Cover image for General Sun, my brother
General Sun, my brother
Alexis, Jacques Stéphen, 1922-1961.
Uniform Title:
Compère Général Soleil. English
Publication Information:
Charlottesville : University Press of Virginia, 1999.
Physical Description:
xlviii 299 pages : maps ; 23 cm.

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The first novel of the Haitian novelist Jacques Stephen Alexis, General Sun, My Brother appears here for the first time in English. Its depiction of the nightmarish journey of the unskilled laborer Hilarion and his wife from the slums of Port-au-Prince to the cane fields of the Dominican Republic has brought comparisons to the work of Emile Zola, André Malraux, Richard Wright, and Ernest Hemingway.

Alexis, whose mother was a descendant of the Revolutionary General Jean-Jacques Dessalines, was already a mature thinker when he published General Sun, My Brother (Compère Général Soleil) in France in 1955. A militant Marxist himself, Alexis championed a form of the "marvelous realism" developed by the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier, who called for a vision of historical reality from the standpoint of slaves for whom the supernatural was as much a part of everyday experience as were social and other existential realities.

General Sun, My Brother opens as Hilarion is arrested for stealing a wallet and imprisoned with an activist named Pierre Roumel--a fictional double for the novelist Jacques Roumain--who schools him in the Marxist view of history. On his release, Hilarion meets Claire-Heureuse and they settle down together. Hilarion labors in sisal processing and mahogany polishing while his partner sets up a small grocery store. After losing everything in a criminally set fire, the couple joins the desperate emigration to the Dominican Republic. Hilarion finds work as a sugarcane cutter, but the workers soon become embroiled in a strike that ends in the "Dominican Vespers," the 1937 massacre pf Haitian workers by the Dominican army. The novel personifies the sun as the ally, brother, and leader of the peasants. Mortally wounded in crossing the Massacre River back into Haiti, Hilarion urges Claire-Heureuse to remarry and to continue to work for a Haiti where people can live in dignity and peace.

Author Notes

Jacques Stephen Alexis had already gained international recognition for his fiction when he returned to Haiti from Cuba in 1961 as part of a small invasion force. He disappeared and presumably died at the hands of Duvalier's Tontons Macoutes at the age of thirty-nine.

Carrol F. Coates is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the State University of New York, Binghamton. He has translated numerous books, including The Festival of the Greasy Pole, by René Depestre, and Dignity, by Jean-Bertrand Aristide, both published by the University Press of Virginia.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Alexis was a well-known Haitian writer and political figure whose first novel, published in French in 1955, appears for the first time in English here. Like Malraux and Richard Wright, Alexis was interested in the confrontation between the oppressor and the oppressed, and in this novel, he mixes a sobering proletarian realism with a vital depiction of Haitian folklife. The story follows a young man of peasant origin named Hilarius Hilarion, who is thrown into prison after an attempted robbery, where he is influenced and politicized by Communist organizer Pierre Roumel. Once out of jail, Hilarion marries Claire-Heureuse, who runs a small shop while Hilarion holds down a series of semiskilled jobs. He also goes to night school, becoming further radicalized, reading Haitian history and talking to a Communist friend, Doctor Jean-Michel. When a fire destroys the shop and Hilarion loses his job, he and pregnant Claire-Heureuse migrate to the Dominican Republic, where he becomes a sugarcane cutter, laboring under abysmal conditions When the cutters strike, they are met by Trujillo's troops and a massacre ensues. Hilarion, Claire-Heureuse and their child struggle to make it back to Haiti, but Hilarion dies in the attempt. Sometimes the bluntness of Alexis's political agenda compromises his storytelling, with tedious denunciations of the bourgeoisie, anarchists and "surrealist garbage," but his account of the exploitation of the poor in Haiti and the massacres in the Dominican Republic are important documents of this terrible era in Caribbean history (and may interest readers of Edwidge Danticat's Farming the Bones). A glossary and introduction provide necessary linguistic, political and biographical context for Alexis's work. (Dec.) FYI: Beginning his writing career in the 1930s, Alexis published several novels and plays. A committed Marxist, he joined a small contingent in Cuba that attempted to invade Haiti in 1961. He was arrested and disappeared, and is presumed dead. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

With the publication of this translation, one of the most important novels of the 20th century is finally available in English. Alexis's first novel, the book details the stark and brutal realities of Haitian life, historically shaped by internal strife and foreign occupation. Alexis's vivid prose describes a subjugated society in which a politics of greed and self-interest dominate and perpetuate poverty and disenfranchisement. As a chronicler of his time, Alexis speaks with a strident yet poetic voice of the hopelessness of an oppressed people. The protagonist, Hilarion, embodies the novel's most poignant message, "You're free--yeh, free to do whatever you want, free to go where you want, but, since you're penniless, that freedom can go back where it came from." Although the novel is written in French, six languages in the text, primarily Creole and Spanish, situate the reader in the reality of the moment. This use of language mirrors the complex social and linguistic duality of the island. Coates offers a smooth and masterful rendering of the original text. Maps of Haiti and Port-au-Prince help the reader identify time and place. A glossary of Creole words and a pronunciation guide are useful. Recommended for collections of literature in translation. A. J. Guillaume Jr.; Indiana University South Bend