An Uprising Against the Oppressors

Over in the Caribbean is a nation with a colorful history. For most of us, Haiti has reached our consciousness primarily because of the 2010 powerful earthquake that has devastated and inundated the nation. It has affected roughly a third of the country’s population. The nation’s history is indeed riddled with several earthquakes. Surely, not many of us will mention the fact that Haiti is the second country in the Americas to win independence from colonial rule. In 1804, they have separated from France. The first country to accomplish the feat? The United States. Occupying the eastern portion of Hispaniola, Haiti’s post-colonial history was a period marked by economic, political, and social upheavals, further exacerbated by natural disasters.

Capturing the events that have characterized the nation’s contemporary history was the country’s arsenal of writers. Among them is Pierre Clitandre, a prominent voice of the opposition who went into exile in 1980 following President Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s crackdown on his political opponents. It was while he was in exile that Clitandre published his first novel, Cathedral of the August Heat. By chance, I was able to obtain a copy of the book through an online bookseller in 2021. The main attraction for me was the subtitle, A Novel of Haiti. Sadly, I cannot recall reading the work of any Haitian writer although I have read works about its neighboring country, Dominican Republic.

An opportunity to explore a part of the literary world I have previously not ventured in, I made Cathedral of the August Heat part of my first-ever Latin American literature month. Set in slums that surrounded the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, the novel introduces John. He was currently working as a driver for one of the tap-taps, the poor man’s buses, that plied the shantytown. He was a single father who was raising his son, Raphael. Raphael was born out of his short-lived love affair with Madeliene. Madeliene abandoned father and son when Raphael was just one year old because John was unable to give “her the five hundred gourdes she needed for something or other.”

“Again and again the old bus rocked the two lines of passengers back and forth, welded into one or suddenly unshackled by the shock of a screeching brake. The sun beat down on the asphalt. No one signalled it to stop as it groaned and juddered and backfired along the road like a soul in torment. You don’t hitch a ride with death.”

~ Pierre Clitandre, Cathedral of the August Heat

Originally published in French as Cathedrale du Mois d’ Août in 1982, Cathedral of the August Heat is considered to be the first French Caribbean book to be translated to English. It is, from what I understand, the only work by Clitandre made available to the anglophone readers. In the book’s pages, Clitandre captured the life in the Haitian shantytown. Apart from the glossy pages of an encyclopedia I read when I was younger and the earthquake of 2010, it was images of poverty that introduced me to the country. I do vividly recall watching a news report about how some Haitians, struck by debilitating poverty, were forced to eat baked mud cake to fill their empty stomach. This was, honestly, a sad realization because I am pretty sure that there is more to the former French colony beyond how the media has portrayed it.

The unmistakable stench of extreme poverty pervaded every page of the story. We read of a world where desolation and helplessness were rife. We see the image of people paralyzed by destitution. This poverty was the result of the years of economic and political upheavals that riddled the nation’s post-colonial history. Poverty is a major concern that continues to persist in contemporary Haiti. It was a far cry from the vision of the country’s original liberators. In more than one way, the tap-tap was a representation of the shantytowns. They were overworn and were, oftentimes, overcrowded with the faces of harried passengers who are struggling to survive each day.

Despotism and autocratic rule played key roles in the further decline of Haiti; the political instability was akin to the experiences of Latin American countries in the 20th-century. On top of this, the oligarchs reigned supreme. While the ordinary Haitian were shamelessly exploited for their labor, the oligarchs were riding comfortably in their Cadillacs. The dichotomies between the social classes were glaring. Those who were given the opportunity to escape escaped. Nonetheless, there were still some, like John, who chose to stay, not out of patriotism or the lack of awareness of their surroundings but because their fates were intertwined with the land. In John’s case, he had his son.

