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Haiti as lush landscape filled with metaphorical hope and Haiti as a “cultural nation” (Depestre, 1992, p.551). As such Depestre crafts an extremely potent tale of one young mans coming of age in Rosena and the Mountain. The reader must feel a sense of deprivation having acknowledged that the work was translated from its original French and Haitian Creole which Depestre writes in. This translation he says is necessary for his greater audience to read the works. Since the majority of Haitians are unable to read. Even in Standard English however the story is rich in its imagery, like the lush landscape which Depestre fantasizes Haiti could be. The short story primarily bears a structure similar to that of the novella. Depestre segments the narrative into sequences of events whose beginnings are significant turning points in the revelation of one young man’s vocation. The unusual length of the short story allows Depestre to engage detailed use of his imagination in describing character, landscape, culture and society as they interact, driving the conflicts of the narrative. The story’s chapters are bound by the revelations which abound in the protagonist Alain’s exploration of his vocation. Chapter one serves as the exposition it provides contextual information about the protagonist’s socio-economic background. This information is given by the first person narrator Alain in his narration and during embedded narratives which take the form of conversation with Father Mulligan. The narrator declares “the worst of misfortunes in the Americas was to be born Haitian” (Depestre, 2001, p.120).This is in fact the situation of Alain he has been born into squalor, to a mother whom has resolved that her son shall rise out of their current
situation. Alain lives in “the poor section of Tete Bouf” (Depestre, 2001, p.120) in a house with “two rooms but no electricity or running water” (Depestre, 2001, p.120). Living in, what may be called in the Trinidadian context a barrack yard or as the narrator call it’s a courtyard where residents share one common “shack” over a “ditch” (Depestre, 2001, p.120). Alain’s mother in her resolution boxes herself into what seems to be a social norm to the Haitians. She claims that in order to see her son “in a white doctors smock, working in the posh sections of Port-au-Prince…she would be capable of prostitution” (Depestre, 2001, p.120). The narrator clears his mother’s image in the eyes of his listener by continuing this statement saying “It did not lower her in people’s estimation since, in our area, hunger eventually drove most women to sell their bodies” (Depestre, 2001, p.121). Yet this was Alain’s mother’s last resort, what she did resort to was commercial mimicry of Vodun, or Vodou as it is generally known. He tells Fr. Mulligan “when my mother could find nothing to sew, she strung the family budget together by telling fortunes…she would read the future in out of work hands…she would give advice and encouragement…” (Depestre, 2001, p.121) . Crucial to an understanding of the socioeconomic context of Haiti is this perspective of Vodun. For the people of Haiti the Vodun fortune teller gave them hope and faith that they could escape the horrors of their poverty. Alain however observing the “laughter [and] the tears that betrayed her extreme dignity” notes that there is the possibility that Vodun despite being part of his “Haitianness” (Depestre, 1992, p.550) may offer pseudo hope for salvation from his squalor. He thus turns to the other religious presence on the island. The beginning note of the exposition “That year I wanted to become a saint” (Depestre, 2001, p.119) sets the
tone for a young mans exploration of self. It also introduces the religious elements of the story. These elements are fully and carefully constructed as opposing yet equal forces in their tradition and beauty. Depestre in his 1992 interview with Mohammed states that a prevalent image in his works is Haiti as a cultural nation…we have our own cultural identity, which is illustrated by Vodou. Vodou is the other presence in me. I had the privilege of being educated in two religions- Christianity and Vodou. I have profited enormously from being associated with the two great imaginaires. This duel between the two systems of belief constitutes an enormous contradiction which I try to convey creatively in my writing. (p. 551). Catholicism forms part of the cultural context of the narrative by the presence of the Fathers of the Holy Spirit’s, Irish Mission and Saint Martial’s School and Seminary, in Alain’s community. Catholicism is an oasis in the desert that is Haiti, the