In Perpetual Revolt
Love, Anger, Madness: A Haitian Trilogy
By Marie Vieux-Chauvet, translated by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokur
New York: Modern Library, 2009, 379 pp., $27.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Patti M. Marxsen
When Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s fourth and final novel, >Love, Anger, Madness: A Haitian Trilogy, was published in Paris by Gallimard in 1968, the author’s husband Pierre purchased and destroyed every copy in Haiti, with her apparent acquiescence. Three of Vieux-Chauvet’s extended family members had already been arbitrarily executed by the regime of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, and a Haitian diplomat in Paris warned Chauvet of the dangers of publication: Duvalier’s secret police, the infamous tontons makouts, appear throughout the three novellas as galvanized soldiers, mysterious men in black or, in the hallucinogenic third novella, Madness, highly organized “devils.” While the timeframe of the three works encompasses the dictatorial regimes of Sténio Vincent (1930 – 1941), Elie Lescot (1941 – 1946), and Duvalier (1957 – 1971), it is Duvalier who is the ultimate villain in this decidedly patriarchal world.
As Joan Dayan observes in Haiti, History, and the Gods (1995), “Most revolutionary calls to négritude . . . ignored women as agents of reclamation or revolt.” Mid-twentieth century Haitian politics were not only extremely class- and race-focused, they were also entwined with sexual conquest. “Chauvet questions the apparently endless making of heroes in Haitian history: the cult of the founder, the father, and the protector who betrays or is betrayed,” says Dayan. “She proves how damaging the cult of the hero is, how the image of a savior plays into the totalitarian designs of the dictator.”
In light of Haiti’s long history of military heroes and martyred writers, it is shocking to encounter a clever, uncompromising heroine like Vieux-Chauvet’s Claire Clamont, the protagonist of Love. Desirous or enraged, she is anything but a martyr. Her brother-in-law Jean-Luze, the French employee of an American export firm and the object of her sexual fantasies (although he is charmingly unaware of her feelings), sums up her character when he says, “You have a hard time accepting things, Claire … and you live in a state of perpetual revolt.”
The same can be said of Vieux-Chauvet. As the years passed and the Duvalier era ended, the remaining stock of Amour, Colère, Folie (as the trilogy was titled in French) was sold discreetly in New York and Port-au-Prince. Would this slow burn of recognition have comforted or inflamed the writer, who died of brain cancer in 1973, in exile in New York? Was her divorce from Pierre Chauvet caused by his eagerness to repress her book? Did she realize that she had written what the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat calls, in her useful introduction, “the cornerstone of Haitian literature”?
Vieux-Chauvet remained silent in the face of such questions, although her three adult children provided a preface titled, “For Truth, For History” for the republished French version (Emina Soleil, 2005). In this one-page attempt to define their mother’s literary identity, her son and daughters insist that their mother never thought of herself as a “martyr” or a “resentful woman.” By all accounts, her exile was made tolerable by the presence of her caring children, extended family, and new American husband. And yet, she must have ached for her nation, as the official tally of those killed during the Duvalier era continued to climb, eventually reaching an estimated 30,000 – 50,000 people. She must also have known the power of her voice and wondered where and when it would find a wider audience.
The time has come, thanks to the first English translation of this hidden classic by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokur, professors at New York’s New School. They bring Vieux-Chauvet’s work into English with artful adherence to the original and a helpful section of notes that decipher cultural and linguistic terms. However, these stories would be compelling in any language, because the author shouts truth to power in a woman’s resounding voice. Calling on a range of techniques—from journal-like writing and narrative prose to parable and satirical scriptwriting—she documents the moment without inhibition. No other woman of her place and time ever dared to do as much. And few of any gender have succeeded so brilliantly in depicting the burden of Haiti’s hero-worshiping power games on individual lives.
