Posted by: ghostdawg2 | September 8, 2009

Love, Anger, and Madness: A Haitian Trilogy by Marie Vieux-Chauvet Review by Michelle Bailat-Jones

In 1968, Haitian writer Marie Vieux-Chauvet published her fourth novel, Amour, Colère et Folie (Love, Anger, and Madness) with the French publisher Gallimard. The furor that arose upon the novel’s publication resulted in Vieux-Chauvet’s exile to New York and the destruction of most of the remaining copies of the book.

The book was highly critical of Haiti’s 1960s political and social situation, specifically of the oppressive Duvalier regime. Vieux-Chauvet died in exile in 1973, and aside from aficionados and scholars of Caribbean literature and history, the book appeared destined for obscurity until 2005 when another French publisher, Emina Soleil, re-issued the work. Now, Love, Anger, and Madness is available for the first time in English, published by The Modern Library.

Often called a trilogy, Love, Anger, and Madness is actually a triptych of three thematically connected novellas. The overarching preoccupation of all three stories centers on the idea of fear as a force of social destruction. Vieux-Chauvet’s characters live in fear of their political and community leaders and, ultimately, of their neighbors and friends. Even the tightest family unit warps and deforms under the influence of this pervasive fear. The novel’s stories create a three-paneled portrait of what Haitian society had become by the mid 1960s—impoverished, environmentally ravaged, chaotic and violent.

The first novella, Love, introduces us to the heroine, Claire, the oldest of the three Clamont sisters. As the darkest of her sisters, her name is ironic; peau Claire means light-skinned in French. Because of her dark skin and an oppressive upbringing, Claire is still a frustrated virgin at 39, one who lives as a servant in her own home, effaced and enraged. love is Claire’s diary, a testament to the passionate interior life she hides from everyone around her.

Through her writing, Claire evolves. First concerned with the small dramas within her household—her middle sister’s marriage and younger sister’s love affairs, her own infatuation with her white French brother-in-law—she soon becomes interested in the greater socio-political tragedy at work in her small town. Claire starts to manipulate her surroundings, moving slowly outward from her inner circle, and Vieux-Chauvet makes Claire’s transformation from invisible puppet master to active community participant something greater than one woman’s self-actualization; Claire is a symbol of a much larger and significant rebellion.

Anger is perhaps the most complicated of the three novellas, as it follows an entire family, compared to Love’s focus on just one character. The Normils are middle class landowners in Port-au-Prince who wake up one morning to discover squatters—militia men in black uniforms—taking over their land. Although Vieux-Chauvet never calls these men by name, they are Duvalier’s famous Tonton Macoutes, and their appearance on the Normil property sets a devastating series of events in motion.

As its title suggests, Anger is about this emotion—as a destructive illness. Each member of the Normil family finds a different expression for their rage: the grandfather and youngest son in fantasy, the father in self-abnegation, the mother in alcoholism, the daughter in martyrdom, and the son in misplaced heroism. Vieux-Chauvet focuses a particular lens on her female characters, and so Rose Normil, the family’s 20-year-old daughter, becomes the central figure in this story. What Rose must suffer epitomizes the pure corruption and violence of the political system at that time: the entire family’s future rests on her willingness to be raped for an entire month by one of the militia leaders.

The triptych’s third novella, Madness, centers around a starving poet named René. Although each of Love, Anger, and Madness’s three stories addresses the tension inherent in Haiti’s black/white/mulatto social stratification as well as the antagonism between its traditional Vodou religion and Catholicism, Madness also zeroes in on the schizophrenic nature of those conflicting traditions. René barricades himself in his home for eight days and takes the reader through a series of intricate monologues illustrating how this cultural and religious hybridism has become a principle cause of Haiti’s tragedy.

During this time, three other poets arrive at René’s small shack, each in an equally distressing state of starvation, fear and impending madness. They are terrorized by the appearance of what they call “devils”—again another word for the Tonton Macoutes—and this fear begins to silence their muse. The men are on a quest for beauty amidst the violence and ugliness around them, and the impossibility of reconciling those two realities serves to deepen their psychic rupture. Only Jacques, the youngest and most fragile of the poets, manages to create anything at all, only to lose consciousness upon finishing his poems. Madness ends with an inevitable, final example of how self-serving violence becomes when it has been allowed to take over as the only reliable social structure.

Love, Anger, and Madness also demonstrates Vieux-Chauvet’s impressive stylistic range. The diary technique in Love renders Claire, an otherwise despicable and dangerous woman, sympathetic. Granting the reader such unfiltered access to her thoughts reveals the complex nature of her situation and the influence of her troubled past. Vieux-Chauvet’s confident use of the third-person omniscient in Anger places each family member within the reader’s confidence. Yet suddenly, halfway through this second novella, Vieux-Chauvet switches into two back-to-back monologues by siblings Paul and Rose. These two narratives are powerful laments, swan songs about the dashed hopes and disillusionment of a generation of Haitian youth. And finally, Madness reads much like a play, with clear echoes of Greek drama, a technique which highlights the “staged” or “forced” quality of the very violence the story seeks to indict.

Despite its severe criticism of Haitian society, Love, Anger, and Madness is also very much a testament to a beloved country. Vieux-Chauvet’s tender and sympathetic descriptions of both the landscape and the people (on all sides of its complicated conflict) make this triptych a powerful emotional journey through a ravaged but well-loved landscape.

Michelle Bailat-Jones is a freelance translator and writer. The holder of an MFA from Emerson College, she blogs on literature at Incurable Logophilia.

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