Today my second favourite work of 2014 – surely one that will make the 2015 Best Translated Book Award longlist and one that I believe should be in hot contention for the award (having said that there’s possibly 100 odd works in contention that I haven’t even come across!!!)
In wanting so desperately to speak, I’ve become no more than a screaming mouth. I no longer worry about what I write. I simply write. Because I must. Because I’m suffocating. I write anything. Any way. People can call it what they want: novel, essay, poem, autobiography, testimony, narrative, memory exercise, or nothing at all. I don’t even know, myself. Yet what I write feels perfectly familiar to me. No one can say much more than what he has lived.
And what an amazing “novel, essay, poem, autobiography, testimony, narrative, memory exercise, or nothing at all” this is. I recently saw a comment on Goodreads (I know why on earth was I there?) where it is listed as “Ripe to Burst” and there was a comment about “the consistency” the switch between first person, third person and experience not attached to a character and this was in a four star review!!! A work that is simply written, a world you need to experience to believe, the beauty of pushing the written word boundaries and drawing your reader into an out of control spiral. Haiti under Francios Duvalier (“Papa Doc”). A work where the lines are blurred, where narrative structure we are used to is not the norm, where page upon page is used to describe the weather, where words are investigated in various contexts to increase their impact, and of course where character development is foggy and uncertainty is always to the fore.
Yes this is a novel which switches between the first person and the third person, where sections are written in italics, where different fonts are used to explain various situations and even different shades of ink for dramatic effect.
And of course this is all set in Haiti during troubled times.
Lazy philosophers! Rid yourselves of the bacilli of pure intellect. Explain to me how it is that people all over the world go thirsty. That malnourished peasants feed themselves rock porridge. That children die from fever. That my friend is gone, lost in the American army’s invasion of Vietnam. Explain to me that woman who left and never came back. The Third World bullied, ridiculed, despised. The threat of Imperial Powers. The blindness of people who don’t know how to decipher the graffiti of time’s passing. The illiterate pride of dictators who stomp on the dreams of their people. The shuddering of death. The tremors of life. The sadness of some. The joy of others. The enigma of love. My beating heart. Explain all that to me. I’ll always have the patience to listen and hear – as long as, at the end of it all, there is action.
According to the publishers, Archipelago Books, Franketienne is considered by many to be the father of Haitian letters. He is a prolific poet, novelist, visual artist, playwright, and musician (the cover artwork is one of his works). He has devoted much of his life to fighting political oppression and, in 2009, was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 2010, the French Government named him a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. “I am not afraid of chaos,” Franketienne explains, “because chaos is the womb of light and life”.
Our novel follows Raynard who is seeking a better life away from Port-Au-Prince and manages to find a placement on a ship to another island. Of course he is caught and extradited back to Haiti, and whilst on the boat returning “home” a number of other refuges throw themselves overboard to be eaten by the sharks, a more palatable idea than back to Haiti. We also follow Paulin who is writing a Spiralist novel, struggling with words and most definitely a title for his master work.
The novel is a vision of life. And as far as I know, life isn’t a segment. It isn’t a vector. Nor is it a simple curve. It’s a spiral in motion. It opens and closes in irregular helices. It becomes a question of surprising at the right moment a few rings of the spiral. So I’m constructing my novel in a spiral, with diverse situations traversed by the problematic of the human, and held in awkward positions. And the elastic turns of the spiral, embracing beings and things in its elliptical and circular fragments, defining the movements of life. This is what I’m using the neologism Spiralism to describe.
We have Raynard explaining his switch from religion to science based evidence of existence, after he was hit in the eye by a wayward stone. At eight years of age whilst at a funeral he understands his grandmother’s pain as he’s the “only one in the family to keep an inheritance of torments and worries buried deep inside”. Yes a child already with torments and worries buried deep inside.
We have Paulin pitching an income producing scheme to Reynard, to scratch and pick pistachios and sell them to a rich industrialist American for use in soap and oil, an allegory for the might of the USA in Haiti a “mountainous island with its marrow sucked dry by foreign lions.
We also have a theatrical piece where a conversation between Death and a Dying Man takes place:
Death: What have you done with your life, from your birth to this day…pitiful mortal?
Dying Man: I’ve been looking for myself.
I’ve been describing this work in a linear narrative format, which of course doesn’t sit well with the format of the work. This is an amazing revelation, a deep and meaningful read, lyrical, possessed, frightening, honest, shocking and gripping. A celebration of the written word, even a celebration of single words, yes experimental in form but enlightening in structure and style. Although there are sections which describe the imminent death of the novel, it is works like this which make it a joy to discover new translated fiction. One of my favourites of the year (but not quite THE favourite), and I will be hunting down more works by not only Franketienne but also the other Haitian Spiralists.