Photo: Watson Perrygo. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archive, via Wikimedia Commons.
My first encounter with Paulé Bartón’s folktales came in the unlikeliest of places: trawling through the deep wilderness of HTML on the back end of The Paris Review’s website. I was an intern, dutifully scanning the archive for stories that had stumbled slightly on their way from print to the Web. Long before my time at the magazine, an error-prone computer program had been used to expedite the digitization process—a necessity for such a small staff and such a trove of pages. But the program occasionally made mistakes, and many stories and poems and essays, long forgotten to most readers, hung imperfectly online. The trick was to read a sentence on the page, then read the very same sentence on the screen, then return to the page. You could spend hours like this, swiveling your head, attempting to achieve parity between these warring formats, constantly searching for hiccups.
The discrepancies I found were usually minuscule: an extra space, a repeated word, an errant line break in the midst of a Merwin poem. There were those rare pieces, though, that looked like they’d passed through a cheese grater. Wading into the text, I’d find that every t had been replaced by an f, or vice versa; fhes and ots abounded. Spaces appeared at random, as though an ostrich had stood on the keyboard. Bartón’s “The Woe Shirt,” buried in the recesses of the Summer 1980 issue, was one such piece—or so I thought at first.
The story begins: “Bélem did tinker repair his bicycle by the stink-toe tree. Better to work there it smells so bad, work gets done no lazy quick.” I remember tracing these words with my cursor over and over, letting their music carve grooves in my head. What’s a “stink-toe tree”? Why the double verb in that first sentence? “Lazy quick”? And yet the printed page confirmed that all of this was correct, intentional. I read on. Despite initial appearances, most of it was intact. A few minutes later, as I arrived at the end, my eyes welled with tears. In the middle of a quiet, cold office in New York, in a matter of minutes, a Haitian folktale had leaped out of history, stolen my heart, and vanished.
Little is known about Bartón. According to Howard Norman’s introduction to The Woe Shirt: Caribbean Folk Tales, the book in which this and twelve other of his tiny fables originally appeared, Barton was born in Haiti in 1916 and earned a living as a goatherd—though he, like many on the island at the time, aspired to work as a storyteller, peddling tales in the markets of Port-au-Prince. At some point, he was arrested and later exiled by the violent, repressive Duvalier regime, likely for violating Haiti’s loosely defined, and thus incredibly restrictive, law against “polluting the minds of tourists with information about Haiti not sanctioned by the government.” He spent the rest of his life skipping across the Caribbean, settling down for a time on one island before packing up with his wife and children and goats and heading to another.
Despite the thin trace he left in the world of letters, Bartón was clearly a master. His work, scant on detail but rich with character, is the perfect combination of magical and mundane. In his tales, a witch advises a man not to touch ducks, lest his bedridden wife get sicker; a “wand-trick man” celebrates a night carnival by shooting moths into the sea like confetti; and a mysterious merchant sells clothing that shimmers with sewn-in memories. Beyond nailing this difficult combination of real and surreal, Bartón’s work exhibits a quality that’s long drawn me to folktales: a seeming simplicity, a kind of economy where every word counts. It’s a gestural storytelling that builds a sturdy, spare world into which an imagination can wander and expand, without the limitation of unnecessary detail.
Most folktales drive at morals or messages. Although you could certainly derive lessons from Bartón’s stories—don’t dwell on the past, don’t wallow in indecision—the true pleasure here is in the language. Bartón, in Etienne Joseph’s vivid translation from the Haitian Creole, speaks elliptically but clearly. Consider the loping beauty of this passage from “The Woe Shirt”: “Bélem said, ‘Good-bye, I go begging, I’ll have a woe shirt to beg in soon,’ twice he said this to his parrot. The parrot blink and green flutter the air and nibble fruit, said nothing back.”
Or this, a perfect collapse of a sentence from the same story, which never fails to make me cry: “Bélem saw days past, all sewn on the shirts, he felt sad old and wanted all the shirts to wear on him those times over again.” I’d never heard nor read anything else like this.
Folktales are, presumably, intended to be retold again and again in new voices. But what sets Bartón’s apart is that the storyteller is thoroughly woven into the fabric of the story. The linguistic idiosyncrasies contained within—each repeated dialogue tag, every eschewed comma—wholly summon Bartón’s voice. When reading these tales, it’s impossible not to project a phantom Bartón upon the stretched bed sheet of your brain: a living, breathing narrator with a gift for spinning yarns that dance like shadows thrown off from a campfire.
The fifteenth episode of The Paris Review Podcast features the singer-songwriter Devendra Banhart’s reading of “The Woe Shirt.” What a gift it is to hear a favorite story brought to life. Banhart delivers the tale as it was meant to be experienced, lifting us out of our office lives and into the strange, capacious imagination of Paulé Bartón.
Brian Ransom is a writer who lives in New York City. He is the assistant online editor at The Paris Review.
Listen to Episode 15 of The Paris Review Podcast, “Memory, Rich Memory,” which features Devendra Banhart’s reading of “The Woe Shirt,” by Paulé Bartón, translated from the Haitian Creole by Etienne Joseph.
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