By Jacques Stephen Alexis
(translated from the French: L’ESPACE D’UN CILLEMENT by Edwidge Danticat and Carrol F. Coates)
Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002 (originally published in 1959).
ISBN # 0-8139-2138-4.
Two sets of comments of Bob Corbett
[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 Alexis’ 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 doesn’t mean that I don’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 – the love story being obviously an allegory of other things, though I was never quite as sure as to what the allegorical tale was. It’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 “the sixth sense,” but I found that title a bit ambiguous since it didn’t mean sixth sense in any sense I tend to know. The final chapter is a short coda.
In chapter one – 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 doesn’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 can’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 can’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 “love at first sight” 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 – a deep attraction of souls, as though reaching out beyond the two of them from depths which we can only imagine.
The power of Alexis’ writing carries on in the second chapter “smell.” Alexi sets up a set of opposites. La Nina is a manic-depressive and the experience of “sight” 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 “the pungent peppery smell of the sesame that spices the little cassava cakes you dunk in the sweet, boiling-hot coffee in the early morning.” She identifies him as a Cuban by his tobacco, a mechanic by the oil and sweat that drift from his body. She knows he’s adapted to Haiti from the odor of the rum he’s now sipping, differing from other rum by its “rainbow-hued bubbles – subtle, sensuous, radiant, memorable….” Yet hints of last night’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 – an aroma of far away lands, perhaps even Venezuela.
El Caucho, even in his despair, or perhaps because of it – becomes aware of the smells around him in The Sensation Bar. The general smell is disgusting to him – 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 Alexis’ 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 “She’s only a whore, a girl who, with her vagina, earns the money she needs to continue her vegetative life during her old age.” But everything is disrupted. She is troubled by El Caucho, wishing to be El Nina in a literal sense – 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 “her man.” She is utterly confused and distraught, and races away. He is equally stunned that he smells her clearly as something beyond “the whole” 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.
The single sense onslaught continues in “sound,” with each having a single cry to utter. She: “Down with the Jwif.” He: The repeated cry : “Let me through.” It is Holy Week of 1948 in the red light district of Port-au-Prince and the “Jwif” (the Jew) is a papier-mâché figure. It is there to be beaten and La Nina leads the cry of “Down with the Jwif.” The total frustration and rejection of all things negative were in La Nina’s cry. While it was bitter, a rejection of evils, her voice was also a sob, a pained humanity. El Caucho, on the other hand, is pushing his way toward the bar of The Sensation crying “Let me through” repeatedly. He is finally given a rum and coke. She recognizes in his voice his power, Cubanness, command of Creole accent; his general mastery. Further, a hint of recognition begins to built, his calling out, his rolled “r” reveals him as from Oriente in Cuba, her own birth place.
El Caucho is a mechanic, but only for necessary money to live. He is a revolutionary and labor organizer. His aim is to be part of the revolution he sees sweeping the Caribbean creating, eventually, a unified Caribbean under Cuban leadership. He is strong, tough and self assured, yet frightened as to what’s happening between him and La Nina since he can’t imagine being burdened by love.
La Nina’s problems are more debilitating to any love affair. Alexis tells us:
Up to now she has lived by one basic principle, by the pre-conceived idea that her entire life world proceed in linear fashion according to a scheme established by some crazy god. She has seen her life from the exterior, proceeding in a straight line, and she has defined it as nothing more than the norms of the “pleasure” profession or the collective image of all the little Caribbean whores: a difficult apprenticeship, admission to a seraglio, the struggle for notoriety and “glory,” the days of fame, and then the slow decline until finally, according to whatever the individual has managed to put aside, the final days in the gutter, the role of the procuress, or a sad and nostalgic little retirement. In the harshness of facts, that is so, but seen from an individual perspective, is life the same thing for each woman?
La Nina tends to think this is so, yet her senses have overwhelmed her in regard to El Caucho and she realizes that only if her real self -- Eglantina Corvarrubias from Oriente in Cuba can manage to kill La Nina, can she ever love and have a life of home and joy.
Finally in “touch” they express their love. Again the writing is sensuous and erotic, yet less sexually explicit in the chapter on touch than on the other senses. In a slow moving chapter they:
In the short chapter of the sixth sense they stay in bed making love the entire day, and the full recollection is realized that they knew each other as children in Oriente. All the while, that entire day of Good Friday she wonders: Can Eglantina kill La Nina? She finally accepts their love and agrees to leave with him after his work.
