A Knife in the Sky is Haitian-Québécoise writer Marie-Célie Agnant’s most recent novel. Like most of the author’s oeuvre, the book is preoccupied with colonial imposition and its weight specifically on women. In A Knife in the Sky, Agnant locates the power of resistance in women, and in the pen: the novel’s first narratrix, Mika, is a journalist dangerously engaged in the pursuit of truth during the repressive Duvalier regime, supported by a cast largely made up of other strong women; the second is her granddaughter, a student from Grenada named Junon. Based on the lived history of those who survived the Duvalierists, A Knife in the Sky is brutal, terrifying, and hopeful.
“The work is shaped through a rich, crafted language that creates an acute awareness of what duvalierism was. This considerable effort is not a catharsis, nor an anamnesis; rather, it is the heart-rending testimony of the suffering, the inner struggles and the stand against Duvalierism of a woman caught in the midst of a regime that redefined the heights of horror.”
—Alain Saint-Victor, Potomitan
“Marie-Celie Agnant’s work is noble: she names and narrates terrible emotions and chaos, yet always in a sensitive and poetic way. The fate of the women in her books is not sealed by the torment of their daily lives, but in the humanity of each one. Through these portraits of women—courageous women, women who are full of hope, even without underestimating the weight on their shoulders—Agnant shows us the pain they carry from one generation to the next.”
—Le Fil Rouge
“Breathless: that was the state in which I found myself in after reading Marie-Célie Agnant’s work. This was the first time that I was speechless after reading a book. I am without words: the words to describe it, without the words to recount the story, the words to articulate what matters most. The essence of the book cannot be resolved in a sentence or summary. After finishing the novel, only the emotions remain, some more intense than others. Rage, powerlessness, anger, love, and friendship unfold, and coalesce into love, anger, and madness. In order to create this emotional amalgam, you have to have lived it, felt what the characters feel, you have to have experienced this tragedy—and above all, come out of it more alive, and stronger…Marie-Célie Agnant isn’t just telling a story. She has become the interpreter of a voice, the living witness of a time, an era. Marie-Célie Agnant awakens memory and conscience.”
—Rachel Vorbe, Le Nouvelliste
from “Brigands’ Ball in the Brothel of the Lord”
Bé has been over at the house with me for a few days, as she wanted. She tries hard to be discreet, but from time to time she tiptoes hesitantly into the study like a beggar to offer me something—freshen my water or get me some tea. Her presence is both a comfort and a concern. What happen if there is an attack, or if the house get shot at?
Early November. Twilight, like a mantle of mourning, comes quickly. Then a dull silence as the night takes hold of everything. But today, dusk brings along some ruckus about the circus of the inauguration tomorrow. Toni runs over, despite the fear, to bring us the latest news. Is she losing her mind? She’s so reckless. She cut through the middle of the thicket—she’s afraid of being seen by the militia in case they’re still out on the road—and charges in, drenched in sweat. Her words tumble out, confused. “When will this noise end?” she asks me. I confess I’m losing my mind too. Throughout the afternoon, all we could hear was the chaotic howling of people and animals, a metallic thrum, the blare of horns, vaksin, trumpets, and drums. The sky went dark, as if it were filled with anger. Toni tells us that down in town, they’re going around, rifles slung on their shoulders, knocking on doors to hand out crucifixes painted red and black. The makout have decreed that all vodou priests, manbos, Catholic priests, and pastors must be at their service.
“What the devil have we fallen into?” I ask Bé. “Are we going to be able to hold out?”
“The situation is explosive, but it’s got to stop. We will hold out, you can be sure of that,” Bé says. “They’ll have to stop!”
I nod, timidly. I’d love for her to be right.
“Hope alone isn’t enough to dismantle the system, Bé.”
My voice is a faint whisper, and suddenly I start to cry. I sniffle, tears rolling down my cheeks. Too late; all the emotions of the past few months have put my nerves to the test. I am spent.
“Are you forgetting, my girl, that even the MacDonald stopped?” A runaway train is one thing; this madness won’t subside so easily.
Tante Bé hasn’t seen me cry since I was a child. She’s startled, and dejected: she knows I rarely cry. I feel guilty for blubbering around two old women. There’s no way they can defend themselves against this madness. But I can’t help it… “Do you realize that the three of us are alone in this big house, isolated here at such a dangerous time?”
Bé silences me with a gesture of her hand, calm but vigorous.
“We are not alone, Mika.”
I wait for her to continue but she gets up and goes to the window. She sits sideways, and for a long time she contemplates the darkening road, from which a constant, threatening growl arises. She looks back at Toni and me. “Their trucks are moving in, trucks full of killers. They’re going to invade the whole city at dawn. Yet we must not give in.”
