Sunday, June 7, 2015
Haiti Unbound: A Spiralist Challenge to the PostcolonialCanon. By Kaiama L. Glover. Liverpool : Liverpool University Press, 2010. ISBN 9781846314995. 244 pp.
Reviewed by Marc-Arthur Pierre-Louis
Haiti is a country that is marked by rebellion, a refusal to conform to the status quo and has been made to pay a costly price, willingly or not. This forms a motif that has been repeated and transposed throughout the country's history. In itself that can be easily construed as a spiral. But the spiral that concerns Kaiama L. Glover in Haiti unbound is of a different nature and is primarily a literary movement that began in 1965 in Port-au-Prince having for fountainhead Frankétienne. It is true that the movement will echo the spasms of a society that seems to be forever in a dystopic state but the author is mainly interested in how the Spiralists wrestle with the phenomenon. The corpus with which she chose to study the movement is composed of selected works by Frankétienne and two other Spiralists : Jean-Claude Fignolé and René Philoctète aiming their prose fiction in congruence to an opaquely defined theoretical framework. These Spiralists envisioned the spiral, in Glover's words, as an open-ended and dynamic world operating on “multiple levels, incarnating a precise artistic attitude while evoking essential phenomena at work in every aspect of the natural world...” The Spiralists are concerned with their insular experience as well as that of a wider world but Glover readily notes on the onset that they too had to pay the price of their, as it were, rebellion, by being virtually isolated from the francophone world in which they operated and continue to operate. Frankétienne is the most popular of the three and it has been argued that his spiralist work is the one with any relative significance while the work of Fignolé and Philoctète has been afforded little attention by the scholars. Her aim is thus to fill this gaping void in the “assessment of postcolonial aesthetics” by bringing to the surface the “spiral-based aesthetics” in the works of the Spiralists and by putting them in dialogue with intellectuals and regional writers such as Fanon, Chamoiseau, Césaire, Glissant and a host of others. Her goal, by doing so, is to show how they link to and even greatly enrich “contemporary models of literature and theory in postcolonial Caribbean.”
In examining the treatment these authors received from the community of Caribbean French-speaking writers, critics and scholars, one is hard pressed to think of a banishment of sorts. Glover speaks of a silence which sheds light “on the whole literary culture of the French-speaking Caribbean and Haiti's place within it.” Given the stringent requirements the Spiralists' texts place on the reader it relatively easy to say, while keeping a straight face, that they have chosen themselves to be at arm's length with their readership and have decided that reading them would not be a casual exercise. Glover quotes Frankétienne who prescribes a serious engagement to the readers in the form of “creative readings,” “arranging with relative ambiguity the diverse structural elements of the work.” The reader is thus responsible for the destiny of what has been written. In that sense Frankétienne is playing right in the sandbox of postmodernism but the price for the readings may be prohibitive. Nevertheless Glover views their geographical isolation as an impetus to develop an “original and subversive approach at literature” unlike the literary productions of the Caribbean heavily impacted by the demands of the Euro-North American culture industry.
Glover uses six works from the three authors for her corpus. Three from Frankétienne: Mur à Crever(1968), Ultravocal(1972), and Les affres d'un défi(1979); two from Fignolé: Les possédés de la pleine lune(1987) et Aube tranquille(1990); one from Philoctète: Le peuple des terres mêlées(1989). The stories that they tell are not glamorous. There are no heroes who ride in to save the day. These are stories of violence, abuse, murder, suffocation, screaming both literally and figuratively where the subalterns are caught up in a whirlwind, a funnel cloud that spirals from bad to worse. These are stories where the villain reigns supreme and runs unchecked while exacting untold evil. The protagonists are non-heroes, ethically ambivalent, physically and psychically fractured characters.
The book is divided into four parts as Glover forcefully argues for the inclusion of the Spiralists in the postcolonial canon.
In part I where she introduces her methodology and takes the lay of the land, she is very suspicious of the treatment afforded to the Spiralists in the light of the recognition that other French-speaking Caribbean writers receive from the Metropole. Here the word Metropole provides an elucidation of the puzzle. Although these [metropolitan] authors sometimes will take a tough stance against France it seems that they are perceived as insiders and are treated as such and paradoxically enjoy the insider's benefits. They conform to the script and provide the tools by which their texts can be interpreted, making life definitely easier on the theorists, scholars, and readers. The Spiralists , on the contrary, are ex-centrists, they are not-Paris. This has its consequences. They wanted to play the game on their own terms. They remained in their opacity, frustrating both readers and scholars. In general this encourages a certain dismissive boldness from their Antillean counterparts. Bernadette Cailler will go as far chastising the whole of Haitian literature as “dead-ended in its insularity – without a productive presence in the postcolonial world” and the Spiralists, are naturally included in the batch. [Hats must be tipped to Cailler's amazing statement]
Part II zooms into the shifty characters in the spirals. This is the most accessible part of the book as it dives into summaries of the stories the Spiralists bring to bear. In Glover's own words her concerns in this part is to deal with how the Spiralists provide a response to the question of writing the postcolonial record. It will not be a pretty picture but a shattered one, marred by violence.
