By Jacques Stephen Alexis
(translated from the French: COMPERE GENERAL SOLEIL by Carrol F. Coates)
Introduction and Bibliography also by Carrol Coates
Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1999 (originally published in 1955).
ISBN # 0-8139-1890-1.
Comments on the novel and further comments on Carrol Coates’ introduction and translation
by Bob Corbett
Jacques Stephen Alexis’ writing about Haiti is very beautiful, often quite moving, ever vivid and accurate of all my own experience. Yet, I have a bit of a difficulty in describing exactly what this novel is about as novel.
What appears central to me is the life and changes of life in the central character, Hilarius Hilarion. We follow him from a very poor young Haitian, an abused restavek, to a young man who gets some sense of hope while in prison for an attempted break-in. He meets Pierre Roumel, a political prisoner and communist. Roumel not only gives Hilarion some sent of his own value in life, but introduces him to Marxist ideology, and sends him off with an introduction to his friend, Jean-Michel, medical student and member of the communist movement.
Hilarion resists becoming a member of the movement, but he is attracted at a very gut level to the sympathy expressed by these people toward the working people and underclass, and Hilarion senses they are decent people.
At the same time that Hilarion is undergoing this political and personal metamorphosis, he also meets and falls in love the gentle and marvelous woman, Claire-Heureuse. They take of housekeeping and then marry. Hilarion finds work thanks to Jean-Michel and is even treated by him to overcome his epilepsy. Claire operates a small shop from home and Hilarion follows a number of small jobs which keep collapsing.
Eventually in a crack down on the communists and all sympathizers by the Vincent government and in a period of economic downturn, Hilarion follows a friend to work in the Dominican Republic in the sugar cane fields. Claire sets up home there and their first child is born.
The book, on this story-line, ends as a strike in the sugar cane fields stimulates the infamous historical “perejil” massacre of thousands of Haitians who were working and living in the DR, and we follow the escape perils of Hilarion and his family.
That particular story seems to me to be brilliantly told, quite complete and coherent. However, one could read the story with at least two other claims to the primary thrust:
However, one describes the dominant story-line, Alexis tells a powerful and touching story, and writes about Haiti of the late 1930s, with historical flashbacks into earlier days of the U.S. occupation. In many novels about Haiti there are often significant passages which aren’t directly connected to the story, but which seem there to describe Haiti itself, as though the aim is either to bring Haiti to the attention of the outside world, or just to document the history or current situation of Haiti for posterity. Such writing can often appear to be more like a history lesson or sociology journal article than fiction writing.
In Alexis’ hand such passages, and there are many, flow naturally within the process of the novel, and though often not strongly connected to the story line, seem more natural, almost like poetic asides, but snuggled close to the characters’ lives and realities.
I was fascinated to think about Alexis’ writing about Hilarion and comparing his creation compared to the character Manuel in Jacques Roumain’s THE MASTERS OF THE DEW. There are differences for sure. Manuel is from the countryside and goes to Cuba to work in the cane fields. It is there (but not part of the novel itself) that Manuel arrives at a state of raised consciousness. He then comes home to Haiti to attempt to be a leader in his village to improve the quality of life of his people.
Hilarion does not aim to be a leader, and even holds back quite consciously from even declaring himself part of the struggle. He’s sort of willing to be a participant by-stander, but not a leader. Also, most of Hilarion’s life is lived in the city, and we are witness to all of the inner struggles that go on within him in arriving at a place of engagement or at least significantly raised consciousness.
But both are men who come out of the underclass; men who are uneducated and are deeply impacted by communist ideology and go through a period of consciousness raising.
I do find Hilarion to be much more convincing as a living breathing human, and to my reading, Manuel seems more a tool of Roumain to preach his views to us. Hilarion simply lives for us, and is who he is. His transition, his struggle appears so genuine and vibrant. I forgot that he was a character of Alexis and that Alexis had his own agenda. Hilarion just seemed to have an existence of his own, as for that matter, so does Claire and the very likeable Jean-Michel. Only the absent Roumel was more like an author’s mouthpiece than a living breathing person.
