In 1968 Haiti had been under the regime of the self-proclaimed “president for life,” François Duvalier (Papa Doc) for eleven years. The once country doctor now had the pulse of the entire country under his commanding finger. With the help of his “tonton,” Duvalier had suppressed any notion or attempt of critique or opposition. In the midst of such fierce dictatorship that left Haiti’s poor-class still economically devastated and a bourgeois class under constant threat Marie Vieux-Chavuet, a writer and member of Haiti’s elite bourgeoise society, had a book published that would forever change the course of her career and her life.
Love, Anger, Madness is a trilogy that takes the reader on a psychological journey through Haiti at the time of severe political, social, and economic tensions. We are introduced to an “old maid,” a student, and a poet. Through each story Chauvet allows us into the hearts, the minds, and the fears of those under the Duvalier regime. Of course the story is set decades before Duvalier enters office, but that fact is was not enough to save Chauvet from having to leave her country in self-imposed exile. Love, Anger, Madness is not only a tale that harps on the cruelty of Duvalier, it is also a novel that challenges the conventionality of women and critiques the colorism that plagued Haiti’s bourgeoise society.
The first two stories (Love, and, Anger) are Chauvet’s most developed and engaging tales with two phenomenally round and complex characters. In the first tale we are presented with Claire Clamont, a dark-skinned mulatto, who is the head of her family. Claire’s tale is written in the form of a diary and exposes her struggle and ultimate rejection of an oppressive bourgeois society that has left her sexually, mentally, and emotionally unstimulated well into her forties. Claire’s erotic fantasies are played out by her younger sister, and foil, Annette, who is physically able to do all of the things Claire only scribbles in her diary or acts out in the privacy of her bedroom or the sanctuary of her mind. Both women are on opposite spectrums of shades, age, and sexual prowess, but through both of them Marie delivers us independent, opinionated, and sexually expressive women. Chauvet also reveals to us the ways in which their society punishes them and the other women in town whether virgin or presumed slut.
Chauvet continues this question of sexual agency in the complex tale of Rose, who is the daughter of a well-to-do mulatto man profiting off of the land of his black grandfather. Chauvet continues her examination of a crumbling middle-class at the hands of a once poor black dictator—we are confronted with a class of people once boisterous and comfortable in their pride now silenced and confined by it. When Rose’s family’s land is under threat of being seized the men in her family are in a panic of what to do and relegated to pathetic passivity while Rose places the heavy responsibility upon her slim shoulders. Using the sexuality that was once perversely taunted by her father she has turned her body into her most valuable weapon for fighting against the threat to her father’s property. In a society where sex is battered for protection we witness one girl’s desperation and determination to protect her family.
It is the third story (Maddness) that seems awkwardly out of place as we spend most of the time cramped in the shack with a paranoid poet, who is neither apart of the aristocratic nor middle class. It is a tale that jarringly breaks from Marie’s assumed building comparison of female sexual suppression and agency under violent political dictatorship. But nevertheless it serves as a further critique of the vicious and silencing tactic Duvalier’s regime practiced against those who did not appear to comply with his ruling. This last story, unintentionally, serves as an erie premonition of what could have possibly become Chauvet’s life had she not fled Haiti before the book’s publishing.
Marie’s whip-smart language will effortlessly pull you into her existentialist tale of extreme violence and oppression and the ways in which individuals contort themselves in order to survive. She unzips the skin of her characters and allows the reader to travel their troubled, desperate, and complex minds. Love, Anger, Madness is as much of a critique on Duvalier’s regime as it is a critique of conventionality, gender roles, women’s sexuality, religion, class, and western influence. Like the women Chauvet writes she is a martyr for her country. Chauvet delivers a novel as richly textured, tragic, and triumphant as her beautiful country. Her work is as essential to the Haitian Literary tradition as Jacque Roumain and Jacques Steven Alexis.