By Rene Depestre
translation and introduction by Carrol F. Coates
University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1990.
(original French version, 1979)
ISBN 0-8139-1281-4 (hard bound)
A review by Bob Corbett
"CLOSED FOR DEZOMBIFICATION" reads the sign on Henri Postel's small shop in a working class neighborhood of Port-au-Roi. Postel, a mulatto former senator and political agitator, has been condemned to a strange death by the president of the nation -- death by boredom. The president rightly assumes that Postel will suffer a sort of mental rot, an internal zombification, running his small general store, Noah's Ark. But Postel, a courageous moral man, like Camus' Sisyphus, will not give up.
At age 49, overweight, drinking too much, separated from all "movement" contact, Postel sets the nation on edge when he enters the annual contest of climbing the greasy pole in the national park. The president understands Postel's challenge as a threat to his control, and accepts it gleefully, meeting him head on.
The government of Zoocrates Zachary, ruling from his capital city of Port-au-Roi is not even the slightest veil of Papa Doc's last years. To those at all familiar with this period the fictional characters are easily recognized with such flimsy cover names as: Clovis Barbotog, Angel Boipiraud, the presidents' married daughter, the local bishop, Monsignor Wolgonde and even the revolutionary Jean-Jacques Brissaricq. Haiti's infamous Fort Dimanche (Fort Sunday) loses one day as Fort Samedi.
Postel puts up his morally courageous battle against the forces of darkness and moves the Haitian people out of the lethargy of their hopelessness. But, who is this Henri Postel and what is the greasy pole itself? The University Press of Virginia actually offers us two books in one. Carroll Coates provides a useful 68 page bio-introduction to Depestre's life and work.
However, I was surprised that she evaded the question of just how autobiographical this novel is. Depestre has been a long-time political activist, having been exiled from Haiti, France, Czechoslovakia, Brazil and Cuba -- more countries than most people have ever visited! Depestre, himself, is no help on this issue. His prefatory comment tells us the novel "...is not a historical chronicle, a roman a clef, or a work of autobiographical origin." However, this same paragraph goes on to claim:
The events and the characters of the narrative therefore belong to the realm of pure fiction. Any resemblance to persons, animals, trees, living or having lived, any similarity, close or distant, to names, situations, places, systems, cogwheels of steel or fire, or to any other scandal in real life, can only have the effect, therefore, of coincidence that is "not only accidental, but downright scandalous."
The joking irony, thus leaves the question as to just how much Henri Postel is Rene Depestre, as an open question.
Perhaps the greasy pole itself is chosen for its absurdity. Postel must show the president, the Great Electrifier of Souls, that he cannot defeat the soul of human resistance. Even if the gesture is not pragmatic or ultimately effective, Postel must make his statement before death. Depestre makes an issue of this late in the work. The revolutionary Jean-Jacques Brissaricq comes to see him. Postel has never been allowed into the revolutionary inner circle. When Postel asks why, he hears:
Brissaricq gave me the honest reasons. They are afraid of what they call "Postel's moral individualism."
"One of our most serious reproaches against Postel," he said, "is his tendency to see things solely in their moral aspect. You can't make an omelet or a revolution with breaking a few eggs or a few heads."
Depestre comes down firmly on Postel's side and the revolutionaries join forces with him.
A second theme which runs throughout the novel is the question of individual power and responsibility verses the influences and power of Voodoo spirits. In my neat Western philosophical world there is an either/or choice. The freedom of personal moral responsibility or the fatalistic determinism of supernatural control. In marvelously sensitive Haitian fashion Depestre comes down firmly in both camps. Henri Postel is an existentialist hero. He summons a personal courage unto death and plunges into action risking his life itself. At the same time, he unquestioningly accepts his friends' intercession with the Voodoo spirit Loko on his behalf. His friend says:
"Without Papa Loko," she added, "Henri Postel wouldn't be able to get far on his pole in the state they've brought him. Do you at least know the role Loko has played in the history of the island? He himself, in person, protected Dessalines during all the battles for independence. The leader of the revolution fell in the ambush at the Pont Rouge because on that October 17, Papa Loko was not at his side, unfortunately. He had left the evening before on a secret mission to the Department du Sud, which was engaged in a conspiracy. The enemies of General Dessalines took advantage of this to carry out their infamous deed. Thanks to the advice of Thomas Christ and his sister, Sinta, Simon Bolivar himself, when he was staying in Jacmel in 1816, solicited the help of Papa Loko, who stuck by him more closely than his own shadow during all the campaigns. That's why Bolivar died in his own bed, after having accomplished all he had to do. Loko can assume at will the shape of a chameleon, of a climbing bird, a lizard, a butterfly or the shadow of a man, woman, or child. So, you have an idea of the help that Senator Postel might get from Papa Loko in the trial that awaits him. This comes at the right time -- I know a good cheval for Loko in Tete-Boeuf. What's more, he's an admirer of Postel. We can invoke Papa Loko this very evening!"
THE FESTIVAL OF THE GREASY POLE is a deeply moving novel. I was never able to predict the ultimate outcome of the race up the pole. I wanted to know and kept reading page after page. Yet I was constantly worried Depestre would let me down. He didn't, but you'll have to read the book to discover the outcome. You'll not get it from me!
The book is written with passion and profound insight into the politics of Duvalierism, the penetrating influence of Voodoo in everyday affairs and the eroticism of Haitian life. The book warrants more than a single reading. It would even make an excellent basis for discussion of Haitian culture, to say nothing of a fun historical parlor game of recognizing characters in the thinly veiled "fiction" of Rene Depestre.
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