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    Endre Rozsda, The Tower of Babel, detail

    Book Tour: A Translated Being

    Language and Revolution in Sudhir Hazareesingh’s Black Spartacus, Gina Apostol’s The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and the Works of William Melvin Kelley

    By Phil Christman

    February 4, 2021
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    • Daniel, Jos, Nigeria

      This post on the Haitian revolution against slave trade-the cruellest industry in human history, reminds us of the evil machination of man. In the words of Albert Einstein-"’the real problem is in the hearts and minds of men. It is easier to denature plutonium than to denature the evil spirit of man"…. If our Lord & Saviour Jesus Christ can give a parable of a Shepherd abandoning 99 sheep to search for One that is missing, this goes to teach us on the value of each individual life in God's Kingdom. The search for peace in our world today would be in futility, unless, we recognize that according to President Thomas Jefferson, the main author, among the 5 great Americans who wrote the American Constitution, that all men were created equal.

    Book Tour is a bimonthly review by Phil Christman of new titles, each exploring a theme to trace hidden connections among books and writers.


    It being, still, a relatively new year, I am trying to do something new and difficult. I am trying to read Finnegans Wake (1939). It is as hard as people say it is. During the seventeen years James Joyce spent writing it, he seemed to many of his fellow writers, even old friends and supporters, to have gone crank. Ezra Pound both parodied and dismissed the book when he called it “circumambient peripherization.” H. G. Wells sent Joyce a letter asking him, in more or less these words, who he thought he was, writing a book constructed out of multilingual puns that it would take a normal person months or years to puzzle through. And yet something in the idea of Joyce’s idiolect, a language compounded from complementary bits of all the world’s major and a large number of its minor languages, a mosaic of phonemes built to represent the meaningful illogic of the dreaming mind, compels us. You read about the idea of the Wake, and one part of you is exhausted by the idea of even trying to read it; another part of you hopes that you will somehow, after sustained attention, swoon into the book with a sense of recognition deeper than understanding. Sadly, this is not how it works. If the book is a Pangaea of languages, the ancient supercontinent of Pangaea, too, is a place none of us could navigate today, though it contained all of our homes.

    Perhaps a similar mistake lies behind the idea – an idea to which I am deeply attracted – that we have only to point out the shared humanity of every person in order to get people to be decent to each other. In fact, as cynics and nihilists never tire of pointing out, people who hold such beliefs have proved capable of deep cruelty, a cruelty with a universal sweep. And many humans don’t want to share humanity, anyway; they want to hoard it. People do not automatically or easily prefer life as a member of the broad and inclusive human family. That mutually loving situation – our actual situation, the morally real world – is as strange to most of us as is the language of the Wake, or the landscape of Pangaea.

    Endre Rozsda, The Tower of Babel

    Endre Rozsda, The Tower of Babel

    Gina Apostol’s The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata is Joycean in its attention to language, its double and triple entendres. But it is not, like Joyce’s “night-book,” a restful or dreamy experience: both its style and its plot insist on the idea that any language that makes us feel, one moment, at home with its familiarity, will soon enough expel us with its strangeness. Though it’s a tale about the revolution that made Filipinos a united, sovereign people, it is written in the kind of hyper-aware style that suggests a single, lonely mind.

    The book was first published in 2009, at which time it won the Philippine National Book Award. Apostol, best-known in the United States for her 2017 novel Insurrecto, has revised it and added an Author’s Note, and the book’s restless cleverness begins there. Filipinos, she remarks, usually read their national epic, José Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere (1887), in translation. At the time Rizal wrote, the Philippines were colonized by the Spanish, and so Spanish was what you learned in school, and so it’s what Rizal naturally used. His book “inspired the mass movement that launched revolution against Spain.” By the time that revolution ended, Spain had lost a war with the United States over Cuba, in the process inventing the modern concentration camp; the United States believed that it now owned several Spanish territories, including the same Philippines where revolution still raged. To end that conflict, the Americans imposed the same concentration camps to which US politicians and soldiers had just reacted with sincere or perhaps feigned horror in Cuba. Thereafter, Filipino schools used English, and that’s the language in which they read their national epic, unless they want to do so in one of the fifty or more other languages in use there. “It’s no wonder that, in my view, two things shape the Filipino: Puns and José Rizal,” writes Apostol:

    The essence of a country like the Philippines is that it seems to exist in translation – a series of textual mediations must be unraveled in order to reveal who or what it is. More precisely: it exists in the suspension of its myriad translations – it is alive in the void of its ghost-speeches. In this way, for me, Filipinos embody a definition of the human: a translated being. It seems to me we are all always only on the cusp of being understood, or understanding ourselves.