Carrol Coates provides both the translation and a quite extensive introduction.
The introduction is just excellent, and Carrol will provide a rather different take on the novel than what my comments above suggest. There is nothing in Carrol’s introduction that I would disagree with, and his commentary comes from a detailed study of the text itself and other sources. My comments come strictly from my one (careful) reading of the story and how it moved me. However, I do think Carrol’s introduction is a wonderful read in itself and would enrich anyone’s understanding the text. He also provides an extensive bibliography of Alexis’ work.
I have some mixed feelings about some decisions in Coates’ translation. First the strong positives for me:
Coates makes a fascinating and compelling case there he is really faced with the task of translating THREE languages:
I trust that Coates is correct about these three languages, and thus his job as translator is even more difficult that just making French intelligible to readers of English. He wants to keep the literary purity of the three languages which Alexis himself is carefully crafting.
I believe he did that very well for me. However, I did read the introduction before I read the novel and his section on the translation in that introduction makes this distinction I mention above. Given his description I was sort of watching for the differences in language and believed I could recognize them, thus making me believe Coates successfully translated Alexis’ intentions. However, I have no idea if I would have noticed this had I not read the introduction.
Since the novel reads so beautifully, had there been no other issues in the translation I would have nothing but highest praise for the work of Carrol Coates. However, there are three other categories of language to consider, and the issue here is not Coates’ TRANSLATION, but his NON-TRANSLATION.
Two of the three are in no way problematic for me:
My problems came with a significantly large number of Creole words left untranslated. Very often these were not common Creole words or terms, and thus completely baffled me, frequently obscuring what in the world was going on. It was on about the third use of one term that context allowed me to figure out that the job Hilarion had, which was being referred to only by the Creole name, was a baggage packer/handler on the top of a tap tap. In the earlier usages I hadn’t a clue as to what job he had.
I can see the argument translator Coates may well make: Perhaps Alexis even writes these words in Creole himself. I don’t know. And if he does, then one could argue that the “flavor” of the literary style will demand strong measures to honor the author’s desires. I believe there is a glossary in the back of the book with some such words, but I doubt there are many causal readers who are going to want to run back and forth to the back of the book for a term that could so easily be rendered into English.
It’s not a great issue, and I certainly respect Carrol Coates’ work as translator and the gift of bringing this work to us in English. But, for this reader, that one aspect of the translation was a source of aggravation, confusion and hindered the delight of my own read.
Along the way of reading this novel I did run into one set of passages that touched me deeply. I wrote a note to my Haiti mailing list about those particular passages and I recreate that note below.
Today I was sitting in my regular coffee house, so deeply moved by my reading that I could scarcely breath, often tears welling up in my eyes. Few things move me as much as good literature can, and this morning I was in the hands of such a master, Haitian writer, Jacques Stephen Alexis.
Life in retirement is indeed very good for me. Each morning I arise fairly early, post most of the notes to the list which are still in line from the day before and the early morning, then I head off to my coffee shop to have a bagel and read for a couple of hours.
Currently I am about ½ way through the novel GENERAL SUN, MY BROTHER by Alexis (translated by list member Carrol Coates). I’ll post a full set of comments on the book when I’m finished, but today was a very special experience and I want to see if I can share some of it with you folks.
There are many very informed, intelligent and deeply caring people on this list who post challenging and interesting notes and insights. Yet, day after day I find myself a bit frustrated at what appears to me a gigantic DISTANCE between our discussions, reflections, and the various news reports we read, and the lives of the masses of everyday Haitians.
Even when I am in Haiti it is not easy for me to get close to the lives of those every day Haitians, even when I am a guest living in one of their homes or in a tiny hut in the rural areas. I am always “other,” the guest, the white guy with access to some funding. It’s not that people aren’t decent to me, they are. It’s just that the reality of how different our lives and struggles are form a barrier no matter how much we might both wish it weren’t there.
In the hands of Jacques Stephen Alexis I am often taken into the heart and guts of the characters of this novel in ways that move me deeply and convince me of the accuracy of his portrayal.
