Carnivalesque History

Haitian carnival on “the cosmic stage of the universe.”

Depestre’s representation of Carnival forms the centerpiece of the first movement of the novel. He captures the ways in which the celebration evokes the many layers of Haitian, and diasporic, history, as well as providing an opportunity for play, celebration, and the upending of power relations.

We provide the excerpt on Carnival from the novel here.

Reading: Movement 1

Please feel free to share your responses in the comments section below.

17 Replies to “Carnivalesque History”

  1. As many mentioned las Thursday on our meeting, this is a very visual novel, and one of the objects that materialized more clearly while I was reading the first movement was Hadriana’s wedding dress. Patrcik, as the son of the modiste, has the privileged access to Hadriana’s dress even before the bride herself and he gives us a detailed description of his mother work in section 3 of the second chapter.
    What I love about this section is how it shows us the contrast between the idealized Hadriana (the star, the fairy, the pearl of Jacmel) and the flesh and blood bride-to-be by putting together two scenes: Patrick’s secret “rite bouleversant” and Hadriana’s first dress fitting.
    The first scene is preceded by Patrick’s description of the dress that somehow announces the events of the final lines of this movement: the dress is left by the modiste on a “human form” (a mannequin), the fine embroidery faints (“s’épanouissait”) in the transparent effects of the sleeves, there is the butterfly knot that “sensually” surrounds the hips of the dress, and Patrick mentions that the skirt seems to conceal the secrets of something magical. Attracted by this piece of clothing, Patrick comes to the sewing workshop and *makes* the mannequin with dress dance and he seduces it pretending it is alive (and that he is instead speaking to Hadriana).
    The second scene, that comes just in the next paragraph, shows us something else: Hadriana, who comfortably dresses and undresses, is the one to initiate the dance and take the lead. In contrast with Patrick solenm rite, she plays with the dress and performs, mimics, and mocks her own role as bride.
    I love how this section almost materialised in front of me while I read it, and I also love Hadriana’s freedom and comfort, her attitude towards this big event and her own image (that everyone is constantly watching).

  2. Thanks so much for drawing attention to these two evocative and, as you wonderfully point out, connected scenes. In general, a wedding dress is such a fetishized, crucially important visual element of the ritual of marriage – and everything this ritual implies of both possibility and loss, especially for a young woman like Hadriana.

    There’s a way in which Depestre seems to play with the tension you describe – painting Hadriana’s impending nuptials in a way that takes up the frivolity of carnival (costuming – the dress!) as well as something more ominous (but let me refrain from planting any spoilers here ?)…

    Kaiama Glover says:
  3. As I’ve been reading this, there are some phrases that have been reminding me of the imagery on tarot card archetypes, actually. There were a few instances where the descriptions popped in my head but then with some aspect of the images contrasting the meaning of that archetype. This line, “A virgin bride belongs to the realm of the stars and should be mourned beneath the open sky, near the nests of the birds. What do you think?” and the title of the second movement, the “star that shined but once” and a few other places made me think about the Star tarot card (google image “star tarot card”) which usually means light and creativity and new inspiration and accessing conscious and unconscious worlds (after the Tower card where things with not strong foundations have crumbled to need to be rebuilt) and it felt interesting that this popped into my head amidst the debates about the extents to which to use catholic versus vodou rites after her dying. This line, “Long before the clock struck ten p.m., Hadriana Siloé’s catafalque had been places between two rows of candles in the middle of Lovers Lane” reminded me of the Lovers card in tarot (google image “Lovers tarot”) because of the image of something central between two symmetrical longer firey objects (the candles) and the name lovers lane, but with some humor that one of the “lovers”, Hadriana, was actually in the object in the middle that was in a coffin. I wonder if anyone has had tarot archetypes come to mind when reading this and how the images are evoked but the things around them have an aspect that are a bit contrasting in an amusing way against the archetypes meaning (or maybe i’m too deep in my life with tarot these days….).