    All that, and we haven’t even reached the Editor’s Preface. For Mata purports to be the English translation, by a Cornell student, of a manuscript (“an assortment of unpaginated notes and mismatched sheaves packed in a ratty biscuit tin”) written by a minor participant in the Philippine War of Independence. It also purports to be a series of footnotes on that translation by Estrella Espejo, its editor. It also purports to be a series of indignant responses to those footnotes by another Filipina academic, Diwata Drake, who devotes herself to the study of a psychoanalyst (aptly) named Murk. Espejo describes Drake as “an unshaved blonde, the kind one often meets at academic conferences.” It sets the tone. To spare us confusion, the book includes an A-Z glossary, which contains such gems as this, for “Americans”:

    During the Second World War, destroyed more Philippine libraries and historical matter than Spaniards did during the entire revolutionary war of 1896. At the time Americans destroyed Manila in 1945, the islands were both US colony and ally.

    This is the entry for “Acrostics and Anagrams”: “Jokes or slips enlightened raw intelligence: zeal aided luck.” (Look closely.) A few pages later, she defines “Cryptolect” as follows: “Secret language a group adopts to prevent others from knowing its business; useful in revolutions and adulterous emails.” One has just had time to chuckle at the bit about “adulterous emails,” and to reflect to oneself that the whole novel is a kind of cryptolect, before one’s eyes fall upon the next entry, with its cute allusion to a Talking Heads classic: “Cryptolept: Psycho readers, qu’est-ce que c’est?”

    Eventually, this goofy, whip-smart book gets around to telling a story of a fuddled nineteenth-century revolutionary, Raymundo Mata. He strives to be a part of the Philippine People just then aborning, but what there ultimately is for him, as for the reader of the book, is the relentless play of language.

    “It is alive in the void of its ghost-speeches.”

    Part of the reason Apostol’s novel excites me, even on the pages where she seems to be having more fun than I am, is that it harks back to a kind of aggressive formal experimentation that has become all too rare. The Discourse seems to resist getting behind any writer who might demand of us that we read a sentence twice. To be fair, the experimentalists are still out there, but while writers continue to do the full, exasperating, beautiful range of things that writers do, without a culture that is open to them the most interesting ones may vanish before they can find their audience.

    One who never received his due even in the experimentalists’ heyday is William Melvin Kelley. He won attention for his debut novel A Different Drummer (1962), a book in which the Great Migration is telescoped to the point where it becomes a parable: all the black people in a single town leave at once. His audience seems to have shrunk with every following book; he died in 2017, and had to be “rediscovered” in an excellent New Yorker piece by Kathryn Schulz the following year. That essay seems to have precipitated the recent republication of Drummer, along with Dancers On the Shore (1964), A Drop of Patience (1965), dem (1967), and Dunfords Travels Everywheres (1970). Schulz mentions multiple unpublished works; I hope that the Kelley revival sticks around long enough to bring these to print as well.

    It was dem, a brutal satire that ends with a reveal so diabolically clever that it caused me to pace the room chuckling for several minutes, that got me really excited about Kelley, and Dunfords that made me realize here was a lost genius. Dunfords is one of the few books both daring enough to invite you to compare it with Joyce, and clever enough to survive the comparison (albeit somewhat bruised). Bringing together characters from several of Kelley’s books, it tells parallel stories about Chig Dunford, an expatriate novelist who finds himself on a boat run by a slave-dealing Amway-like cult, and Carlyle Bedlow, reappearing from dem, who is trying to help a friend who believes he’s sold his soul to the devil to save his dying mother. (The devil is a white guy with a fancy car.) Every so often the book turns to Wake-ese, as though a dream-world had overrun the daylight world of sentences that make sense and words that refer to things. In this world Chig and Carlyle are a single character, Chigyle. This conflation of two very different personalities, along with other choices Kelley makes – seemingly approving references to Black Muslim theology, to the myth of Dr. Yakub – suggests the black-nationalist orientation of the novel: the Black Man is, in essence, one creature. (To this I just kept thinking: he’s not. Chig and Carlyle’s differences – in motivation, style, experience – shouldn’t just be conjured away.)

