The Fire This Time

James Ferguson discusses Jacque Roumain's Masters of the Dew, the most outstanding example of the Haitian peasant novel

Si ou gen youn sous k ap ba-w dlo, ou pa koupe pye-bwa kot. “If you have a stream that gives you water,” runs the Haitian proverb, “you don’t cut down the trees around it.” Or, if you prefer, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”

The Creole saying expresses a fundamental truth, but one which has been long ignored — with tragic consequences — in poverty-stricken Haiti. For two centuries or more, trees have been mercilessly chopped down for timber or charcoal, creating a barren, eroded landscape in much of the country. Without trees and their roots, earth washes down off the hillsides, which are left scarred and uncultivable; streams dry up altogether. Peasants know this to their cost, but the few dollars to be earned from a bag of charcoal outweigh concepts such as “sustainability”.

Fifty years ago, the environmental disaster facing the Haitian countryside formed the background to that country’s most celebrated novel, Masters of the Dew (Les Gouverneurs de la Rosée). Its author was perhaps, at first sight, an unlikely champion of the black, Creole-speaking peasantry. Born in 1907 into a pale-skinned elite family (his maternal grandfather had briefly been president), Jacques Roumain enjoyed the privileged lifestyle of the moneyed minority, studying in Switzerland and Spain before returning home in 1927 to the leafy upper-class Port-au-Prince suburb of Bois-Verna.

But Roumain was not to settle for a life of pampered indolence. Haiti at the time was occupied by US forces (they had arrived in 1915 after a period of political and economic turmoil) and a mood of militant nationalism was rising among his intellectual contemporaries. Stung by the arrogance and racism of the marine corps, Roumain became involved in the “indigenist” movement, a group which sought to celebrate Haiti’s African and peasant legacy in opposition to the enforced Americanisation of the country. Already the author of some derivative pseudo-Romantic poetry, Roumain found a more authentically personal voice in verse and short stories dealing with specifically Haitian themes.

The Americans finally sailed away in 1934 and Roumain turned his critical attention to the conservative government of Sténio Vincent. By now, his reading of Marx and other revolutionaries had convinced him that only communism would solve the desperate problems of the Haitian poor. That year, he was a founder member of the tiny Haitian Communist Party, an act which earned him three years in one of Vincent’s jails. On his release, a sick but unrepentant Roumain chose exile in Europe, studying anthropology at the Sorbonne and writing impassioned poems in support of the republican side in the Spanish Civil War.

The outbreak of the Second World War saw Roumain move on to the US and, finally, via Cuba, back to Haiti where a new government had adopted an anti-fascist stance of which he approved. In 1941 he founded the Bureau d’Ethnologie, devoted to studying Haiti’s peasant culture, and then campaigned vigorously against the Catholic Church’s attempt to stamp out voodoo worship in the countryside. In 1943 he accepted a government offer to become chargé d’affaires at the Haitian embassy in Mexico City. Over the next two years, it seems, he wrote Masters of the Dew.

Yet the novel was to be published posthumously, as Roumain died suddenly in 1944, aged only 37. Although his death certificate referred to a gall bladder infection, friends knew that he had been an alcoholic for many years. To this day, his death remains a matter of speculation.

Masters of the Dew is set in the drought-stricken rural community of Fonds Rouge. Years of uncontrolled tree-felling have dried up the streams and discouraged rainfall; the village is seemingly condemned to starve. Worse still, an ancient feud has split the community into two warring factions. Vengeance and hatred have poisoned the land, and the drought has a biblical quality.

Into this desperate situation comes the novel’s protagonist, Manuel, returning to his home village after years working as a cane-cutter in Cuba. Refusing to accept the resignation and bitterness of his fellow villagers, Manuel looks to remedy the double curse by seeking both water and reconciliation among the community. His decisive and idealistic approach wins the heart of Annaise, a girl from the enemy faction, and he succeeds in locating a water source which could be used to irrigate the village crops.

But first, Manuel must heal the wounds which divide the villagers. For Roumain, the symbol of collective action and hope is the peasant coumbite, Haiti’s time-honoured communal work brigade in which peasants cooperate to clear and plant the land. Opposed to this Marxist-inspired vision of redemption through solidarity are the false opiums of voodoo and, ironically, cheap rum. Lecturing his despairing mother, Manuel distinguishes between the spiritual and earthly struggle:

The sky’s the pastureland of the angels . . . but the earth is a battle day by day, without truce, to clear the land, to plant, to weed and water it until the harvest comes. Then one morning you see your ripe fields spread out before you under the dew and you say — whoever you are — “Me — I’m the Master of the Dew!” and your heart fills with pride.

There is to be no happy ending, however, and Manuel is stabbed and murdered by a jealous member of the opposing camp. Yet his death is the symbolic sacrifice which reunites the village and brings the peasants into the coumbite that digs the ditches to bring water from the spring to the parched land. Annaise, meanwhile, is pregnant with Manuel’s child — a further symbol of hope.

It would be easy, and wrong, to dismiss the novel as a piece of tropical socialist realism, complete with horny-handed hero and Marxist message. It is didactic, but it is also atmospheric, convincing and rooted in the Haitian peasant culture that Roumain, the wealthy revolutionary, loved and admired. And its theme is now more urgent than ever in eroded and divided Haiti. ν

James Ferguson is the author of The Traveller’s Literary Companion to the Caribbean (In Print/Passport Books/Ian Randle Publishers).