Permanent Exile: On Marie Vieux-Chauvet

Permanent Exile: On Marie Vieux-Chauvet

Permanent Exile: On Marie Vieux-Chauvet

In Love, Anger, Madness, Marie Vieux-Chauvet explores the choking fear of life under “Papa Doc” Duvalier.


ANTHONY PHELPSMarie Vieux-Chauvet

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?”

In Haiti, race hatred is understood as a mask for class hatred, and in Claire’s community the old social order has been turned upside down; Calédu’s enforcers, analogous to Duvalier’s Tonton Macoutes (a group of paramilitary thugs often recruited from the lowest strata of Haitian society), are contemptuously, fearfully described by Claire as “armed beggars.” To the humiliation of this situation, which constantly threatens to express itself in rape, is added, in the background, the rape of the land. The American businessman Mr. Long (Jean Luze’s employer) collaborates with Calédu to force the clear-cutting of the hills where coffee recently grew, “a bloodbath” as Claire puts it: “Immense trees fell to the ground with what sounded like a great roar before their dying breath…. When the wood is gone, he will go after something else. The slave trade, perhaps.”

Ironic as it may seem to title such a narrative Love, it is indeed a story of love gone toxic through stagnation. Even without the external pressures represented by Calédu and his minions (and the unnamed national power behind them), the stifling world of Haitian gentility will not permit love to be clearly expressed. (Echoes of this theme are found, for example, in Lyonel Trouillot’s novel Thérèse en mille morceaux, published in 2000.) Claire’s maternal feelings are lavished on a doll, and then, somewhat more fruitfully, on her sister’s newborn son. Though finally it is plain that she could succeed where Annette failed in usurping Félicia’s role with Jean Luze, Claire lacks the will to complete the seduction. “I angrily swallow my hopes and my love. There is nothing but hatred in me…. In every human being there is a blessed soul made miserable by the pursuit of happiness.”

In Anger, this feeling of living entombment is literalized a step further when a different Haitian family awakes to find men in black hemming in its house with stakes; the stockade cuts the family off from the orchards that are the source of its prosperity and from the tomb of its patriarch, a peasant who claimed the land in question and so began to ascend toward the economic and social status of milat. To enhance the tale’s archetypal feeling, the narration produces proper names for members of the family only when they leave the household; within it they are simply called “the grandfather,” “the father,” “the mother,” “the invalid” and so on. Including the founder in his tomb, four generations are present: the grandfather, himself a militant patriarch who cherishes the narrative of his father’s indomitable conquest of this plot of land; the comparatively ineffectual father, who whiles away his days as a clerk in an aimless bureaucracy; the mother, a latent alcoholic; and an adolescent daughter and two sons, one of them crippled by birth defects. The frustrated love that drives the first novella is here replaced by helpless rage.

Like Claire and her family, the household of Anger is under constant, invidious observation by its neighbors, who can see how the stockade and surrounding presence of the men in black (who pass the time by shooting songbirds among the fruit trees) has singled the family out as pariahs. The healthy son breaks with his soccer teammates. The mother secretly empties the rum bottle, only to be denounced by the grandfather. The grandfather is closest to the invalid, for the two of them share a wrathful spirit–where the others sink into mute helplessness, they rage. “If I had legs,” the invalid cries, “I would kill them, kill them all.” Rejecting the notion of a wheelchair, the grandfather encourages the invalid to crawl with the promise that he may eventually learn to walk. These two plot a violent retribution that involves raising the ancestor from his tomb in the lemon grove (“If even the dead refused to hear God’s voice and come to our aid…then what would become of us, my child?”), a scheme that is conceivable within the context of Haitian Vodou; in the end, their corpses are tossed back over the stockade into the house’s courtyard by unseen killers.