If you are likely to read this book anytime soon, then don’t read the next section. I will mark the end of the spoiler, but critical plot information comes here that shouldn’t be known if you are to read the novel itself. The rest of the review follows this short section.
After agreeing to leave with her, her prostitute friend La Rubia commits suicide out of the hopelessness of her situation and La Nina realizes that as good, loving, gentle, kind and caring as El Caucho is, she cannot just melt into his life, allowing herself to leave her prostitution and enter into his protective care. She must first become her own person. She must, on her own kill La Nina and emerge as who she was at 12 before she entered into prostitution, creating La Nina. She must emerge as Eglantina Corvarrubias. She goes off to do so, knowing that when and if she can do this, she will return to find Ralph Gutierrez (El Caucho), and settle into this joyous love of her life. Then this novel ends!
Looking ahead to a critical section, but necessary to treat this here in the “spoiler” section, I was just astonished at what a contemporary “feminist” novel this is. After detailing the traditional path of woman, in the image of the prostitute, La Nina comes to realize that only by emerging as her own woman, first having created and defined herself as a person, can she enter into an equal, and thus truly loving relationship with this good man. I was quite surprised to discover that in the critical commentary of others this theme is simply ignored. I think it may be the most important message of the whole novel.
As I mentioned earlier, the love story dominates the novel. However, it is fairly clear from the character of El Caucho, that more is going on. In some vague way there is a parallel of the love story between La Nina and El Caucho – created characters of the real persons of Eglantina Corvarrubias and Ralph Gutierrez. He is about politics and the creation of the “real” Caribbean in place of the “prostitute” one which currently exists. Ralph is constantly thinking of Cuba and the Caribbean and the political movements afoot. Yet it was never terribly clear to me just how this parallelism worked, or, more critically, why he would sully such an incredible and deeply moving love story with such an ambiguous allegory.
There is much rich information in the touching (if a bit pretentious) letter that Florence Alexis writes to her father’s memory in 1983. We do learn there that this was the first volume of an intended four volume work, in which the union of the two main characters would be further explored. It is ambiguous from her letter, however, as to whether or not an unpublished manuscript left by Alexis was a completed novel or just excerpts.
However, I was disappointed in the letter since it focused almost exclusively on the larger issue of the (alleged) allegorical nature of the novel and focuses on the larger Caribbean issues. I had just finished reading one of the most sensuous and erotic novels of my whole life and am treated then to a political treatise which, while not at all unbelievable as Alexis’ intention, was clearly secondary to what was given to the reader. Relatively little was commented up concerning the power of that one-to-one love story.
I suspect that for Florence Alexis as well as Danticat and Coates (who echo this in the background information of the last section since it is nearly 100% about the politics of the time), that somehow they value a “political” treatise as more important that a “mere” love story. I guess I tend to find the complexity of the two-person human love relationship to be one of the most critically important features of human existence, and when I am treated (as I was) in this novel to a brilliantly conceived and breathtakingly executed story of mysterious and powerful love, I was taken aback to see that incredible story nearly ignored.
The history of the pan-Caribbean movement which is alluded to, and which was, no doubt, close to the heart of Jacques Alexis, has long since been reduced to a relatively small footnote in the history of Caribbean politics. However, the story of La Nina and El Caucho might well have been set in any place in the world in the past several thousand years, and might as well be set in any place I can imagine in the next few thousand. It is a universal story of love and agony, or human needs, both of the individual for meaning and worth, and for the couple as needing people clinging together in profound love.
The allegory is there. No doubt. But the focus of this novel is the personal love story of two people. The power of the writing is not in its allegorical content, but in the tension and eroticism of the growing love; in the desperation of La Nina to overcome her status as a prostitute and self-hating woman and feel worthy and hopeful to bring this love to long-term fruition. I trembled and lost my breath several times over the power of that story, and noted, with a bit of boredom if not impatience, the somewhat heavy handed pointers to some sort of political allegory. The passion of the writing on that love affair is as powerful as any love story I’ve ever read.
Danticat and Coates provide a beautiful English reading copy of this story. Since I don’t read French I can’t comment on the accuracy of it, but I would think that Jacques Alexis would be proud of the loving, erotic, flowing and power language into which they have rendered his work.Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org
Bob Corbett email@example.com