I have read more than sixty books about Haiti over the years—or rather, nonfiction books about, novels set in, and so on. Cathedral of the August Heat * by Pierre Clitandre is the most perplexing.
I must first say that I know little of magical realism, which I believe is the genre this book most clearly fits into. Women become pools, men cathedrals (well, each of those happens only once, but there is lots else besides). This doesn't happen on every page and when it does it is generally effective. But I can't measure its effectiveness against, say, One Hundred Years of Solitude and its ilk, which I haven't read.
I am spending so many keystrokes on the style because this book is much held by style, so much so that the content and indeed the story are sometimes obscured by it. Recall that this is written in translation—as far as I can tell, a very literate and often beautiful translation, by Bridget Jones.
The sense I have is that some of, perhaps much of the gist of the novel is, like the Kreyol language itself, not in the words so much as what images and stories they remind the reader of, and in this the English translation can't much help us. I have had times in the past when a person would speak to me in Kreyol and I understood every word that was said and had no idea of the meaning. English, at its most colourful, can do the same. All of this is to explain that although I read with care, there were often times when I had only the foggiest idea what was going on, and I don't know how much of this was the language and how much was due to the author's tendency to switch points of view without necessarily saying who we were switching into, and drifting back and forth between minor characters over much of the book—occasionally lending confusion as to whether a character was the same as another or a different one entirely.
This may have been deliberate. We do learn names, and there is one character in particular, strangely called John, rather than Jean, who is more or less the main POV character. But we miss him for ages at a time and we never really do get into his skin. Much, much is said of the collective experience of the poor, and how they are herded back and forth and brutalized by the elements and the soldier class. So it may be that Clitandre's vagueness in POV change and his distance from the heart of his characters is because they are all, to him, metaphors, folk images, elements of Vodou, reminders of history, reminders of suffering and the only way to elude it—maybe. A wiser (or more foolish) writer than myself might spend a lot of time trying to understand the position of women within the narrative, and children, and men, each separately, and a thousand other ingredients that combine in this ever-moving, elemental piece.
One last word on words. Despite her gorgeous rendering of Clitandre’s most brutal and sublime reveries, I can't thank Jones for choosing “a lively West Indian English” as the jargon for the people. I have spoken in English with many Haitians and they do not speak that way. It felt weirdly superimposed and hard to get used to—no less beautiful but foreign. A minor point.
So what of the story? Read it? Don't read it?
Read it. Let it wash over you just as it is, without struggling in the ways I have struggled to make it fit into the confines of a regular novel. Don't expect all the plot lines, or metaphors, more accurately, to be tied up. Don't expect to know how it ends. (Remember that Duvalier was still in power when this novel broke. Clitandre's father, by the way, was one of the many disappeared.)
Let it be a long, long poem, expressing the endless ebb and flow of suffering and beauty and brutality and hope. It is coarse, it is sometimes disgusting, it is transporting, it is tragic, it refuses to be any of the above.
* In French: Cathédrale du Mois d'Août
Image: Credit is not given. A Haitian mural. No idea where, but Jacmel on the bus does give us a hint!