Haiti Unbound

Kaiama Glover, Haiti Unbound: A Spiralist Challenge to the Postcolonial Canon (Liverpool: University of Liverpool Press, 2010); 262 pages; ISBN 978-1-84631-499-5 (hardcover).

• August 2011

Kaiama Glover’s Haiti Unbound: A Spiralist Challenge to the Postcolonial Canon examines the underappreciated corpus of Haitian Spiralist literature, offering a series of close readings against the background of better-known francophone writers such as Aimé Césaire, Jacques Stephen Alexis, and Edouard Glissant. Glover argues that Spiralism—the extraordinarily original Haitian literary movement of the Duvalier and post-Duvalier period that pushed literary expressivity to its farthest limits—stands as perhaps the richest and most vivid development of the Caribbean surrealist aesthetic to date. While Spiralism has received little attention in studies of Caribbean literature (the work of J. Michael Dash is the most notable exception to this oversight), and while Frankétienne in particular is the subject of Rachel Douglas’s monograph Frankétienne and Rewriting: A Work in Progress,1 Glover’s book is notable for its encompassing critical analysis of the three principle authors of Spiralism: Frankétienne, Jean-Claude Fignolé, and René Philoctète. Haiti Unbound thus stands as the first book-length analysis of the movement as a whole, examining both the convergences and often-startling dissonances of a literary movement that has always refused the subsumptive identity politics of the programmatic, theoretical manifesto à la créolité.

The book is remarkable for its depth of analysis; Glover returns again and again to examine from varying perspectives a small number of representative novels. With this, the author has made a notable structural innovation in the book, one that necessarily sustains certain strengths and weaknesses. Yet what is sacrificed in encyclopedic range is, in this reader’s opinion, more than made up for in power of discernment. Under Glover’s sharp, discriminating eye, these complex, erudite, often-violent texts gradually unfold their luxuriant riches to unsuspecting readers.

After critiquing the historical marginalization of Spiralism in its introductory chapter, and then proceeding to explore the paradox of a literary movement that has tended to refuse—unlike its French Antillean cousins—its own theoretical self-formalization (a refusal Glover explicitly, and rightfully, sets out to amend), Haiti Unbound initiates its own spiralized exposition, structured innovatively around a series of theoretical and formal problems addressed by the authors in question. In Glover’s analysis, the trope of the spiral stands revealed as the aesthetic trace of the infinite (universal), the literary mark of a truth transcendental to the general (i.e., pertaining merely to the specific case or “set” that is Haiti) untruth of Haitian social violence and exploitation. The spiral, in other words, while derived from obvious empirical inspirations such as the Caribbean hurricane, takes literary form as an explicitly open-ended “dialectical” (Frankétienne) structure that refuses, in properly Adornian fashion, the closure of any ultimate telos or totalization (viii).

Part 2 of Haiti Unbound addresses the immanent critique of postcolonial self-fashioning to be found in Spiralist texts. The ubiquity of neocolonial violence, Glover argues, shatters all possibility of coherent, self-same identity in Spiralist narratives. Volatile narrators and mutable protagonists render narrative representation exceedingly unstable in novels such as Frankétienne’s Mûr à crever (1968) and Ultravocal (1972). The zombie—most notably in his classic Les affres d’un défi (1979)is taken as the preeminent figure of such subjective dispossession. Other texts, such as Fignolé’s Les possédés de la pleine lune (1987) and Aube tranquille (1990) and Philoctète’s Le peuple des terres mêlées (1989) portray fractured, demultiplied bodies and spirits.

Part 3, the most historically specific section of Haiti Unbound, proceeds to consider the implications and expressions of Spiralism from the perspective of spatial/temporal fracturation. Here, dysphoric landscapes and historico-temporal gaps drive Spiralist iterations restlessly onwards. Finally, the book’s fourth section explores the generic and stylistic singularities of the Spiralist project, arguing that a shared commitment to expressive immediacy prior to any derivative literary or historiographic representationality constitutes the ultimate challenge of this negative literary aesthetic in a Caribbean mode. In this view, Frankétienne’s project of “Ultravocality” attempts in particular to destroy the representational hegemony of the “literary,” to recover instead for Haitian expression the full and unremitting power of the human voice subject to the divine possession of the infinite, of trauma, and of oral tradition dubbed “schizophonia.”

