The devastating earthquake that rocked the southern end of Haiti in January 2010, almost three years ago, caused such havoc and piled so much misery over a country that was already enduring one of the most alarming situations in the western hemisphere, that inevitably the world’s attention was forced onto an issue it stubbornly sought to ignore. The upshot of the catastrophe, beyond almost immediate initiatives to provide aid and relief to the hundreds of thousands of people affected by the tragedy, has been a long, if dwindling, sequence of headlines and appeals by seemingly altruistic celebrities to create permanent (and swift) change in a place that has gone through constant transformation—not necessarily for the good—over the past three decades.
Matters of life and death aside, however, this sudden increase in the attention paid to Haiti by the media and, consequently, the people of Western societies has also led to a closer inspection of the cultural expressions arrived from the Caribbean country, beyond the naïve paintings of Henri Robert Bresil. In a literary context, a more receptive platform has been deployed to embrace the creations of previously unrecognized Haitian authors, both alive and dead. Marie Vieux-Chauvet falls under the latter category, but her work, Love, Anger, Madness, is filled with so many introspective details and expressionist descriptions of the terror—the horror—that pervades every aspect of human relations, and indeed of the human condition, under an oppressive regime that her trilogy rings from start to end with a chilling tone of ghastly contemporary relevance.
Born in Port-au-Prince, under the American invasion of Haiti, in 1916, Vieux-Chauvet was the daughter of a successful mulatto politician, and a Jewish immigrant arrived from the Virgin Islands. A member of the more privileged strata of Haitian society, her work maps the transformation of her country’s political landscape in acute and disheartening detail, crudely depicting the process that led to the replacement of the bourgeois mulattos by the darker, less educated and poorer portions of the population at the highest echelons of power during the American occupation and beyond. But Vieux-Chauvet’s account of Haiti’s reality is neither partisan nor sentimentalist. Written towards the end of the 1960s, after Francois Duvalier, “Papa Doc,” had declared himself President “for life” in 1964, Love, Anger, Madness is not a unitary novel but rather a three-part portrait (more a triptych than a trilogy) of the circumstances that led to the “revolution” in the Haitian political scene and of the consequences carried by such drastic change in the everyday reality of ordinary Haitians, seen from the critical (though hardly innocent) perspective of the vanquished elite.
Each portion of the triptych deals directly with one of the three emotions mentioned in the title, although the latter two are substantially shorter than “Love.” Indeed, as the book progresses, the accounts become less specifically anchored to the historical reality of Haitian society, pointing instead to a sort of general syndrome that remains relevant outside any chronological coordinates, or, as a matter of fact (although Vieux-Chauvet never gets that far), outside any geographical relation. As the writer explores the desperation of four intellectuals oppressed out of their senses by hunger and fear in the last piece of the book, “Madness,” she simultaneously becomes more experimental in her literary exercise and less constrained by the limits of a realistic description of the situation, such that her narrative is infected with the sort of delirious ramblings that have earned the protagonists the tag of “madmen” among their fellow citizens.
While Vieux-Chauvet plays with different genres (poetry, drama, narrative) and explores the notions of reality and delusion, sanity and madness in the last (and shortest) portion of Love, Anger, Madness, the middle section of her collection looks at the gradual progression of an intense feeling of anger (and impotence, and hatred) that lodges itself in the individual members of a well-to-do family (father and mother, grandfather, two teenage siblings and a maimed child) as they are unceremoniously dispossessed of their land. The righteous grandfather and his precocious grandson are outraged and obsessed with vengeful (re)action; the phlegmatic father and his pragmatist daughter are more inclined to play the game by its rules, and bend the rod in their favor as much as possible, without risking it to break; the irate son is far too concerned with himself (and his sister, whom he considers a part of himself) to let anyone know or suspect of his intentions; and the resigned mother is already too beaten to put up any resistance against further calamity. But individually none of the members of the family is capable of solving the situation, such that they end up becoming victims more of their temperaments, and the way they face the circumstance, than of the circumstance itself, in what is as much an indictment by the author on the society in which she lived as it is a predictable denouement to a tragic tale of anger.
And yet, what is most enthralling of Vieux-Chauvet’s often grim narrative is the fact that she recognizes in the historical evolution of Haiti’s reality a sense of responsibility, a damning recognition of guilt, that becomes visible in the intimations of her protagonists. For instance, in “Anger” Louis Normil, the father, understands that being a passive witness of an atrocity makes him not so much a coward as a criminal—a silent accomplice of the crime committed; likewise, the same character admits he shares the sort of sadistic pleasure in his enemy’s fear, which he witnessed in his own oppressor as his lands were taken from him; along similar lines, Paul, his oldest son, displays the sort of hubris in declaring himself superior in every sense to his tormentor that has led to the social and racial divide that ultimately provoked this situation in the first place. It is for this very reason that his mother, in her resignation, comes to understand that everyone, oppressor and oppressed, criminal and victim, is ultimately the same—all too human.
The care, subtlety and patience with which this point is labored and put across in “Love” makes of this, the first segment of the triptych, by far the most accomplished of the three. Firmly placed within a geographical and a chronological area, “Love” gives a compelling account of the regression of political life in Haiti from the turn of the XX century, when the country was ruled by a sequence of caudillos thirsty of power and bereft of ideas, to the military occupation by the US between 1915 and 1934, which resulted in the demise of the light-skinned mulatto elite in favor of a highly militarized portion of the previously underprivileged.
Narrated in the first person, from the perspective of a 39-year-old single woman, member of the impoverished bourgeoisie, “Love” deftly explores the consequences of the intimidating political situation lived in Haiti in the late 30s (and again in the Duvalier years, and in the 90s…) from an entirely domestic perspective. Indeed, the central plot of “Love” concerns, really, the stability of a family of three (Haitian) women cast against each other by the presence of a white Frenchman, husband to the middle sister, silently craved by the older one, and eventually seduced by the youngest. Parallel to this familial drama, however, runs the destiny of an entire society that is being pushed to the limit by the commercial interests of an American corporation, by the ruthless vengeance of a newly appointed political parvenu, by the old-fashioned habits of the pretentious bourgeoisie.
Vieux-Chauvet’s triptych is enlightening as a whole, although “Love” is such an accomplished piece of work it deserves to stand alone in a book of its own. Be that as it may, it is a happy result of one of the most horrific natural disasters in recent memory that the work of Vieux-Chauvet, which was thought lost until 2005, has re-emerged and can now be appreciated, not only in French, but in English, in Spanish, in German, and so on. May the reappraisal of Haitian culture continue for many years, and many authors, to come!
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD ON NOVEMBER 17, 2012.