Living Nowhere, Writing Disaster

February 2012

Marvin Victor and Corps mêlés

The writing of disaster seems an apposite term to apply to post-earthquake Haitian writing. The phrase recalls the title of Maurice Blanchot’s 1980 work L’Ecriture du désastre, which has been used by certain critics to refer to Haitian literature, both before and after the earthquake.1 There is to some extent a critical expectation that the “writing of disaster” should bear in formal terms the physical and stylistic marks of catastrophe: prose will be “fractured” or “fragmented,” or will otherwise show signs of rupture and violence. Short fiction may be a genre particularly suited to or representative of this fractured style: the sharp blasts of narrative from many different voices in, for instance, Edwidge Danticat’s edited collection Haiti Noir are suggestive of the difficulty of conceptualizing longer fiction at such a short remove from the earthquake.2 Also, with such a collection and with other post-earthquake edited volumes one senses that no single person can own the event or its memory, and that it is something to be shared and pieced together collectively.3 It could moreover be said that the short fiction mode has been the dominant genre in recent and contemporary Haitian fiction. Lyonel Trouillot writes short novels that could be categorized as long novellas, while Dany Laferrière’s books are made up of episodic, fragmented narratives, and Danticat, Yanick Lahens, Evelyne Trouillot, and Gary Victor are accomplished short story writers. Given the critical expectation for fragmented style and the apparent aptness of shorter fiction to the “writing of disaster,” one might have thought that the great novels of the earthquake, those written on an epic, expansive scale, would take time to compose, and that they would not begin to appear for years or decades to come.

Marvin Victor’s Corps mêlés confounds these expectations in spectacular fashion.4 A long, dense, fluid piece of prose fiction, it speaks of disaster in a style that bears little relation to the dominant modes in contemporary Haitian writing. The book’s style seems to owe more to non-Haitian writers—such as Edouard Glissant, Maryse Condé, Patrick Chamoiseau, Gabriel García Márquez, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, William Faulkner, and even Honoré de Balzac—in the attention paid to detailed descriptions of objects, than to the established Haitian authors. These influences say much about the book’s ambitious scope and sophisticated style, which, although new in a sense to Haitian writing, owe much to established modes in other traditions and create a feeling that the new in this case is conceived with at least one eye on tradition and an ear finely attuned to the rhythms of classical prose writing.

Published in the Gallimard Blanche collection, the novel joins a very select group of Caribbean works thus recognized by Paris’s most prestigious literary imprint; and as such Victor finds himself in the lofty company of figures such as Glissant, Jacques Stephen Alexis, Marie Chauvet, Saint-John Perse, and René Depestre. That this is Victor’s first novel makes the work all the more impressive and unexpected. The earthquake invites the use of metaphors of rupture and seismic shifts, and it does seem that in Victor Haitian writing has a remarkable, new, and original author, one who was born, one might say, from the disaster and whose work marks a new and distinctive mode, written as it were from the other side of the fault line.

It is perhaps fitting then that the book opens with a birth, that of the narrator Ursula Fanon, in the coastal village of Baie-de-Henne in the mid-1960s. The birth, however, is also a kind of death in that the narrator’s godmother describes to her an infernal scene in which she came into being, “like others enter into hell,” she says (13). Flashing forward to the present, we learn that the earthquake has taken the life of Ursula’s daughter, who lies beneath the rubble of their home, and whose death the narrator seeks to announce through her narrative, a task that is deferred throughout the novel as her story oscillates between the past and the present, one time period radically separated from and yet intimately connected to the other. Fascinatingly, too, the time of the earthquake is already referred to as a past time, “that period,” she says, as if the event seems at once recent and to have occurred a long time previously (60). Time in this sense contracts and expands in her memory, as it seeks to record, process, and express the intense trauma that the earthquake has added to her already difficult relationship to the past.

Her daughter deceased, Ursula goes through the ruined city to the home of her childhood friend Simon Madère, who came to Port-au-Prince three years after she did, at the end of the 1970s. She had seen him on a few occasions and heard pieces of information about him during that time: he was earning a good salary as a photographer but was still as fragile as he had always been, drinking and smoking as a balm for the difficulty he had in “grappling with life” (36). Simon is the only remaining link to her past, to the childhood they spent together in Baie-de-Henne. Almost instinctively, she seeks him out to “find him again,” realizing, however, that “one never rediscovers neither others nor oneself” (44). As such, what she perhaps seeks to rediscover, or at least feel once again, is something of the phantom of their shared past, to sense the people they were and indeed the ghosts of themselves that they have become.

