Thursday, July 28, 2022

Hadriana In All My Dreams by Rene Depestre

Source of book: I own this.


I like to read books in translation as part of my regular reading diet. I realized this isn’t quite the same as reading books in multiple languages, but given my skill set, this is the best I have. There are various ways I discover these books. For modern ones, lists from NPR and LitHub among others are a good way to find new books as they come out. There are also various lists of classic books that are useful. 

Hadriana In All My Dreams is like no other book I have ever read, and is definitely one of those mind-expanding sorts of books that open a different world. How to describe it? Well, first of all, it was originally in French, written by a black Haitian author. It is a zombie novel, but nothing like the pop-zombie stuff that has entered the cultural consciousness of white America. There are no zombies on rampage, and you can’t become a zombie by contact. The key to understanding the way this works in the book is to understand that the original zombie myth originated among enslaved Afro-Caribbeans, and, like all the great myths, finds its ultimate origin in the human psyche - the fears and the trauma of a particular existence. 


This is very much the case with the zombie myth. As it is explained in the book, one becomes a zombie because one is poisoned, usually by a witch doctor. The toxin paralyzes and causes a death-like state. (Think Juliet in Shakespeare’s play…) Once in that state, the witch doctor can sever the “petit bon ange” (the soul) from the “gros bon ange” (the body.) The soul is imprisoned in a container, and exists in a disembodied state until the death of the body. The body can then be resurrected by an antidote, and it becomes a soulless slave to the person who restores it. 


If this sounds a bit like, well, enslavement, you would be correct. The Hatians were captured by the white witch doctors, their souls rendered irrelevant by circumstances and the lash, and their bodies forced to be “self healing meat robots,” as Kurt Vonnegut memorably put it. 


This would explain the particularities of the original zombie legend. One does not become a zombie because one contacts other zombies, but because zombiedom is forced on one by an outside oppressor. Zombies do not exist as a plague, but as a soulless enslaved labor force. They are undead not because they do not need food or other necessities of life, but because they have no soul. For that matter, zombies move slowly and listlessly for the same reason. Without the soul to motivate action, they are just meat robots….kind of like the enslaved. 


So, consider that the mythological background to the story. Fortunately for the international reader, Depestre doesn’t assume knowledge of all this, but explains it as needed throughout the story. 


The other part of the necessary background, on the other hand, is assumed. Depestre assumes that the reader knows something of Haiti and its history. Originally a French colony, it became - along with much of the Caribbean - the home of coffee and sugar plantations. When it turned out that the indigenous peoples didn’t “perform” well as slaves, the French, like the other colonial powers, imported people from Africa to be those all-important meat robots to enrich the empire. 


Haiti’s history thus far resembles the rest of the Western Hemisphere that was built on enslavement. But then things take a turn. Haiti’s enslaved rebelled against enslavement. And they did so successfully. 


This of course both terrified the European collonialist powers (and the fledgeling United States, which also feared a successful slave rebellion) and enraged them. France, which had other issues which prevented them from winning yet another war, instead slapped Haiti with an obscene “reparations” debt - in essence, charging the formerly enslaved for their lost value. Between the debt and the exorbitant interest rates, for decades, Haiti was paying fully 80% of its GDP to pay back this bullshit debt. And they were still doing this as late as 1947. And then you had an occupation by the US, multiple coups and revolutions, hundreds of natural disasters, and, well, Haiti remains a wreck. (And yes, white Europe and the US are largely responsible for this.) You can read a pretty good summary here, if you want to know more. 


And then there are the demographics. Haiti’s population is mostly of African descent, with a small fraction of Taino and French left. And, as is the case in most places where enslavement took place, there is a significant “mulatto” (the term used in the book) population, originally the result of rape, but later (including in the book itself) of consensual interracial marriage and relationships. This is important to the plot. 