Bé’s voice, so firm and full of conviction, is a whip. I know that voice, her tone is so familiar, I’ve always known it. She will not tolerate a single thoughtless word. For a second I remember how she would stand up to my father or Clarisse, that voice; she never shouted or lost herself in needless antagonism. It’s a voice that comes from the womb, unfolding with such quiet strength and assurance that whoever hears it is struck dumb.
Bé stares at me. “I’m surprised at you, my girl, at your words. That’s not how I brought you and your sister up. Don’t you dare say we’re alone. We’re not half-women! We look upon death—death, which has been lurking for nearly a whole year, but the deaths we mourn must compel us to hold our heads higher each day. Trials and privation, humiliation, kidnappings… None of it will make me a victim! Do you hear me, Mika? I have to grab fear by the collar, and you should do the same. Otherwise death wins.”
Tante Bé has her own notion of existence: her tendency to refer to proverbs, to the past, but also to her own experience, all of it feeds her abiding conviction that human beings come into the world in order to fight. Her basic maxim is that you are only alive if you are ready to fight.
Bé reminds us yet again of the MacDonald train derailment. She doesn’t recall exactly when it happened, but her retelling is vivid: the train tore through the town like a wild animal.
“It had gone for miles and miles. You’d have thought it would go on forever. There wasn’t a building that could stop it, no pillars, bridges, or barriers. The MacDonald was loose. The damage was as bad as the most savage of cyclones. But then there was the Pic Macaya. They collided like two rival beasts, and the mountain, without lifting a finger, sent the MacDonald flying into the Artibonite River, where its rusting remains still lie.”
In a superhuman effort to tame my trepidation, or to show Bé that I am worthy of her, I offer to walk Toni home. I don’t dare ask her to sleep over, that would just be too risky: every night, I count the hours, hoping for morning. Before she leaves, Toni reaches into her bra and pulls out a piece of paper folded umpteen times. She unfolds it carefully, smoothing it flat with her hands. She asks us to pray with her. Aunt Bé doesn’t mind, mainly out of friendship for Toni.
Bé hates priests, pastors, oungans, and all the rest of them as much as Clarisse does. They have too much power, they say. Toni reassures her: the most powerful vibration in the universe, she explains, is prayer. She tells us to close our eyes and gather our thoughts. Toni’s voice trembles with faith frequently tested.
“Almighty God and all the saints in heaven, as we await the great day of deliverance, we ask that you grant us strength and support. Keep us, protect us; in you we place our trust. Saint Jude, patron of desperate causes, listen to us and help us out of this hardship. Saint Anthony, you who know where all things are that have gone astray, bring us peace. Saint Augustine, who has the power to shun the rats and all the vermin and parasites, get rid of the Duvalierist dreck that is ruining this country and take away the terror that paralyzes us. Saint Louis, you who know abscesses so well, see that all these rabid dogs die quickly. Saint Barbara, let us be rid of all this carrion as soon as possible. Saint Benedict, they are all evildoers and swear only by evil spells; let them poison and destroy each other.”
By the time Saint Fiacre comes around, whose help is implored to get rid of haemorrhoids, Bé reminds Toni that it will be dark soon. Maybe it would be best to continue the prayers on the way home.
Toni and I walk one behind the other because the path to her house is narrow and crowded with weeds. We tread slowly, weighed down by the horror that surrounds us on every side. It only takes about ten minutes, but it seems like forever. Toni quietly reels out an unbelievable litany that would have given Clarisse quite a laugh. I follow her, slowing my steps because she can’t go so fast.
When I get back, Bé and I fall asleep huddled together, like in the old days, when as a child I used to wake in the dark and slip into her arms. Barefoot, creeping down the long corridor where the bedrooms were lined up, I would work out my plan: I’m going to tell her that I’ve felt nauseous for a few days. I would stop and think. Better to be careful, Bé has to believe me. There I was, moving my lips, working out the flaw in my plans, searching in my little head filled with ghosts and steam-snorting horses with metal hooves, wondering what perils might stir Tante Bé’s sympathy so she’d let me sleep in her bed. Now, with Bé here, I’ve left my hideout against the big cabinet in the study. That night, I sleep a little bit longer. I dream of flying pigs, of women shucking their skins and soaring through the neighbourhood gobbling up newborns. When their escapade is over, the flying cannibal women are chased by the MacDonald train while militiamen with hippopotamus mouths jump from the moving train to gut them, their carnassial teeth as long as swords.