Reckoning with Impunity

October 2016

Frankétienne, Ready to Burst, trans. Kaiama L. Glover (Brooklyn: Archipelago, 2014); 162 pages; ISBN 978-1935744788 (paperback)

Évelyne Trouillot, Memory at Bay, trans. Paul Curtis Daw (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015); 152 pages; ISBN 978-0813938097 (paperback)

Frankétienne’s Ready to Burst and Évelyne Trouillot’s Memory at Bay constitute short but stunning novels that recount—or, rather, process—the father-son dictatorship of François and Jean-Claude Duvalier in Haiti (1957–86). At the intersection of literary genres—the more established novel and more recent prose fiction referred to as testimonial or commemorational—both texts, translated from the French, offer English-speaking readerships new perspectives on what it means to experience the contradictory lived experiences and multigenerational and transnational aftermaths of dictatorship. Each novel’s experimentation with narrative convention breaks open hitherto unspeakably traumatizing experiences, giving the readers who are closer to the experience of dictatorship the permission to explore the specific iteration of their horror. For both readers familiar and readers unfamiliar with the lived experience of totalitarianism, each novel also expands the vocabulary necessary not just to name such trauma but also to begin to understand and heal from it.

Frankétienne’s Ready to Burst, published by Archipelago—a publishing house committed to poetic prose and whose books are tactical treasures, printed on gorgeous paper—was written in Haiti during the Duvalier dictatorship. Like Marie Chauvet’s triptych, Love, Anger, Madness, also first published in 1968, the plot of Ready to Burst does not necessarily correspond to the dates of the dictatorship. Instead, the novel recounts the oppressively insular hell of what it means to live in a poverty-stricken environment whose governing elite does not see that in actively undermining its citizens’ ability to become self-sustaining, it digs its own grave: economically, intellectually, and existentially. Most important, to read Ready to Burst almost fifty years after its first publication reminds us that the literary aesthetic trumps time and place, constantly providing its readers with new means by which to express the extreme joys and pains of our life experiences. Now, via Kaiama L. Glover’s exquisite translation of the novel, which she analyzed in her Haiti Unbound: A Spiralist Challenge to the Postcolonial Canon (2010), Ready to Burst propels its reader from page to page through its ability to rise and fall between macabre witticism and cathartic poetics, overwhelming the reader with the inebriating unsteadiness of language in its most extreme form.1 So whereas in most novels language serves to better communicate the characters’ humanity, in Ready to Burst the humanity of the two principal protagonists—Paulin and Raynand—is devastatingly dominated by the power of language, a force that while terrifically bewildering is also absolutely violent. It is both undecipherable and irrelevant whether Paulin and Raynand are the same person or are alter egos of each other or one is the protagonist of the other’s novel. In other words, Frankétienne purposefully creates confusion not only between the two male characters but also between himself and his fictional protagonists. As such, language itself becomes the ultimate protagonist, whereby language represents an intriguingly opaque and convoluted metaphor for the very oppressiveness of totalitarianism.

For its part, Évelyne Trouillot’s Memory at Bay, published by the University of Virginia Press—which has consistently translated works from the francophone Americas into English—offers the alternating points of view of two women: Odile, the aging Haitian dictator’s widow who because of health issues finds herself bedridden for a period of time, and Marie-Ange, the nurse who has been assigned to take care of her. Although the Duvalier family names do not appear, the details that the novel attributes to Odile are so similar to actual events that it becomes clear that Odile is meant to represent Simone Duvalier, François Duvalier’s spouse. The plot takes place in a nursing home in France. The reader knows that the nurse is of Haitian descent and that she has been educated in the French Antilles, but her patient, the dictator’s widow, is unaware of the nurse’s origins. The alternating narratives consist of reflections that each woman has while in the other’s company. While they do not communicate in the conventional sense, it seems both for the reader and for the two protagonists that the two women are literally reading each other’s thoughts. The novel’s tour de force is its orchestration of the narratives. Odile’s narrative takes place in the third person, but a third person that seems to refer to itself, a third person that knows Odile’s inner thoughts better than she does herself: “How she scorned women who shrank behind their husbands, women who saw their charges as solely to obey” (111; italics in original). In contrast, Marie-Ange’s narrative takes place in the first person, an “I” that constantly invokes a “you,” her mother: “Nevertheless, you kept a diary until 1968. Every evening you retreated to a corner of the living room to scribble your thoughts in it, everything that was passing through your head” (28). Marie-Ange’s first-person narrative then becomes a dialogue with her deceased mother: as the novel unfolds, the direct address of the “you” progressively conflates itself with that of Odile. As such, the novel carefully orchestrates a folding of Marie-Ange’s mother’s experience with that of the Haitian dictatorship’s first lady: the former, who lost a brother to the dictator’s tyranny, and the latter, the widow of this very dictator. Forcefully, under the fluid translation of Paul Curtis Daw, Memory at Bay may be compared to, and brilliantly becomes an epistolary novel of, the silent and unarticulated free-indirect discourse of the two women.