The narrator’s dialogue with Simon is characterized by silences; indeed, the narration is closer to an interior monologue in which Ursula records what she wanted or intended to say or what she thought she said to Simon. “I have lost my daughter,” she wanted to say to him first, but all she reveals is her identity (49). The night of 12 January becomes a kind of wake, during which the two sit behind their “wall of silence,” which to Ursula is “worth more than words” (57). Ursula is a “revenant” (212), a ghost that returns through her narrative as much to her own previous self as to Simon, who remains in more or less complete silence, which seems to her like a “challenge,” a way of forgetting oneself, and above all “a refusal of any and all act of memory” (192). Their encounter leads her to reflect that “to remember is perhaps a waste of time and the most horrible crime that one commits on oneself and on others” (200). Their bodies—the corps mêlés of the book’s title—carry the memory of their entangled pasts and contain historical narratives that link them to the past and to each other. Ursula suggests this when she talks of her daughter and how her lips were like Ursula’s own, her laughter was that of Ursula’s aunt, her eyes were her grandfather’s, and her hips were like Ursula’s mother’s. Thus, she says, her daughter was nothing but “the sum of the multiple echoes of my dead, the result of a sort of puzzle of blood and flesh, and had nothing that belonged to her alone” (242). Identity is not in this sense a discrete, singular phenomenon, but a complex amalgam of different parts, inherited from the past and communicated principally through the body. Any individual is a kind of revenant, a repetition of lives that have come before. In a sense, this is why Ursula finds it difficult to mourn her daughter, or even to announce her death. What is distinctive about and what is the value of a single death, she seems to wonder, when there are so many other people lying dead, their stories and bodies entangled and apparently undifferentiated?

In fact, Ursula only begins to mourn when she realizes the limits of this entangled, bodily identity. This happens during a fundraising event held in the courtyard below Simon’s apartment two days after the earthquake, when Ursula sees a woman that she at first thinks resembles her and her daughter. However, when she dances with the woman, she realizes that she was mistaken. “You don’t look like her at all, in fact,” she says to the woman (246). Following this realization, Ursula leaves the dance and begins to run away from the scene, tears of sorrow finally filling her eyes. It is only when she becomes aware of her daughter’s individuality that she can in a sense extricate her body from the hundreds of thousands of others and begin to mourn her as an individual. Her great fear—and no doubt that of many other grieving Haitians—is that her daughter’s body be taken away in a truck to a communal grave, “mixing [her] body with the others.” (247). As Ursula runs away from the apartment, she imagines her daughter already returned to Baie-de-Henne, and herself running to join her there, to the house of the daughter’s grandparents, who had only known the daughter through photographs. As Ursula imagines herself reunited with her daughter at the family home, she begins to tell her the story of her family through the photographs that hang there. The first photograph is of the grandparents posing formally in their garden; the second is of the aunt, Ursula’s godmother, “majestic” in her Sunday clothing; the third is of Ursula’s mother, barefoot on a beach, smiling but with in her eyes the “mark of sadness” that was always there; the fourth and final photograph is of Ursula herself, looking “very unassuming” against a background of green plants with, in her arms, her daughter, naked, she says, like a winged cherub in an Italian Renaissance painting (248–49). Ursula’s final wish, as she addresses and names her daughter for the first time in the novel, is that the wings grow not for her—Ursula—who remains “in falsehood,” but for the daughter—Marie-Carmen Fanon—who is “in truth,” and whom Ursula will now only see, she says, “in the fires of a January sunset,” in the echo of that day of which the novel stands as a remarkable, lyrical, and finally beautiful testimony.


Marvin Victor—interview (conducted via e-mail, 23 January 2012)

(The original French is available here.)

Martin Munro: Could you introduce yourself to our readers? Who are you? Where have you spent your life? Where do you live just now?

Marvin Victor: I was born in December 1981 in Port-au-Prince. I live between Haiti, the United States, and France. So really, I live nowhere: I make my way in and through language, in and through creation. . . .

MM: At what age and in what conditions did you begin to write?

MV: I began writing very early, around the age of thirteen or fourteen. I did so feverishly, in a sort of sweet madness related to the feeling I had for language, the sentences, the stories that I was reading at the time; I did not know what was happening to me, it was like I had fallen ill; a violent, incurable illness with which I have learned to live. . . .

