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Lost in exile: the class of '48

THE VORTEX FAMILY by Jean Metellus trs Michael Richardson, Peter Owen pounds 15.99
HAITIAN by birth, and now an exile in France, Jean Metellus is a neurologist and a member of the professional class whose dispersal and destruction is the subject of this novel, first published in France in 1982. Given the history of Haiti over the past 40 years, it may come as a surprise to European readers to realise that the country ever had a class between a desperately poor peasantry and their often brutally corrupt overlords - in other words, that its political climate could ever have seemed much unlike the sinister farce that it became under Papa Doc Duvalier, familiar to us from Graham Greene's The Comedians. Yet the country described at the start of La Famille Vortex, which is set in 1948 during the presidency of Dumarsais Estime, is strikingly, almost bewilderingly normal: one in which trade unions contemplate strikes, workers discuss elections, doctors have Marxist ideas and army officers would like to write poetry.

In the little town of Saltrou, Solon Vortex and his wife Olga welcome their children and grandchildren for Christmas. The family is a cross- section of the middle ranks in Haitian society: the eldest son, Edgard, is a prominent young officer, and his brothers Louis, Sylvain and Joseph are, respectively, a lecturer, a doctor and a priest. The only child not present is Astrid, a singer who is forced to live abroad because of the lyrics of her songs are unacceptable (though we are not told precisely why). Her exile only serves to make the family more representative of its country and its class, as well as presaging the fate of the other characters in the book.

In fact, as they assemble in Chapter One, they may seem too neatly emblematic of their class, particularly since Solon is a relatively uneducated man who has worked his way up through the civil service, and Olga looks back with pride to her Indian ancestry, a faint remnant of Haiti's vanished native population. But Jean Metellus manages to maintain a balance between story and allegory, particularly since the early chapters concentrate almost exclusively on personalities and family matters: births, quarrels, conversations, affairs; interspersed with poetic evocations of the landscape of the sea shore and the bustle of Port-au-Prince. Only with the overthrow of President Estime do the characters' actions start to acquire more general significance, as they respond in different ways to the threat of military dictatorship.

The tone of the book, as much as the society it describes and its ideological confrontations, is reminiscent of French writing of the 1950s - say, the novels of Roger Vailland - and an over-literal translation distances The Vortex Family from us still further, adding to the sense of a somehow arrested development. The late Forties and early Fifties were a time of intense intellectual activity in Haiti and debate on political questions, including those of language and culture - debates which the Duvalier regime was to stifle, imposing its own, narrow and oppressive version of negritude.

Metellus allows Louis Vortex to put the arguments in favour of a purely Haitian, Creole culture, and against foreign influences, but he does so in French, the language of a deposed elite who, because of their multilingualism, their international outlook and their awareness of European history, were to find it only too easy to settle abroad. The result, as the doctor, Sylvain, observes, is "a haemorrhage of talent and energy", and an immense loss to the land. Implicit in the language of the novel is an exile's awareness of lost opportunities and development unnaturally stalled.