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17320: Corbett: In the hands of a Haitian literary master
>From Bob Corbett:
In the hands of a Haitian literary master
Today I was sitting in my regular coffee house, so deeply moved by my
reading that I could scarcely breath, often tears welling up in my eyes.
Few things move me as much as good literature can, and this morning I was
in the hands of such a master, Haitian writer, Jacques Stephen Alexis.
Life in retirement is indeed very good for me. Each morning I arise
fairly early, post most of the notes to the list which are still in line
from the day before and the early morning, then I head off to my coffee
shop to have a bagel and read for a couple of hours.
Currently I am about way through the novel GENERAL SUN, MY BROTHER by
Alexis (translated by list member Carrol Coates). I'll post a full set of
comments on the book when I'm finished, but today was a very special
experience and I want to see if I can share some of it with you folks.
There are many very informed, intelligent and deeply caring people on this
list who post challenging and interesting notes and insights. Yet, day
after day I find myself a bit frustrated at what appears to me a gigantic
DISTANCE between our discussions, reflections, and the various news
reports we read, and the lives of the masses of everyday Haitians.
Even when I am in Haiti it is not easy for me to get close to the lives of
those every day Haitians, even when I am a guest living in one of their
homes or in a tiny hut in the rural areas. I am always "other," the
guest, the white guy with access to some funding. It's not that people
aren't decent to me, they are. It's just that the reality of how
different our lives and struggles are form a barrier no matter how much we
might both wish it weren't there.
In the hands of Jacques Stephen Alexis I am often taken into the heart and
guts of the characters of this novel in ways that move me deeply and
convince me of the accuracy of his portrayal.
Today I was reading a domestic scene. The scene is set in pre-WWII Haiti,
but the date isn't exactly clear. The main characters of the novel are
Hilarious Hilarion and his wife, Claire-Heureuse. They are very simple
people, low-level working folks in Port-au-Prince. Claire-Heureuse runs
a small shop out of their tiny set of rooms, and Hilarion works odd jobs
which often end abruptly.
He has been under the influence of a medical student Jean-Michel, a
communist who has been trying to educate Hilarion toward the necessity of
struggle, especially class struggle, to bring a decent life to the
ordinary people like Hilarion. Jean-Michel himself is in a much
privileged position coming from a family with money.
Hilarion is exhilarated by the hope of this vision of a workers'
revolution. Up to that time he had drifted, rather unthinkingly toward a
life of acceptance and escapism. His escapes tended toward drinking and a
rare occasion now and again, of cheating on
Claire-Heureuse. Now, however, he has been imbued with the great ideals
of liberation and the coming of a beautiful age.
A flood in the Artibonite is the immediate cause of a drastic economic
downturn and things are getting harder and harder in the little world of
the lower working class of Hilarion and Claire-Heureuse. This is
weighing on Hilarion's heart, and he is seeing a conflict between the
reality he lives - a constantly worsening, virtually hopeless situation,
and this great dream of liberation and struggle.
He is vaguely aware that if he didn't bear the BURDEN of this vision of
hope, he would just follow what he sees all around him - the escapism into
self-destructive acts, but acts which bring momentary relief from the
All of this erupts into a very conscious moment of action when one of the
poor women of the neighborhood comes in for some food, but has no money.
Alexis tells this so magnificently:
"The tension was still in the air when Victorine, the taxi driver
Lenoir's companion, came into the shop with a humble, sad face. Claire
Heureuse frowned. Victorine was a really nice, good person, and
everybody agreed that she was a seamstress who did beautiful work and
never cheated anyone. But, all the same, she had owed twelve goud to the
shop for three weeks. It is terrible to see a good person with
begging eyes. Claire-Heureuse had made up her mind not to be taken in
"Good morning, Madame Claire. Good morning, Monsieur Hilarion. How
"Good morning, Madame Victorine. Things are fine," answered
"Oh! There are always problems," said Victorine quickly as she
looked away. "Lenoir broke the gear box. It cost his life's blood to
replace it. I can't pay you today because of that and I don't have
a drop of milk for little Francine. I need a small can, a little cornmeal,
some fat, and a little kerosene for the lamp. I have to sew late
this evening. I've got some urgent work and that will let me begin
to pay you."
"I'd like to help, Madame Victorine, but I've been waiting for
three weeks now. Today, I just can't......
"Victorine's eyes filled with tears. She was paralyzed by shame.
But she fought with all her strength against herself and, with a burst
of energy, she took it as naturally as she could. In fact, it was
even more difficult to go home with empty hands and to face little
Francine, who would stare at her with the eyes of a hungry puppy.
"Please, Madame Claire. I'll pay you tomorrow. Lenoir was able to
go out with the car today."
"You're all alike! But don't you realize that I can't wait to pay
for my merchandise. If you think that I can put off Monsieur
Bolte...... "Thanks, Madame Claire," Victorine answered with a
strangled voice and turned to leave.
"Hilarion got up.
"Give her what she asked for," he said with a stern voice. "But,
"Give it to her," he yelled.
