What connects prose to poetry, Vodou religion to the Russian melancholy, and the dictatorial regime of Former President of Haiti Francois Duvalier to that of Joseph Stalin? In The Dew Breaker, a collection of nine stories about Haiti’s traumatic political past, Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat links together each of these themes in the book’s epigraph, which is pulled from one of Russian poet Osip Mandelstam’s poems:
“Maybe this is the beginning of madness / Forgive me for what I am saying / Read it […] quietly, quietly.”
Mandelstam was a 20th century poet exiled by Stalin, a ruthless fascist dictator who led the Soviet Union for nearly 30 years until his death in 1953. Mandelstam wrote this poem while in exile in Voronež in 1937. Mandelstam’s poetry turns the fragments of Danticat’s stories into a continuous parallel between two dictatorships.
The writing style that Danticat employs consists of brief fragments and short paragraphs which, over the course of the novel, create not only a sense of sparsity but also a strange union—a mosaic of small puzzle pieces that gradually come together to form a picture of people in Haiti, a country submerged in totalitarian power.
In “Night Talkers,” a nephew returns from the United States to visit his blind aunt—his only relative in Haiti. The aunt’s blindness has become the source of her loneliness and the origin of her night talks. In dreams, she can see beyond the darkness that surrounds her.
In “The Bridal Seamstress,” Beatrice Saint Fort is isolated in a different way. She was tortured by a Haitian prison guard whose memory haunts her everywhere she goes. The seamstress experiences a physical numbness, a gap of feeling similar to the gap in the epigraph. “The secret is time,” she says, and yet, for Beatrice, it is the very gaps in time—the blank spaces—where she bottles up her memories.
There is a clear parallel between the use of ellipses in Mandelstam’s poem and the novel’s fragmented format. These omissions represent an omnipresent political censorship. Danticat put ellipses after two phrases: “the beginning of madness…” and “read it….” The translation omits these ellipses altogether, while in the original version, the textual “silence” comes at the end of the three final lines, which end, respectively, in “доживём…” (we will live), “прости…” (forgive me), and “прочти…” (read it).
Danticat preserved one of the original punctuation marks and added another one after “madness,” marking off the contrast between the world and the lyrical hero opposing the system. In the original version, the last three lines all end in these periods of silence, indicating that the speaker was saying their last words before being silenced forever.
To find that Danticat ended the poem that originally had the ellipsis as the final punctuation mark, with a firm period after “quietly,” was interesting. Mandelstam’s uncertainty inspired Danticat to create a more hopeful ending and put a metaphorical “end” to the censorship and cruelty of political regimes. Where Mandelstam’s poem repeats the word “quietly,” Danticat’s novel emphasizes silence, and both works embody the voicelessness of the political regime’s subjects.
Why is being “quiet” so significant for both the poet and the novelist?
Mandelstam went through many prisons and Soviet work camps for expressing his oppositional views on Stalin (Mandelstam called him a “gleeful killer” in one of his poems). He chose to speak “quietly-quietly” about the political and social injustice in the USSR, turning the quiet poetic protest into a form of artistic resistance.
Knowing this, Danticat’s use of Mandelstam’s words in the epigraph indicates that the revolutionary ideas live on in the hearts of many people, with no regard to their distance in time and space. Throughout the novel, Danticat also repeats “quiet” to emphasize that even through the silence and voicelessness that many Haitians were submerged into, the echoes of truth, however feeble, come together in a chorus of justice against totalitarianism.
My essay centered around the hidden symbol of the “prudent spider of light” in Mandelstam’s poem that is introduced before the lines Danticat cites. The spider stands for the voices of opposition gathering their strength into “one thin beam” that not only reveals the corrupted nature of the state but also offers hope for a brighter future.
Mandelstam’s “spider” is also a spirit of the dead in Haiti’s Vodou religion. According to the Figge Art Museum, the spider spirit, or Gede Nibo, represents “the many converging into one,” just like Mandelstam’s interpretation of “one thin beam” comprised of many voices.
Mandelstam’s poetry and Danticat’s prose pursue freedom and justice in the face of authoritarian oppression. Through repetitions, ellipses, and symbolism, both authors show that only unity and mutual support between generations can bring into society liberation and peace.