The book takes place mostly in 1938, in the village of Jacmel, on the southern coast of Haiti. It is Carnival, and a beautiful 19 year old French woman, Hadriana, is going to marry Hector, a black Haitian boy from a prominent and wealthy family. In what feels a bit odd to me as an American, everyone - and I mean almost literally everyone - is happy about the match. Hadriana has been practically deified or at least sainted as the best thing the town has to offer. And why not? She is beautiful, she seems kind and generous, everyone loves her, and she appears to embody the kind of religious and social virtue that the town venerates. Hector, for his part, seems a nice boy, and from a good family, and they love each other. 


But then things go badly wrong. At the altar, Hadriana is barely able to say “I do” before she collapses and dies. Hector is so traumatized, he ends up in the hospital unconscious. And, whatever the secular French family of Hadriana believes, the Haitians clearly are convinced that there is villainy at work, and that Hadriana is at risk of becoming a zombie. 


What follows is surreal. The funeral ends up as a war of sorts between the French Catholic priests, and the Haitian believers in Vodou, with Hadriana’s soul possibly in the balance. Carnival meets the Requiem, in many ways. 


And things take an even more bizarre turn. A furious hurricane lashes the island the night after the burial, and the village awakes to find that the grave has been dug up, and Hadriana, casket and all, are missing. 


And that is the end of the story. Well, for a long time at least. It isn’t until over 30 years later that we find out what happened. 


Most of the book is told from the perspective of Patrick, who is kind of a god-brother to Hadriana. They were christened together, and their families are super close, although they do not share blood as far as I can figure out from the book. Patrick is Hadriana’s close friend - and he has the serious hots for her - but they apparently aren’t considered to be matches for each other, perhaps because they are viewed as “brother and sister.” After Hadriana dies, Patrick immigrates to the United States, where he eventually discovers additional information from another ex-pat from Haiti. 


We also get bits of information from other sources. Patrick recounts the stories the hairdresser told about a young student of the occult who, after he seduced his mentor’s mistress (“femme-jardin” is the term used - a delightfully ambiguous term applied to a variety of entanglements) was turned into a sexually crazed giant butterfly. This whole story gets pretty freaky - it involves a lot of supernatural rape, cosmic orgasms, and an old lady with a dozen vulvas. This in turn is related to the theory about Hadriana - this horny insect turned Hadriana into a zombie so he can have her body as his own. 


We also get a few other zombie stories, told by Patrick’s uncle, as well as a kind of political essay that Patrick writes explaining the connection between the history of enslavement and the zombie legends. 


But it is the very last section that is the most unusual. In it, Hadriana finally gets to tell her own story. For most of the book, she has been very much an object. She is the idol of the town. She is a sexual fetish. She is a dead (or undead) body. She is the embodiment of the town’s very essence - which is why it falls into decay after she dies. But finally, at the end, she is able to have a voice, to explain what happened to her, and to reveal some secrets about herself. 


It turns out that she is certainly not the pure and innocent thing that the town insists she is. She desperately wanted to fuck Patrick, but he never could make the move. Then, later, she wanted every bit as much to get it on with Hector, but his vision of her as a virgin bride prevented him from giving in to her seduction. And, when it comes down to it, one of the things that makes her most furious about being struck down at the altar is that she didn’t get to have sex. She feels she is being punished for a sin she wasn’t even successful in committing. 


Okay, unless you count that time as a teen she was eaten out by her best female friend. And it appears that her will to live, and to reunite her soul and body is driven in significant degree by her libido. 


I won’t spoil the ending, other than to say that the book intentionally leaves a huge gap in time, which we are left to imagine with nothing to guide us. 


In case it isn’t obvious so far, this book is, in a way, drenched in sex. But not like you would think, entirely. It is shocking at times, with a way of juxtaposing the sacred and profane that curls the toes of us puritanical American sorts. Even the translator, Kaiama Glover, notes that it was a stretch to figure out how to translate the twenty different words Depestre uses for female genitalia - and that is before you get to the many, many metaphors used throughout. The sex is probably why the book was translated into many languages other than English first. Our Anglo-American sensibilities are, perhaps, not accustomed to treating sexuality as integral to life. 


