By Jean Metellus
London, Peter Owen Publishers. 1996. ISBN # 0-7206-0948-8
Translated from the French (La famille Vortex, 1982) by Michael Richardson
Book review by Bob Corbett
Solon and Olga Vortex are central characters as well as important symbols in this semi-historical novel. Solon is both father of the Vortex family whose lives we follow in the turbulent years of 1949 and 1950, and a figure of the Haitian nation whose repeatedly dashed hopes and recurring tragedies press heavily on the spirit. Olga Vortex, of Arawak Indian blood and visage, is mother of the family and figure of Ezuli, Earth Mother, often left weeping from the press of the tragedies of the world that are just too much for her.
During the last days of the presidency of Dumarsais Estime, who was overthrown on May 10, 1949, and until nearly the election of Paul E. Magloire on Oct. 10, 1950, we follow the heart-rending story of the seven Vortex adult children, who, swept up into the spirit of the times, run into the ancient tragic traditions of Haitian politics.
Jean Metellus weaves and connects two stories, the fictional tale of the Vortex family, whose members seem collectively to represent the fate of the Haitian people, and an only slightly fictionalized tale of government intrigue in that year and a half from the fall of Estime until the rise of Magloire.
For many the book will be a real eye opener. There is a tendency to think that Francois Duvalier introduced a form of political terror and arbitrariness that was new or somehow different from what went before. Metellus carefully constructs a believable tale of political intrigue and lawless police and army activity that matches anything in the 58 years since the time he choose to write about.
The novel reads like two stories, one a historical and believable political intrigue operating, then the saga of a fictional family. These two parallel lines keep intersecting in ways I can't reveal without damaging your reading of the story, as characters and members of the Vortex family enter into the political story of the day.
Metellus has a beautiful eye for life in an upper class Haitian family. It is a loving and close knit family where siblings with very different characters and interests rally to help and protect one another in difficult situations. They are not bashful about criticizing each other, but these differences do not separate them, but merely distinguish each from the other.
A central symbol that runs through the book is the important Christmas gathering that the family has each year. This brings them all back to their parents' home to unite as family and tie themselves to their ancestors of many generations past. Even in the direst hardships of diaspora, as many of the Vortex family as can gather at Christmas of 1950 to keep the family together and hold out the hope of the future for Haiti.
One particular literary device which Metellus uses seems to work much better for the English translation that it would have for the French original. Metellus chose to leave certain words in Creole, especially words that carry a special meaning in Haiti that wouldn't quite be captured by their French equivalents. However, since often the French is either the same or very close to the Creole words, this device might well have escaped the French reader. Of course this is not so in English. Richardson leaves them in Creole as Metellus writes them, then tells us in at the bottom of the page what they mean. Key words that point to a unique meaning and cultural setting in Haiti seem so powerful when treated this way. Thus the parents sit on their porch in their dodine (rocking chair), eating groits (fried pork bits), perhaps drinking maby (a Haitian drink made from flowering plants -- a new word for me!). Or we read of rapadou (dark and solid sugar cane) on an old aunt's shelf, or hear one daughter distinctly reject as U.S. soda for a kola (the Haitian soda with 10 times the sugar of an U.S. cola!). This literary device adds greatly to the delights of reading about the everyday life of Haiti about which Metellus writes so beautifully.
Thinking back on Haitian fiction written by Haitians and translated into English I think of the very tiny corpus of works available. The four novels of the Marcelin brothers, Roumain's MASTER'S OF THE DEW, Depestre's FESTIVAL OF THE GREASY POLE, and just a very few others. Such great novels, so few available. Why is this? Is their such a small market for these works, are their too few translators willing to tackle such projects? I feel that those of us who both love and care about Haiti, but are not comfortable in French are missing a great deal. I hope for many more such translations in the future.
However, no matter how many translations are forthcoming, THE VORTEX FAMILY is simply not to be missed. It is a captivating book that forced me to read it through in 24 hours. It enriched my sense of Haitian culture and history and delighted my aesthetic sensibilities in the bargain. Few U.S. bookstores will carry this work printed in England, but I just called the U.S. distributor and had one mailed to my home: Dufour Editions, Chester Springs, Pa.
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