- Unfinished Journeys:Exile, Africanity, and Intertextuality in Émile Ollivier's Passages
To live in this country that people only want to leave? Bitter homeland!—Bérard Cénatus
There is a tendency in much recent Caribbeanist criticism to view the region as a privileged site in the development of "globalization." Because of the Caribbean's indeterminate, fluid relationship with time and space, many critics succomb to the temptation to read the islands as essentially postmodern places, or indeed non-places—prefigurations of the perceived postnational, hyperrelational future of the "chaos-world." To be fair, the dominant strands of thought emanating from "within" the Caribbean, particularly from Martinique, openly encourage these readings. Édouard Glissant, in particular, has developed, or perhaps accumulated, a highly persuasive vision of the Caribbean as an open-ended, outward-looking, inherently relational time-space. Problems arise, however, when this kind of criticism overflows into celebratory discourse about Caribbean cultural hybridity and creolization as manifestations of the inherent "exuberance" or "creativity" of island peoples. In focusing almost exclusively on cultural theories, as if these were unquestionably reliable reflections of "real life," we risk ignoring the historical, political, and social realities out of which Caribbean cultures have emerged. Haitian narratives of exile stand apart from those of the other islands in that they often express more nuanced, less celebratory interpretations of Caribbean life. Where, for instance, Glissant suggests the boundlessness of the islanders' perspective, saying that "we never failed to . . . look out towards distant lands" (Traité du tout-monde 44), the Haitian author Émile Ollivier presents his island space as intensely claustrophobic and inward-looking. Ollivier's Caribbean is, moreover, a radically [End Page 33] uninhabitable place, and if he and his work do enter into relation, do step into the "tout-monde," it is not so much through choice, but through compulsion. In this essay, I will show how Ollivier's work carefully sounds out these silenced counternarratives, and how it unrelentingly expresses ambivalence about the spatio-temporal dislocations and identitary uncertainties that are born of island existence and endless exiles.
Émile Ollivier was born in Port-au-Prince on 19th February 1940. He was forced into exile from Haiti in 1964, due to his anti-Duvalierist activities with the National Union of Haitian Students. After studying in France, he moved to Canada, where he remained, teaching sociology at the University of Montreal, until his death in November 2002. Ollivier was one of the most important Haitian writers of his generation, the majority of whom (for instance Jean Métellus and Jean-Claude Charles) have also spent much of their adult lives in exile. The experience of exile is inevitably a dominant theme in Ollivier's prizewinning work, from Paysage de l'aveugle (1977), through his most acclaimed work, Mère-Solitude (1983), to La discorde aux cent voix (1986), Passages (1991), Les Urnes scellées (1995), Mille eaux (1999), and Regarde, regarde les lions (2001). My aim here is to show how Ollivier's work hesitates before the contemporary trend to celebrate exile as an irrevocably creative, positively-experienced situation; how, working against the prevailing critical tendency, he quite deliberately eschews any facile eulogy of "postnational" Caribbean identities, or of exilic identitary fluidity as a force for personal and collective renewal. If there is a dominant authorial position on exile in his work, it is one of ambivalence. Through a close analysis of the numerous intricate exilic traversals that his 1991 novel Passages weaves together, I argue that this work exemplifies his own particular, ambivalent vision of Caribbean exile. Finally, I suggest that Ollivier's work constitutes a compelling challenge to much contemporary Caribbeanist thought.
I am leaving. I will not arrive. . . . Leaving, leaving. Sea without elsewhere—Aimé Césaire
Passages is a sustained meditation on diverse Haitian experiences of exile. In contrast to previous Haitian narratives of exile—Jacques Stephen Alexis's Compère Général Soleil for instance—that focused on collective movements and national identity, Ollivier's novel deals with dispersed, deracinated, individual Haitian exiles living in varying degrees of isolation. Also, in contrast to René Depestre's novels, Ollivier's narrative is not solely concerned with the...