By Lilas Desquiron.
Charlottesville, VA.: University Press of Virginia, 1998.
Translated from the French (Les chemins de Loco-Miroir) by
Robin Orr Bodkin.
ISBN: 0-8139-1752-2 (cloth) 0-8139-1753-0 (paper)
A review by Bob Corbett
Sleepy Jeremie before the terrible Duvalierist slaughter of 1964, had more in common with the Jeremie of the eighteenth century than the Jeremie of the post-1964 period. Lilas Desquiron takes us to that Jeremie when citizens knew their places and when places were secure and safe, for the lowly as well as the high born. Marassa arrive. Not blood twins, but marassa of the spirit world. The rich, beautiful and extraordinary Violaine is born to the Delavigne family, leading mulatto family of Jeremie. Her sister in the spirit, Cocotte, is born at the same time to a poor family across town. Peasant, black and poor, Cocotte is taken into the Delavigne family as a restavek and, in effect, becomes an assigned playmate for Violaine. The two grow up as inseparable sisters in both spirit and flesh.
The story that follows is at one level Violaine's tale. We follow her rearing in privilege, her infectious spirit, her daring independence, her deep commitment to the world of Voodoo. We are told of the foreboding dangers as she falls in love with the poor, black and revolutionary Alexandre. Then the novel explodes into the mysterious, magical and political as Violaine oversteps what Jeremie's high society can bear, and Alexandre dares to raise a revolutionary hand to the new Duvalier government. The spectacular denouement is filled with surprises one more exciting and astonishing, or horrifying and scary than the next. I'll leave those for you to discover on your own.
The story is told in alternating narratives, most of them from Violaine and Cocotte, but occasionally from other parties. This allows Desquiron to give us different perspectives of very similar events and enriches our understanding.
The actual story line, while gripping and emotively involving, is just one level of this marvelously woven tale. This is a dissertation on class and color in Haiti the likes of nothing I've ever read in the scholars. This is a delving into the place of Voodoo in everyday life and the dark secrets of zombification which presents possibilities I had not yet heard of. Other writers have presented the information, but here it is woven into the story of Violaine, Cocotte, and the tightly rule-bound world of mulatto Jeremian society in such a way that it means more than what we read in scholarly studies. We know it not merely as claimed fact, but as the living and emotive reality of people we know, love and care for. I came away with my knowledge deepened, but much more importantly my emotive sense of these phenomena heightened in a way no other books have or writers have be able to do.
For example, Desquiron operates within the same hypothesis about zombification which Wade Davis presents in his work. Zombification is treated as the ultimate punishment for violating an important social taboo; a crime not to civil society, but a crime against the unwritten but inviolate cultural laws. However, the richness of the personal setting deepens the question. On the standard account the offender is judged to have violated the social rules; the punishment is meted out - justice is done. Human existence is more complicated. Suppose the act has been done. But a crime on whose view? The standard image suggests that there is some sort of universal agreement and that the judgment is made with dispassionate and cold justice. What about personal anger at a loved one who has seeming violated the beloved? What about those who are not convinced a crime was committed at all? Would they merely stand by and allow this to happen? Lilas Desquiron tackles these tough questions and reveals the deep and conflicting emotions and actions that make human existence the hard nut it is. We are so much richer for her efforts.
Many commentators on Haitian society discuss the color barriers between mulattos and blacks. Others caution us that this division is more of class than color. Desquiron ducks this last question, but presents the former, the color bias in astonishingly insightful ways. We see and feel how the Delavigne family and surrounding society live with the black citizens of Jeremie. We may blanche at how they simply don't see them as the same sort of people as they are, but we are inside their world, and troubling or astonishing as it might be, we feel it for the reality it is. It makes things clearer.
The last pages of the novel are a journey, not only from Jeremie to Port-au-Prince, but a novel deep into the Voodoo culture. I am reminded of the novel of Harold Courlander, THE BORDEAU NARRATIVE, in which he sort of let it all hang out and explored the wildest edges of folklore. Desquiron does that for me. She takes me far beyond what commentators like Metreaux, Deren, Laguerre, Price-Mars and others have done. And, as always, she does it from within the perspective of people we know and, at least to some extent, trust and love. It's all so real!
I'm just bursting to tell you the story. But I just can't! It would ruin it. You'll have to e-mail the publisher or call your local bookstore and get a copy. It will grab you and not let go, but you'll be treated to a wealth of inside information along the way.
Robin Orr Bodkin provides a very smooth and readable translation. The editors have provided a glossary of terms in the back so that some rather unique terms can be left in Creole. I very much appreciated that since I had no idea what 'pakoti' were, where Bel Antre was, or that Grandans was a river in the Jeremie area. I did have a laugh at a scene where someone has a 'mabi' and thought back to the long discussion we had of that drink on this group.
Lilas Desquiron is herself from Jeremie and must have experienced the environment and aura of this novel before she fled in exile to Europe. She's lived in Belgium and France these past thirty years. To date this is her only novel. I couldn't help but wish that a voice as powerful and insightful as hers were around now to make sense of the contemporary milieu. I haven't yet seen it. In reading her account of life in Jeremie before the massacre I had it live in me in the way no other account has managed to do. It's what makes literature so attractive. This coming fall I will be teaching Haitian history in Vienna, Austria, which may well be a first for that city. This book will be one of the two texts for my course; a book of readings that will deal with factual matters, and this work to give some emotive sense to some difficult issues.
REFLECTIONS OF LOCO MIWA is part of the University Press of Virginia's CARAF series, Caribbean and African Literature translated from French, which is edited by list member, Carrol Coates.
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