Don’t think that this book is mostly about sex, though. It isn’t preachy (except for Patrick’s little essay - which is played both for laughs as well as content), but it isn’t difficult at all to see the political and religious commentary that is barely hidden throughout. Questions of race, privilege, wealth and poverty, exploitation, objectification, gender expectations, and more are raised in a subtle manner. The writing is rich and emotional, and Depestre never needs to use a heavy hand. 


There are a number of other things I would like to discuss, which are best understood through the actual words of the book. 


First, there is this quote from Rene Char that is used as the opening. 


“We have only one recourse in the face of death: make art before it happens.” 


Interesting enough, but in the context of the book, it raises questions as to the author’s meaning or interpretation. Hadriana is, essentially, “art.” She is an object of beauty for public consumption. Does she “make art” before she dies? Or is her role just that of being art? Is Depestre talking about himself, and his attempt to make art? Or is he thinking of something darker? Good question, and I’m not sure the book is unambiguous about this. 


There is a long passage early in the book, where the author describes (and lists) the absurdly large list of food and decorations needed for the wedding. I mean, the whole town is invited, and it shows. I was definitely reminded of a certain song from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s version of Cinderella. Plenty of fun. As I said, there is a certain amount of humor in this book - it’s just, well, a bit dry and satirical. 


I mentioned earlier the battle that takes place over Hadriana’s body. Here is how the author describes it. 


From that moment on, there began a pitiless battle between the two belief systems that have long gone head-to-head in the Haitian imagination: Christianity and Vodou. 


I have been thinking about this a lot. In the subculture I was raised in - and in the discussions I had with my missionary-kid parents - there was a general disapproval of the way “third world people” blended their local beliefs with “pure” Christianity. As if somehow white people are the only ones untained by paganism or past belief systems. As if they somehow received the One True Faith™ pure and untainted from heaven, free from the past and from outside influences. 


Which is simply horseshit on a stick. 


ALL religion is syncretistic, and always has been. There has NEVER been some “pure” religion that came down from heaven. ALL religion has arisen out of the culture it came from, and has been blended with every other culture it has encountered. 


What we like to think of as “pure” Christianity is really a mix of traditions. A little Judaism, a lot of Greco-Roman philosophy…and plenty of European paganism too. (Christmas and Easter are the most obvious examples, but the theology itself has borrowed.) And in the case of American Christianity, we have have blended our own American mythology - the John Wayne Cowboy, for example, Ayn Rand’s social darwinism for another, and the apparently unkillable belief in the inferiority of darker skin. There is nothing more pure about our own religion than in Hatian Vodou Catholicism. We just assume ours is normal and thus pure, while anything different from us is adulterated and thus tainted and less-than. 


And this isn’t just in our modern world. Judaism itself arose out of (and continually mixed with) the Canaanite and other Ancient Near East religions, just like the Jewish people were very likely just a tribe of Canaanites themselves. And thus for every religion in the history of humanity. 


(BTW, I am a Christian for various reasons, but I no longer can hold the belief that people like me have a monopoly on truth. It seems absurd that the only true theology would be vouchsafed only to a bunch of white guys who conquered and enslaved others while treating women like property. Just saying.) 


This particular fight ends up becoming rather racial as it goes on. The Catholic clergy are all white, and they believe that white people are somehow exempt from the effects of the pagan rituals. Their souls are somehow different. But they also feel the need to hurl invective at the black people who are trying to bring their own practices to a white funeral. At one point, the priest prays that the Virgin “deliver us from the masks and the drums of paganism.” Yeah, nothing racial about that at all, right? 


Patrick, for his part, feels torn between the two. After the funeral, he asks his uncle about the zombie legend, and gets the history. But what is fascinating is this line:


Up until then, this phenomenon had been more of a mystery to me than the story about getting knocked up by the Holy Ghost’s hard-on.


Ouch. See what I mean about the sacreligious way the author blends sex and religion? But this is a good point. 


