Every so often, a tiny corner of the world, little seen and little heard in recent times by the rest of the globe, produces an artist whose voice speaks out to all of us, whose work displays such competence and quality as demands immediate attention. Lyonel Trouillot of Haiti is a novelist of such caliber. He is also a poet and essayist, and in 2004 his book Street of Lost Footsteps was a finalist for the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation prize (trans. Linda Coverdale).
Coverdale now brings us Trouillot’s 2002 novel, Children of Heroes, a small but powerful showcase of Trouillot’s diverse talent. The author’s uses of style, voice, and plot structure cohere to form a little book that is much more than the space between its covers. A captivating work of art, the book reads as a miniature epic, a tragic journey, and poignant love story.
The novel takes place in Haiti, where an abusive husband and father is murdered by his two children. It follows their subsequent journey through their overcrowded city evading capture, and their final surrender after three days. While it is narrated in the first person by the younger of the children, Colin, the main figure of the story is truly Mariéla, his older sister, for she is the object of all of his affection; he loves and idolizes her. It is in this respect a tragic romance story as well.
The construction of the narrative is inventive and carefully assembled. The events documented spiral out from the murder itself, tracing what happens after it chronologically while simultaneously doubling back further and further into the past before the murder, and occasionally leaping ahead into the future beyond the three days that could be considered the novel’s real time-span. There are several techniques Trouillot uses to make you feel disoriented as you read, and this is foremost among them. This disorientation reflects the emotional state of the characters. This is not to say that the book is confusing: in reading it, I never felt lost or confused, except in the first few pages, where a bombardment of narrative and character information is a bit overwhelming at first:
It must have been noon when we began to run. We could have put up with the smell for a lot longer, but when Mariéla saw the mailman coming, a guy who never failed to have a drink with Corazón and reminisce about the legendary greats of boxing, she dumped our savings out of their jar and, warning me not to lose them, slipped the coins into my pocket, then told me to run without stopping until I was out of the slum.
The relevant information identifying these characters comes gradually, settling the picture and further elaborating it as the novel grows and fleshes out.
The second technique of disorientation is use of chapters unbroken by paragraphs: that is, the text itself is divided into untitled, unnumbered chapters, but there are no paragraph breaks within them. All dialogue is embedded without demarcation, which is less confusing than one would expect, and at times—particularly in the question game scene—incredibly powerful and effective:
Are they going to lock us up? I mean in a prison or a reformatory? I don’t know. Yes, probably. And will we be locked up together? I don’t know. But we’ll always be together. And Joséphine, what will she think? Maybe she won’t see things the way others will, since she’s all alone now? Joséphine, she won’t think anything, she’ll just stick with suffering and let God think for her.
This lack of identifiers allows you to ascribe these questions and answers to any combination of Colin or Mariéla; the narrative present (having never actually occurred, they could be Colin’s addition in recounting the events long afterward) or the narrative past (having actually occurred at the time of the events and recounted verbatim); and actual conversation or introspection.
In refraining from the use of paragraphs, Trouillot strikes a fine balance between rambling and concision. This is the most immediately tangible device of many he uses, the result of which is a small but densely packed narrative, a miniature epic which does not belabor any point, never drags, and is finely orchestrated to travel in two directions at once while these directions remain parallel: one backward, and one forward, in time from the sparking event of the murder.
Finally, Trouillot tells you a great deal simply by the careful development of a very specific narrative voice. The voice is far more mature than the narrator’s character, suggesting either a great passage of time between the events and the narration (the past tense is used throughout); a blending between the character narrator and an outside narrative voice; or both. In a more minute instance, the chapter in which the aftermath of the murder is related to Colin and Mariéla by Colin’s friend Marcel is delivered with greater maturity, omniscience, and immediacy of reflection than expected from the young Marcel:
The mailman had arrived early, because he enjoyed having a little glass with Corazón even though it was against regulations. . . . Such a good-looking man, A little violent, true, but you can’t choose your temperament, and he didn’t deserve to end up like this. It was in the mailman’s interest to appear shaken by his discovery: people expecting letters were pissed off at him for pitching the mailbag into the pond.
Again this suggests a blending with, or perhaps filtering through, an outside (or significantly later, i.e. more mature) narrator.
Children of Heroes is a small epic, a moving journey, a little treasure-trove of captivating and inventive storytelling. Author Lyonel Trouillot has used every tool at his disposal to demonstrate an enormous talent. This is a book to be widely read and enjoyed, and this is an author who deserves greater attention and praise.
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