In Mur à crever Raynand resorts to lying to maintain the appearance of belonging to the middle class in order to impress the father of his girlfriend and comes away disgusted by the experience. He will be forced to leave Haiti to live illegally in the Bahamas but then will be caught and deported back to Haiti with throngs of other Haitians, some of whom will throw themselves into the seas preferring to be eaten by the sharks rather than returning to Haiti. Body parts will litter the ocean surface. One is spiraled in time to transpose the images of slaves committing suicide rather than going to St Domingue. Raynand will be thrown in jail where he will lose his life. In Ultravocal Mac Abre is a cosmic evil man with unlimited powers to inflict pain unto his fellow men. His giant penis is a weapon of mass destruction spewing urine with a high concentration of a defoliating agent. He also incarnates the “most diabolical Third-World dictators” pawns of the super powers. In Les affres d'un défi Frankétienne tackles the phenomenon of zombification in the community of Bois Neuf where a houngan terrorizes the population by killing people and making them zombies who lose the ability to think and act as normal human beings but are subjected to his will. He has them slaving for him as their sole occupation. The zombie can become a normal human being by eating salt and in fact the ones under the helm of the houngan in Boif Neuf will be freed by Clodonis, himself a zombie who was given salt by the houngan's daughter his lover. The zombies will thus become warriors. The spiral will spin further in Rita who, though not physically a zombie, is mentally one, a restavèk enslaved to Gédéon, her master.
In Fignolé's Les possédés de la pleine lune, Agénor, a one-eyed cyclops-like human being is dead in the coastal town of Les Abricots, after killing a one-eyed savale fish that itself became a human being. The wake for Agénor was also the wake for the unknown human being. In fact Agénor and the savale were archenemies locked into a perennial battle every full moon. Agénor was supposed to have become a one-eyed man because during his youth he fought with the fish which hit him in the head causing his eyes to melt and become one in the middle of his forehead. Now his life pursuit was to kill the fish and avenge his deformities and gain the esteem of the town. However his wife Saintilma always suspected him to have an affair with Violetta, a silky-voiced young woman who is the fish's lover, mother and child during his full moon escapades. Saintmilia developed a fierce hatred toward Violetta. Then Les possédés will spiral again in several other strange characters and will close with the person of Louiortesse a schizophrenic former suitor of Saintmilia who was severely beaten and disfigured by Agénor and lived in exile in Jérémie. As Glover correctly assesses, the individuals in the spiral are shifty. Louiortesse is viewed as a zombie who glides over the swamp at night, is even viewed as a seven-headed monster, hears voices that tell him what to do, and may have actually dreamt up all the events in Les possédés. More shifting occurs in Aube tranquille that could be considered a sequel to Les possédés. Saintmilia will appear again in a battle of her own against sister Therese, a nun who lives in Les Abricots and who in a previous life was supposed to be a slave owner who was the murderous mistress of Saintmilia's great-great-great-great grandmother. Saintmilia relives that period and holds sister Therèse responsible for a crime that her great-great-great-great grandmother committed more than a century ago. This dynamic continues in the joust between the two women and lesbian relationships will come to the surface between sister Therese, and sister Hyacinthe at the convent and a supposedly black Senegalese flight attendant who looks like sister Therese. Saintmilia and sister Therese move in and out of the reminiscence of their previous lives and continue to challenge each other. The whole sequence gives the impression of a dream where things are fluid and one quickly travels vast distances, and events seem unbounded by time.
Philoctète's Le peuple des terres mêlées recalls the terrible events of the massacre of Haitians in the Dominican Republic by dictator Rafael Trujillo in the town of Elias Pinas. There also, Adèle, a young Haitian woman and her Dominican husband Pedro will lose their lives. The shibboleth devised by Trujillo worked perfectly as Haitians who could not pronounce the word perejil (parsley) properly were mercilessly decimated by Trujillo's chief executioner Don Augustin. There again body parts will litter the landscape. Things are gruesome and the perspective is bleak for Haitians. Adèle lost her head but one is not sure if the loss is physical or simply mental, if she is really dead or if her death is simply metaphorical. Regardless, however, the sheer violence of the massacre can certainly do both to an individual and the post traumatic syndrome someone as frail as Adèle is to bound exhibit after witnessing such terrible events is the least to be expected.