MM: Which authors, Haitian and others, have inspired you?

MV: Jacques Stephen Alexis, Proust, Céline, Balzac, Borges, Faulkner, Joyce, Kundera, García Márquez, and many others. I take my prompts from them. For, in my opinion, every writer needs a literary memory, if you don’t have one it’s a waste of time. There are no spontaneous writers.

MM: When did you begin to write Corps mêlés ?

MV: I was taking notes on the central character, Ursula Fanon, well before the earthquake. This woman existed in my imaginative world, my imagination. She floated as others do in my mind, in my notebooks, while I was writing another novel, with a younger female character. But, at a certain point, Ursula Fanon shot out of the shadows and imposed herself on me. So I left this other novel to pass on to Corps mêlés, which I wrote quite quickly, no doubt because the character of this woman was better prepared, with the violence of her lyricism, her propensity for a kind of restrained melancholy, and her gift for dreaming. . . .

MM: How did the earthquake change the writing of this novel and your approach to literature more generally?

MV: The earthquake did not change much, not even the setting. What it did change was the atmosphere of the city that the protagonists seem to want to talk about, and from which they cannot completely escape. Even if the whole story takes place behind closed doors, in an apartment that has survived the earthquake, and in the past—that is in the childhood, in the village of Baie-de-Henne—of this woman Ursula and the man that she went to see and to whom she recounts her life in the form of a long interior monologue marked by the violence of its subject matter, a violence which for her is a means of breathing, a connecting thread, and indeed a form of pride and dignity. For I believe that literature is a matter of language, a relentless working with language, and is not about any event, even though one needs, of course, a pretext, a kind of platform to carry the language.

MM: What does it mean for you to publish your first novel in Gallimard’s “Collection Blanche”?

MV: For me, it means entering by the main door into the court of the greats, such as: Proust, J. M. G. Le Clézio, Sartre, Claudel, Saint-John Perse, Malraux, Kundera, and many others. This collection is the one in which every writer who writes in French would like to publish, no doubt for reasons of prestige, and for the proximity to these great, world-renowned authors who shaped the history of French literature in the twentieth century. The pull of this collection is enormous, to the point that each year many thousands of authors send their manuscripts to Editions Gallimard, in the hope that they will end up in the prestigious “Blanche” collection.

MM: You are also a filmmaker and painter. What links do you see between the three forms of creation?

MV: It’s more or less the same thing. They are all very physical. There is just a difference in the medium. I move from one form to the other, and sometimes I mix them up.

MM: What are you writing just now? What are your short- and medium-term plans?

MV: I am completing a novel just now, and following that I intend to do some film work.


Martin Munro is Professor of French and Francophone studies at Florida State University. His recent publications include Different Drummers: Rhythm and Race in the Americas (California, 2010) and Edwidge Danticat: A Reader’s Guide (Virginia, 2010). He has a forthcoming volume co-edited with Celia Britton titled American Creoles: The Francophone Caribbean and the American South (Liverpool, 2012), and is currently working on the theme of the apocalypse in the Caribbean.      


1 See, for example, Martin Munro, Exile and Post-1946 Haitian Literature: Alexis, Depestre, Ollivier, Laferrière, Danticat (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007): 244–48; and Deborah Jenson, “The Writing of Disaster in Haiti: Signifying Cataclysm from Slave Revolution to Earthquake,” in Martin Munro, ed., Haiti Rising: Haitian History, Culture and the Earthquake of 2010 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press / Kingston: University of West Indies Press, 2010): 104–5.

2 Edwidge Danticat, ed., Haiti Noir (New York: Akashic Books, 2010). Three of the stories in Haiti Noir were written following the earthquake.

3 See, for instance, Haïti: Parmi les vivants; Pour soutenir Haïti (Arles: Actes Sud, 2010); Nathalie Friszman, ed., Le serpent à plumes pour Haïti (Paris: Du Rocher, 2010); Suzanne Dracius , ed., Pour Haïti (Paris: Desnel, 2010); Pierre Buteau, Rodney Saint-Eloi, and Lyonel Trouillot, eds., Refonder Haïti? (Montreal: Mémoire d’encrier, 2010); and Martin Munro, Haiti Rising: Haitian History, Culture, and the Earthquake of 2010 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press / Kingston: University of West Indies Press, 2010).

4 Marvin Victor, Corps mêlés (Paris: Gallimard, 2011). Hereafter cited in the text.


Related Articles