Permanent Exile: On Marie Vieux-Chauvet | The Nation


Permanent Exile: On Marie Vieux-Chauvet

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ANTHONY PHELPSMarie Vieux-Chauvet

About the Author

Madison Smartt Bell
Madison Smartt Bell, a novelist, is the author of Toussaint Louverture: A Biography (Pantheon).

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For the last thirty years of the twentieth century, Marie Vieux-Chauvet's Amour, colère et folie was legendary for being lost. Published in France by Gallimard in 1968, this triptych of thematically linked novellas soon caused alarming ripples in the author's native Haiti, where the Vieux-Chauvet family had already lost three of its members to the regime of state terror erected by François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, beginning in 1957. Warned that the book would almost certainly provoke serious reprisals, Vieux-Chauvet persuaded Gallimard to withdraw it, while she went into permanent exile in New York City, where she died in 1973 at 57. Her husband, Pierre Chauvet, made an emergency trip to Haiti, where he purchased as many copies of the book already in circulation there as he could recover--in order to destroy them. Remnants of the Gallimard edition were discreetly sold by Vieux-Chauvet's children, in very few venues, until the stock was exhausted in 2000, and a pirated edition made a shadowy appearance in 2003. But otherwise the book was virtually impossible to find until its republication in France by Zellige in 2005.

Is the artifact worth such a weight of suffering and struggle? Whether any work of art can ever be worth even a single human life is a question that will never be settled--but this book is surely a masterpiece. Within the community of Haitian writers and writers of the Haitian diaspora it has been prized not only for its rarity but also for its great literary power. In her succinct introduction to the present edition, Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat ranks Vieux-Chauvet among a "multigenerational triad" of the greatest Haitian writers (including Jacques Roumain and Jacques Stephen Alexis) and dubs the trilogy "the cornerstone of Haitian literature." Backed by such accolades, and now available in both French and English, Amour, colère et folie can take the central place it deserves in late-twentieth-century Haitian letters. If Duvalierism is the central political experience of the end of the Haitian twentieth century, the psychology of those oppressed by it has never been more compellingly rendered than here.

The three narratives that compose this volume have no continuity of plot from one to the next and no common characters. However, they reflect one another in tone, mood and theme sufficiently to integrate the book as a larger whole--a continuum describing the reactions of different classes of people to a generally similar experience of invasion and oppression from without their households, and a suffocating claustrophobia within. Love is the longest and most realistic narrative; Madness is more surreal and much shorter. Standing between them, Anger (which might have been translated better as "Wrath") has the structure and feeling of Greek tragedy without echoing any particular Greek play in terms of specific characters or plot lines.

Love is set within the community of "aristocrats," to which Vieux-Chauvet belonged: a comparatively small group of mixed European and African blood, which, since the Haitian Revolution ended in 1804, has preserved, as if in amber, the eighteenth-century French acculturation it received during the colonial period. These milat, as they are called (a term that derives from the uncomplimentary "mulatto" but in the Haitian context conveys wealth, education and social standing as much or more than pigmentation), have in reality always been a thin, fragile, creamy layer floating uneasily at the top of the vast black Haitian majority. For most of Haiti's history, the often but not always light-skinned elite has been able to concentrate a great deal of the country's wealth and a disproportionate share of political power; but in Love its position is felt to be threatened by the rise of a movement based on black power, which resembles nothing so much as the Duvalier regime, though Chauvet does make the faint self-protective gesture of setting the story in 1939, eighteen years before Duvalier took the presidency.

The eldest of three sisters, who all inhabit the home of their dead parents, is Claire, the de facto head of her household and a self-described "old maid," though by no means settled into that condition but rather, as she puts it, "clutching this starving, virgin sex between my legs." Chatelaine and keeper of the keys, she hoards romance novels and pornographic postcards in her always locked bedroom, where she rocks a doll as if it were her infant, pining for the love of the Frenchman Jean Luze, who passed her over to marry her younger sister Félicia, now pregnant with his child. But it is the youngest sister, Annette, who actually seduces Jean Luze, as if urged on by Claire's mute surge of longing. Caught by Félicia, Jean Luze abandons the affair, whereupon Annette attempts suicide with sleeping pills and then, once she recovers, resumes the life of empty promiscuity she had previously led.

The claustrophobia of this situation is to some extent self-inflicted, a Haitian example of the tyranny of bourgeois mores, enforced by gossip among old wives and old maids. To be a middle-aged virgin, Claire announces at the outset, is "the unenviable fate of most women in small Haitian towns." Exceptions are perhaps not wholly enviable: Félicia, betrayed by her husband; Annette, abruptly dumped by Jean Luze; or Jane Bavière, a neighbor and friend of Claire's presumed by the gossips to be a prostitute because she is the unwed mother of a single son. Claire's only resistance is a torrent of words spilling out of her like vomit: "All private lives are alike. Why would you be different from me? Suffocating fear makes freaks of all of us. That's why we take shelter behind a façade. When the façade crumbles, we are handed over to merciless judges worse than we are.... For fear of scandal, I have repressed an ocean of love within me.... My mating season has expired. I am a desert without refuge. It's too late for me to start living. And yet everything lives around me as if to sharpen my regret, even the insects."

The choking fear imposed by society is amplified by a more concrete and more visceral threat: a new and hostile political regime personified by black Calédu, the new commandant of this unnamed small town, whose name recalls the French colonist Caradeux, renowned for his imaginative cruelty to his slaves. For no other reason than that she draws her skirts away from him, Calédu takes another of Claire's neighbors, the pious virgin Dora, to his headquarters to be beaten and gang-raped. Though somewhat euphemistically expressed, the rape is unmistakable, and for a long time afterward Dora "hobbles along with legs spread apart like a maimed animal." "Snobs," Dora reports Calédu shouting as he assaults her, "mulatto snobs, I'll make cripples of all of you, you snobs."

The anxieties here are not only sexual but racial, and race plays
a pathological part in Claire's acutely unhappy family history. Félicia is "light-skinned with bland blond hair and the delicate features of a white woman," and "Annette is white too," though with "gold under her skin." But Claire is much darker; and her unmistakably African origin is a social liability, or so perceived by her. Complimented by a suitor as a "black goddess," she flees and locks herself in her room, and in a series of similar events she imprisons herself, again and again, in her so loathed virginity. When Annette, rebounding from her suicide attempt, decides to marry a lower-class man darker than herself, Félicia cries out in shock, "A black man!" (The French term used would have been accurately translated as "Negro.") "A black man in our family.... Can you believe this?"

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