As the translators’ preface explains, “This is not a literal trilogy that tells one story.” With structural echoes of Greek tragedy, the novellas are linked not by plot but by the classic unities of place (Haiti), time (after the occupation by U.S. Marines, between 1915 and 1934), and action (terror). To these Réjouis adds unity of purpose to describe the collision of the dictatorial mindset with individual critical thought. Indeed, it is this emphasis on the individual’s power to construct an interior reality that holds the three novellas together. Embedded in the tapestry of Vieux-Chauvet’s prose, the glittering thread of humanistic individualism can be traced from the self-possessed Claire Clamont of Love through the abused and dehumanized Rose Normil of Anger to the “mad” poet René, whose retreat from a chaotic world is the subject of Madness. Through silence and the cultivation of sequestered imagination, these individuals create small cocoons of survival, often temporary, in what the outsider Jean-Luze refers to as the “hellish paradise” of mid-twentieth-century Haiti.
Claire is a woman in love. The eldest of three sisters in an elite Haitian family, she is “stained” with dark skin and the embarrassment of virginity at age 39. Locked in her room by choice and desire, she caresses herself with passionate frenzy, imagining the touch of Jean-Luze. Poverty, injustice, and screams from the nearby prison in an unidentified coastal city barely distract her from her romantic dreams: “Tonight I will bring him to my room and confess my love. He must reveal me to myself,” she writes of her imaginary lover. Such fantasies ignore the fact that he is married to Claire’s youngest sister, the demure Félicia, and has already succumbed to the seductions of her second sister, Annette.
To make matters worse, they all live together in the house built by Claire’s parents, long gone in the tragic times of occupation. Love unfolds in 1939, during a backlash of black nationalism that borders on fascism. Under an unnamed dictator, the balance of power has shifted, and Haiti’s racism has turned inward. Claire can see the brutal Commandant Calédu, who is known to take pleasure in whipping and raping mulatto women, from her window. Like a black Cinderella who runs the household and secretly observes her world in the pages of a journal intime, the independent-minded Claire imagines love and flaunts her essential freedom before the commandant. As she writes in her journal, “Freedom is an inmost power,” noting that it will be achieved only if she can “hack a path through the tangled undergrowth of life and walk with eyes fixed on the truth.” For her, “It is a matter of will and action. Of choosing to be puppets or to be human beings.”
In Vieux-Chauvet’s trilogy, this precious inner space is represented by the three houses that serve as settings for relentless psychological drama. In each novella, internal dilemmas play against chaotic, unpredictable events observed through windows, shutters, half-open doors, and verandas. There is also a symbolic progression in the roles these houses play. In Love the house, and especially Claire’s bedroom, represents private, inviolable space; in Anger, the Normil’s ancestral house and property have been attacked and will be defended, at a terrible cost; and in Madness, the “stage” in this theater of the absurd is nothing more than a shack with dead body rotting at the front door, or so it seems. There, the poet stakes his claim to freedom in a seemingly psychotic soliloquy, before he is swept into a satirical mock trial for subversive activity, in which he is condemned to the predictable fate of execution.
Vieux-Chauvet balances the upward trajectory of internal freedom against a death spiral of regressive space in these three novellas that gradually diminish in length, as if contracting to fit the options that remain open to her tormented characters. Nature is often the force that activates the imagination so necessary to achieving inner freedom. In a particularly beautiful passage, the poet René envisions himself as part of the mythical pantheon of classical sun gods, even if he is doomed to fall, like Icarus:
How can they kill as the sun is setting? How can they kill as the sun rises? Everything is so beautiful at all hours of the day and night! For the moment, the sea embraces the sky right where the sun has sunk dressed in saffron and crimson. An entire section of the sky has been set ablaze ... I am standing atop the sun, in the midst of white waves, my muscles taut, head wreathed by the emerging stars, like a god on a chariot dripping with light.
Who can say that the madness of poetry or the fantasy of love is not preferable to the “sanity” of terror? In posing such questions Vieux-Chauvet’s work is as philosophical as it is experimental. Each novella shows that there is no way out but to go inward; each and every character lives on the permeable boundary between life and death.
