Marie Vieux-Chauvet, “Love, Anger, Madness” (1968) (translated from the French by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokur) – This was great! Marie Vieux-Chauvet was already a leading light in Haitian letters when she wrote this triptych of novellas in 1960. Born to an upper-class family, she was one of few women accepted in Haitian literary circles and gained major acclaim in France, where Simone de Beauvoir ushered “Love, Anger, Madness” into print in 1968.
François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, the ghoulish CIA-backed dictator, was in charge of Haiti by then, and you can see his censors wouldn’t like “Love, Anger, Madness.” The latter two novellas deal directly with people — families from the Haitian upper/middle class, and intellectuals — menaced by totalitarian movements led by openly kleptocratic thugs and manned by “armed beggars.” The first takes place in a similar context but has other issues in mind as well. If the translation of the Haitian Creole Wikipedia entry on Vieux-Chauvet is right, the Duvalier regime bought up all the copies of her books in Haiti to keep them from the public, and killed some of her relatives. She fled to New York, where she died in obscurity a few years later.
“Love” is probably my favorite of the three, the story of one Claire, oldest daughter of a locally-prominent family and an old maid (and virgin) at thirty-nine. Told in queasily intimate first person, we are immersed in her jealousies, mainly of her sisters, one married to a white Frenchman and the other wild and promiscuous, in her neurotic rituals, and her fears. The Frenchman flirts and dallies with all three sisters while helping to strip their part of the country dry of resources for his firm back home, and then wonders why no one rebels against the secret police who help him do it. The sounds of torture waft from the police headquarters at night, and the local secret police chief is one of few men to indicate interest in Claire. She devises dramas and tries, with more or less success, to conscript the people around her into them, and in the end, bursts out in violence against the restraints around her. If you’re used to literature about women going mad due to the constraints on rich white Anglo-American women, well, the pressure cooker is even worse in a place like Haiti.
The other two stories are also great. “Anger” is about a family that wakes up one day to find the blackshirted “armed beggars” taking their land. This is no social revolution, there isn’t even a pretense of redistribution beyond the hands of the criminal elite. Like many Haitian households, this one is multigenerational, and all the family members stew and consider their own vengeance. The grandfather and crippled grandchild dream of revolutionary revenge. The mother drinks, the son plays soccer with supporters of the blackshirts and considers how to save his honor. The father equivocates and winds up selling his daughter to the criminals. He double crosses them, but the damage is done. In “Madness,” Haitian poets and intellectuals find out how much their writing and internal debates are worth as they’re besieged in a broken-down old house as the blackshirts take over.
The prose is beautiful, by turns lyrical and epigrammatic and never overly flowery or sentimental- Vieux-Chauvet knew the Caribbean, knew racial lines shifting like sand but hard as steel, knew vodou, knew poverty, knew what sex looked like in this kind of environment where power and despair loomed so large, knew the beauty and the ugliness of the island, respected the power of all of it, and rhapsodized none of it. Her Haiti and her Haitians are mythological — if one people on this earth deserves to be mythologized, it is they — but entirely human. This accomplishment alone would put this work at the top of my list in terms of fiction I’ve read this year, but there’s more to enjoy. I recommend this highly to anyone who likes quality fiction. *****