Vestiges of colonialism lingered at the seams of the novel. Bordering the shantytown were vast sugarcane plantations managed by the powerful HASCO (Haitian American Sugar Company), Incorporated. The Caribbean islands, including Hispaniola, were turned into vast sugarcane plantations. To cultivate these plantations, slaves were imported from various parts of the world. In the case of Haiti, its slave population was comprised mainly of Africans. In the contemporary, sugarcane plantations represented the country’s past but they also represented the looming presence of foreign interests and, by extension, the shadows of the oligarchy.

“Lost people like to have plenty of children. Fornicate all the blessed day. Say it’s their only hope: pickney like the fingers of your hand, faster than death can carry them off. And so the babies come, ten, twenty, thirty at a time. And as they grow they get to know the alleyways and the hide-and-seek corners. Only they don’t grow up like corn, they grow up like the shacks. Legs like the crooked posts tha prop up the huts. Never have they had the smile of those boys bursting with health who are pasted up with startch to decorate the insde walls of the shacks.”

~ Pierre Clitandre, Cathedral of the August Heat

The oppressors come in different forms. Haunting every alleyway that crisscrossed the fetid slums were different forms of deadly and infectious diseases, including malaria, measles, yellow fever, and blue fever. Amidst the squalor, the consciousness that death can strike any moment was a sobering realization, another ugly reality that hovered above the destitute: “The grand parade where infectious evils thronged in their millions. It took the path to the shacks, rotted the planks, poisoned the fresh water in the fountain, wandered along the garbage-laden gullies, went and revived itself in the latrine pits, trickled along the gutters until it flew up in the air in a fabulous cloud of a billion nine hundred and ninety-five thousand flies and three billion six hundred and two thousand mosquitoes.

It was the ominous poverty that characterized most of the novel. These images were contrasted by the characters whose vibrant voices gave the novel a kaleidoscopic landscape. There was more to the shantytowns than meets the eye. We learn of their plights and concerns but we also learn of their hopes and their dreams. Through and through, it was a novel about the denizens of the shantytowns. Binding the denizens together were traditions, folk tales, and cultural milestones. Through these details, we observe the interesting integration of Western influences with Caribbean traditions. Voodoo, for instance, remained a prevalent practice. We also read about zombies. Catholic practices, meanwhile, were integrated into the local religion. Shrouding the novel with a veil of mystery was the story of the Wanderer.

History was an integral element of the novel. As the old adage goes, the past is the key to the future. August 15, 1791, marked a major event in Haitian history. It saw the commencement of the slave uprising that sparked the Haitian revolution, eventually culminating with the creation of the first independent black republic. Haiti was also the first country to abolish slavery. Like their countrymen of the past, John and his fellow denizens of the shantytowns soon reached their breaking point. Violence, amplified by the hoodlums were in cahoots with the oligarchs, continued to escalate. State authorities also don’t hesitate to curtail the little freedom the denizens have. The prevalence of death, poverty, and maladies sobered up the dispossessed, long drowned by their lack of agency; an uprising was imminent.

The novel may be slender but do not be deceived by the physical In less than 200 pages, Clitandre was able to convey a lot. His lyrical prose made the shantytown come alive. It was brimming with noteworthy passages and lines. With Clitandre’s masterstroke, daily conversations, dream sequences, and visions merged for impressionistic episodes and an overall riveting read. Elements of magical realism were also incorporated into the story. However, the focus of the novel was still on the characters. Adding local flavor to the story was the preservation of Creole terms. Curiously, however, the main character was named John rather than its French equivalent, Jean.

“Three years I have wandered in search of you I left my dwelling of stars and moons to follow you through the dust. I left my lotus garden to weep along your path. You never turned around to see me. Why do you not hear me when I call? See, over there, that path sown with diamonds, rubies and perfume. That is the way you will go if you give me back my golden comb. Over there, there is a mansion with satin curtains at its casements. You can open them to talk to the stars. You can close them if the moon comes acourting through the panes. All that world of lights will be yours. Yours alone. You will live in purity and know no season.”