It is along that frontier that new twists on old themes emerge. It is clear from Vieux-Chauvet’s references to Flaubert, Balzac, Baudelaire, and others that she was well-acquainted with French literature. But even where lines can be traced to familiar self-destructive models such as Emma Bovary or the Créole Noun, in George Sand’s Indiana, who drowns herself Ophelia-style, the Haitian context changes everything. While several female characters contemplate suicide in Love, Anger, Madness as a consequence of lost love, it is Laura Normil’s inner monologue in Anger that releases the theme from its nineteenth-century framework. With Laura, Vieux-Chauvet complicates the question of suicide with the necessity of political resistance as well as feminist constructions of motherhood, placing social responsibility ahead of personal heartache. After trying to climb a rocky hillside to reach the center of power, surrounded by carnival crowds, Laura comes home exhausted and strangely reflective. Just before she sinks into total despair, another voice emerges in her mind:
Wasn’t it her role to shower her children with love, to quietly help them conquer their terror, to shut her eyes and let them take action, all with the conviction that they too would meet with failure? Just make their eyes a little easier, cover their heads with maternal hands that they could grasp in their distress, or hide their weeping faces in… Should she run straight into suicide, cut short the days she had left? For [the men in black shirts] would surely murder her, she knew that much.
At this moment, life and death coexist within Laura, as they do within Claire at the end of Love. But both rise above their private fears and turn toward the lives of others.
To help one’s children, to honor the ancestors, to stand up for the nation that needs your last breath—such is the defining call of modern Haitian literature. Indeed, the challenge of the Haitian writer is to tell stories of individuals who remain human within a long history of dehumanization. It is a literature of political awareness and personal risk, of exile and resistance often mingled—like Haitian blood—with outside forces that might be African, European, and/or American. We hear such influences in the oral histories poignantly passed on in Anger and in the self-examination of Claire Clamont’s journal intime, which owes a debt to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions. Among other things, this translated edition opens up avenues of research that will help to dismiss the notion of Haitian literature as local, regional, or marginal. The literature of Haiti is, in truth, entwined with world literature in ways that have yet to be fully explored and understood.
Clearly, high quality translations such as this one are needed to achieve such understanding. As the second English translation ever of a work by Vieux-Chauvet, it is cause for celebration that Love, Anger, Madness has been achieved with such careful attention to the author’s style, multiple moods and voices, shifting genres, and love of language. When René realizes how his scholarly life has left him defenseless in the face of violence, he says. “My palms are softer than the petals of orchids.” Small poems like this one occur on every page.
Such language makes it all the more startling when the translation wavers in quality, as it occasionally does, for example with the awkward choice of “to croak” for the French “crever,” which means to cave in, collapse, or burst open and die. This renders the following passage from Love regrettably off-key:
What can be done without passion? The lukewarm are like reptiles: they crawl on all fours or drag themselves about. I don’t envy them. I’d rather croak standing. Who says suicide is an act of cowardice?
Perhaps the worst error a translator can commit is that of total omission. The only instance found here is surely an oversight, but deserves mention because the dropped paragraph foreshadows the all-important confrontation Claire will have with Commandant Calédu at the end of Love. The missing text from the journal intime reads:
I don’t like the long looks that Calédu continues to give me each time I meet him in the street. No matter what I may do to restrain my contempt, I will not be able to keep my aristocratic composure in front of him, which puts the necessary distance between us and forces him, shamefully, to lower his eyes.
Having read this, it is clear that these two will eventually meet eye to eye. But you only know this if you read the French edition.
In the end, the question that matters is whether a work deserves the bold and tedious effort of literary translation. Love, Anger, Madness was more than worthy of this task. While over 80 million people are literate in French, this English edition breaks the Anglophone silence of decades for Vieux-Chauvet and speaks for those who suffered under the Duvaliers. Although it is more than twenty years since the ousting of the last Duvalier, “Baby Doc,” in 1986, the relevance of this book to our own times is undeniable. Now, as then, we live in world where love, anger, and madness coexist. We hear the screams of those who struggle against patriarchal power in nations around the world. We search for unity of purpose. “Perpetual revolt,” if only within the silence of the heart, is a way in to the way out.
Patti M. Marxsen is a writer and independent scholar. Her essays, articles, reviews, and commentaries related to Haitian literature and culture have appeared in the Caribbean Writer, CommonDreams.org, the French Review, and the Journal of Haitian Studies. She is the author of Island Journeys: Exploring the Legacy of France (2008) and Tales from the Heart of Haiti (Forthcoming, 2010).