Today I was reading a domestic scene. The scene is set in pre-WWII Haiti, but the date isn’t exactly clear. The main characters of the novel are Hilarious Hilarion and his wife, Claire-Heureuse. They are very simple people, low-level working folks in Port-au-Prince. Claire-Heureuse runs a small shop out of their tiny set of rooms, and Hilarion works odd jobs which often end abruptly.
He has been under the influence of a medical student Jean-Michel, a communist who has been trying to educate Hilarion toward the necessity of struggle, especially class struggle, to bring a decent life to the ordinary people like Hilarion. Jean-Michel himself is in a much privileged position coming from a family with money.
Hilarion is exhilarated by the hope of this vision of a workers’ revolution. Up to that time he had drifted, rather unthinkingly toward a life of acceptance and escapism. His escapes tended toward drinking and a rare occasion now and again, of cheating on Claire-Heureuse. Now, however, he has been imbued with the great ideals of liberation and the coming of a beautiful age.
A flood in the Artibonite is the immediate cause of a drastic economic downturn and things are getting harder and harder in the little world of the lower working class of Hilarion and Claire-Heureuse. This is weighing on Hilarion’s heart, and he is seeing a conflict between the reality he lives – a constantly worsening, virtually hopeless situation, and this great dream of liberation and struggle.
He is vaguely aware that if he didn’t bear the BURDEN of this vision of hope, he would just follow what he sees all around him – the escapism into self-destructive acts, but acts which bring momentary relief from the hopelessness.
All of this erupts into a very conscious moment of action when one of the poor women of the neighborhood comes in for some food, but has no money.
Alexis tells this so magnificently:
The tension was still in the air when Victorine, the taxi driver Lenoir's companion, came into the shop with a humble, sad face. Claire Heureuse frowned. Victorine was a really nice, good person, and everybody agreed that she was a seamstress who did beautiful work and never cheated anyone. But, all the same, she had owed twelve goud to the shop for three weeks. It is terrible to see a good person with begging eyes. Claire-Heureuse had made up her mind not to be taken in that day.
"Good morning, Madame Claire. Good morning, Monsieur Hilarion. How are you?"
"Good morning, Madame Victorine. Things are fine," answered Claire-Heureuse tensely.
"Oh! There are always problems," said Victorine quickly as she looked away. "Lenoir broke the gear box. It cost his life's blood to replace it. I can't pay you today because of that and I don't have a drop of milk for little Francine. I need a small can, a little cornmeal, some fat, and a little kerosene for the lamp. I have to sew late this evening. I've got some urgent work and that will let me begin to pay you."
"I'd like to help, Madame Victorine, but I've been waiting for three weeks now. Today, I just can't......
Victorine's eyes filled with tears. She was paralyzed by shame. But she fought with all her strength against herself and, with a burst of energy, she took it as naturally as she could. In fact, it was even more difficult to go home with empty hands and to face little Francine, who would stare at her with the eyes of a hungry puppy.
"Please, Madame Claire. I'll pay you tomorrow. Lenoir was able to go out with the car today."
"You're all alike! But don't you realize that I can't wait to pay for my merchandise. If you think that I can put off Monsieur Bolte...... "Thanks, Madame Claire," Victorine answered with a strangled voice and turned to leave.
Hilarion got up.
"Give her what she asked for," he said with a stern voice. "But, Hilarion......
"Give it to her," he yelled.
"I have to go to Bolte's today and I won't be able to bring back any merchandise. . . ."
A cold rage took hold of Hilarion. He went to the shelves, took down the items, and put them in the arms of Victorine, who stood there speechless. Then he left the shop and went into the dining room. Claire Heureuse followed him.
"You've never taken care of the shop. I'm as kindhearted as you are. But if you throw our merchandise out the window, there won't be anything left soon. But Monsieur wants to play the generous prince!"
Hilarion let fly a blow that caught Claire-Heureuse right in the face, almost knocking her down. She looked at him, stupefied. She had never seen him with such shining red eyes displaying a determination that scared her. She went up to him, hugged him, and said just one word. "Hilarion......