islands desolation is underscored by Alain as he says using a beautiful metaphor “If the world is a vale of tears, Haiti is the best watered corner of the Globe” (Depestre, 2001, p.119) Alain tells father Mulligan that his sense of calling derives strongly form the fact that “I was born Haitian sainthood seemed to me to be the only way to attract Christ’s attention to a planet without tenderness or consolation” (Depestre, 2001, p.119). This statement may be construed as echoing to non-Haitian statements that Haiti’s inability to thrive as nation post colonization is as a result of “evil” practices. A wavering of Alain’s call to vocation is foreshadowed before he encounters Rosena Rozel. When he enters Father Mulligan’s chambers he is disappointed having expected more from the chambers of a saint yet it is the “comfort and cleanliness of the room” (Depestre, 2001, p.119) that impresses him. The possibility exists that Alain’s
attraction to Vocation stems from his need to escape his physical deprivation and squalor for a life of cleanliness and order which the priest hood could provide. “My calling resounded with fresh emotion in the Haitian night…” Alain’s situation is indeed a dark one and hopefully vocation shall allow him to be blessed by he who is the way the truth and the light, thus guiding him out of Haitian darkness. Depestre uses the language of his character to reflect the extent to which a catholic education has influenced his thinking; this thought process is highly superstitious, believing that Vodun practices have caused Christ to snob the people of Haiti. The narrator explores in detail a rite of Vodun, many aspects of which may be compared to those of Catholicism; He of us received a magic bath prepared with orange leaves, holy water, jasmine flowers, barley water, rum, and powdered almonds…She has us swallow herb teas and concoctions of various aromatic plants…In order to make our blood to bitter for sorcerers, she fed us cockroaches fried in castor oil...two men would grab one of us by our legs and swing us head down over the ritual fire. At that moment the drums beat along the chants of the ounsi [postulants] and the participants invoked Gede-Nibo, General Grand-Bois, Captain Maloulou, and Boumba-Lord of the Cemeteries.These spirits were as familiar to us as the ants and rats at home in Tete-bouf. (Depestre, 2001, p.119) Vodun is a polytheist faith where woman are given priestly roles as in the case of Dorelia Dantor and Alain’s mother. Women however are portrayed as priestesses of Vodun and sorceresses in Catholicism. Their rituals are fiery and vibrant full of rhythm from the drums to the chants of the Ounsi. Furthermore in keeping with Vodun’s pagan origins, sexuality is highly incorporated in ritual; “One evening she threw all her clothes to the devil and offered her nude body to the erect flames. Once the mystical union had been consummated, there was
not a single trace of a burn on her smooth flesh” (Depestre, 2001, p.119). The flames are given phallic qualities and so the ritual becomes extremely passionate. However description of this event is colored by the bias of Alain in favor of Catholicism in his diction. Rather than describing the being involved with Dorelia in terms of Vodun, he stereotypically calls the being the “devil” (p.121). Aspects of Vodun are blasphemous to the Catholic Church since women firstly, are never given the role of officiator or exemplar the embodiment of the faith is in Christ and his disciples. Magic and sorcery are overtly forbidden in Leviticus 19:26 which explicitly say “Do not practice divination or sorcery”. Sexuality as another source of difference, in Catholicism is something to be controlled and subdued. Sexual impulses lead to sin, and in the priests and religious there ought to be penance once one engages in any sexual activity; mental or physical. Yet we see that after Father Mulligan “drink(s) in Rosena’s defenseless nakedness” he never seems repentant and there is no mention of his attending confession for this transgression. This conflicting view of sexuality is focused on in the author’s discussion of the overall conflicts which occur as a result of Vodou heritage and Catholic education and the manifestation of this conflict in Alain. Vodun we see is woven deeply into the culture of the Haitians they express this sexuality in language and body liberally. “People were generally not ashamed of their private parts or of their ability to enjoy them to the fullest. We talked about them and used them fully…Far from provoking guilt, this discovery brought a joyful self confidence to both sexes” (Depestre, 2001, p.122). This confidence is underscored by
