Haitian Voices

According to the cover of the book, one of Haiti’s most admired writers, Frankétienne (born in 1936), has excelled in poetry, drama, and fiction but also as a painter and musician. He is one of the leading proponents of Spiralism, defined several times in Ready to Burst as life’s unfolding: “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.”

That’s meta criticism, in this instance explaining the process the writer employs in Ready to Burst in order to tell the story. It helps that one of the characters is a writer, composing a novel, though he’s not the central character. That person, a thirty-eight-year old man named Raynand, who sadly fits into the stereotype of what we have been led to believe is typical of too many Haitian people. He tells us that in all of those years of his life, he’s only been gainfully employed for thirteen months. Hence, Raynand’s decision to flee (by boat) to Nassau, enter the country illegally, and then hopefully find a way to the United States. But he’s caught even before he even enters the country, placed in prison, and sent back to Haiti with a number of other illegals, with the parting words, “Go back to your fucking country!” Just as the group arrives at Haiti’s shores, four of them jump into the ocean. They’d rather be devoured by sharks than forced back to Haiti. Raynand refers to the incident as “group suicide,” a horrible metaphor for life in Haiti.

Raynand’s desperation to get a job or escape from Haiti to another country is replicated in numerous other characters in the novel—not just the four men who jump overboard. Paulin, his writer friend (who defined Spiralism) is hardly more readytoburstsuccessful at finding a job; hence, his attempt to become a writer. Even the one time when Raynand thinks that he might escape his fate by marrying a young woman from a well-off family, his plans crash down upon him. So what, you ask, is the glue that keeps the elliptical story moving and the reader turning pages?

Frankétienne’s multiple narrators (or multiple voices, including a powerful incident related by Raynand’s poverty-stricken mother) are vividly imaginative, especially in their telling of brief, but terrible, incidents in their lives. And, in truly innovative narrative form, they sometimes break into inventive patterns of narration. There’s an incident mid-way through the story when Paulin looks obsessively at a picture of a woman he once knew, and presumably loved, because all he has left of her is the photograph. “Desperately. Passionately. His eyelids rise. His eyes widen with sudden illumination.” Note that it is Paulin’s facial expression that changes.

But then, suddenly, “The frame of the photo grows disproportionately larger. The cardboard rectangle bends into a curve. Pushes against the glass. And Marina comes alive, stepping gently out of the photo. Standing in the middle of Paulin’s room. Smiling. Her back to the wall.” Hallucination? Wishful thinking? Illusionary? Yet—once she has entered the scene—Marina is there to stay. The two of them carry on a lengthy conversation. Scene after scene, page after page, until there’s “a blinding flash” from Paulin’s eyes, and when he picks up the glass picture frame, Marina has returned to the photo. Then we learn that Marina has married another man. The scene concludes, “Tired out, Paulin moves toward the bookshelf. Picks up the photo. And places it carelessly in a corner. Far back in an old faded buffet. The corner of the forgotten. His complete healing.” Presumably, catharsis—the end the relationship.

The most daring scene in the novel involves another one of Raynand’s desperate attempts to find a way to leave Haiti—this time for a quick profit. He arranges with a friend who is a farmer to sequester a hundred bags of pistachios, holding them for an American for a couple of months so that their value goes up. But the American is delayed, for weeks of hot days and heavy rains, and eventually Raynand learns that the American is a con artist, yet he’s stuck with his farmer friend’s bags of pistachios. Perhaps he can sell them on the cheap and all will not be lost, so he goes to the abandoned house where they were stored, puts his key in the lock and encounters a “burst of colored wings. An awakening of wriggling, unexpected light. A multicolored flight of butterflies whip Raynand’s face. Confetti of noisy wings. A gentle rain of butterflies—purple, blue, yellow, sequined, striped with black luminescence, green phosphorescence. A swarming, sparkling kaleidoscope. On the damp floor, piles of blond caterpillars. No more pistachios. All that’s left are a few rotten pods in the humidity of the room.”

It’s scenes like this one that punctuate Frankétienne’s unique narrative with memorable incidents. Until I began reading Ready to Burst, I was completely unfamiliar with Frankétienne’s work but now I look forward to other translations. Kaiama L. Glover, the translator of Ready to Burst, met the significant challenge of this important writer.

Frankétienne: Ready to Burst

Translated by Kaiama L. Glover

Archipelago Books, 172 pp., $18

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: clarson@american.edu.






Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.