Reflections of Loko Miwa
Trans. Robin Orr Bodkin
Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998. Pp. 198. $55.00
Reviewed by R.S. Krishnan
Lilas Desquiron's novel Reflections of Loko Miwa, originally published in French in 1990 and only recently available in Robin Orr Bodkin's sensitive English translation, obliquely exemplifies some of the issues J. Michael Dash deals with in his recent study The Other America: Caribbean Literature in a New World (1998; see reveiw in this issue). Desquiron's stunning narrative of post 1964 Haitian society recounts the tragedy of Violaine, born into the privileged mulatto family of Delavigne in the class-conscious Jeremie. Jeremie is a tightly structured society, where knowing one's place is the surest way to assure one's security. Into this privileged and class-conscious family arrives the poor black Cocotte, Violaine's "marassa" (according to the spirits of Vodou), her "psychological" and spiritual twin, but one who is in conflict. As Marie-Agnes Sourieau notes in her excellent introduction to the work, "The title of the novel, Reflections of Loko Miwa, refers to the Iwa Loko, who is the spirit closely associated with trees and their curative leaves. Loko is the guardian of sanctuaries and a healer who protects the dokte fey (healer). He is also the spirit of mirrors who give eyes and knowledge, that is, simultaneously vision and acumen, and reflection. In other words, Loko allows the mirroring of the self, of both body and mind" (xvii).
On one level, the novel is focused on Violaine, whose privileged life is infused with that sense of sexual independence that would seem to invite danger, especially considering the issues of Haiti's class and color structure, with its repression, violence, and the ever-present danger in transgressing social taboos. Violaine, who "belonged to everyone," and whose "smile,...warmth of her golden eyes, the energy she conveyed just with the movement of her arms, her tender heart, all [were] part of each and everyone of" those who lived in Jeremie (129), is inexorably led into transgressing its social taboos because of her love for Alexandre, the poor black revolutionary who heroically goes up against the repressive new Duvalier regime. The result is a stunning denouement, one that is as horrifying as it is inevitable. Privilege, too, has its price, and it lies in disregarding the social laws and customs that confers such a privilege. Desquiron's narrative, with its alternating perspectives mostly from Violaine and Cocotte, contributes to the ways in which the events- private and public, social and political- may be perceived, distilled, experienced, and understood.
In positing the conflict between the socially restrictive mulatto world of Jeremien society and its black citizens, Desquiron raises fundamental questions of social inequity, repression, superstition, and justice. More importantly, however, Violaine and Cocotte's lives are also metaphors for the larger issue of the terrifying political repression of Haitian society under Duvalier. In the novel, zombification is thus both counter and punishment fore transgressing social taboos, an instrument of political and cultural repression, an iteration of the entrenched patriarchal culture and social laws which no one may violate with impunity. Violaine's zombification (the depravation of her being, mind, and body) is the result of her sexual transgression- a mulatto falling in love with a black. As the novel moves relentlessly to its inevitable conclusion (the betrayal of Alexandre by Philippe Edouard, who covets Violaine; Violaine and Cocotte's tragedy), the action moves from Jeremie to Port-au-Prince, and further into the subcutaneous Vodou culture that is all-permeating.
Thus Violaine's victimization, violation, and rejection by her own caste becomes a metaphoric reflection of the larger panoptic view of Haitian politics, where summary arrests and torture without recourse to the law and justice are commonplace. As Violaine says plaintively: "Our past, molded out of fear, consists of uprooting and rape that has transformed us into a variegated throng, a people torn apart at our very core" (41). In raising larger questions regarding crime and punishment, the nature of humanity, and the suppression of the spirit of freedom, Desquiron also draws attention to the cultural practices and social taboos that inevitably lead to national nightmare.
In reading Reflections of Loko Miwa, it is impossible not to recollect Dash's discussion of the sociolinguistic aspects of French Caribbean writing. This is a work of beauty that imaginatively weaves Haitian sociopolitical culture into a tale of terrifying power. One other point. Marie-Agnes Sourieau's scholarly and comprehensive introduction and the glossary of Kreyol terms and pronounciation form impressive bookends to this edition. Those who are unfamiliar with Lilas Desquiron or have found her inaccessible have a memorable reading experience awaiting them, one made possible by Robin Orr Bodkin's remarkably nuanced and luminous translation.