René Depestre

Haitian author René Depestre is one of the most important voices of twentieth-century world literature. His vast corpus includes works of poetry, prose fiction, literary criticism, and political essays. A peer of and collaborator with such seminal political and literary figures as Aimé Césaire, Jacques-Stephen Alexis, Pablo Neruda, Jorge Amado, and André Breton, Depestre has engaged with the politics and aesthetics of Negritude, Marxism, social realism, and Surrealism, among other major twentieth century phenomena, over the course of a career that has spanned more than half a century.

Having lived and written through significant moments in Haitian, New World, and Pan African history––from the overthrow of Haitian dictator Elie Lescot in 1946, to the first Pan African Congress in Paris 1956, to a struggle with Haiti’s François “Papa Doc” Duvalier in 1957, to collaboration with Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara and a fraught relationship with Fidel Castro in the 1960s and 70s––René Depestre has been uniquely placed to reflect on the extent to which the entirety of the Americas and Europe are implicated in Haiti’s past and present reality.

Hadriana dans tous mes rêves won the prestigious Prix Renaudot in 1988. It is arguably the most important and provocative of the eighty-four year-old Depestre’s prose fiction works. Inspired by the author’s childhood memories of his life in the Haitian village of Jacmel, the novel takes place during Carnival in 1938. A beautiful young French girl, the eponymous Hadriana, is about to be married to a local Haitian boy from a prominent family. But on the morning of her marriage, Hadriana drinks a mysterious potion and collapses at the altar before she can pronounce her vows. Transformed into a zombie, her wedding day becomes her funeral. She is buried by the town, revived by an evil sorcerer, escapes, and disappears into popular legend, never to be seen in Haiti again. The story is told in three parts. Patrick Altamont, Hadriana’s god-brother and greatest admirer, narrates the first two sections. Part three––a hilarious and provocative corrective to Patrick’s  imagination of his beloved “French fairy”––is told by the (former) zombie herself. Having literally lived her own death, Hadriana has nothing to lose in setting the record straight. The stories she tells about her straight-laced bourgeois community and its behind-closed-doors sensuality makes for a series of surprising revelations.

Set against a backdrop of magic, fantasy, and eroticism, and recounted with delirious humor, the fragmented narrative of Hadriana’s adventures brings to the fore universal questions of race, sex, and ‘folk’ modernity. Embedded in this ribald tale is a subtle meditation on the limitations and the possibilities of postcolonial freedom. The reader comes away convinced by Depestre’s lusty claim that all beings––even the undead ones––have a right to liberty, happiness, and true love.