- Beyond Truth and Reconciliation in La Mémoire aux abois and Un alligator nommé Rosa
Un peuple sans mémoire ou démémoiré est condamné à répéter les mêmes erreurs, à subir les mêmes dictatures du passé.— Franck Laraque
The familiar adage that truth is stranger than fiction came to life in January of 2011 when former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier landed in Port-au-Prince after nearly twenty-five years in exile. The teledjol kicked into intense overdrive as people speculated about the nature of this controversial return to the native land. Why did Duvalier return? Would he face justice for human rights abuses committed during the regime, which spanned two generations? A press statement announced that the purpose of this audacious homecoming was an innocuous act of solidarity: his desire to celebrate the anniversary of the earthquake in the company of his countrymen and women. That this was the same homeland in which the Duvaliers were responsible for 50,000 killings of those same countrymen and women during the period known as la terreur (1957-1986) was not a point lost on survivors of the regime, family members of victims, writers, journalists, and scholars. More than two decades after the end of la terreur Baby Doc's reversal and refusal of his exile sought to revise the heritage of this painful past.1 It also exacerbated an environment fraught with tensions that ranged from political to epidemiological—an unfolding contested election, the imminent one-year anniversary of the quake, and the raging cholera epidemic.
In an op-ed for the Haitian newspaper, Le nouvelliste, Lilliane Pierre-Paul implored people not to forget, "Ils ont déchiré ma vie. Les conséquences de cette situation ont coûté la vie à l'un de mes frères. Je ne cherche pas la revanche, mais il faut que justice soit faite [. . .]. C'est la vérité qui nous soulagera."2 Because there had been no truth and reconciliation initiatives, no [End Page 147] prosecution for Duvalier's crimes against humanity, la terreur was cloaked in silence by the official historic record though painfully omnipresent in the memory of traumatized individuals. As Duvalier continues to enjoy life in Haiti though former victims and international human rights groups call for him to be held accountable, the vexed relationships between history and memory, remembering and forgetting, are colliding.3 His shocking return to the native land exposed a possible crisis of collective memory. As Edwidge Danticat observed:
There are plenty of people who remember, however, there have been so many other disasters since—political, natural environmental—that the Duvalier disaster has somehow faded into the past. This might also [relate to] the fact that half [the] population is under twenty-five, and Haitian history books have not been updated since Duvalier's father took power in the 1950s. There have also been no acts of preservation, no preserved testimonies, no museums, no memorials to those killed by the Duvaliers, both father and son . . . .4
The disturbing jubilant reception by some—f rom chanting in the streets to graffiti in public places—turned Haiti into un lieu démémoiré, a charged and divided atmosphere of forgetting. It is a crisis of history and memory: the youth celebrating have no memories of the regime because of their age, and because there have been no official acts of memorialization or lieux de mémoire to provide historic awareness. The former dictator's presence crystallized a generational gap of memory between Haitians born after the regime's end who had no recollection of that period, and those for whom the wounds of memory hauntingly remain.
Prior to Duvalier's return, several literary texts explored these wounds of memory through imagined encounters between perpetrators and victims: Danticat's The Dew Breaker (2004), Marie-Célie Agnant's Un alligator nommé Rosa (2007), and Evelyne Trouillot's La Mémoire aux abois (2011). By juxtaposing contemporary dictator novels with Baby Doc's return and the responses to it, I want to suggest that cultural production can step into the breach of memory described above. Such a position inevitably raises questions...