Rosena Rozel who exclaims “Pagan! It feels so good to be pagan from head to foot! There’s no evil in that” (Depestre, 2001, p.125). As such Depestre’s language is exotic and overly erotic at times. Alains exploration of sexuality is very graphically described as he “had tried fucking with a goat or heifer” (Depestre, 2001, p.122), this he had done with childhood innocence. This innocence is shown in his attempts to lengthen his penis by massaging it with cocoa butter. Depestre’s language comes across as fiery, powerful and forceful for instance Alian says “ She was a satanic force of seduction, and her breasts were pulsating against my throat” (p.126) Usage of forceful and powerful words such as pulsating , force, violent, coursing, plummeted are used in chapter two as Alain begins his true personal encounter with sexuality. Previously the feeling of overwhelm which these word describe had been used to describe his exuberance at a violent call to vocation. “When I was out in the street once more, I could tell that my inner well was overflowing. Vocatus! Vocatus!” (Depestre, 2001, p.123). The narrative maps an evolution in Alain’s thoughts about sexuality and vocation through Rosena; the epitome of pagan sexuality, according to Father Mulligan “she is evil incarnate” (Depestre, 2001, p.132) . Rosena is introduced in Chapter two a turning point in Alain’s life. Her sexual prowess is described through Depestre’s use of animal imagery, “They’ve sent a lioness, a biological scandal!” and “the tiger eyed scandal” (Depestre, 2001, p.124). Rosena the scandal is described with regal perfection with her “perky breasts” and “lyricist buttocks” (Depestre, 2001, p.124) her skin is the hue of half-clove, half-cinnamon and “in some less
stifling kingdom, her talents, beauty and queenly bearing would have brought her better station in life” (Depestre, 2001, p.123). Her open sexuality challenges Father Mulligan’s vows of chastity and Alain’s aspirations to vocation. Father Mulligan’s downfall in the eyes of Alain begins when Alain observes that his cell is not what he would have expected for a saint. This loss of the boy’s faith in the man and the truths of his word as a messenger God is completely abandoned once he sees the change which occurs in Father Mulligan after his trip to the market with Rosena; He called her Rosie now. He allowed himself to make little jesting remarks on her coquetry. He paid more attention to his clothes. He no longer wore his cassock and did not roll up the cuffs of his trousers, not even when he went to cut the wood…The previous night, I was awake and praying anxiously when I saw the priest get out of bed…He stepped unto a chair with al the stealth of a wild cat on the prowl and began staring over the top of the partition. After a long moment of reflection, he went back to bed and lit a cigarette. (Depestre, 2001, p.126) Alain is surely disillusioned by the masculine and human weakness of this “holy man, who perhaps had a direct line to the Mother of Christ” (Depestre, 2001, p.126) and so his call to vocation begins to waver. He prays and confesses as a pious man ought to and yet he still lingers in the wake of Rosena’s femininity. His “damnation takes on the color and sparkle of her eyes” this image concurs with re-occurring statements which relate Rosena to the devil similar image is “God let this diabolic dew fall on my path” (Depestre, 2001, p.127). Rosena has a tremendous effect on Alian he undergoes a stringently new awareness of his own physical urges; she has a violent effect on his blood pressure. These new violent urges replace by the end of the story completely the urges to vocation. Her influence is so powerful it is described at times with an incendiary quality
Alain is baptized symbolically at the river by Rosena, a baptism by desire herself. She says “I baptize you in the name of my mouth, my breasts, and my holy spirit,” (Depestre, 2001, p.129). This event undertakes in itself a ritualistic quality. Like the ritual which Dorelia performs Alain is bathed in the river as he dives in like the children are bathed by Dorelia. Furthermore there seems to be a summoning of animal spirits in Alain’s description of her vagina, “Suddenly, at her middle an eagle appeared with its wings deployed for battle and it was swooping down on me with the furious cries of its kind”. There is even the fiery image which was used in the first Vodun ritual, in his mention of “the flaming black triangle”. This metaphor is an extension of the previous describing the female vagina in terms of fire, just as in the first ritual the fire was described as erect, like a man’s phallus. This description of Rosena’s