The OF Blog: Frankétienne, Ready to Burst

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Frankétienne, Ready to Burst

My bitterness was even greater when I realized that I also needed money to be treated by a doctor.  To acquire a much-needed pair of shoes.  Or in order for Santa Claus to come.  Moreover, I was enraged by all these privations.  Source of my first revolts against the adult world.  My rage against the system.  My refusal to obey laws I didn't understand.  My taking a stand against social injustice.  My dissidence.  My revenge.  I resolved to protest in every way.  The one who had to deal most often with my bad behavior and my rebellions was Uncle Bernard.  Owner of a big boutique, he was the Croesus of the family.  Exceptionally stingy, he never forgave a cent of debt among family members.  He hated the poor.  His heart was made of neither flesh nor wood.  For the flesh is weak, and wood heats up when it burns.  Truth was, he had no heart.  Completely ungenerous.  He loved no one.  He was harsh.  Inflexible with everyone.  Cruel.  Indifferent to human suffering to the point where he'd refuse to offer the slightest help to my despairing mother, overwhelmed by the weight of her poverty.  One day when we had nothing to put on the fire, we went to him, only to be treated like vile parasites.  In front of people we didn't even know.  That's when I decided to act in my own best interest.  I initiated a veritable impoverishment campaign against him, stealing whatever I could from him... I went to his grocery store more frequently just so as to advance my plan for meting out justice.  Not a day went by that I didn't pilfer some can of something or other, or some money even.  My lifestyle improved.  I drank milk three times a day.  At night I started smoking cigarettes in the toilets.  As time went on, I increased my take to up to ten dollars a day, money I spent recklessly with boys from the neighborhood. (22% Kindle on iPad e-edition)

Frankétienne is one of Haiti's most famous 20th century writers and poets.  His 1968 novel, Mûr à crever (translated this year into English as Ready to Burst by Kaiama L. Glover), is one of a very few works of his to be translated into English.  Written during the days of Papa Doc Duvalier's dictatorship, Ready to Burst nevertheless possesses a timeless quality to it, perhaps due to the social injustices Haitians have battled against ever since winning independence from France in 1804.  Certainly, the political repression of Papa Doc's rule finds resonance with those who have paid attention to the recent political climate.  The street violence, often led by henchmen associated with the government, has never quite gone away since Baby Doc was driven out of power over a quarter century ago.

Ready to Burst is in one sense a tour of Duvalier's Port-au-Prince, as the two main protagonists, Raynaud and his near-twin, the writer Paulin, commence upon a series of adventures in its streets after Paulin rescues Raynaud from a despondency caused by a romantic affair fizzling out suddenly.  The two are complementary characters:  Raynaud, more of an idealistic dreamer, seeks out hope even beyond hope as the twain travel through a sometimes dirty and dangerous city; Paulin, who seeks to capture in verse and prose what is transpiring, is more a man of action grounded in the stark daily realities that confront them.  Much of Ready to Burst is taken up with presenting Paulin's writings, such as the lengthy autobiography above and this description of a life crisis after being injured at a political rally below:

Why me personally and not someone else?  I didn't find any convincing explanation.  I also looked for what I might have done wrong, but couldn't point to anything.  So it was that I began thinking about chance.  Religion offered no decent explanation.  Only scientific data came to my rescue and, just like that, I understood the laws of ballistics:  understood, that is, the fact that I'd been walking in line, in step with the rhythm of my column; that the rock had been thrown clumsily, in accordance with its own speed; and, finally, that at one point I'd very logically become a specific target on the trajectory of the projectile.  Sudden clarity.  I'd seen the light.  My heart beat more quickly.  I forgot the pain in my head.  Chance no longer existed for me.  My thoughts extended outward to consider the sufferings of all those who seemed to be victims of some dreadful fate.  Those who lived in slavery or misery.  Peoples oppressed by wealthy nations.  I began to understand it all.  Underdevelopment.  The appearance of political leaders, artists, scientists, geniuses.  Beauty.  Ugliness.  Natural epidemics.  Progress.  Vices.  Births.  Wars.  Victories.  Defeats.  Scientific discoveries.  Works of art.  From one thing to the next, the world unfolded before me, clear like water from a stone.  Nothing stopped me anymore, since I'd found an explanation for all cosmic phenomena.  I was now equipped to perform an autopsy on both happiness and sorrow. (37-38%)

Ready to Burst is punctuated with these frequent staccato bursts of description.  This minimalist language, however, serves as a counterpoint to the occasionally wild imagery, often expressed through Raynaud's thoughts as he travels with his new companion.  Descriptions of his "secret joy, the conquest of dawn," or the "rebellious stars fight[ing] not to disappear into the greedy mouth of the invading light in which the day sets up house." (60%)  These more fanciful metaphors not only serve as a counterpoint to Paulin's more politically-charged thoughts, but they also represent two of the many facets of Haitian society.  The horrors of the neck tire burnings gives ways to wild hopes for something different, something better in the course of quotidian life.

Although based on these descriptions one might presume that Ready to Burst is less concerned with plot than with character and scene, there is indeed a solid plot that underlies Raynaud and Paulin's travels:  finding a name for Paulin's novel.  Raynaud stumbles and starts to come up with an appropriate title, but it isn't until the final scene, in which the experiences and thoughts that the two have done and pondered about come together in a violent clash that provides not only the source of the novel's name, but it also summarizes in its violence so many of the national contradictions that Frankétienne explores through his two protagonists.

Frankétienne's style might not appeal to everyone; the prose is perhaps a bit stilted in places, at least for those used to fewer stop-start thought fragments.  There are times where Paulin feels too earnest, too wrapped up in thoughts of revolution and change, to see all that is really transpiring; sometimes, "realists" miss the forest for the trees.  Although ultimately his blindness to this is part of novel's central theme regarding the clash of Haitian ideals and political repression, at times this voice is too strong, rendering Raynaud's thoughts and actions ancillary to Paulin's.  These, however, only weaken the power of the book's final scene slightly.  On the whole, Ready to Burst is a moving work from one of Haiti's most renowned writers.

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