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#839: Jacques Stephen Alexis's General Sun, My Brother translated by Carrol F. Coates (fwd)

From: Declama <Declama@email.msn.com>

    I would like to share this wonderful article with the list.  Carrol
Coates wrote this piece for the Créole Connection to announce his new book
which is a  translation of Jacques Stephen Alexis's General Sun, My Brother.
It should be available sometimes in November.  This article is also
available online at


See you in Atlanta.


1937:  Historical and Linguistic Realities in Jacques Stephen Alexis's
General Sun, My Brother
by Carrol F. Coates

 General Sun, My Brother (first published as Compère Général Soleil [Paris:
Gallimard, 1955]) offers a gripping view of the difficult existence and
occasional pleasures of the peasant and working classes in Haiti.  Many
details set the story in the thirties, the regime of President Stenio
Vincent:  the presence of the U.S. Marines and diplomatic personnel,
political manipulation and corruption, the secret relations with President
Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, along with hints of impending national
and international strife-worker unrest in Germany and the rise of Hitler,
the growth of communism in China, and the establishment of the Communist
Party in Haiti by Jacques Roumain.
    The Prologue narrates Hilarion Hilarius' hallucinatory wandering, driven
by hunger, guilt, and a compulsion to live, through the poor southwestern
suburb and the red light district of Port-au-Prince, past the National
Palace and into Bois Verna, where he climbs to the second story of a villa
to steal a wallet.  Hilarion has fallen into a trap:  he is brutally beaten
and arrested as he attempts to leave the villa.  Sentenced to one month in
prison, he comes into contact with then head of the Communist Party, Pierre
Roumel (the fictional character modeled on Jacques Roumain).  When Hilarion
is released, Roumel's mother helps him locate work.  After meeting the
beautiful Claire-Heureuse on a beach, Hilarion decides to settle down with
her and they establish a small grocery on Rue Saint-Honoré. She tends the
store while Hilarion works first in a sisal shop and then at a
wood-polishing job.
 Jean-Michel, a young communist doctor, cures Hilarion of epilepsy.
Hilarion learns to read and studies history under the guidance of
Jean-Michel and his communist associates.  Hilarion and Claire-Heureuse
struggle to eke out their meager, but dignified existence, but a flood in
the Artibonite Valley causes inflation and a scarcity of staples.  A
catastrophic fire set by two shiftless characters wipes out the entire
Morne-à-Tuf neighborhood.  With a sense of helplessness after the flood and
the fire, Hilarion and Claire-Heureuse set out for the Dominican Republic,
where their first child will be born as Hilarion works in the sugarcane
fields.   In addition to the harsh supervision of field bosses, Hilarion's
historical reading and his connections with communist intellectuals are a
basis for his willingness to side with the sugarcane workers' move to
strike.  He comes into contact with Dominicans who are planning to organize
the Communist Party there under the dictatorial regime of Trujillo.
 It should be understood that this is not a "historical novel" in which the
fictional lives of the main characters are intricately interlaced with
specific events of Haitian and Dominican politics.  The only historical
event that is specifically tied to an actual element of the plot is the
massacre of October 1937, the "Dominican Vespers."  As Hilarion and
Claire-Heureuse flee, they are spotted by Dominican soldiers at the Massacre
River.  Hilarion is mortally wounded as they struggle to cross the river and
he dies on Haitian soil as General Sun rises in the east.  With his
remaining energy, he has recapitulates his life as a restavèk, rebellious
youth, and family man.  Reflecting on the misery in which most Haitians
live, he admonishes Claire-Heureuse to remarry and have children who will
carry on the fight for justice and true democracy in Haiti.
 It would be interesting to explore the reasons for which Gallimard has
continued to reprint Alexis's novel (his other novels and stories are also
available) through the years.  One must assume a certain level of sales.  He
is one of the few Haitian writers widely known in France and among readers
of French and francophone literature, along with Jacques Roumain, the
brothers Marcellin, Marie (Vieux) Chauvet, René Depestre, and more recently
Lilas Desquiron.  Alexis has been little available in English, however (only
one short story and two excerpts from General Sun), while Roumain and the
Marcellin brothers have long been available in English translation, with
