douard Jean. Toussaint Dirige Vers la Bataille
By Jacques Stephen Alexis
(translated from the French: Lâ€™ESPACE Dâ€™UN CILLEMENT by Edwidge Danticat and Carrol F. Coates)
227 pages Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002 (originally published in 1959).
ISBN # 0-8139-2138-4.
[I have divided my comments into two separate parts. When I arrived at the end of the novel I noted a relatively long section of commentary with a 1983 letter from Alexisâ€™ daughter, Florence, and further commentary by Edwidge Danticat and Carrol Coates.
I like to write my comments from the text itself, believing strongly that any literary work should stand on its own; the text alone. This doesnâ€™t mean that I donâ€™t read the commentaries of other and learn from them, I do. But in my first encounter with a piece of literature I prefer to clarify my own thoughts about it and only after than to engage critics who may teach me more, disappoint me, or help me to confirm my own reading.
Thus I wrote the first set of comments below after I finished the novel, but before I read the material from Florence Alexis and Danticat and Coates.
After finishing this first set of comments I went back to the book and read what these others had written about the novel, and then I wrote a second set of comments engaging their views.]
This is an intensely erotic love story of two Cubans living in Haiti; a prostitute who believes her life is hopeless and without the possibility of change, and a macho labor organizer / mechanic who has a sensibility toward his lover that is rare and enlightened. The story gripped me and moved me deeply yet left me both sad and exhilarated. It is not the typical happily-ever-aftering love story of boy gets girl after a struggle. But it is a story of profoundly deep love, astonishing passion and a challenging sense of the importance of individual development taking precedence over the love of the couple.
The story seems to be much more as well â€“ the love story being obviously an allegory of other things, though I was never quite as sure as to what the allegorical tale was. Itâ€™s there, and bits and pieces shine through, yet the allegory seems to me overshadowed by the love story itself.
Even as much as the story, I loved the writing. It is creative and brilliant. There are 7 chapters. Each of the first five chapters approaches the lovers from the perspective of a single sense. The sixth chapter is called â€śthe sixth sense,â€ť but I found that title a bit ambiguous since it didnâ€™t mean sixth sense in any sense I tend to know. The final chapter is a short coda.
In chapter one â€“ sight, the opening paragraphs has the main character, Cuban prostitute La Nina in bed with a marine having animalistic sex. Images of a pig rooting around in the ground, a horse mounting a mare. I was reminded of a scene in the movie Klute in which Jane Fonda plays a prostitute and has her trick on top of her and she is moaning in passion, but looking at her watch behind his back. In Klute the scene is played for laughs, though cynical laughs. Alexis on the other hand writes this scene with images that simply disgust us. After she dismisses the marine she wanders out in from of her bordello, The Sensation Bar, contemplating how to get out of her profession, disgusted with herself and her life.
Across the street there is a man watching her, just staring, walking up and down. She feels his eyes, and feels a magnetism she doesnâ€™t quite understand. The same is true for El Caucho (the rubber man), the other main character. He is not staring at her magnificent face and body, but her feet and neck. But he is drawn in a way he canâ€™t understand.
Eventually he sits at the bar and she is a table talking with marines, her back to him. He only watches her in the mirror. She knows his eyes are on her. He canâ€™t stop watching her and when the mirror fails him he even holds up his glass to see her in its reflection. The writing is amazingly sensual. No one word passes between the two yet a strong erotic attraction even magnetism has occurred. But this is not in the sense of â€ślove at first sightâ€ť as it tends to appear in fiction which is visually rooted in lust. El Caucho is not particularly handsome in the least, and what draws him to La Nina is not her magnificent beauty which draws him. Something much different is going on â€“ a deep attraction of souls, as though reaching out beyond the two of them from depths which we can only imagine.
The power of Alexisâ€™ writing carries on in the second chapter â€śsmell.â€ť Alexi sets up a set of opposites. La Nina is a manic-depressive and the experience of â€śsightâ€ť has left her in a manic state. He on the other hand is in an unusual low. His friend and revolutionary, Jesus Menendez has been assassinated in Cuba. El Caucho is slumped at the bar in near despair. He is unconscious of the world of Haiti, but La Nina has slipped up behind him, standing silently by she smells him. She thinks him to be a gourmand from his food smells including â€śthe pungent peppery smell of the sesame that spices the little cassava cakes you dunk in the sweet, boiling-hot coffee in the early morning.â€ť She identifies him as a Cuban by his tobacco, a mechanic by the oil and sweat that drift from his body. She knows heâ€™s adapted to Haiti from the odor of the rum heâ€™s now sipping, differing from other rum by its â€śrainbow-hued bubbles â€“ subtle, sensuous, radiant, memorableâ€¦.â€ť Yet hints of last nightâ€™s kleren (rot-gut rum) waffed up from him and she knows him to be a man of the people. The smell of his hair identifies him as many who travels â€“ an aroma of far away lands, perhaps even Venezuela.
El Caucho, even in his despair, or perhaps because of it â€“ becomes aware of the smells around him in The Sensation Bar. The general smell is disgusting to him â€“ the smell of stale semen and the reek of prostitution itself. Yet a strange relaxing odor emanates through from El Nina herself, an odor that inspires peace and sylvan images.
Again, as reader I was left trembling with the erotic power of this situation. Nearly every page of the more than 100 pages of these two chapters are about these two and their attraction, yet they have not exchanged a word or touched, just seen and smelled. The power of Alexisâ€™ prose is mesmerizing. I tried to imagine turning this novel into a film, and this chapter on smell seemed to me the one that would be hardest. Oh yes, the characters could talk of the smells in some sort of inner dialogue, just as Alexis has written of it, but somehow he makes me smell the smells themselves.
El Nina is deeply troubled. Her own image is that â€śSheâ€™s only a whore, a girl who, with her vagina, earns the money she needs to continue her vegetative life during her old age.â€ť But everything is disrupted. She is troubled by El Caucho, wishing to be El Nina in a literal sense â€“ an innocent child, not understanding why she cares about him. She figures she can exorcise him by taking him to bed and exhausting the two of them in sex. She will do this without money changing hands, and she will be free of this troubling and never before experienced connection and care.
She goes to the bar, approaches him, prepared to ask him to make love to her, but she is stunned by smelling the odor of â€śher man.â€ť She is utterly confused and distraught, and races away. He is equally stunned that he smells her clearly as something beyond â€śthe wholeâ€ť and smells her innocence. La Nina takes refuge in the room of La Rubia, a bi-sexual woman who tries to comfort her sexually. But La Nina has never had an orgasm or even sexual arousal with any man or woman and is terrified by El Caucho since she begins to sense arousal.