    I think Apostol has the truer view of nations and nationalisms – that they paper over millions of singularities. But ideological differences aside, I can’t help loving a novel that inserts the following sentence into the mouth of a Southern slaveholder’s ghost: “Owe years, those were god dies for ebonybody.” Owe years: capitalist time is a time in which nobody stops owing. Or consider the way “god dies for ebonybody” conflates the Southern rich white man’s “good days” with the days when, for ebonybody, God seemed to die. This awful ghost-man wants Chigyle to thank him for giving black people the “grieft of servilization”: civilization as forced servitude, as gift, grief, graft, and grift at once.

    Is that all civilization can be – a brute exploitation that has given itself airs? The Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture has been portrayed many ways, but Black Spartacus – a wonderful new biography by Sudhir Hazareesingh – makes it clear that a great part of his motivation was a sincere belief that it could be more. He could fight and kill with the best of them; he could, as a soldier sometimes must, feign and dissemble and deceive, to brilliant effect. He understood the British, the Spanish, the French, and the contending elites of the island then known as Saint-Domingue well enough to play them off against each other. But those practical skills coexisted in him, as they so rarely do, with a deep idealism. Thomas Jefferson said that all men were created equal; his slaves may have heard him reading the sentence over to himself. Louverture actually believed it. Unlike his predecessor in the fight for Haitian independence, the maroon leader François Makandal, and also unlike the American founding fathers, Louverture envisioned a multiracial republic.

    “May the sight of this tree remind you that freedom cannot exist without labour.” 

    Toussaint was born into an estate with an estimated life expectancy of thirty-seven. He did many jobs, covering the varied terrain of his country during a stint as a shepherd. He learned both to negotiate well with, and – somehow – to see the humanity in white people during his time working for a relatively human plantation owner named Bayon de Libertad. After the revolution touched off, he outwitted a series of French functionaries, conquered a section of the island, and rose to the level of governor, before Napoleon’s army got hold of him. He died in a French prison, too late for the revolution to be overturned.

    Toussaint governed an island as layered as he was. There was a Joycean genius in his ability to talk to many varied communities at once, often with the same symbols. At one point Hazareesingh describes a speech he gives near Môle-Saint-Nicolas. He ceremoniously plants a “Tree of Liberty,” and then speaks to his assembled fighters about the meaning of the gesture, blending together the languages of Christian repentance, French republicanism, and vodou:

    Those who had been part of the old order in town . . . had a duty to “repent genuinely” for their past errors. . . . The time for disunity was over: appealing to the ideals of “concord” and “fraternity,” Toussaint invited these new French citizens to “be of one heart, one soul, and to bury for ever at the foot of this sacred tree, the symbol of freedom, all our ancient divisions.” Again, the reference to Grand Bwa [Great Wood, or “sacred tree”] would have been obvious to most of the black citizens present: like the loa, the republican tree was a symbol of healing and protection. But to the former slaves, too, Toussaint had a special message, which he would almost certainly have uttered in kreyol to make sure it was clearly understood: “may the sight of this tree remind you that freedom cannot exist without labour.”

    In literary terms, Hazareesingh’s book can’t quite compete with C. L. R. James’s classic treatment of the same subject, The Black Jacobins (1937). But Hazareesingh benefits from decades’ worth of newly-identified sources, and he is able to do better justice to the many facets of this irreducibly complex man, a general who preferred to spare enemies, a liberator who became a reluctant tyrant and then a martyr, a Jesuit (at least till the Jesuits were kicked off the island for not being quite racist enough) who practiced vodou. (As a former fundamentalist, I will never be entirely comfortable amid such signs of syncretism; but I can hardly criticize Toussaint, living as I do in a country where the church and the cult of Mammon are so damnably blended.) Black Spartacus invites the reader to love Toussaint in all his contradictions, and to execrate the treatment of his country both before and since. The Haitians have endured two centuries of economic punishment because they dared to win a war – a war they hadn’t started – against white people.

    Those centuries of punishment after the revolution, the history of theft and barbarity before it, and, yes, the violence – however defensive, and defensible – of that revolution itself, all attest to the difficulty of achieving a world governed by an idea as obvious and simple as the infinite worth of every human life. It is a task even more complex than Joyce’s attempt to unscramble what was scrambled at Babel. We will know we have begun to move toward it when nations like Haiti and the Philippines, having won their wars for national independence, begin to shake off the tyranny of economic dominance as well. We’ll be even closer when independence, national or personal, no longer seems like a nation’s only safety.

    Contributed By portrait of Phil Christman Phil Christman

    Phil Christman teaches first-year writing at the University of Michigan and is the editor of the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing.

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