    The first time I read this, the satirical images of all of the historical figures were the first thing I noticed and the visuals of what these figures are doing here are quite amusing, but this time around, I noticed more these lines about the “Jacmelian visions of pigs, orangutans, birds of prey, bulls, sharks, cobras, crocodiles, tigers, Tonton-macoutes, and leopards” and “Figures sculpted from the purest marble and figurines of rotten wood had come together to dance, sign, drink rum, and refuse death, kicking up the dust on my village square, which in the midst of this general masquerade, took itself for the cosmic stage of the universe”. One thing I have been thinking about a lot recently in the context of New Orleans and this quote are the aspects of Mardi Gras that are so foundational/important to the energies but that you can’t necessarily pin-point as one good satirical float for the political moment that everyone gets, and how those “visions” aren’t understandable to people not connected with the city but are creating the ambiance of everything. There are internal languages and processes happening all the time through parades and outside the parades that are connected to political structures/systems.

    I am absolutely not an artist (which you can clearly see through the parrot/butterfly picture, hahah) but I am excited to use this book club as a way to give myself an excuse to draw/paint after reading/reflecting on images of excerpts and I actually have a bunch of mardi gras beads laying around from Mardi Gras’ pasts and just got a canvas and paints and glitter and want to make something larger with them!!

    1. This is fascinating, Rachel, about those correlations with Tarot imagery. It makes me realize I don’t know much about the history of that imagery, and possible root-connections with the various aesthetic foundations for practice in Haiti’s religious culture. But it feels like all of this can’t be an accident. And that is great that you are finding yourself inspired to create art — exactly what we’re hoping! I love the depiction you offer of Balthazar Grandchiré. Looking forward to exploring this all more.

      Laurent Dubois says:
    2. Hi Rachel,
      In terms of tarot images and the first movement of the book, here’s what I thought of:
      Three of Cups: I associate it with parades and people coming together joyfully, in community. I’ve actually pulled this card several times before MG parades.
      4 of Wands: weddings and celebrations
      Mambo: The High Priestess Card
      The Lovers and Two of Cups : Hadriana and her fiancé

      Elizabeth Wilcox says:
      1. I feel like it could be so cool/interesting and there is SO much imagery from the book, for someone or a collective to develop a Hadriana tarot deck (or maybe a smaller oracle deck with some of the archetypes we’ve mentioned). It might be a lot to come up with 78, but given all the imagery in this book I think it could be do-able. Between the characters, some of the historical figures in the Carnaval scene, any of the colonial/imperial leaders mentioned like Louis XIV or Wilson as the Devil maybe (LOL), Uncle Fefe as the hierophant maybe since he’s a mentor/guide, Maître Homaire as Justice, Hadriana’s two friends and her as three of cups (or what you mentioned re: parades)…. Hmmm…. this could be a very interesting project…

        1. Ok it is maybe completely absurd that I just spent time starting to make this sheet and I know the target people to contribute to this are a small group of people both interested in tarot and who have read this novel which is probably not a huge group but you never know what can happen with the internet so, if anything you read sparks other things or you have other interpretations of certain cards etc etc, feel free to add or share this…. :

          1. Not absurd at all, Rachel – in fact quite inspiring!
            I can already think of some folks who might be up for the challenge…
            Thank you!

            Kaiama L Glover says:
          2. This is super cool: I feel like there’s a lot of fascinating correspondence, and also perhaps a deeper understanding of the visuals of Tarot, that could come out of this. Thank you Rachel!