Analogies to and comparisons with works by Hugo, Stephen Alexis, Glissant, put the Spiralists in serious conversations with their counterparts and show that while the spiral is other, there is common ground with their productions. She ends this part by noting that the Spiralists have [constantly] “refused the conventions of transparent subjectivity” and don't woo their readership with “passive voyeurism” demanding much more to deal with the impenetrability of the subjects presented. She sees similarities with the aesthetic of the “New Novel and other postmodern literary philosophies...”
She begins Part III Space-Time of the of the Spiral with this very pointed question: “How might non-indigenous, post-slavery, and communities such as those described by the Spiralists possibly hope to take possession of the island landscape and to escape the tragic history to which this landscape has borne witness?” This question is several centuries old. In their treatment of time and space in the Caribbean postcolonial record, the Spiralists have chosen to “reflect the sustained ambivalence of the zombie,” making consistent use of Vodou aesthetics, juxtaposing the incongruous, and avoiding “hierarchical categorizations.” The landscape they present is that of the island, albeit there was a brief stint in the Bahamas. They are certainly aware of the world surrounding them. Frankétienne will even make reference to the Vietnam war and in Mur à crever Raynand will complain about the elites sending their offspring away. How then he decides to leave for the Bahamas is a mystery. The narratives present time and space in a single frame, collapsing past, present and future. This is the dream-like effect alluded to in a previous paragraph. In Mur à crever Raynand walks and walks aimlessly to the point of exhaustion and this represents the “limitations and failures of his existence” as well as the “immediate and social realities of Haiti and the broader extra-insular phenomena – class hierarchy, arbitrary violence absence of governmental accountability – that impacts the people of the contemporary Americas.” She then appeals to Michel de Certeau for an interpretive framework for Raynand's walks which can be viewed as a “lack of a place...” in a city that becomes “an immense experience of lacking a place...” Both Raynand and his brother die as a result of their wanderings outside of the country attempting find a place they can call their own and this is the experience of the Haitians scattered in the four corners of the world seeking a place they call their own. Ever since 1492 people have been trying to escape a land [even though they will later declare their undying love for it.]
In part IV she deals with stylistic concerns, tackling the “how” of the Spiralists narratives. These narratives are more focused on showing than on telling. For example of Aube tranquille she says this: “... while Aube tranquille similarly calls for the reader's active engagement in order to make some sort of “sense”of the story being told, it melds the phenomenon of orality with post/modern narrative techniques to produce a demanding and hybrid work of historical fiction.” She calls on to Michael Dash as she seeks to define Frankétienne's approach at the Spiral which is a form of writing that rejects “didacticism, prescribitiveness and the convention of realism... a movement of infinite possibility which is another manifestation of the Césairean ideal.” Frankétienne introduces schizophonia which, according to Yves Chemla, is an attitude or position of the artist who arrives by degrees, or in a stepwise motion to the realization that the sounds he produces “are the only ones capable of evoking the chaos and the pollution that affects the world (as well as language itself) by means of neologisms, lexical inventions, rhymes, and echoes, alliterations and encounters between sounds and images.” She thinks that Frankétienne's schizophonia intersects with Glissant's notion of forced or counter poetics as described in Le Discours Antillais.
Language as a vehicle of expression for communication with the subalterns is a concern of hers. For example Frankétienne has chosen to write Dezafi in Creole to show the ability of that language to capture complex and abstract ideas. This would seem to place Frankétienne in a quandary. The text is so complex that it is not accessible to the perfectly literate, let alone the illiterate. But Frankétienne is genuinely concerned, and the problem of disenfranchisement with regards to literacy and literature is ever present in Les affres d'un défi where the dearth of an expressive vehicle for subaltern discourse is dealt with from a variety of vantage points.
Glover says that Frankétienne invites the reader to be possessed by the text. In her view this possession is mediated through Vodou aesthetic. She appeals to Alessandra Benedicty's analysis of the appropriation of Vodou art while the latter takes to task those who attempt to interpret it through postmodernism or via European dismissive lenses. Meaning, she infers, “is produced in and through a metaphorical possession – an opening and letting go in the presence of the art object.” She further writes, “where there are vêvê – drawn/written signs – there is the possibility of possession, there is instability of identity and receptivity to a disembodied spirit/meaning invoked non-specifically and residing in a given being/text/word.”
She ends her text by reminding us that the Spiralists' text summons the vigilance of scholars to guard against fixating the canon of the French-speaking Caribbean. The fact that these Spiralists are underrepresented serves as a reminder not to settle on de facto canons in the Caribbean space meant to be dynamic.
