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Review from TLS (Feb​.​20​,​ 2015)

Haitian Literature

Translated by Kaiama L. Glover
162pp. Archipelago. Paperback, $18.
978 1 935744 87 8


Originally published in French in 1968 and now translated into English for the first time by Kaiama L. Glover, Ready To Burst by the Haitian writer and artist Frankétienne tells the story of Raynand as he attempts to survive in Haiti under the oppressive regime of François Duvalier (Papa Doc). The novel is an exploration of Frankétienne’s theory of “Spiralism”, and it illustrates the author’s interest in the borderlands of history and dreams.
Ready To Burst opens with a manifesto for literature and life. “Spiralism”, we are told, “defines life at the level of relations (colors, odors, sounds, signs, words) and historical connections (positioning in space and time). Not in a closed circuit, but tracing the path of a spiral. So rich that each new curve, wider and higher than the one before, expands the arc of one’s vision.”
While this definition does seem rather vague, it successfully prepares us for the vertiginous quality of Frankétienne’s prose as we spiral through the narrator’s mind and along the streets and seafronts of Haiti’s capital. The novel has little concern for plot. Frankétienne instead presents us with spare, episodic events, embedded in “novelistic description, poetic breath, theatrical effect, narratives, stories, autobiographical sketches, and fiction all coexist[ing] harmoniously”. The result is as energetic and disorientating as the looping fronds that characterize Frankétienne’s oil paintings.
The sketches are moving, drawing from the trials of life under a dictatorship, lost love and lasting friendship. Raynand’s attempted escape to Nassau is particularly vivid, not least when he is forcefully repatriated by ferry. “Raynand barely has a chance to catch something about the escape and possible rescue of some drowning men before he realises that there’s a group suicide happening . . . . The sea, a roiling abyss, becomes an electric drum set beating out a frenetic jazz rhythm.”
The relationship between Raynand and his friend Paulin, a novelist obsessed with Spiralist ideology, is central. Paulin is writing a novel himself and it bears remarkable similarities to Ready To Burst. In other hands, this meta-staging of a drama amid a literary manifesto might risk a descent into pomposity and obfuscation, but Frankétienne has a deftness of touch pleasingly reminiscent of Roberto Bolaño. In Glover’s fine translation we can only hope that the “Father of Haitian Letters” will finally reach the wider audience he deserves.

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