vagina is suiting to the belief that she may be the devil incarnate. As Dorelia consummates the ritual with the fiery phallus of the devil so too does Alain. At the end of their consummation they emerge transfigured after their small epiphany where in Catholicism the great epiphany is Baptism. There is as such a blending of the two faiths in Alain and Rosena, a blending of life and death. Their consummation is described in erotic and beautiful detail by Depestre. “I arched my body against her. Rosena turned over in ecstasy and offered me he tongue, her teeth, her eyes, her ears, her dimples, her belly, and her sovereign breasts. Her long legs arched in a sunny cross over my back…I was grafted onto Rosena and her blood flowed with mine, far from the coast, blending life and death….swelling into a full, knowing,
glorious fruition as we launched into a final piercing ecstasy” (Depestre, 2001, p.129). Evident in this piece is a few Catholic ideas and images, since consummation is done in the Old Testament to bind man and woman in the eyes of God. A covenant bound by the spilling of virgin blood, similar to the blood that flows and blends from the two.In keeping with the idea that the two have been matrimonially joined by Christ, they honeymoon at the river. The beauty of Alain’s descriptions of their sexual encounters stands in stark contrast to the jealous priest’s accusations that they were “a pair of fornicators”, “You treat vile fornication as love? Aren’t you ashamed to profane a word so close to our lord? You wallowed like pigs in the slime at the edge of the river!” (Depestre, 2001, p.130). Alain’s thoughts and beliefs enter a paradigm shift he comments by the story after his first intimate encounter with a woman admits that their sexuality was by no means demonic. “The triangle conveyed ecstasy and intimate knowledge of consummate form. This was a mill to make blood flow, the prodigy that began life before fire and rain, before sand and wind, and particularly before any mythology had denigrated the female womb into great misshapen monsters of the species. Rosena is transfigured also she becomes for Alain, the messenger referred to in the quote at the beginning of the story. Taken from the book of Isaiah it says, “How beautiful are the feet of the messenger on the mountain when he brings good tidings”. Rosena herself endorses this statement by rhetorically asking Alain about her “perky breasts and thighs” … ‘Do you think that they will bring bad tidings to the hill’ (Depestre, 2001, p.125). The hill is a micro representation of Haiti in its idyllic state, so
in this statement Rosena also forces Alain to question if the sexual nature of Vodun could lead to the ruin of Haiti. Though the priest isn’t killed at the end of the story, the act of rebellion on the part of Rosena may be on the part of Depestre retaliation at the degradation of Haitian culture by colonial western bodies such as the church. That Rosena seems determined to cut off the priest’s phallus is a direct blow to the patriarchy which the church represents. It is this patriarchy which places women in the position of evil as, Vodun has been placed. Alain by the end of the story has been moved from the willing acolyte to ‘hellchild’. He comes to understand that ones sexuality may be as beautiful as the graces of the Holy Spirit. The mountainous setting is similar to the mountain upon which Christ is transfigured or even an imaginary construct by Depestre, showing an ideal Haiti and the differences in behavior which could occur in this idyllic environment. A new day has begun after Rosena’s rebellion and the young people “set out into the fresh sparkling dawn”(Depestre, 2001, p.137). Through his use of characterization, language and Literary devices, Rene Depestre captures the landscape and culture of Haiti, in a powerful tale of Alain’s coming of age; his discovery of God, self and sexuality as a manifestation of Gods beauty in Rosena his female counterpart.
Works Cited Depestre, Rene. “Rosena on the Mountain”. The Oxford Book of Caribbean Short Stories. Eds. Brown and Wickham. London: Oxford University Press, 2001.119137. Callaloo, Mohamed B. Taleb-Khyar. (1992). “Rene Depestre”. Haitian Literature and Culture,15. Retrieved on October 15, 2007 from http://www.jstor.org/view/01612492/dm991324/99p0589m/1? frame=noframe&userIDemail@example.com/01cce44061005013eb7b&dpi=3&con fig=jstor
Name: Shivana Mohammed Id# 05726337 Course Title: West Indian Prose Fiction Lecturer: Merle Hodge Essay Title:
A Critical Analysis of Rosena on the Mountain by Rene Depestre (b. 1926)
Submitted on October 22nd , 2007
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