Meanwhile, the father decides to seek legal redress for the imminent confiscation of the family land. He takes his daughter with him on his mission, for no particular reason except the unspoken (though silently understood by all) intention to offer her as a sexual sacrifice to those who have so suddenly seized power. The unfortunate Rose is claimed by “a small skinny man wearing a black uniform…his bony and disproportionately long hands dangling at the end of his arms like the paws of a gorilla.” The Gorilla, as he is henceforth called, is the analog of Calédu in Love, but in Anger the sexual torture is presented in appallingly explicit detail: “I’ll open you up until my entire fist goes in,” the Gorilla shouts. He also likes to call Rose a “saint,” in order to wring more meaning from violating her. Like Calédu, the Gorilla is driven by class hatred: “do you know what I was before I became this figure of authority?… Yes, my beauty, a beggar, despised, shunned by haughty little saint’s faces like yours. And now, spread your legs…. That’s it, suffer in silence.”

Rose’s sacrifice to the Gorilla restores the family to a position of status in the community, though a somewhat different one than before. Their land is returned to them, only to be sold to the same men in black who confiscated it. Aware of the new relationship, the father’s acquaintances seek him out to curry favor. Fuming, the healthy son plots to avenge his sister by assassinating the Gorilla, but the knife he throws at his despised enemy bounces harmlessly off an iron rail. Surprisingly, the father manages to have the Gorilla killed by one of his own henchmen, but this maneuver comes too late to rescue Rose or redeem the family.

The mother, when she first sees that the men in black have fenced off the tomb of the patriarch, expresses the fundamental dread: “They will desecrate his grave.” It is not so much the tomb that’s at stake as the myth wrapped up in it, for the patriarch acquired land and status by working to earn it and also by fighting–eye for eye and tooth for tooth–those who threatened to take it from him. Through mute acceptance of the daughter’s sacrifice, the family becomes complicit in desecrating its own honor. Rage, in its impotence, does nothing but gnaw at the family from within (much like the perverted love in Claire’s household). Only the invalid and the grandfather command a wrath that can turn outward. But the grandfather expresses it only to a craven friend who comes creeping back once it is clear that the family is no longer persecuted but protected by the dread men in black: “take care lest God’s holy fury rise up in me, and get out.” In the French original, this “fury” and the “anger” of the title are both represented by the word “colère.”

In Madness, the armed beggars and men in black have evolved into “devils.” “You see nothing of them under their uniforms. Headless bodies. Faceless heads in golden helmets…. They are anonymous, like stupidity and meanness.” Or so they appear from a peephole in a wall of the miserable shack where the narrator of the third novella has barricaded himself against their onslaught. The protagonist belongs not to the lowest Haitian social class but probably the lowest Vieux-Chauvet’s imagination could successfully render. René is the child of a black woman, virtually sold into domestic servitude by her family as a girl and raped by her master (“light-skinned as a white man”), who never acknowledges or supports his son.

Thanks to his late mother’s sacrifices, René has education enough to have become a poet, so the siege of the town by the devils (who slay hundreds of people before a nearby church and drop a dead body at the door of the shack) is represented in intensely lyrical prose that sometimes overflows into recitations of verse. Three other indigent poets join him in the shack, where they survive for eight days on nothing but cane rum and a little syrup poured out as an offering to the loas of Haitian Vodou. Danticat’s introduction finds the situation of these fictional poets to be reminiscent of another group of Haitian writers, Les Araignées du soir (Evening Spiders), which continued to meet and work in semi-secrecy during the Duvalierist repression. Marie Vieux-Chauvet was the only woman among Les Araignées. Other members included Anthony Phelps, Villard Denis, Serge Legagneur, Roland Morisseau and René Philoctète; many of them were jailed or driven into exile during the Duvalier regime.

Trapped in close quarters with his poetic comrades, René pines for Cécile, a neighbor girl belonging to the class of Claire and her sisters in the first narrative, whom he has courted with his poems and who may even quietly reciprocate his longing, despite the social gulf between them. Finally he arms himself with rum-fueled firebombs and resolves to break out, repel the devils and save the town and his inamorata.

