Title: Memory At Bay
Author: Evelyne Trouillot
Translator: Paul Curtis Daw
Publisher: University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville & London (2015)
ISBN: 978 0 8139 3809 7
Extensive reading is not necessary to understand that Haiti has a complicated and troubling history. The brutal sugar plantations of Saint-Domingue, a nation formed out of the world’s first successful slave revolt, decades of precarious and corrupt governments, a devastating earthquake in 2010…time and again this country has had major obstacles thrown in its path. And yet, despite multiple barriers, its impact and population have extended far beyond the borders of what is a relatively small, still developing, island nation. By its tenacity alone Haiti is a place that inflames the imagination.
Alain Mabanckou wrote in Black Bazaar what is perhaps one of my favorite quotes about the Haitian people (and yes, I’ve used it before): “…These Haitian writers are like hunted birds. They’ve had more than thirty-two coups d’état back home and not a country in the world has equalled this record yet. With each coup d’état, flocks of writers have emigrated. They left everything behind, setting out with nothing apart from their manuscripts and their driving licence. I wish I’d been born Haitian so I could be a writer in exile who understands the song of the migrating bird, but I don’t have any manuscripts, or a driving licence to become, in the worst-case scenario, a taxi driver in the streets of Paris …”
Evelyne Trouillot is a writer who didn’t leave home. She is, for all intents, Haitian literary royalty. The daughter of a Haitian intellectual & lawyer, the niece of a historian, sister to a writer, an anthropologist and professor – Trouillot resides in Port-Au-Prince and is herself a teacher, novelist, and playwright. With her daughter and brother she co-founded Pré-texte, an institution which holds literacy and writing workshops. Memory At Bay is her second book to be translated into English.
Her main characters – two living, one dead – are members of the vast Haitian diaspora Mabanckou describes. Rather than art they instead grapple with their roles as mothers, daughters and wives – the less glamorous, traditional roles of women. Marie-Ange, the younger of the book’s two narrators, is employed as a caregiver in a facility in Martinique. She is in mourning for her mother, whose voice we hear only through Marie-Ange’s memories. Together they left Haiti when she was a very small child. Now she is an orphan and her relationship to her childhood home is entirely colored by the memories her mother shared of surviving a corrupt and brutal dictatorship.
While still very young, I became an expert at choosing inoffensive subjects, ones that wouldn’t provoke a long diatribe from you against the Doréval dictatorships or those rare silences that were the precursors of your days of utter prostration. But today I wonder whether my ploy accomplished much at all. Whether you, Maman, didn’t carry an inexpressible sadness with you to your grave. And whether I who vicariously experienced the despotic regime won’t always have it under my skin. I’ve heard so much about those people since my childhood – not only the Doréval family, but also the notorious henchmen with their revealing or deceptive nicknames, still evocative of terrible anecdotes long after their time: Ti Baba, Captain Henry Tobias, Evaris Maître, Chief Lanfè, Lucien Désir, Colonel Britton Claudius. They’ve become elements of my universe, so powerful a part of my mental space and of my memories that it seems to me I’ll never be able to escape them and will always remain captive to their ghosts.
As she works through her grief Marie-Ange finds herself caring for a Haitian woman of roughly her mother’s age. Odile’s identity is not discussed at the facility (we are told this is for her own protection), but Marie-Ange soon realizes exactly who she is caring for. Odile is the widow of one and the mother of another Haitian dictator – closely modeled after Papa & Baby Doc Duvalier. Hers is the book’s second narrative voice.
These two women – Marie-Ange & Odile – provide alternating, individual soliloquies on the Doréval/Duvalier regime. Marie -Ange addresses her mother, Odile her past. Over the course of the book a dialogue between them begins to take shape without their ever engaging each other in direct conversation. Trouillot writes about a particularly complicated time in a country with a peculiarly complicated history. Marie-Ange’s memories are second-hand, the collective experiences and stories bequeathed to her by her mother. Outside of her duties in the care facility she shares very little of her life. As she expresses in the passage above, she is held captive by ghosts.
Odile’s memories are, by contrast, entirely singular and skewed. Her position as wife of the president was unique. Her life privileged and sheltered. She was, in a sense, the monster’s darling. Now at the end of her life, Odile finds a need to justify her actions or, at the very least, the actions of others through which she benefitted. Odile’s version of events, growing more and more desperate and defensive as the novel progresses, is ultimately meant for Marie-Ange. Or, more specifically, what Marie-Ange has come to represent: absolution. In a sense, both women are relaying false memories. It is only when taken together that their words form a story that more completely resembles the truth.
On bad days, Fabien would tirelessly repeat the names of all those he needed to eliminate. As if to dare his listeners to instigate a plot of some kind. The names rolled on, with no need to evoke at much length the circumstances attached to each: they all pertained to former friendships. A wife with whom she had discussed hairstyles and fashion, youngsters who had played with the Doréval children. Sometimes they would learn that the father of a child to whom they had just given a birthday present had taken refuge in a Latin American embassy. Had received a fusillade in the back while trying to escape arrest. Had perished along with his entire family during an abortive uprising in the course of which the VSN had again proved worthy of the president’s confidence. Over the years she had learned not to recall the sweet little faces, to close her mind’s eye so as not to visualize the expression of terror on a known face. She had put on the impenetrable mask of the photos and official ceremonies. Over the years it had become so easy. AS usual, she wanted to banish all nagging qualms and retain only the thoughts that would facilitate her journey back in time, but she could only manage to take the whole bundle of memories with her into an unquiet sleep.
As Marie-Ange comes to terms with her grief and Odile with her past, Memory At Bay attempts to come to terms with the Haitian diaspora. Or, at the very least, explore what it means to be far from a home which has become more to do with an abstract idea than a geographic place. Troillot thoughtfully deals with the question of how, when a third of a country’s population lives outside its borders, do Haitians define and maintain their relationship to Haiti? Paul Curtis Daw has thoughtfully translated two distinct, feminine voices – one old and the other young – which complement one another while retaining their individuality. Memory At Bay is a small masterpiece: a sensitive, skillfully written novel with nuanced and sympathetic characters which satisfies on multiple levels.