December 2009

Kati Nolfi

fiction

Love, Anger, Madness: A Haitian Trilogy by Marie Vieux-Chauvet, translated by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokur

Love, Anger, Madness: A Haitian Trilogy was first published in 1968 by the exiled writer Marie Vieux-Chauvet, and is here newly translated by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokur. The three novellas in this volume, introduced by Edwidge Danticat, are heroic, angry, and brilliant. The stories reflect the American invasion and economic control of Haiti, Haiti’s troubles from the occupation, and its own internal struggles. Each story has a character who finds refuge in art, struggles to overthrow dominant forces, and battles for integrity against the devastation of war in a corrupt state. Oppression cuts across class and race lines and identity is flexible. Dramas are large and small, and villains aren’t always who you think they are.

The first and most successful novella, Love is about three aristocratic sisters. The eldest and boldest is Claire, reminiscent of characters from Dostoevsky, Kate Chopin, and Chinua Achebe. Sensual yet sexually frustrated, jealous and strong, rejecting and cowardly and honest, she is the darker sister, irritated with her small town and its barbarism, and the fear and inaction of her sisters, Félicia and Annette. Love is an outraged manifesto with bitter cheer and energy. Vieux-Chauvet illustrates the incendiary potential of the first person diatribe:

Misery, social injustice, all the injustices in the world, and they are countless, will disappear only with the human species. One remedies hundreds of miseries only to discover millions of others... It’s a lost cause. And of course there is the hunger of the body and that of the soul. And the hunger of the mind and the hunger of the senses. All sufferings are equal. To defend himself, man refines the meanness of his heart. By what miracle has this poor nation managed to stay so good, so welcoming, so joyful for so long despite its poverty, despite injustice, prejudice, our many civil wars? We have been practicing at cutting each other's throats since Independence. The claws of our people have been growing and getting sharper. Hatred has hatched among us, and torturers have crawled out of the nest. They torture you before cutting your throat. It’s a colonial legacy to which we cling, just as we cling to French.

Claire is a secret writer; she maintains a journal to liberate herself from the bondage of her parents, Catholicism, self-hatred, shame, and inertia. At 39, Claire is still a virgin -- she conceals and forbids her passion; she behaves as prescribed but is developing and making space for her brilliance internally, honing it until it explodes. “There is a disturbing vitality in me, made even more dangerous because I’m holding it back.” The early part of Love is set in Claire’s present-day invective until Vieux-Chauvet elegantly switches to a flashback in which Claire’s motivations and family background are illuminated. Being the darkest of three mixed-race sisters, she internalizes racist self-hatred, felt too ugly for white men, and wasted her youth with phantom fears. Being the eldest daughter she had to care for her sisters and the coffee fields when her parents died. Now she is obsessed with her sister Félicia’s husband Jean Luze, the urbane benevolent colonialist from France who criticizes Haiti and sleeps with the youngest Annette. The family is in love with this man, the symbol of their submission, and yet in this piece, Haitians are the destroyers. Claire’s hunger for intimacy is sated by voyeurism, whether it is the horrific violence against the poor, children, and women, or Jean Luze’s sexual indiscretions. In manipulative and vindictive fashion, she cares for Felicia’s child, calls herself mother and wife in all but name, hoping to melt Jean Luze and prove her mettle and softness. The entire town is in revolt by the end, and Claire finally acts, killing not herself or her sister, but the real enemy. Love is an absorbing portrait of a woman on the verge, emerging from selfishness, fear, and relative privilege, but deep oppression.

If Love is heroic, then Anger is defeated. At the beginning of the story, a family discovers stakes in their land -- Fascists are taking over. This seems wrong, we are upset for the family -- there is deep attachment and connection to the land -- but discover that the land was ill-gotten through murder. In this story a bourgeois family is destroyed by alcohol, rape, and tyranny. Here again Vieux-Chauvet works on the trilogy’s themes of corruption, intersections between race and class oppression, and family guilt. The groups and individuals in power may shift but the powerful are always destructive.

There is vulnerability to be exploited in this family that has enjoyed safety and wealth. The grandson Claude has deformed feet, the mother is alcoholic, and the daughter Rose is too saintly and sweet. Rose sees herself benefiting from systemic racism although she is personally innocent in her behaviors; she sees this even as she is systematically repeatedly raped, even as she loses from systemic sexism. She says, “Maybe for too long we lived tranquil and carefree lives in the midst of others’ tears and lamentations. To accept crime even if you don’t participate in it is still criminal. In that case, I’ve been a coward and a criminal my entire life. Now I am being punished for thinking that because the flames of hell didn’t reach me, I could warm my hands over them.” Rose attempts to save her family by offering her body while keeping her mind unmolested. The father prostitutes himself to a rich woman. The family destroys itself trying to save itself, ignoring the destruction happening to each member. Vieux-Chauvet’s technique of identifying the characters as “the father,” “the grandfather,” and so forth distances and universalizes, making this story like a fable. Freedom, hope, and creation are the sublime values to fight for. Concealment and fear are death.

The third novella, Madness is the first person narrative of René, a poor mixed-race guerrilla poet, fighting against shapeshifting devils in an occupied land. He lives in slums drinking clairin (sugarcane alcohol) with his poet friends, Andre, Jacques, and Simon. Life is a wasteland littered with bodies. This novella is the most remote and oblique. Insanity and resignation live here. When Anger’s characters do not survive, they at least hope. Here, death is welcomed as the only way out. Still, art is succor. People create despite violence and tyranny: “My name will ring out to the four corners of the earth. Have you heard of René? The great René who defeated the devils? Have you read his poems? I will defeat the devils. What is courage if not a mixture of rage and despair? My stomach is growling from hunger and, at the same time, anger. I can feel it fermenting in my gut, this anger.”

Critical thought and right action against violent despotic authority succeeds or fails. Vieux-Chauvet does not facilely suggest that valor always wins the day. Some of these characters are survivors and some are not, but none are accorded weakness. As a trilogy, Love, Anger, Madness captures the complex junctions of gender, race, and class and their oppressions in the precise historical moment.

Love, Anger, Madness: A Haitian Trilogy by Marie Vieux-Chauvet, translated by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokur
Modern Library
ISBN: 0679643516
416 Pages