            Laurent Dubois says:
  4. There’s so much to say! I am really looking forward to our call on Thursday. Two things in particular are really sticking with me: zombification and labor exploitation, and diasporic religious connections. In particular, I was really captivated by how Depestre tells us of Lil’ Joseph’s exploitation of laborers from the area between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and how this is connected to histories of racial capitalism and imperialism by the US and private companies like HASCO. It was incredibly poignant and heart-wrenching how these individuals, once reinvigorated by salt, fled back home and promptly buried themselves. They just wanted rest. Then, I was also taken by the scene in which a woman, seemingly not from Jacmel, joins the ceremony guided by Fréda Toucan-Dahomin or the Virgin of Altagracia, who—according to Patrick’s mother—is worshipped in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Brazil. I thought this was a fascinating passage highlighting the religious and cultural connections in various parts of the Americas. I look forward to reading/hearing more of your thoughts!

    1. These are great comments about the zombi figure in the novel. It’s interesting, because (as Kate Ramsey describes in her magnificent book The Spirits & the Law), it was a U.S. account of Haitian stories about zombies working for HASCO that actually brought the zombie into U.S. popular culture (first as a Broadway show, and then in movies). But, over time, the powerful social meaning surrounding zombification — which Depestre goes into more deeply later in the book — has gradually been evacuated.

      It’s also true that so much of what Depestre shows in this novel, and notably in the scene you describe, is this interconnected web within the Caribbean and beyond, something that he experienced in his life, as Kaiama explained last week, thanks to his long period living in Cuba.

      Laurent Dubois says:
  5. I love that Laurent brought up tarot above. Alice Smeets Ghetto Tarot is a deck that was developed with Atis Rezistans in Haiti. It’s a beautiful deck with photography from Haiti. I use the Ghetto Tarot daily this time of year to connect typically before I go to New Orleans for Krewe Du Kanaval events.
    I just received copy of Hadriana In All My Dreams via mail this past Sunday so had to read quickly. I started wishing I had better recall of Zora Neale Hurston’s writing on accounts of zombie in Haiti.
    I typically read nonfiction so I am finding this novel both beautiful and shocking. I love the flow of Despestre writing. He vividly packs so much into his sentences.

    Elizabeth Wilcox says:
  6. Always so great to convene around René Depestre’s carnival. In some of my past conversations with Laurent and Kaiama, I have had the opportunity to learn so much about the importance of each character in the carnival and was fascinated by the hidden messages in the carnival. For example, the passage: “Alongside all the legendary characters, but never truly joining them in their fantastic adventure, roamed a host of other Jacmelian visions, just as fancifully dressed, but who had opted for the less spectacular roles of pigs, orangutans, birds of prey, bulls, sharks, cobras, crocodiles, tigers, Tonton-Macoutes, and leopards”. I learned that Leopards meant something to the Duvalier regime: “Corps des Leopards”. Was wondering if Laurent and Kaiama, you might shine some light on how Depestre chooses to be political in the choice of his characters in the carnival.

    1. I’ve so enjoyed our conversations about this scene over the years! And that mention always interpolated me because he places these two together at the end of the the long list of animals. A Tonton-Macoute is actually, originally, a frightening mythical character who snatches children, and Haitians applied the name to Duvalier’s paramilitary police, and most readers will recognize the reference. But he also created a “Corps des Leopards,” which was a more formally uniformed body, a kind of second army, after he had worked to diminish the independent power of the army that he saw as a potential threat. Like so many things in the book, this is a kind of hint, something you can pick up if you get the reference, but that might also just slide by. In this work there are only a few glancing references to Duvalier’s regime, but in a way the entire book is also framed by Depestre’s exile from his island, which was the result of this regime.

      Laurent Dubois says:
  7. Balthazar is interesting in that he is a veil on the face of Patrick’s godmother. He is also a connection to the spiritual world. In Haitian culture is there the idea of a veil separating the physical and spiritual worlds?

    1. That’s an interesting question, Deja; I hadn’t thought of that symbolism before. In general I think more of the kinds of connections between the physical and spiritual realms, and the living and the dead, that are present in Haitian Vodou for instance in the form of the poto mitan. And there is so much surrounding the context of zombification that deals with the kind of in-between space between life & death. Will be interesting to talk more about this idea of the veil, though, and see if others have insight in the group.

      Laurent Dubois says:

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