Between Utopia and Reality

By Sopova, Jasmina | UNESCO Courier, December 1997 | Go to article overview

Between Utopia and Reality


Sopova, Jasmina, UNESCO Courier


A Franco-Haitian poet, essayist and award-winning novelist looks back on his nomadic life, speaks out against totalitarian ideologies and reaffirms his attachment to public spiritedness based on planet-wide solidarity and mutual respect.

* Your life as an adult and as a poet began with what you later called "a triple badge of rebellion" - proud negritude, impassioned surrealism, and the idea of revolution. Today only the surrealism part seems to have survived.

R.D.: It's a long story. When Andre Breton came to Haiti at the end of 1945, his visit coincided with an exhibition of the Cuban painter Wifredo Lam's paintings and a series of lectures given by the Martinique poet Aime Cesaire. This really fired the imagination of us young Haitian artists and writers. At that time we knew nothing about what was happening in the surrealist movement in France. For young people combatting President Elie Lescot's dreadful dictatorship, surrealism was the lifeblood of revolt. Contact with Breton had a contagious effect on us. After his first lecture in a Port-au-Prince cinema, we brought out a special issue of our new magazine La Ruche as a tribute to him. We went to prison for our pains and the magazine was banned.

What Breton discovered in Haiti, and made us discover too, was that surrealism wasn't just an aesthetic doctrine but something that could be part of a people's way of looking at the world; that there was a kind of grassroots surrealism. This restored our self-confidence. We saw that this sense of wonder we had secretly been a bit ashamed of and associated with a kind of underdevelopment was actually our weapon. Breton told us that in France "we launched surrealism as a movement based on intellectual foundations, you in Haiti learned all about it in the cradle." In other words, surrealism was something inherent in the Caribbean. Voodoo, a product of Franco-African syncretism, is an example of religious surrealism. The behaviour of the voodoo gods is supremely surrealist.

* So surrealism for you is much more than a literary movement.

R.D.: Much more. Many European writers, starting with the German Romantics and even before that, had a surrealist approach. I'm sure if you looked closely at Egyptian, Japanese or Chinese culture, you'd find surrealist elements there too. For me, surrealism is a way of injecting the supernatural into everyday life. You find it everywhere. But some people, like Haitians or Brazilians, display it more boldly than others.

* How do you explain the emergence of the Duvaliers in a society imbued with a sense of the magical?

R.D.: The magical has even marked Haitian politics. Our history has thrown up dictators who practised a kind of tragic perversion of magic. This is how the "tonton macoute" - which is a folk concept, an incarnation of evil, a kind of Nazi, a Haitian SS-man - came to exist. Haitian folklore is a tug-of-war between good and evil. The elder Duvalier, "Papa Doc," used the forces of black magic to plunge the country into a totalitarian surrealism.

But there's more to it than this demoniacal aspect. From the December morning in 1492 when Christopher Columbus discovered Haiti and was transfixed by what he saw, the historic, baroque tale of Haiti cannot be separated from American wondrous realism. A sense of the wondrous (South American magic realism) has become part and parcel of Haitians' view of the world and the sustenance of their third of the island of Hispaniola, where the best and the worst rub shoulders like the dearest of friends, when they are not locked in terrible combat.

* You have celebrated the communist utopia in your poems.

R.D.: The Marxist utopia, with all its lies and repressive nightmares, took over my work and my life as a poet until the moment I broke with Stalinism. After living in places which had a huge "strategic" importance in the turmoil of our century - Moscow, Prague, Beijing, Hanoi and Havana - I realized that what was meant by "socialist revolution" in those places was not the opposite of the Haitian terror regime, but another form of the same perversion. …

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