A coruscating and influential tale of the brutal aftermath of Haiti’s liberation.
This powerful 1949 short novel by Carpentier (1904-1980) reportedly moved Gabriel García Márquezto rewrite parts of One Hundred Years of Solitude, writes Pablo Medina in an afterword to this new translation. There certainly are plenty of magical-realist touches that suggest the Cuban-born writer had an influence on the Latin American Boom of the 1960s, but Carpentier’s magic is of a darker sort: a woman sinks her arms into boiling oil and removes them unscathed; a wounded slave is empowered to shape-shift into various animals, fathering a boar-faced child; mirrors spontaneously combust. The otherworldly imagery, though, is less a focal point than an undercurrent to an elegantly turned series of vignettes about slavery and brutality. At the story’s center is Ti Noël, a slave who witnesses the rising revolt against French rule, starting with the poisoning (and rapid deaths) of plantation owners throughout the island. (“The priests had to quicken their Latin to attend to all the mourning families.”) After the Haitian revolution, the country was led by King Henri Christophe, a former slave, but his rule only sustained the violence and disorder: the lavish palaces the king demanded, Ti Noël notes, “were the result of a slavery as abominable as the one he had known in the plantation.” Fires, whippings, rapes, murders, and dogs trained “to eat blacks” are all part of Carpentier’s milieu, and he keenly balances elegant, surrealistic prose with more realistic visions of the impact of racism and lawlessness. Ti Noël himself is no hero—he’s complicit in the rapes and violence—but as a tour guide through the hellishness of black men enslaving other blacks, he delivers a memorable lesson that “it was not enough to be a goose in order to believe that all geese were equal.”
A stirring, surrealistic, and blood-soaked journey into a dark historical moment.