Professor Nick Nesbitt said that Glover's work is a “tour-de-force, brimming with insight on every page.” He is not far from the truth. One has to admit that she did a nice piece of work. The research was copious and indeed she kept her promise to put the Spiralists in dialogue with their Caribbean counterparts and a host of others. The Spiralists are a tough read, especially Frankétienne. In my youth I attempted Ultravocal and experienced firsthand the frustration Glover alludes to. So it would be an oversimplification if her work were to provide a mere dilution ready for mass consumption. Her aim was to deliver handles to scholars with which to grab hold of the texts and interact with them. Handles did she deliver! She was very creative and thorough in her analysis. Philoctète unfortunately will not enjoy this attention since he is no longer with us. The other two Spiralists should relish this superb opening toward them even if it has been made from an anglophone perspective. It will have ripple effects on the francophone world. Professor Glover has captured well the dynamics of zombification and the restavèk phenomena, both vehicles of exploitation pointing back to slavery days. Both amount to an insatiable appetite to enjoy others toils and painful labors for free. Given how widespread are in Haiti the concept of zombification on the one hand and the actual praxis of the restavèk on the other hand, this shines the light on a serious problem that Haitian society must continue to grapple with.
A reference to Frankétienne's Creole theatrical output and especially his famed play Pèlen Tèt(1978) would have nicely and definitively resolved the apparent quandary in which Dezafi has placed him. Indeed the Spiralist himself considers one of his greatest satisfactions as an author the fact that he was one day accosted by a “madan sara” (a woman of usually low education who sells in the open air market) and asked when he would grace them with another play. This unmistakably points to the fact that the author succeeded in his attempt to level set with the masses. Li ateri (he landed) would be appropriate Haitian euphemism.
Haitian mythology is dynamic and is pretty much a work in progress. It is not thousands of years removed as the Greeks' and the Romans' are. After all we're dealing with a society that, in 2015, attributed the death of more than a dozen people – electrocuted when a float hit a high power line during the annual carnival festivities – to the presence of a stand erected by the cemetery of Port-au-Prince representing Baron Samedi (the god of death and of the cemetery). This theory was advocated by several politicians and so called intellectuals. It is not enough to say that the Spiralists leverage Vodou aesthetics or even appeal to other scholars who approach it from a purely theoretical standpoint, as merely a cultural practice. It is quite useful to understand the Spiralists commitment to the worldview. Are they approaching it as spectators who are merely exploiting the potential it has for good without necessarily being a devotee? Or do they believe in the power of the gods as practitioners do? When I go the Valley of a Thousand Hills in the Durban area in South Africa and sit in a stadium-shaped hut and enjoy a Zulu dance, including the acting out of the oracles of a sorcerer telling a young man whether he should take a young woman as one of his wives, I am taken by the beauty of the practices but there is so much more that I don't know about them. Am I in the presence of just actors putting on a show for tourists for a few bucks or do they still hold to these practices as a way of life? In connection to Haitian mythology it would be interesting to know when exactly Erzulie Dantor, for example, became the protector deity of lesbians given that scholars (Alfred Metraux, Milo Rigaud, Laënnec Hurbon, Leslie Desmangles) who have provided nomenclatures of Vodou deities early on are silent on this function of hers. Search engines will readily surface this information but where it originates and since when it has been incorporated into Haitian mythology would have been in important marker.
It would have been also an important marker to stress how the Spiralists deal with the issue of fear, precisely this aspect of it: how it is distributed in the interactions of the subalterns with each other. This fear seems to be inherent to the whole system and constitutes a centripetal force in itself. Speaking of it, Laënnec Hurbon had this to say: “It is doubtless, we must acknowledge that this enslaving fear has a preponderant place in the life of the voodooist. We are indeed in front of a de-structured society and so much so that every individual must ensure a maximum of protection in his life. But the religious aspect of Voodoo does not disappear thereby. The character of the voodooistic ceremonies and even of the cult of the dead suffice already to convince us of the permanent presence of strictly religious attitudes in voodooistic practices.” (Laënnec Hurbon, Dieu dans le Vaudou Haïtien, p165). A non trivial answer would have also been to what extent this fear has morphed into the ranks of theorists and scholars. As Glover points out, the Spiralists make some heavy demands on their readership. One of the demands is to be possessed by the text, a possession akin to Vodou possession, a letting go. Theorists and scholars do not always want to be in an altered state of consciousness when it comes to the use of their intellectual faculties and may not readily or eagerly get on with a program that compels them to relinquish control. What role this has played in keeping spiralism out of scholarship circles is unknown and would make for an important study.
Haiti Unbound is not bounded by the evaluative commentaries in the above paragraphs. If something is bounded it is this review, by the cramped space to explore even in a highly concentrated fashion the ground that Glover has covered in this brilliant work. One of the most powerful aspects of this study are the strong assertions she makes with respect to the fact that Haiti has been maligned politically, economically and, at least, in the case of spiralism. This is not a Haitian crying foul here but an external but booming voice intimating that something is scarily wrong. While one cannot assert that her text is an easy read – she was dealing with complex texts – the multiple openings she has provided are superb paths that will lead into the crux of the Spiral prose fiction.
Marc-Arthur Pierre-Louis, June 2015