certain works by the other writers named appearing through the years.
Alexis's communist activities and thinking may have been a major factor in
making his works unlikely prospects for translation and publication in the
United States during the McCarthy era (the translation of Roumain's
Gouverneurs de la rosée  was published just before).  Alexis has even been
accused of doctrinaire writing, but there is much more to his vision of life
in Haiti.
 General Sun... has a far more political atmosphere than Jacques Roumain's
Governors of the Dew.  Alexis went to great pains to show the struggles of
both workers and peasants to survive while Haitian politicians, U.S.
diplomats, and high-ranking church officials live in isolated luxury that
inspires the wrath of the people watching Minister Paturault's lavish dinner
party from outside the gates of his villa in Bois Verna (Part II).
Allusions to the end of the U.S. occupation, to disturbing political strife
in Europe and Asia, and to corruption and unrest within Haiti clearly
establish the atmosphere of the Vincent regime, with discreet but clear
allusions to the clandestine relations between the Vincent and Trujillo
governments during the early thirties.  The fact that the novel ends
abruptly with Hilarion's death symbolizes, in one respect, Vincent's
embarrassed silence immediately following the massacre.
 Alexis has incorporated a virtual encyclopedia of folk knowledge, wisdom,
and beliefs-including  religion, children's games and songs, agriculture,
traditional medicine, the flora and fauna of Haiti, the techniques and
conditions of work in the small manufacturing shops, typesetting, travel by
kamyon (taptap).  The French discourse (English in the translation) is used
to convey the thought and spoken language of the Haitian people, but many
Kreyòl words and expressions are used.  This corresponds to past and present
practice by Haitian writers who publish in French (from the 19th century up
to recent novelists such as Jacques Roumain, René Depestre, Marie Chauvet,
and many other more recent writers), frequently laced with Kreyòl
expressions.  Within the past twenty years, Paulette Poujol Oriol has
published two novels (Le creuset and Le passage) in which the characters
glide between French, Kreyòl, and a mixture of everyday discourse with
frequency and great ease:  a writing practice that causes little or no
problem for Haitian readers, but is likely to leave non-Haitians in singular
 Like Roumain and other writers, Alexis often (but not always) footnotes
Kreyòl words, proverbs, and words from game songs with brief French
translations or explanations.  The non-Haitian francophone reader is lulled
into a delusion that the discourse is French.  On rare occasion at least, a
Kreyòl word was apparently so much a part of Alexis's thought that it
slipped by without any explanation or annotation.  This is the case in the
description of the mouth of the Artibonite River (II, ch. 3), in which the
mixture of salt and sweet waters are blanketed with gray sheets of
"pisquettes, ces petits poissons de la savale" (GS 136).  The Kreyòl word
piskèt is explained as (a type of) "little fish" but saval (Kreyòl for
tarpon) is unattested in French.
 Alexis has successfully presented the world view of simple
Haitians-workers, servants, peasants, children-to his readers in a manner
that lets them glimpse the traditional beliefs and the social views of the
people-and, of course, their dignity and pride.  The novelist conveys the
complex Kreyòl culture by means of a European discourse that allows us to
experience life in Haiti as a tourist never can.  His setting is, of course,
tagged by some of the historical realities of the end of the American
occupation, the political machinations, and the Dominican Vespers, but the
effects of hunger and poverty among the people have, unfortunately, not
changed that much.
 Although the specific historical setting is over a half-century old, Alexis
's vision of life in Haiti is still striking and relevant z

Carrol F. Coates is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at
Binghamton University-State University of New York.  In addition to teaching
French and francophone literature for many years, he has translated a number
of Haitian works from French to English, including René Depestre, The
Festival of the Greasy Pole, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Dignity, and, most
recently, Jacques Stephen Alexis, General Sun, My Brother (all published by
the University Press of Virginia).  His next project is the translation of a
satirical African novel by Ahmadou Kourouma, En attendant le vote des bêtes
sauvages (Awaiting the Vote of the Savage Beasts), published in France last