Here is another interesting point. One chapter is an imaginary interview Patrick has with a journalist who has written a story about Jacmel. (It’s a long story…fortunately the story isn’t needed to understand this point.) Patrick notes that the whole zombie phenomenon can only exist because people allow it to. Just like….slavery. Zombies could be rescued, after all. Administer the antidote and reunite the spirit and body. 


“The effectiveness of magic is a phenomenon of social consensus. And that’s what was working against Hadriana Siloe that night. When an entire village,, in accordance with its traditions, is convinced that a human being can become undead as a result of a toxic substance and an act of witchcraft, the victim’s entourage can’t be expected to come to her aid in such circumstances. On that night back then, in the depths of everyone’s conscience, we all just wanted to keep our distance from the young zombie bride, brutally abandoning her to her inescapable fate, seeing her as a danger to the whole of the Jacmelian community. That’s what happened.” 


Kind of a sobering thought in light of enslavement - and atrocities like the Holocaust as well. All it takes is that “social consensus” to look the other way, or to treat the victims as if they were a danger to the rest of us. 


The essay by Patrick is both a bit humorous - it is written in a stuffy manner, with references to theories and theorists from Sartre on down, and clearly seems intended for a bit of a laugh at Patrick and his living in his head rather than actually, I don’t know, doing something useful. But it is also perceptive. Patrick is a pedant in the essay, but he isn’t wrong. Here is one that I decided to quote, because it is really quite spot on. 


In returning to the original source of the myth, one must go over with a fine-toothed comb an eminently magical process that, over the course of the last three centuries, has allowed for the designating of Europeans of different ethnicity (Spanish, French, English, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, etc.) as “Whites”; of the indigenous peoples of the Americas “discovered” by Columbus in the Western hemisphere (Arawaks, Tainos, Caribs, Ciboneyes, Mayas, Incas, aztecs, Quechuas, Guaranis, etc.) as “Indians”; and of sub-Saharan Africans (Sudanese, Guineans, Bantus, Congolese, Angolans, etc.) as “Negroes,” “mixed-race,” “Mulattos,” and “people of color.” Under the effect of what amounts to an absurdly fantastical inversion of the hierarchy of form and substance in our species, it somehow became commonplace to insist on a causal relationship between the skin color, facial structure, and follicular attributes of various human groupings, on the one hand, and their particular cultural and natural developments on teh other. As a function of these racializations of colonial conflicts, the essence of African ethnicities was reduced to a fantasy of the “inferior nature of the Negro,” while the essence of the ethnic groups emerging from Europe was elevated to the no-less-fantastic notion of the “superior nature of the white man.” Through this simultaneously mythological and semiotic vugarization, the institution of slavery invented social types in the Americas so as to assure its own prosperity. 


This myth is so powerful today, unfortunately. I mean, notorious fascist Viktor Orban recently made the absurd claim that Europe was somehow racially pure once, and is now being mixed with those “inferior” races. Scientifically ludicrous, of course, but a powerful myth that appeals to those who benefit from being considered “superior” because of pigmentation. 


Finally, I want to mention a line from Hadriana’s story. She mentions the place her soul goes where all the souls are put into bottles of various sorts. (Hers goes into a champagne bottle - it’s a good soul.) The jailor - a good natured fellow - describes this as “bottling up the imagination.” This makes clear again the connection in Depestre’s use of the zombie myth between zombification and enslavement. The essence of humanity is its imagination. Enslavement renders imagination irrelevant - indeed, unwanted. The idea slave has had his or her imagination carefully excised - it just gets in the way of being a hard-working meat robot, right? Enslavement of all kinds is thus dehumanizing in and of itself. 


Hadriana In All My Dreams is a fascinating book, a work unlike anything else I have read. It is a fairly easy read, but definitely deeper than it appears at first glance. Unfortunately, our library doesn’t carry it. Fortunately, I found a used copy online and added it to my own collection. It’s not difficult to find, and definitely worth it. 




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