By Alejo Carpentier
Translated from the Spanish by Harriet De Onis with etchings by Roberto Juarez
Published by The Limited Editions Club, 1987
Reviewed by Bob Corbett
Originally published in Spanish in 1949, this poetic novel captures the essence of feeling and tone of both Haiti and her glorious revolution.
The book reads much more like a prose poem than it does a novel. Further, it has no real story, so it is only the beauty and power of the images, the moods it sets, the emotions it evokes, which keep the reader engrossed.
The book is four short chapters, only 100 pages in all. Each section loosely treats of a theme--Macandal; Boukman; the fall of Christophe; the abandonment of the Haitian dream and the perseverance of the peasant.
These themes aren't really linked at all; there is no thread of narrative which ties them together. But one character--Ti Noel--is there in all four chapters; a young man serving at the feet of Macandal's first poisonings to the ancient Ti Noel trying to save his squatter's farm in the early days of independence.
Carpentier paints beautiful verbal pictures, like his ironic calling to attention of the Voodoo atmosphere Ti Noel found in a Cuban Catholic church:
"...the Negro found in the Spanish churches a Voodoo warmth he had never encountered in the Sulpician churches of the Cap. The baroque golds, the human hair of the Christs, the mystery of the richly carved confessionals, the guardian dog of the Dominicans, the dragons crushed under saintly feet, the pig of St. Anthony, the dubious color of St. Benedict, the black Virgins, the St. Georges with the buskins and corselets of actors in French tragedies, the shepherds' instruments played on Christmas Eve had an attraction, a power of seduction in presence, symbols, attributes, and signs similar to those of the altars of the houmforts consecrated to Damballah, the Snake god." (p.45)
Such poetry doesn't move the story forward, were there a story to move, but it does suggest images that ring true of ancient and modern Haiti alike.
The whole work carries a surrealistic aura, suggesting madness, ecstasy, an exoticness which one can certainly find in Haiti. In picturing the wild Voodoo of Pauline Bonepart, recently widowed wife of General Leclerc, Carpentier again paints in words:
"One morning the horrified French maids came upon the Negro circling in a strange dance around Pauline, who was kneeling on the floor with her hair hanging loose. Soliman, wearing only a belt from which a white handkerchief hung as a cache-sexe, his neck adorned with blue and red beads, was hopping about like a bird and brandishing a rusty machete. Both were uttering deep groans which, as though wretched from inside, sounded like the baying of dogs when the moon is full. A decapitated rooster was still fluttering amid scattered grains of corn. When the Negro saw that one of the maids was watching the scene, he angrily kicked the door shut. That afternoon several saints' images were found hanging from the rafters head down." (p. 52).
Carpentier evokes the horrors that Christophe brought to the land in order to complete his famous citadel. Once again one is thrown into a land that is crazed to the point of madness:
"When Ti Noel laid his brick at the foot of a wall it was almost midnight. Nevertheless construction was going on by the light of bonfires and torches. Along the way men were sleeping on great blocks of stone, on cannon, beside mules whose knees were callused from falling as they toiled upward. Worn out with fatigue, the old man dropped into a ditch under the suspension bridge. A whiplash awakened him at dawn. Above, the bulls who were to have their throats cut at daybreak were bellowing. New scaffoldings had come into being with the passing of the cold clouds, and the entire mountain came alive with neighing, shouts, bugle calls, whip cracks, the squeaking of dew-swollen ropes. Ti Noel began the descent to Milot in search of another brick. On the way down he could see coming up the flanks of the mountain, by every path and byway, thick columns of women, children, and old men, each with a brick to be left at the foot of the fortress, which rising like an ant-hill, thanks to those grains of fired clay borne to it unceasingly, from season to season, from year's end to year's end. Ti Noel soon learned that this had been going on for more than twelve years, and that the entire population of the North had been drafted for this incredible task. Every protest had been silenced in blood. Walking, walking, up and down, down and up, the Negro began to think that the chamber-music orchestras of Sans Souci, the splendor of the uniforms, and the statues of naked white women soaking up the sun on their scrolled pedestals among the sculptured boxwood hedging the flower beds were all the product of a slavery as abominable as that he had known on the plantation of M. Leonormand de Mezy."
This wonderful book put out by The Limited Edition Club is not merely the delights of Carpentier's lovely prose poetry, but the book itself is a work of art. Beautifully bound in leather and cloth, filled with the rich black etchings of Roberto Juarez, this 15" by 10" coffee-table book is as lovely a book as one would ever own.
This is not a book to read for information. It's a book to have and hold as poetry; a book to own for the sake of its own aesthetic. It's a special book for those who want a book that's more than its message.
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