Chauvet's Amour: Dark Claire in small town hell . . .
New Yorker Marie Vieux Chauvet's "Amour, Colere et Folie" trilogy was finally re-published this year after decades of muzzled oblivion. The first story "Amour" is a delight and an ethnographic jewel. This is a woman-centered haitian novel written by a most adventurous writer, a controversial pioneer whose vivacious and uncensored prose angered many. Chauvet passed away in New York in 1973, as critically acclaimed Edwidge Danticat turned 4, and almost 20 years before the launch of the Women Writers of Haitian Descent (WWOHD) collective.
"Amour" is a must-read for caribbeanists who want to get a handle on post-occupation Haiti (read post-1934). It is also a good read for those French readers --nope, no English translation yet-- who like a good well-told story. The protagonist Claire narrates the prelude to the Papa Doc years as lived by a peculiarly Jeremie reminiscing southern town and its "white mulatto" bourgeoisie; that strata's women and their strategies in coping or not with sexual repression; its unease with dark-skinned upward mobility and its own downward mobility; its ambiguous relations with desirable and not-so-desirable Others including Americans, Frenchmen, Syrians and peasants; the heightened violence of the pre-Papa Doc years and so on.
To her proxy-white family's distress, and despite her name's connotations, Claire has the mahogany skin of her paternal great-grandmother. Her sisters Felicia and Annette are respectively a pale blond and a barely-sun-kissed blue-eyed brunette. Claire's skin tone, a bad card dealt by the genetic lottery, contradicts generations of selective mating on the part of her ancestors. Still, Claire is the oldest and probably the smartest of her sisters, and her milky-skinned Dad has groomed her to succeed him in managing the family's coffee fields and its workers.
Unlike her sisters, Claire is the sacrificial virgin who never marries, the archetypal old maid stuck in a paralyzing bind. She's respected as a seasoned oldest, enjoys a certain authority and finds herself echoing and even enforcing the clan's imagined endogamous traditions despite her own dark skin. Simultaneously, she has a hard time dealing with her sexual and creative repression and finds many of her peers' prejudices revolting. She lives out her repressed longings for escape and adventure through an obsession with Jean Luze, Felicia's French husband, a handsome world war veteran who collects music and books. Her voyeurism is her only sexual outlet and she experiences her sexuality vicariously through her sisters, particularly through Annette whom she pushes into Jean Luze's arms.
I'm still working through the book's many layers so expect many more posts on various aspects of it in days to come. Unfortunately, the book has not yet been put into english but if yours truly can help it, we'll be lobbying for that shortly. (Wink-wink.) I'm well aware that Lilas Desquiron's Reflections of Loko Miwa also deals with pre-1964 massacre Jeremie but haven't read it yet so we'll have to draw parallels later. Should be fun!