Dance on the Volcano by Marie Vieux-Chauvet (tr. Kaiama L. Glover). Archipelago Books. 496pp, $18.00.
For those familiar with canonical texts of Haitian literature, the translation of Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s 1957 novel La Danse sur le volcan into English is a long time coming. Vieux-Chauvet is a key figure of Caribbean literature, known for interlacing charged subjects such as slavery, colonialism, erotic desire, racial injustice, and the influence of Vodou in Haiti, and it is surprising that, until now, only her famous trilogy of novellas Amour, colère et folie—originally published by Gallimard in 1968 with the support of Simone de Beauvoir—has been translated. From a writer whose most frequent subject is the psyche of Haitian women during violent and politically charged moments of Haiti’s history—she herself fled the Duvalier régime after the publication of her trilogy—Dance on the Volcano is an intimate rendering of the Haitian Revolution and a nuanced portrayal of the brutality that resonated across all realms of society in the colony of Saint Domingue at the turn of the 19th century. Kaiama L. Glover’s translation is fluid, remaining faithful to the elegance of Vieux-Chauvet’s prose while navigating the stylistic concerns inherent to recreating a work written in the 1950s and about the colonial life of the 1790s, for a 21st-century audience.
The novel follows the story of Minette, a “free woman of color” (gens de couleur or “people of color” being the term for free men and women, usually of both African and European heritage, living in the colony before the Revolution) who becomes a beloved star of the Comédie de Port-au-Prince. Much of the plot revolves around Minette’s slow and tortuous disillusionment as she comes to realize that she is not nearly as “free” as she believes, even after reaching unprecedented social heights and gaining wide recognition for her talent. Beloved by the public, and cared for in private by a close group of white Créole artists of the theatre, she remains unpaid and has severely limited professional agency.
As increased exposure to the plight of enslaved Africans in the colony of Saint Domingue slowly chips away at her thick shell of naïvité, Minette also begins to connect her own status as a freedwoman to that of the slaves who surround her. In a world structured by the Code noir—a document of French legislation that simultaneously outlined the brutal punishments that could be legally inflicted upon slaves, while also guaranteeing full rights for freedmen—the portrait of Minette as a young girl who “easily confuses revolt with pity” is a telling commentary on the sympathies of the class of affranchis, who were neither slaves nor citizens, neither black nor white. In a description of Minette as a young girl that is both sympathetic to her character and somewhat derisory, Vieux-Chauvet writes: “Thinking like a true freedwoman, she thanked God she had not been born a slave . . . though she lamented the slaves’ condition, she considered them an inferior and pitiable class.”
Much of the book is spent on the transformation of Minette’s pity toward slaves to revolt against a slaveholding society. At the novel’s beginning, she is a young girl who dreams of buying and freeing all the slaves in the colony just as her sister Lise imagines buying the latest Parisian finery. Yet, the end of the novel finds Minette using her body to shield a man who withstands brutal punishment after he is found harboring fugitive slaves. In the path from bystander to engaged member of the abolitionist cause, the author illuminates the tension between free men, women, and slaves, as part of a broader theory of the origins of the Haitian Revolution and the complex relations between different groups during this period.
Minette’s story, more than anything else, is about having “a seat at the table,” to use the current resignification of that phrase. For a book written about the racial climate of a late 18th-century French colony, there is an eerie familiarity to the questions it raises about how a person of color earns that seat, and what consequences come along with sitting at the table in a world of institutionalized racism. In the scene following Minette’s first triumphant performance with the Comédie, after which the director Saint-Martin declares her a full member of the company, she is overcome with gratitude. “‘Thank you monsieur,’ Minette responded, her voice so overcome with emotion that [the director] couldn’t help but laugh, [and say]: ‘Thank your talent. It alone is responsible for this miracle.’” The miracle is, of course, that a woman of color would be permitted to perform on the Comédie’s stage, let alone to become part of the company. Her talent is cited again and again throughout the novel as an explanation for her ability to rise into the most intimate corners of white society. But this constant reference to her talent merely reinforces the fact that, if she is allowed any social mobility whatsoever, it is because her exceptional nature makes her an exotic token.
Vieux-Chauvet’s nuanced and incisive sarcasm is at its forte in this novel, much of it reserved for characters like the Acquaires, a couple whose lives are dedicated to the theater and who represent the perennial benign masters featured in the literature of slavery, with their house slave Scipion standing in as the Uncle Tom to their Shelbyism. He is described as “one of those rare slaves who had been treated with humanity and, because of this, was entirely devoted to his masters.” Yet, when gambling debts threaten the Acquaires with the prospect of selling this member of their household, they dread the possibility, for “Scipion had become as indispensable as the piano.”
Indeed, these gambling debts, and the potential loss of Scipion, is what inspires the Acquaires to train Minette as a singer. It is this “free” young woman whose labor is used to generate a vast profit, placing her much in the same category as Scipion himself. This pseudo-enslavement is hinted at in a telling description of Minette’s first singing lesson: “[Mme Acquaire] drew Minette close enough to look her over. The girl’s dark, slanted eyes looked into her own without the slightest shyness. Smiling, she caressed the girl’s long braids and tanned cheeks, amused by the sensual and willful expression of the girl’s full mouth, Negroid and adorable.” Throughout the novel, the slave market is continually recast in the interactions between white Creoles and people of color. This layering is so adeptly handled that no moment of the book is without the presence of slavery, even though the actual portrayal of the lives of slaves is limited to the background.
For all the space that the Haitian Revolution has occupied in the worldwide literary imagination, it is a surprisingly infrequent subject in literature written by Haitians, and this translation presents an important opportunity for Anglophone audiences to gain insight into this explosive moment in history. While the significance of the French Revolution to the revolutionary activity in Haiti is debated by historians, Vieux-Chauvet has a very clear position. In her telling, the violent events of France circa 1789, as well as the fundamental ideology behind them, were a clear catalyst for the upheaval of colonial society in Haiti, and she creates a complex narrative of the meaning that these revolutionary ideals held for each group of people living in Saint Domingue at the time, from white planters to African marrons living in the hills. Furthermore, Vieux-Chauvet has taken the lives of historical figures as the base of the plot, from Minette and Lise—sisters who really did sing at the Comédie de Saint Domingue—to the abolitionist freedman Vincent Ogé who was publicly tortured and executed, to Sonthonax, a complicated figure who, in the capacity of French colonial official, declared the emancipation of the slaves, if only to gain their numbers in the fight against outside forces encroaching on Haiti. It is perhaps not so much the nuanced detailing of a progression of events that makes Dance on the Volcano a significant historical work, even outside its immense literary merit, but more so the exquisitely precise capturing of an aura, the smoldering ambiance of a volcanic revolution that is nearing explosion, “a state of perpetual tension that produced a strange heaviness in the atmosphere.” Published more than half a century ago, a different time under different circumstances, the novel offers themes that will resonate particularly strongly with a North American audience, to whom nothing has been more familiar as of late than a heavy atmosphere replete with a looming sense of cataclysm.
Bronwyn Averett holds a PhD in French literature and currently works as a translator in Montreal. She is a fiction editor at carte blanche and has contributed to publications such as Electric Literature and Necessary Fiction. She also writes about reading at indirectlibre.com and, more succinctly, @indirectlibre.
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