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General Sun, My Brother by Jacques Stephen…
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General Sun, My Brother

by Jacques Stephen Alexis

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Compère Général Soleil was Jacques Stephen Alexis's first novel, written between 1951 and 1955, and is set in Haiti and the Dominican Republic ca. 1935-1937, during the presidency of Sténio Vincent.

When we meet our ironically-named hero Hilarius Hilarion, he is down in the depths of despair with no resource left to him except to steal. But he has the good fortune to make friends with a communist political prisoner in jail, and with his help meets the communist junior doctor Jean-Michel (presumably an idealised portrait of the author as a working-class hero) who cures his epilepsy, gets him a job, recruits him to evening-classes in Haitian history, and helps him to set up home with the lovely Claire-Heureuse. The two of them work hard to better themselves, but naturally, this good fortune can't last. When we discover at the beginning of Part III that Hilarion and Claire-Heureuse have been forced to emigrate to cut cane in Trujillo's Dominican Republic, we have a pretty good idea of how it's all going to end.

So, it's outwardly a classic working-class tragedy, like hundreds of other socialist propaganda novels written between the 1860s and the 1960s. But there's a bit more to it than that. For a start, Alexis clearly knows what he's talking about. Hilarion and Claire-Heureuse are not (quite) abstract political types, they are complex individuals with a particular background and cultural identity, full of details that could only come from Alexis's first-hand experience. Haiti itself, with all its historical and natural idiosyncrasies, also seems to be treated as an independent character in the story. We frequently get long chunks of free-verse or prose-poetry in the best Aimé Césaire tradition apostrophising the city, the river, the Haitian landscape, etc. And sometimes the story jumps unpredictably away from the central characters for a chapter to highlight some other social problem Alexis wants to draw to our attention.

It frequently skates on the verge of being naive and/or bombastic (it would make a great opera!), but I think Alexis gets away with it most of the time, thanks to a powerful mix of obvious honesty and (concealed) technical skill. Oddly enough it reminded me quite strongly of Berlin Alexanderplatz, even though that is a much less explicitly political novel. I think the similarity must be in the humanity with which Alexis treats his suffering hero.

Overall, I don't think this is a "this-book-will-change-your-life" novel, but it is definitely one that will teach you something about what life looks like at the bottom of the heap. ( )
1 vote thorold | Feb 21, 2016 |
Brilliant. ( )
  ziwolff | Mar 14, 2009 |
This was a somewhat difficult book to continue reading and is not for the faint of heart, but it is well worth the effort. The novel follows the story of Hilarion, a Haitian peasant who struggles against poverty and despair. The novel follows Hilarion as he is imprisoned, connects with others who are trying to begin a Marxist movement, and falls in love. While frequently depressing, the novel is an unsparing, unflinchingly accurate portrayal of life in Haiti and the struggles endured by the lower class as they are oppressed by a corrupt and cruel government. At times the political message distracts from the characters and plot, but overall these were balanced well. The ending will bring up strong emotions and reactions for most, and leaves the reader thinking about the novel and its themes long after the last page is turned. ( )
  Litfan | Mar 19, 2008 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Jacques Stephen Alexisprimary authorall editionscalculated
Coates, Carrol F.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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A Translation of "Compère Général Soleil"
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A novel on the exploitation of the poor in the Caribbean. The hero is a Haitian peasant who becomes politicized while in jail. Forced to work as a sugar-cane cutter in the Dominican Republic, he participates in a strike which ends in a massacre.

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