"I have to go to Bolte's today and I won't be able to bring back
any merchandise. . . ."
"A cold rage took hold of Hilarion. He went to the shelves, took
down the items, and put them in the arms of Victorine, who stood
there speechless. Then he left the shop and went into the dining room.
Claire Heureuse followed him.
"You've never taken care of the shop. I'm as kindhearted as you
are. But if you throw our merchandise out the window, there won't be
anything left soon. But Monsieur wants to play the generous prince!"
"Hilarion let fly a blow that caught Claire-Heureuse right in the
face, almost knocking her down. She looked at him, stupefied. She
had never seen him with such shining red eyes displaying a determination
that scared her. She went up to him, hugged him, and said just one
"He pulled away abruptly, took his package of cigarettes from the
table, and left. The municipal siren was just screaming noon with a
Neither Hilarion nor Claire-Heureuse knows what to make of this. He had
never hit her before and both are shocked by it. Hilarion goes off and is
thinking about all of this and he realizes it is the influence of the
communist ideals of Jean-Michel and his friends, but they only talk, talk,
talk, and they don't have to LIVE the hopeless as he does. They don't
live daily with the horrors of the predicaments of people like Victorine.
They have, on Hilarion's view and in his rage, a certain freedom to think
these thoughts and dance at the edges since they don't feel the same
weight of the hopeless of the current moment.
Yet at the same time Hilarion is bright enough to know that without the
hope that such dreams of utopia bring he would just collapse into the
tragic escapism of so many of his neighbors.
The impact of this moment on Claire-Heureuse was phenomenal: Alexis
"It had taken a blow to make her understand that, between
her companion and herself, there was an area to which she had no
access. There were reflections that she had no part of! Fear took
hold of her. It was a fear that hurt. She was losing the love of her
man, of the man who gave meaning to her life!
"She was a poor little street vendor who had surrendered
without thinking, surrendered with her innocent heart to
uncomplicated love. She thought of this love like the candies that she
sold each day. People always wanted the same candy. That taste lasted
for a lifetime. Was love something more complex then, something
living and delicate? What would she not have given to know the
secret. She was the adopted child of an old maid who had not been able
to teach her anything about this subject. She had never known a
normal existence, but rather life without excitement or human joy,
life with all meaning cut off. For her man, she washed shirts,
prepared food, told him the happenings of each day, and gave him
affection-in a word, she gave him what she thought was happiness.
But because of all the difficulties in life, that happiness was only a
pale reflection of what she would have liked. Everybody seeks
happiness, right? Well, he was grateful for the impossible happiness
that she tried to put together each day with the miserable leftovers
of their existence. She could not be mistaken about the look he had
given her, but.... There was a "but"!
"So he appeared to be happy when she prepared guava paste,
but he kissed her in a funny way because she let him know that the
paste would be a bit sour for lack of sugar. He answered that the
paste was good that way and that she was right to save money. But
he ate it with a bit too much gusto, as if to make her happy.
"Another time, they went to see the free film on the Champ-de-
Mars. She laughed with all her heart to see Charlie Chaplin gobbling
up his shoe. She had been quite surprised when Hilarion asked her
abruptly if that made her want to laugh.
"Those things had never bothered her. She had seen so many
things in her experience as a street vendor. She had kept an ability to
laugh at funny things, even if they were only a cloak over bitter
reality. In her eyes, there were emaciated children who observed what
happened in the street with the tragic look of hunger; there were old
people worn out by work, sleeping hungry on benches in public
squares; there were tramps digging in garbage heaps. She had developed
a neutral gaze something like the look in the eyes of children,
ready to face anything.
"Some old visions came back to mind for reasons she hardly
understood. Where had these images been buried, things to which she
had never paid attention until that blow brought them back?
All of this scene was deeply troubling to me and saddened me. Alexis is
certainly leading the characters toward a realization of their condition,
and I would suspect, an acceptance of the struggle. But this MOMENT
touched me. They are both on the fence. Is this knowledge, this hope,
this utopia worth it? Is it accurate or is it the toy of the privileged?
Further, purely on the personal level there is another realization that at
least Claire-Heureuse has, that each of them has a very private life of
thought that the other, even this closest lover, cannot fully penetrate.
How will they live? Where will their lives go?
And all of this touched me a two levels - first the power of Alexis to
take me INSIDE that life of the simple working class struggle for daily
existence, and then to challenge me concerning what I often see as an
aloofness in so much of our "talk" on this list.
That not meant as a criticism. I do believe very much as I said at the
outset of this note, that this list has so many caring, intelligent,
giving people. I am more torn by contradictions than I am displeased in
my heart at any of us. I do sense an enormous distance between us on this
list and the mass of Haitians, both city dwellers and country folk. I
have no idea what to do about it at all.
It is also rather staggering that this picture of life in Haiti, written
in the late 1950s, set in the late 1930s, is virtually no different at
all from the reality of life in the same neighborhoods of Haiti in 2003.
Yet I think now and again I need the brilliance of some one like Jacques
Stephen Alexis to bring these things to my attention with the power and
insight of his writing.