Haiti Unbound bestows on readers interested in Caribbean, francophone, and postcolonial studies a decryption of the furtive, ferocious, and unsuspected splendor of these highly opaque and still-largely unfamiliar works. Time may well prove that Haiti Unbound, in its protean revelation of these hidden gems of Caribbean modernism, should rightfully take its place beside studies such as A. James Arnold’s still-unsurpassed exposition of Césaire’s poetry, Modernism and Negritude.2 One only wishes that Haiti Unbound might have explored Spiralism in fuller relation to the historico-political devastation of the Duvalier years that give this literature its terrible urgency.

The author passes relatively quickly over this background in the book’s preface, referring readers only to Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s now-canonical Haiti: State against Nation.3 That said, any reader moderately familiar with recent Haitian history will have little difficulty grasping the full extent of the critique manifest in these texts. Such a politically inflected reading of Spiralism would fully unfold within a Caribbean context Adorno’s proposition that in the face of late, global capitalism and neocolonial state violence, the only proper or even possible response is a (negative-dialectical) aesthetic one. The hermetic aestheticism and refusal of traditional (i.e., militant) engagement by the Spiralists cannot be dismissed out of hand (though the successful political mobilization of the Lavalas years [1990–2004] documented by Peter Hallward might lead interested parties to conclude otherwise).4 No single form of engagement, whether militant or aesthetic, could possibly totalize the struggle of Trouillot’s “nation” against the (Duvalierist) state. The least one can say in this regard is that the Spiralists chose to stay in Haiti and fight their struggle on their own terms, on their own terrain, that of the espri, documenting the infinite creativity of a “dezombified” Haitian imaginary.

In sum, Glover’s elucidation of Haitian Spiralist literature is particularly laudable in its consideration of the movement as a whole, refusing its more common reduction to the (remarkable) work of its best-known writer, Frankétienne. Glover skillfully immerses readers within the schizoid beauty of the Spiralist imaginary, illuminating the dense complexity of the works of Frankétienne, Jean-Claude Fignolé, and René Philoctète. The author articulates the singularity of a literary movement that still remains an underexplored El Dorado of postcolonial Caribbean literature. Glover shows how Spiralism, in its very specificity, effectively pushed Antillean literature and theory (that of Glissant, in particular) to its very limits, something Glissant himself, the author argues, failed to do in his own fiction (though one might sustain Glissant’s masterpiece and unremittingly Spiralist work, Malemort, in counterpoint). If Spiralism itself constitutes the most stunning cultural artifice of Haitian dystopic modernism, Glover’s groundbreaking study will be essential reading for those interested in exploring the limits of Caribbean expression achieved by these superb writers and the volcanic intensity of the literary movement that has perhaps most fully expressed the “schizophonic” beauty and horror of Haitian reality.

 

Nick Nesbitt is professor of French at Princeton University. He is the author of Universal Emancipation: The Haitian Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment (Virginia, 2008) and Voicing Memory: History and Subjectivity in French Caribbean Literature (Virginia, 2003), editor of Toussaint Louverture (Verso, 2008) and co-editor of Sounding the Virtual: Gilles Deleuze and the Philosophy of Music (Ashgate, 2010). He is currently completing a volume titled Caribbean Critique: Antillean Critical Theory from Toussaint to Glissant for Liverpool University Press.

 


Rachel Douglas, Frankétienne and Rewriting: A Work in Progress (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2009).

A. James Arnold, Modernism and Negritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).

Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Haiti: State against Nation; The Origins and Legacy of Duvalierism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1989).

Peter Hallward, Damming the Flood: Haiti and the Politics of Containment (London: Verso, 2010).

 

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