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The New International, January 1935

 

Florence Becker

An Angry Epic

From New International, Vol.2 No.1, January 1935, pp.30-31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

 

Babouk
by Guy Endore
297 pp. New York. Vanguard Press. $2.

The quickest way to short-circuit most of the long-winded controversies about Art vs. Propaganda is to bring in a few concrete examples that do organically combine matter and method so that no one can say where the one leaves off and the other begins. Babouk is hereby offered in evidence – a red flag to anger the bull, to cheer the red army, and to delight the spectator.

Books about the Negro range from pure propaganda, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to pure art, like The Emperor Jones – both highly successful in fulfilling their respective aims. Lest anybody might suspect that The Emperor Jones was O’Neill’s last word on the Negro, as a childish, egotistical, short-sighted adventurer, he followed this work with All God’s Chillun Got Wings, in which the Negro intelligentsia are shown to be precisely like the white ditto, with of course an additional handicap. This makes O’Neill a “pure” artist, of the art-for-art’s-sake school, a perfect foil and contrast to Uncle Tom, of the art-for-Christ’s-sake vintage. If there is an underlying thesis in O’Neill, it is to the effect that people are as they are, and what are you going to do about it? If an artist wishes his work to lead to action as well as pleasure, he has a choice of two questions: “How did they get that way?” or “What are we going to do about it ?”

Guy Endore has chosen to put his emphasis on the first, though the second is definitely stated in his use of “Black and white, unite and fight”. He takes the cargo of a French slaver in the late eighteenth century, loads it at Goree, takes us through a horrible voyage in which every soul on board is stricken with ophthalmia and the blind are thrown overboard, lands them at San Domingo, and follows one passenger, Babouk, through his slavery, insurrection, and death.

The book is an infuriated epic of the torment of the blacks, and an unashamed cry to them to endure no more. It is a triumph of oneness with his subject matter that enables the writer to give his point of view without interrupting the course of the story. Dickens did it, in his frequent speeches to the reader, and there is a flavor of Dickens in the indignation of some of the indictments, but it is a stream-lined Dickens, purged of rhetoric and sentimentality. For instance, describing the insurrection of the blacks of San Domingo following the French revolution, he says:

“Our historians, who always shout reign of terror when a few rich people are being killed and see nothing much worthy of comment when poor are slaughtered by the thousands in the miseries of peace, cry out unanimously: The pen can not describe the cruelty of these savages!

“My pen is not so delicate; it can say, and it will never cease to say: Not over a thousand or so of whites were killed in this reign of terror, while the legal and protected slave trade killed over a hundred thousand Negroes a year ...

“One must be exact: the slaves revolted, and the reign of terror that had lasted hundreds of years in Saint-Domingue stopped! Yes, Candy heated his corkscrews to pull out the eyes of former white masters, and Jeannot got ready his planks between which he tied his victims to saw them in half, and that was peace compared to the long reign of terror under the whites, from Columbus down.”

The most extraordinary tour de force is the unity of effect which, in a historical novel, usually implies departure from historical fact and substitution therefor of the artist’s imagination. Lurid as this story is, it is always a trifle on the side of understatement. In describing the horrors of the voyage across the Atlantic, salient details are chosen that give a nightmare picture – nothing is invented, something is always held back. So likewise with the treatment of the slaves, and the atrocities on both sides. The most lurid spots in the story – the ship of the blind hailing another ship in mid-Atlantic, to find that one in the same condition; Babouk’s banner, a white child impaled on a pike; the burnings and torturings of the Negroes; all these, and more, are to be found in history, and in fact after reading some contemporary works one is impelled to turn back to Babouk for the relief of its comparatively considerate and balanced presentation.

The last chapter, after the death of Babouk, is purely poetic, invoking the last judgment when the blacks will have their turn, and ending:

“You weary folk, go home and sleep in peace. Is not the bed of the world large enough for all? And are there not enough blankets to go around?

“Go home then and rest. And kind dreams to you.

“Oh black man, when your turn comes, will you be so generous to us who do not deserve it?”

The intensity and hideousness of the story are sustained from the beginning, where a “nigger-taster” touches his tongue under the slaves’ chins to test their health, and then spits in their faces, to Babouk’s courageous and horrible death at the end. There is a courage and lift all through that gives the feeling of only temporary defeat, and as a matter of historical fact, Babouk, or Boukmann, as his protagonist was called, was followed by others – Jean-Francois, Biassou, Dessalines, and especially Toussaint l’Ouverture, who although he died in jail owing to Napoleon’s inability to tolerate greatness even three thousand miles away, still laid the foundations of the black Haitian republic, that lasted for a hundred years.

The West Indies have served as a little laboratory to show once more that the race problem is not an isolated one, that “black democracy”, no more than white democracy, can solve the issues under capitalism, and Endore never for a minute lapses into the romantic attitude, nor loses sight of the international nature of exploitation nor of the class issues involved. If we take Trotsky’s criterion – “All that is necessary is for the poet of the new epoch to re-think in a new way the thoughts of mankind, and to refeel its feelings”, then Babouk is an important part of the literature of our time. Its only important weakness is perhaps intentional, so consistent is it. In a sense the characters are stylized, rather than flesh and blood – not the worn-out puppets of Uncle Tom’s Cabin or the cartoons in the Daily Worker, but still definitely stylized, like Everyman or Pilgrim’s Progress. Somehow it would be even more stirring if we could feel individual as well as social inevitability moving the characters – a little more Dickens, let us say, and a little less morality play. At the crucial moment when we are asked to believe that Babouk would throw a baby – a white baby, of course – on the ground, run a pike through it and carry it as his banner, we have to swallow a bit. It is quite a dose and we don’t quite make it. I confess I was driven to the history books to find out if it was true; it was, but the author’s business is to make us believe it even if it wasn’t! This however is carping, for we are here presented with a new sort of novel evolving to suit readers who may have to run – or fight – at any moment. At the same time, as a work of art, it has the rhythm and vitality that should keep it on the shelf long after slavery of any sort has become legendary, a book that is of today and tomorrow as well, that gives a direction and that will still have value after we have found our way.

 
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