In both Love and Anger, a nauseous inner complicity with the outer threat is a recurring motif. The figure of Calédu infects Claire’s erotic dreamscape: “The statue, with its enormous phallus stiffened in a voluptuous and painful spasm, was of Calédu. The statue came to life and the phallus wagged feverishly. I threw myself at its feet, submissive and rebellious, hardly daring to look up, my thighs shut tight. I heard cries: ‘Kill, kill!'” Rose, in the midst of her victimization, blames herself at least in part for it: “Hell had its eye on us for some time and now we’re deep in it…. We must be hated and loved to the same extreme.” In Madness, the threat is internalized to the point of full-blown paranoid delusion. Once the narrator breaks out of his shack, the devils and their depredations turn out to have been alcohol-driven hallucinations, and the corpse dropped outside the door is revealed to be a dead dog. Still, the authorities who control the town prove themselves fiendish enough, for the narrator and his companions are condemned to summary execution for disturbing the peace, while the unlucky Cécile, entangled as a witness, is hauled off to jail to be gang-raped.

One of the effects of Duvalierism was to turn the old social order upside down, arming a sector of the most wretched to punish the bourgeoisie for its privileges (as well as thoroughly terrorizing everyone else in the country). In each of Vieux-Chauvet’s three novellas, there’s a supernatural element to the experience of the scourge, and the narratives become shorter, more compressed and more hallucinatory from one to the next, as they sweep from the top of the pre-Duvalier Haitian class structure toward the bottom.

In Love, Claire’s father (albeit a “white-mulatto”) is a Vodou practitioner who uses his status in the religion to gain prestige among the peasants who cultivate coffee on Lion Mountain, the property that is the source of the family’s wealth. He raises Claire in the role of a son, expecting her not only to master the peasantry but to be initiated to his own level in Vodou. When Claire refuses the religion, she loses control of her father’s vassals, the property is sold off piece by piece and she gradually becomes a virtual prisoner in her house. René, when the devils’ assault begins, lays out a crucifix and also a sacrifice to the Vodou loas, though he knows that both gestures are empty, since he believes in neither religion and has long since rejected the ancestral Vodou spirits his mother diligently served. In Anger, Vieux-Chauvet detaches the idea of ancestor worship from its specific context in Haitian Vodou and presents it in more classical, almost Greco-Roman terms; the primal threat in this middle narrative is the desecration of the patriarch’s tomb, the mother’s deep fear: “They will dig up his bones.”

The reader is thus reminded that ancestor worship is by no means unique to the African root-stock, and not to be dismissed as “primitive.” As a rule, the elite class to which Claire, her family and Vieux-Chauvet belong is separated by a generation or more from the Vodou almost universally practiced by everyone else in Haiti, and so regards it with a mixture of contempt and superstitious fear. Vieux-Chauvet portrays this attitude and also pushes through it toward a sense of the real potency of the religion in the culture of the Haitian majority. In each of these narratives there is some sense that the characters are being punished, at least in part, for religious apostasy and abandonment of the old ways.

But the phenomenon Vieux-Chauvet renders cuts deeply across class. The evil genius of Duvalierism was to occupy the consciousness of all citizens, thereby forcing them to collaborate in their own destruction. Thus René, so close to the bottom of the social ladder: “I ran away from responsibilities out of fear of the future and now I may no longer have a future. I am alone, shut up like a rat in his hole, I am gnawing at my solitude with every last tooth.” This pervasive sense of entrapment, and the sense of helplessly cooperating in one’s own entrapment, is rendered still more lyrically by Claire (in a passage the translators must strive valiantly to capture): “Freedom is an inmost power…. I sometimes feel I have gone off course, standing for years in front of a door that would not open for me and that I was afraid to force…. Oh, what wouldn’t I give to seize the essential thread of my thought once and for all!… And here I am, my hands open and more empty than ever.”

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