prix des Lycéennes de ELLE. An Impossible Return, translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman, is published by Amazon Crossing in hardback and paperback, and also available in Kindle and Audible editions.
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Author portrait © Philippe Matsas

Jeffrey Zuckerman has translated many French works into English, including books by the artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Dardenne brothers; Jean Genet and Hervé Guibert; and the Mauritian novelists Ananda Devi, Shenaz Patel and Carl de Souza. A graduate of Yale University, he has been a finalist for the TA First Translation Prize, the French-American Foundation Translation Prize and the PEN Translation Prize, and has been awarded a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant and the French Voices Grand Prize. In 2020 he was named a Chevalier in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government.

Caroline Laurent: A Writer’s Life