~ Pierre Clitandre, Cathedral of the August Heat

On the other hand, the episodic storytelling belied the novel’s lack of a solid plot, an inherent weakness I find in novels with similar structures. The characters, while diverse and eclectic, were not provided enough voice. For instance, Clitandre never steered the discourse into the motivations of John who, for the most part, was a vessel to capture the landscape of Port-au-Prince. The story spanned several years, with the main perspective weaving in and out of different time periods. However, time was a relatively fluid concept in the slums. Time was marked by actual events such as birth, death, or an uprising rather than by actual dates. One easily forgets time when survival is one’s preoccupation.

Cathedral of the August Heat lived up to its billing as a novel about Haiti, capturing the social, economic, and political concerns that persist in the contemporary. At its heart, the novel is about injustice and cruelty and their adverse impact on Haitians. Beyond the clouds of darkness, we see a group of people brimming with hope. They are resilient and can survive despite the odds. However, even their resilience has its limits. The beauty of Clitandre’s language vividly captured powerful images of his homeland, from its colorful culture to its tumultuous history to its diverse people. These vignettes were wonderfully realized by Clitandre’s lyrical prose. Cathedral of the August Heat is the evocative story of a country and its people.

“A thousand doves crossed the sky. And for the first time since the heroic days of the mosquito-hunters, the dispossessed saw falling on this land of stinking swamps and hovels, the unforgettable miraculous shower of roses. And so they came to understand the importance of those dates printed in red letters on the calendar.”

~ Pierre Clitandre, Cathedral of the August Heat
Ratings

64%

Characters (30%) – 19%
Plot (30%) – 
16%
Writing (25%) – 
18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
11%

Cathedral of the August Heat was an interesting foray into the politics, history, and literature of Haiti. It was a good first book about a country I rarely encounter as a reader. With the beauty of the language alone, I can get lost in the narrative. This is one of the books that I wish was longer, not only because of the language but because I wanted more details on the major events that have transpired, whether it be in the past or in the contemporary. Sure, with the advent of the internet, some of these events can be Googled, however, it would have been better if they were explored through the lenses of Clitandre. With this being said, this novel made me want to explore the works of Haitian, and by extension, Caribbean writers. One name that caught my attention was Edwidge Danticat who sang praises for the Cathedral of the August Heat.

Book Specs

Author: Pierre Clitandre
Translator: Bridget Jones
Publisher: Readers International
Publishing Date: 1987
Number of Pages: 159
Genre: Literary

Synopsis

On 15 August 1791, the day of the Assumption of the Virgin, a great uprising commenced which was to make Haiti – under Toussaint L’Ouverture – the world’s first independent black republic and the first society to abolish slavery under the French revolution. This key date lies behind Pierre Clitandre’s sweeping story of contemporary Haiti.

Through the eyes of the poorest people of the Americas – the higglers, the washerwomen, the tap-tap drivers of the shantytowns crowing around Port-au-Prince – we experience the dynamic current of history that has brought Haiti once again to rebellion.

Woven from many characters and stories is the lyrical tapestry of a people, fascinating and complex. Bridget Jones puts into a lively West Indian English this pageant of Haitian history, symbols, and beliefs.

About the Author

Pierre Clitandre was born on March 20, 1954, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. In the early 1970s, Clitandre became an active voice of the opposition as a journalist. He was critical of President ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier’s corrupt and dictatorial regime. In 1978, he was designated the editor of the opposition newspaper Le Petit-Samedi-Soir, a position he held until 1980 when he was forced into exile because of Duvalier’s drive to purge the opposition. While in exile, Clitandre published his first novel, Cathedrale du Mois d’ Août (Cathedral of the August Heat) in 1982. He returned to Haiti in the mid-1990s to assist in the country’s development.

“The people who had lost their roots watched the ribbon of asphalt unrolling away beneath them, and those with memories dimly recalled a village in the fold of the hills, between the red blossoms of the flame-of-the forest and the majestic ancient cotton-trees alive with singing birds. They remembered a cottage among the banana leaves, the brown of the earth and the river flowing over the black sand.”

~ Pierre Clitandre, Cathedral of the August Heat