Moreover, in adapting and amalgamating genres, Memory at Bay offers readers a possibility, a next step in the process of considering and healing from the multigenerational trauma of the Duvalier father-son dictatorship. For example, Memory at Bay is reminiscent of political treatises such as Machiavelli’s The Prince (1513–32), which deliberates on how to best leverage power, and notably evil, for the benefit of society. Also, given the kinship to the epistolary novel as well as the calculated and radically reversed power dynamics between the two women as regards youth, social standing, and access to material wealth, the novel calls to mind canonical works that record the lived experience of those in power, novels such as Dangerous Liaisons (1782). And, finally, Memory at Bay stands alongside the most treacherous explorations of the relationship between daughter and mother, notably of daughters and mothers of the African diaspora, torn apart by the vexed issues of race and poverty, novels such as Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban (1992), Maryse Condé’s Desirada (1997), and Mayra Montero’s The Messenger (1998). In crossing genres, Trouillot’s novel offers its readers the possibility to consider multiple reasons for which the two protagonists act as they do; while Marie-Ange is faced with the choice of whether to murder Odile, so too Odile is faced with the choice of whether to respect Marie-Ange. Given these multiple justifications for their actions, Memory at Bay fictionally reflects on what political scientist René Lemarchand refers to as the essential moment of “reckoning” as a precursor to “reconciliation.”2

While stylistically divergent, Frankétienne’s Ready to Burst and Trouillot’s Memory at Bay share the urgency for dialogue as a form of reckoning with a violent past that continues to debilitate the lives of generations of Haitian citizens, both of Haiti and its dyaspora. Whereas Frankétienne’s Ready to Burst privileges the exchange of two male voices in the form of a quasi-schizophrenic dialogue between a narrator and the protagonist of the novel that he is writing, Memory at Bay interlaces the voices of two women whose composure and reasoning is flawless. And both novels privilege the Levinasian moment of empathy, when two faces truly look at each other, as when Trouillot’s Odile feebly but aggressively grabs Marie-Ange’s wrist, forcing her to look into her eyes (121), even if in the case of Frankétienne’s schizophrenic protagonist(s) the face is looking at itself in the mirror (19). And what most poignantly emerges from both novels is not just the under-reflected differences between a dictator-as-person and the dictatorship-he-has-created but also the role of women in relative positions of power in negotiating their relationship to the dictator and the dictatorship as well as their intimate and public aftermaths. In other words, whether it is Odile, the dictator’s wife; Marie-Ange, who benefits from a rather comfortable economic life in France; Marie-Ange’s mother, who chooses to remain in Haiti; or Solange, the elite woman who scoffs at Raynand’s poverty, each has a connection to the dictatorship (different from, notably, Raynand’s mother). Most provocatively, Frankétienne’s and Trouillot’s novels read together suggest that the victimhood of many of those who were subjected to the dictatorship is not so clear-cut. Each protagonist had or has a set of choices, choices that lead to consequences, and consequences that lead to events: a rebel who is murdered, yet who goes down in history as having lived “dangerously,” with all the ambivalent implications that such a romanticized myth about nonconformity implies; or a person surviving the dictatorship, whereby survival suggests that the person was in some way complicit with it. Although these choices were made in the past, their repercussions, as Edwidge Danticat’s Create Dangerously (2010) illustrates, reach far into the present.3 And as such they must also be reckoned with. For as Martin Munro explains in writing about Émmelie Prophète’s work, “Memory cannot simply be erased[,] . . . and the past will continue to seek revenge on the present in the absence of proper redress and reconciliation.”4

In a sense, then, regarding literature and cinema thus far produced and readily available to English-speaking audiences, Frankétienne’s Ready to Burst and Trouillot’s Memory at Bay serve as bookends that encompass literature written during and since the dictatorship. For its part, the first edition of Frankétienne’s Ready to Burst was published a decade after François Duvalier had assumed the presidency, having asserted himself clearly as a totalitarian leader, whereas Trouillot’s Memory at Bay was first published in French in 2010. In other words, to read these novels alongside Marie Chauvet’s Love, Anger, Madness (1968); Kettly Mars’s Savage Seasons (2010), available in English since 2015; Yanick Lahens’s Bain de lune (2015); and Edwidge Danticat’s The Dewbreaker (2004); as well as the cinematography of Raoul Peck, notably The Man by the Shore (1993) and Moloch Tropical (2009), is to understand that the fear mechanisms of a dictatorship are as overbearing and far-reaching as are its seemingly innocuous aftermaths. As Jason Herbeck’s outstanding afterword to Memory at Bay explains, since the end of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986, there have been almost no official apparatuses (i.e., truth commissions or prosecution at the International Criminal Court, which can only indict perpetrators whose crimes were committed after 2002) set up to work toward accountability. Furthermore, when there have been efforts made, they have been completely undermined by the triviality with which the Haitian government and the international community have treated serious suspects of crimes against humanity, as in the case of Jean-Claude Duvalier’s court hearing in 2013, when he faced “charges of corruption and human rights violations” (129). More terrifying is that “because upward of 60 percent of the population is under the age of twenty-five, the vast majority of Haitians have no personal memory with which to look back” (130), so “the unsettled notions of impunity and forgiveness are, agonizingly, further blurred by forgetfulness” (147). These novels then inscribe themselves actively into the efforts made by scholar-activists such as Jasmine Narcisse and Francesca Canadé-Sautman at the Henry Peyre Institute or the organization Haiti Fights Against Impunity.


Alessandra Benedicty-Kokken is an assistant professor of Caribbean and postcolonial literatures and the director of the MA in the Study of the Americas at the City College of New York (CUNY). She is the author of Spirit Possession in French, Haitian, and Vodou Thought: An Intellectual History (2015). She is the coeditor of “Revisiting Marie Vieux Chauvet: Paradoxes of the Postcolonial Feminine,” a special issue of Yale French Studies (2016) and The Haiti Exception: Anthropology and the Predicament of Narrative (2016).


1 See Kaiama L. Glover, Haiti Unbound: A Spiralist Challenge to the Postcolonial Canon (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2010).

2 René Lemarchand, The Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 106.

3 See Edwidge Danticat, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (New York: Vintage, 2010).

4 Martin Munro, Writing on the Fault Line: Haitian Literature and the Earthquake of 2010 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2014), 145.


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