Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Love Anger Madness: Marie Vieux-Chauvet (Haiti)

Marie Vieux-Chauvet is considered by most to be Haiti's most celebrated writers, and reading this book it is easy to see why. Born in 1916 to parents of mixed heritage, the book was written in exile in the United States during the mid 1960's, around the time that I was born. The author died in exile in 1973.

Along with the other books that I have read as part of this challenge, I found that this book broadened my knowledge of Haiti considerably, encouraging me to explore more about its history and problems from all perspectives. I did not for instance realise that Haiti is the only country in the world which was borne from a slave rebellion. This fact alone tells you a great deal.

This book though, which is often called a trilogy, consists of three novellas, or short novels, each named after one of the three emotions of Love, Anger and Madness. The overriding theme of all three is that of fear and of what happens when it is allowed to take root and become part of the national identity. The characters in each of these books each live in fear of their leaders, and the community at large, which is to say, their own countrymen, and under this pervasive threat we see that even the stongest of family bonds begins to break down.

Vieux-Chauvet did an amazing job of portraying what life was like in her country during those times, depicting the fear and the oppression that her people felt, along with the love, anger and madness that went alongside. Each book is different, yet each book is the same, presenting these same truths in different ways to help her readers, and indeed the world, to understand. I am sure that this was not her intention, but to me at least, this book can be viewed as a reflection of the inner turmoil that we all face, with our myriad of emotions, as we confront our own madness until all that remains is love, the title of the first novella.

Love then, introduces us to Claire, the oldest and the darkest (in terms of skin colour) of three mixed race sisters. Because of her dark skin and oppressive upbringing, Claire remains a frustrated virgin at the age of 39, who lives and works as a servant to her younger sisters. Love takes the form of Claire's diary, as a testament to her hidden passions that she is unable to express in real life. One of these passions is for the husband of her youngest sister.

As the story evolves, so too does Claire. Her infatuation with her French, white skinned brother in law, and the jealousy that she harbours towards her younger siblings gradually gives way to feelings of greater self worth, as she comes to realise that she is indeed an active participant in her own destiny.

Anger as the second novella, is perhaps the most complex, and for me at least, the most difficult (at least initially) read. It follows the path of an entire family, whose land is illegally siezed by the so-called black-shirts. As they appear on the family's land, a devastating chain of events is set in place, which ultimately results in the death of at least two family members.

Each member deals with the issues in their own way - some through as the title suggests, anger, some through fantasy, some through alcholism and some through martydrom. The central figure is the daughter Rose, who allows herself to be raped (is this then really rape?) every day for a month by the black-shirts leader, in exchange for proof that the land is indeed theirs. What she chooses to experience (and it is her choice), is a symbol of the corruption and violence that Haitians at that time all faced, under the infamous Duvalier dictatorship, where the entire nation's future rested on their own ability to turn a blind eye and effectively be raped.

The third of the three novellas, Madness, centres on a group of poets, in particular Rene, who barricades himself into his hut for a period of eight days. During this time, he is joined by various poet friends, each of whom experiences their own issues of starvation, fear and eventual madness. During this time they are terrorised by beings that they refer to as "Devils", who are again synonymous with the so-called black-shirts. The poets are ultimately on a quest to reconcile the two halves of their personality, the dichotomy that we all face - the anger and despair that we experience both within and without, and also the beauty, in this case expressed through their poems.

Despite their apparent criticism of the country that Vieux-Chauvet undoubtedly loved, this wonderful book is also testament to the strength and resilience of the Haitian people. It may not be the cheapest of books (this Kindle editon that I read cost more than £12), but the best books in my experience, never are. This is without doubt, a book that I would wholeheartedly reccommend.

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