He pulled away abruptly, took his package of cigarettes from the table, and left. The municipal siren was just screaming noon with a strident wail. Neither Hilarion nor Claire-Heureuse knows what to make of this. He had never hit her before and both are shocked by it. Hilarion goes off and is thinking about all of this and he realizes it is the influence of the communist ideals of Jean-Michel and his friends, but they only talk, talk, talk, and they don’t have to LIVE the hopeless as he does. They don’t live daily with the horrors of the predicaments of people like Victorine. They have, on Hilarion’s view and in his rage, a certain freedom to think these thoughts and dance at the edges since they don’t feel the same weight of the hopeless of the current moment. Yet at the same time Hilarion is bright enough to know that without the hope that such dreams of utopia bring he would just collapse into the tragic escapism of so many of his neighbors. The impact of this moment on Claire-Heureuse was phenomenal: Alexis writes:
It had taken a blow to make her understand that, between her companion and herself, there was an area to which she had no access. There were reflections that she had no part of! Fear took hold of her. It was a fear that hurt. She was losing the love of her man, of the man who gave meaning to her life!
She was a poor little street vendor who had surrendered without thinking, surrendered with her innocent heart to uncomplicated love. She thought of this love like the candies that she sold each day. People always wanted the same candy. That taste lasted for a lifetime. Was love something more complex then, something living and delicate? What would she not have given to know the secret. She was the adopted child of an old maid who had not been able to teach her anything about this subject. She had never known a normal existence, but rather life without excitement or human joy, life with all meaning cut off. For her man, she washed shirts, prepared food, told him the happenings of each day, and gave him affection-in a word, she gave him what she thought was happiness. But because of all the difficulties in life, that happiness was only a pale reflection of what she would have liked. Everybody seeks happiness, right? Well, he was grateful for the impossible happiness that she tried to put together each day with the miserable leftovers of their existence. She could not be mistaken about the look he had given her, but.... There was a "but"!
So he appeared to be happy when she prepared guava paste, but he kissed her in a funny way because she let him know that the paste would be a bit sour for lack of sugar. He answered that the paste was good that way and that she was right to save money. But he ate it with a bit too much gusto, as if to make her happy.
Another time, they went to see the free film on the Champ-de- Mars. She laughed with all her heart to see Charlie Chaplin gobbling up his shoe. She had been quite surprised when Hilarion asked her abruptly if that made her want to laugh.
Those things had never bothered her. She had seen so many things in her experience as a street vendor. She had kept an ability to laugh at funny things, even if they were only a cloak over bitter reality. In her eyes, there were emaciated children who observed what happened in the street with the tragic look of hunger; there were old people worn out by work, sleeping hungry on benches in public squares; there were tramps digging in garbage heaps. She had developed a neutral gaze something like the look in the eyes of children, ready to face anything.
Some old visions came back to mind for reasons she hardly understood. Where had these images been buried, things to which she had never paid attention until that blow brought them back?
All of this scene was deeply troubling to me and saddened me. Alexis is certainly leading the characters toward a realization of their condition, and I would suspect, an acceptance of the struggle. But this MOMENT touched me. They are both on the fence. Is this knowledge, this hope, this utopia worth it? Is it accurate or is it the toy of the privileged?
Further, purely on the personal level there is another realization that at least Claire-Heureuse has, that each of them has a very private life of thought that the other, even this closest lover, cannot fully penetrate.
How will they live? Where will their lives go?
And all of this touched me a two levels – first the power of Alexis to take me INSIDE that life of the simple working class struggle for daily existence, and then to challenge me concerning what I often see as an aloofness in so much of our “talk” on this list.
That not meant as a criticism. I do believe very much as I said at the outset of this note, that this list has so many caring, intelligent, giving people. I am more torn by contradictions than I am displeased in my heart at any of us. I do sense an enormous distance between us on this list and the mass of Haitians, both city dwellers and country folk. I have no idea what to do about it at all.
Yet I think now and again I need the brilliance of some one like Jacques Stephen Alexis to bring these things to my attention with the power and insight of his writing.Bob Corbett email@example.com
Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org