23 June 2015

Marie Vieux-Chauvet: Amour, Colère et Folie | Love, Anger, and Madness (1968; repr. Zulma 2015)

Marie Vieux-Chauvet's trilogy Amour, colère et folie (translated as Love, Anger, and Madness) is a major work of Haitian literature, although for many years it was virtually unavailable to readers in Haiti. First published by Gallimard in Paris in 1968 and strongly (but tacitly) criticising François Duvalier's violent régime policed by his dreaded tontons macoutes, Amour, Colère et folie swiftly incurred the wrath of 'Papa Doc' who threatened the author and her family with their lives. Vieux-Chauvet (1916–73) was in New York (where she died) at the time of publication, and her husband in Paris, although on his return he bought up copies already distributed and destroyed them.

This new edition of Amour, Colère et folie by Zulma contains an Afterword by Dany Laferrière, the newest member of the Académie française, who recalls finding a pristine copy of the trilogy under some sheets in an old wardrobe of his mother's: the suggestion is that this was forty years ago.

Amour begins the trilogy and is the longest of the three. Central to the story are three sisters. The 39-year-old Claire Clarmont, an 'old maid' brought up by bourgeois, puritanical (even violent) parents who has never been allowed – or more correctly never allowed herself through timidity and lack of self-confidence (she's the only black member of the family) – to love a man, although her sexual frustration and her jealousy are crippling her. Middle sister Félicia is eight years younger and married to the Frenchman Jean Luze, who has had a sexual liaison with sister Annette, who at eight years younger than Félicia is the 'baby' of the family at 22.

Annette is sexually liberated, as opposed to her sister Claire, who is nevertheless the rebel of the family. Claire dreams of sex, and of being with Jean Luze. Towards the end – after Annette has found sexual contentment and appears to be happily married – Claire plans to kill Félicia and practises the crime by stabbing a cat. All of the above events, though, ignore the political backcloth which all the while threatens to engulf the personal. Power is now in the hands of the ignorant and the heartless.

Previously, Claire has said:

'In the horror of my solitude I've found out that society isn't worth a shit. It hides behind a wall of imbecilities. It is the principal thing that cripples freedom. To be born, to suffer, to grow old and to die resignedly, such is our lot as long as we don't rock the boat.'

In Vieux-Chauvet's trilogy, even people who don't rock the boat are summarily assassinated at the whim of 'le commandant' and his men. Or, like Claire's friend Dora are perhaps raped and mutilated to 'encourager les autres'. Or else they are driven mad like Claire, who envisages stabbing Félicia so she can have Jean Luze to herself, although she hits the wrong target – which is actually the right target, but that's another issue.

Colère leads us further into the nightmare that was Duvalier's Haiti. Men in black (the Tontons, of course) begin the novel by showing that freedom is now dead by driving stakes around the house of the Normils, in so doing effectively preventing them from gaining access to their lands, effectively robbing them of their lands. The house and lands are the grandfather Claude's birthright, and his son Louis goes to a solicitor (with his daughter Rose) in an attempt to reclaim the land. But Rose is of course intentionally there as bargaining power, and despite taking a huge amount of money, despite Rose being continually brutally raped by one man in black, the family will never get back its lands and some will be killed. All those who don't support the mindless, murderous régime are at risk.

Folie reduces things to basics: one at a time, four very hungry poets come together in a room lived in by René the narrator. They are afraid to venture outside for fear of being shot dead, there is no food and only white rum to drink. They go mad and are executed in the end.

To varying degrees, all three stories contain strong elements in the main title: love, anger and madness. The raw power of this book is unforgettable.

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