Memory At Bay by Evelyne Trouillot, tr. Paul Curtis Daw

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

Trouillot_Memory_Select.inddExtensive 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:  “…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.

 

Detective Story by Imre Kertész (translated from the original Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson)

The Hungarian-Jewish author, Imre Kertész, received the 2002 Nobel Prize for Literature.  He’s a survivor of Auschwitz, currently resides in Berlin and is 82 years old.  Detective Story was published in 1972 and at 112 pages can (more correctly) be considered a novella.

It’s always interesting picking up a book by a Nobel Prize Laureate…  I’m never sure what to expect.

Detective Story takes place in an unidentified country, which immediately gives everything an unreal, fable-like quality.  The narrator is Antonio Martens, one of three former members of the “secret police” working directly for the government (which I believe is a dictatorship headed by a mysterious figure referred to as “the Colonel”).  The story is about a past case, a situation Martens was involved in at the beginning of his career.

At its center is Enrique Salinas, the son of a prominent businessman.  His father has remained lucrative under the current regime – as, we are given to understand, he has under past regimes.  This has been accomplished through avoiding politics and political ideology – by not taking sides or passing judgement.  Easier to say plainly – he kept his head down.  The son, Enrique, wants to take a different path. He has convinced himself that his life has no meaning unless he joins those opposing the dictator. Interestingly Kertész does not seem to hold the boy or his élan in particularly high regard, despite Enrique’s moral righteousness.  Or perhaps it is Martens who looks down on the boy, as the story is being presented to us from his perspective.  Either way – Enrique’s convictions are portrayed as foolish, stemming from an lack of purpose and boredom.  No one takes him seriously.

Until the secret police learn of “an impending atrocity” and begin watching Enrique.  Eventually they will arrest him, his father and question all their known associates.  Salinas, father and son, will be tortured.  Circumstances are set into motion and the cogs of the machine begin moving with frightening efficiency. Victims and perpetrators alike are powerless to shut it down.

All this is being told to us long after the events described have transpired. Frequently Martins refers to himself as the “new boy”, as if this will in some way absolve him. The dictator he served under is no longer in power, one of his partners is dead and the other has fled.  Martens’ future appears uncertain.  Kertész reveals all this slowly through asides and allusions.  The reader quickly comes to understand that Martens is recounting only one horror among many – and quite probably not the worst that he and his colleagues perpetrated.  These acts were not fueled by hate, a sense of morality or political motivations – Martens simply performed a job.  It is the most chilling component of the plot: as the story unravels the reader comes to see that Martens sensed something was amiss, yet chose to do nothing.  He, like the elder Salinas, is guilty of indifference and acquiescence.

This mirroring of victim and perpetrator, along with the inevitability of ones fate, give Detective Story all the trappings of a Greek (or Shakespearean) tragedy.  The book is undeniably political, but in the end both the idealist and pragmatist suffer.  Testament, perhaps, to the arbitrariness of absolute power and corruption.

Where Detective Story fails for me is in its most important character.  Antonio Martens makes an unconvincing (not to be confused with unreliable, though he’s probably that as well) narrator. He and his partners are brutes, bullies and thugs – inarguably.  But they lack that additional layer that identifies them as “police”.  For example, when they tell a suspect during interrogation that he’s “been rumbled” do they mean “rolled on”?  Would these men, who I just described as thugs and bullies, refer to attack on the regime as an “upcoming atrocity”?  Or look at this passage, which inexplicably makes an obscure American reference for no apparent reason –

The shaggy-haired weirdos all went into hiding.  We circulated their details nationally but with about as much success as if we had been searching for, let’s say, for half a dozen irregularly yellow-striped Colorado beetles in a twenty-five-thousand-acre field of potatoes.

I can’t say for certain whether or not Imre Kertész wrote about Colorado beetles – still, it feels completely random, don’t you think? And jolting, as up until this point the author has completely obscured the setting.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what went wrong.  I don’t read Hungarian, so I can’t speak with any authority.  But the translation reads as if stilted.  In addition to what is described above, other word choices appear awkward – often they feel too literal.

Language aside, Detective Story isn’t badly written. The mood, the message and the philosophical questions Kertész poses are all interesting and exceedingly well-handled.  He leaves much to the reader’s intelligence and imagination – which I believe is exactly how to develop this type of narrative.  But, because we’ve been given a weak and implausible narrative voice, whatever Kertész seeks to accomplish has been severely handicapped.  I couldn’t emotionally invest in Antonio Martens.  Or, consequently, in the story he tells.

Publisher:  Vintage Books, London (2009).
ISBN:  978 0 099 52339 0

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