- Memory at Bay by Évelyne Trouillot
This excellent translation of Haitian writer Évelyne Trouillot’s novel, La mémoire aux abois, published in French in 2010, will enable English-speaking readers to discover a unique perspective on the Duvalier dictatorship that started in Haiti with François Duvalier, or Papa Doc, and ended in 1986 when his son Jean-Claude Duvalier, or Baby Doc, went into exile in France. If Anglophone readers of Caribbean literature are likely to be familiar with the work of Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat, fewer may be with the work of Trouillot. Although one of today’s most prominent and prolific Haitian women writers, relatively few of her works are available in English translation. Her first novel published in French in 2003, Rosalie l’infâme (The Infamous Rosalie), which tells the story of a young female slave, was published in translation only in 2013. Her play on immigration to the Dominican Republic, Le bleu de l’île (The Blue of the Island), was published in French in 2005 and in English translation in 2012. Her numerous collections of short stories, some of which depict life under the Duvalier dictatorship, are available only in French to this day. The same goes for her poetry published in French and Creole. Memory at Bay is her only novel focusing on the dictatorship, presenting a fictionalized account of Duvalier rule. It is the recipient of the prestigious Prix Carbet, awarded for works on the Caribbean or the Americas and written or translated in French or Creole. The translation into English of Trouillot’s novel is therefore quite a welcome and necessary addition to the relatively small corpus of Haitian women writers available in English, and it certainly does justice to her beautiful and often poetic writing.
In Trouillot’s novel, two women in a Parisian hospital alternate in giving drastically different accounts of the era after the end of the dictatorship: the deceased dictator’s wife, Odile Doréval, who, on her death bed, shows no remorse for the bloody oppression that characterized her husband’s rule, and a young nurse taking care of her, forever haunted by her mother’s stories about the atrocities of life under the dictatorship. Although the young heroine was born after the dictatorship and outside of Haiti, she is still a prisoner of the memories that her mother transmitted to her before passing away, memories punctuated by deaths, fears, voids, and silences. She starts to understand her mother only when she sees with her own eyes the wife of the deceased dictator: “The first time I set eyes on the old woman, I truly believed that those nightmares of yours had become mine and were pursuing me in broad daylight, unfolding right before my eyes, bringing to life the principal characters of your horrific soap operas” (pp. 52–53). The nonlinear account of life under the dictator and the multiplicity of [End Page 552] perspectives and female voices make the novel poignant and truly unique. Trouillot is gifted at conveying not only the inevitable weight of the past into the present but also the difficulty of making the past meaningful and understandable for those learning about it from a distance. As for the dying and remorseless Doréval, plunged into silence, she undertakes to recall the story of her life—and while doing so, that of Haiti under the tyrannical regime—finding justification for every horror perpetrated by her husband and her son and quietly remembering the “orgies of power” organized by her husband (p. 36).
Presented under the name of Doréval, one can recognize Simone Duvalier, née Ovide, wife of Papa Doc—called Papa Fab in the novel. The names of people and places are left in the original French by the translator, which means that the English-speaking reader can, like a French-speaking peer, take delight in trying to unveil the allusions to actual names while also being reminded of the power of imagination...