Haitian carnival on “the cosmic stage of the universe.”
As you read Movement 1 of the novel, you can begin with the set of questions surrounding “History and the City” (below) from our colleague at the University of Virginia Marlene L. Daut. In the video of the November 21st, 2019 Book Club meeting, she opened the conversation with a great presentation of how to think through both the place of history in Depestre’s novel and the various Haitian literary genealogies, going back to the nineteenth century, that he was potentially drawing on and in dialogue with.
Our discussion then spiraled around several insights from participants (some jumping off from the comments below), about how to think through Depestre’s playful relationship to the question of history, of masking and masquerade, and of carnival. Contributors offered different ways of thinking through the question of precisely what Depestre might be saying about, and doing with, history in the ebullient carnival scene. We had a particularly interesting riff on why this was all set in 1938, with a series of potential referents and echoes surrounding that year: the publication of C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins, of Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to My Native Land, and major labor uprisings in the British Caribbean. We dwelled on the remarkable moment when Depestre depicts Jean-Jacques Dessalines playing a ping-pong match with Stalin (and showed some of the sketches of work by artist Nathalie Jolivert, who has been inspired by that scene in some of the work she is doing for the exhibit). As was the case in our first meeting, the time went by too fast, with many strands and insights still to be followed.
History and the City (Pre-Conversation Questions by Marlene Daut)
In After the Dance, novelist Edwidge Danticat writes that Depestre’s Hadriana represents “one of those rare literary cases in which a novel’s character becomes even more real, and more powerful, than actual people.” Remarking upon the numerous visitors who travel to the city of Jacmel year after year “looking for Hadriana,” Danticat wonders, “Did Depestre and Jacmel create Hadriana or did she create Jacmel and Depestre?” Depestre undoubtedly created a transcendent character with Hadriana, whose story has clearly resonated for a wide array of readers and travelers. Yet while Danticat reads the city of Jacmel as the real zombie in the story—“A case can be made that the Jacmel I am visiting now cannot help but be a slightly zombified version of its former self”—is there a way in which Jacmel, like Hadriana, actually ends by escaping zombification?
Un-settled by European colonizers in the seventeenth century, the city of Jacmel was a colonial creation that became the site of magnificent postcolonial yearnings, particularly for Simón Bolívar, whom Depestre paints into the story by describing his “appearance” during Carnaval. The reader of Hadriana will subsequently learn that Bolívar visited Jacmel to gain assistance for his quest to fight for independence for Gran Colombia. Yet, Bolívar’s explicit connection to the city of Jacmel only makes the other historic figures, especially Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henry Christophe, appear out of place. Before tracing a long list of revolutionaries and their cities, so to speak, Hérard Dumesle wrote in his Voyage dans le nord d’Hayti (1824), “Every single place on this island, now famous because of this unforgettable war, […] testifies to a victory or consecrates a glorious memory.” If each of the Haitian revolutionaries comes to life in Dumesle’s travelogue in the separate regions and cities with which they are associated, then what does it mean for Christophe, Dessalines, and Toussaint to appear in the “wrong” city, so to speak, in Depestre’s novel?
View the video of our November 21st, 2019 meeting (which we started recording a bit late, so it begins in the midst of Marlene Daut’s presentation), and read the chat below.Hadriana Chat Carnivalesque History
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