Jacques Roumain: Gouverneurs de la rosée (Masters of the Dew)
Jacques Roumain completed this novel shortly before his unexpected and unexplained death (possibly from poisoning) aged forty-three. It has become a classic of Caribbean literature and translated into many languages, including English. Roumain was a communist, so there is no doubt where his sympathies lay but this is only to a small degree a communist novel. Indeed, much of the struggle of the people in the book is not against the rich and powerful or the authorities but against the harsh climate and against their own kind. While showing no sympathy for the corrupt police or the US sugarcane plantation owner, they play a relatively minor role in this book.
The novel is set in a small Haitian village called Fonds-Rouge. This had been a prosperous area, where the people grew their crops. They did very well as the soil was very good and there was abundant rainfall. However, two things happened. Firstly, there was redistribution of land ownership. This should have gone smoothly but did not, not least because one man tried to grab more than was his share. There was a fight and a man was killed. More fighting took place and there were injuries, imprisonment and death. The bad feeling still very much remains. Secondly, there had been a drought over recent times. Crops, naturally, do not grow as well, so much so that the people wonder how they are going to survive. At this point, Manuel, son of Bienaimé et Délira, returns to the village, after having spent fifteen years away, working on sugar plantations in Cuba. He is unaware of either of the two major changes but is very surprised to see how dry the area looks when he arrives.
As he arrives, he meets a young woman, who, he learns, is called Annaïse. They chat but as soon as she learns who he is, she refuses to speak to him any more. Only later, does he learn that his is because her family and his family were and still are on opposite sides in the land-sharing dispute. When he returns to his parents’ house, he learns about the drought problem and vows to resolve it. For the next few weeks, he explores the area, looking for water. The old springs he knew seem to have dried up, yet there must be water, as Mr. Wilson, the US sugarcane plantation owner, seems to manage very well, enjoying life, while his workers grow the cane. However, the local police chief is eager for the drought to continue, as he is lending money at extortionate rates to the villagers and he hopes to be able to possess their land when they cannot pay.
Manuel is assiduous in his hunt for water but he also arouses some jealousy. He is seeing Annaïse, who accepts that not only did he have no part in the enmity between the two families, he would like nothing more than to bring them all together again. However, Gervilen, whose brother died in the dispute, is very bitter about the relationship between the two, not least because he has proposed to Annaïse and been turned down. Some of the villagers are moving away, as they foresee no future for the village without water and want to try and start a new life elsewhere. When Manuel does find the water, he keeps quiet about it, till he has been able to show Annaïse. He is well aware that a canal will have to be built and this will require the participation of all the village and that his main task is to reconcile the warring families. His own extended family is initially reluctant but gradually comes around. The opposing extended family are also reluctant but, under the influence of the women who want nothing more than to be able to grow their crops and feed their families, most of them come round. But Gervilen is very much against it and plans to stop it. Moreover, the local police chief, when he hears about and how it is likely to ruin his plans, decides to arrest Manuel for subversion.
Roumain tells an excellent a story of a village struggling to come to terms with climate change and internal disputes and how it is an outsider that can resolve both problems. He also, as a good communist, shows that the only way to deal with such problems is to work together. Manuel makes a strong comparison between the idea of the village working together and the strike in the Cuban sugarcane plantation, where he worked, when both white and black workers banded together to achieve their aims. For him, it is the only way. Roumain also gives us plenty of local colour. In particular, the villagers follow their local customs and religion, with voodoo ceremonies described in some detail, as well as the mixture of Christianity and local gods. Fortunately, the book is in print and readily available in French and in English, and is highly recommended.
First published 1944 by Imprimerie de l’État
First English translation in 1947 by Reynal & Hitchcock
Translated by Langston Hughes and Mercer Cook