By Paul Morand
Translated from the French by Hamish Miles. Illustrated by Aaron Douglas. The Viking Press, NY, 1929
Comments by Bob Corbett
This is a very strange, eerie, repulsive/attractive futuristic short story! The basic plot runs wild. It begins with Occide, who eventually becomes the black tsar. He is a mulatto lawyer in occupied Haiti in 1927. He is consumed with loathing for the Americans and, seemingly for everything white, though this changes. He exudes self hatred of his own mulatto status and idolizes all things black and African. One might well think him a strong proponent of Negritude, perhaps a student of Price-Mars, except that he turns out to be racist at the same time!
Occide dynamites a much hated American club and heads for the hills to hide out and experience the primitive life.
There is some fine writing on the themes of anti-Americanism and Negritude in this section. On 102-103 we read: Seeking hiding he finds
"...and he found a welcome there from the poor isolated peasants. He assumed their blue denim overalls, their hat of fan-palm leaves, and their cane-felling cutlass, and he started in on the same hard toil as themselves. In the morning, a cup of coffee before dawn, at noon, a glass of white rum, and only in the evening, a dish of rice and red beans: and then -- headlong sleep. Sometimes the women went off a great distance to market, the young ones carrying on their heads the gourds full of syrup, with a chaplet of live turkeys slung by the feet from their girdles, and the old ones following up, still mounting their asses side-saddle, in the French style, with a slipper balancing on the tip of the big toe. Here, behind these thorns, Occide found the sum and substance of Africa implanted, intact as the Negroes had brought it, and just as chance had split it up centuries ago, when it had taken instantaneous root. After all the half-breeds and bastards of the town, who would suspect the existence of these Senegambian giants, these blue-eyed Zulus, indolent Bambaras, and dog-eating Dahomeyans, these hilarious, dancing Negro-boys, still clinging to the single file of their ancestral Congo when they walked?...
"Occide, the extenuated man of colour, the 'skin-upstart,' as the Whites say, envied all of them their beauty; he could not covet their strength -- for even these one-time Africans had grown debilitated: nobody can live unscathed in the balmy West Indies, in these tropics de luxe, a land with no perils, no chase, no snakes, no wild beasts...All these people, however, were hard workers. And Occide did as they did. After he gave up wearing boots, the only thing that still distinguished him from this plebs, they no longer called him 'captain,' but just 'mate;' he preferred that. He walked on his bare feet, the undersides of which were lighter than the rest of his body and looked like red rubber-soles. Nobody dreamed of asking him where he came from; it was enough that he gave a hand in taming this prodigal soil, untilled since the French had left it, a soil as fiery as an unworked stallion. While the Blacks sweated, they sang -- magnificent things which it rejoiced Occide to listen to; manual work had filled him with the sudden, if fleeting, intoxication of the intellectuals...He now felt as if he too had been hurled some immense distance by the explosion of his infernal machine, away amongst ancient slaves, far into the recesses of time. He had a tradition that traced his descent from African princes, but he felt himself the grandson of slaves, one of those find 'Indian pieces' that the old slaves used to value, and which they paid for in cowries, rolls of tobacco, guineas shells -- all the strange currency of the dark continent; a Negro chained up 'tween decks; a Negro branded with his owner's initials, sold at auction, bartered for print cloth or Dutch pipes; a runaway nigger dragged along with a fork on his neck, his wrists in the pillory, with pepper on his wounds, nailed by the ear, or caught eating the sugar cane during work and muzzled with an iron mask...Hard dying, hard living..."
Occide lives for several years in the countryside, waiting for the occupation to end and becomes closely allied with a character simply called Clairvoyant. He teaches Occide that dreams are more real than waking and that one can see the future.
Then the story takes on a bizarre twist and the narrator jumps from 1929 into the future. By this time Occide has come to reject things European, white, progress and instead revels in the simple, the pre-industrial. (p. 104)
"Occide preferred the vast wilderness of the nineteenth century, with the land run to waste, the irrigation works smashed, the harbours silted up since the days of the Negro republic, the ultimate wisdom of a race contented with little, like all those who are beloved of God. 1804 - 1915 -- a century of liberty!"
Finally the occupation ends. Clairvoyant has counseled him not to fight back. The occupation will end in its own time. Now, remember, this story was written in 1927, copyrighted in 1928 and published in 1929. Imagine my amazement to read:
"Eight years later -- the miracle has been completed. The Republic of Haiti is freed from the oppressor. No more niggers: only Blacks.
"The Yankees withdrew during the month that followed the opening of hostilities between the United States and Japan, after the indecisive battle of Pearl Harbour in the Hawaiian Islands." [Now that's a bit of a shocker to read from a book published in 1929!!!!]
At this point things run will. Occide ends up president of Haiti and after kicking out all white diplomats and cutting off all diplomatic relations with all white nations (but keeping the white banks and merchants!), he contradictorily entertains a Russian Communist ship, commanded by a woman comrade, and Occide converts to Communism in a big way. Soon he is head of a huge world-wide Black communist movement, and fancies himself a Black Lenin, even cultivating the goatee beard and mannerisms. Haiti adopts a solid red flag with the cocomacaque and machete replacing the hammer and sickle and the nation becomes the Union of Republican Socialist Soviets of Haiti. Ultimately, within a year of his reign, which becomes as tyrannical as the worst of Stalin's years, the Haitian people cheer the return of the Americans for yet another occupation.
It is such a bizarre story. Written with flashes of mesmerizing rhapsody, and banal political triteness. Moments of insight and brilliance, followed by mindless propaganda. I don't know what to make of it. Unfortunately I do not know the author Paul Morand. It will be one of my tasks in the coming months to try to find out more about him, and for sure to read the rest of this interesting volume.
A bit about the rest of the volume. The opening page, with no other preface or comment is simply this list:
30,000 miles. 28 Negro countries.
The table of contents in 3 sections.
MAIN HAITI PAGE
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