Françios (Papa Doc) Duvalier was the President of Haiti from 1957 to 1971, as a physician by profession, earning him the nickname, he “took” the title of “President for Life” in 1964 and remained in power until his death, his son “Baby Doc” took political control until his overthrow by a popular uprising in 1986. Whilst there are numerous references to “Baby Doc” living a lavish lifestyle, whilst thousands of Haitians were tortured and killed, the US Administration allowed the atrocities to continue given the strong anti-communist stance of the Duvaliers.
During their rule writers obviously feared reprisals and censorship and therefore their works were restrained in their criticism of the regime.
Late last year I reviewed “The Colour of Dawn” by Yanick Lahens (translated by Alison Layland), a work told in two voices, sisters, who are looking for their missing brother in Port-Au-Prince, a work which exposes the poverty and despair of Haitians. but if I thought that was a brutal work I only had to wait ten months to be absolutely floored by Kettly Mars’ Savage Seasons”.
Our work opens with our narrator Nirvah, sitting in the Secretary of State’s offices awaiting a meeting. She is there pondering the fate of her husband, Daniel Leroy, an editor in chief of the opposition newspaper, who has recently been jailed and most likely tortured and possibly killed, or maybe he’s been released, nobody knows, her stories are gleaned from the rumour mill, which says he’s still in prison but she only knows that from paying “in cash or insomnia”.
We then switch to the third person narration, thoughts of the Secretary of State himself, Raoul Vincent, and then to the recently discovered journal of Daniel as read by Nirvah. As our story unfolds the distinct voices of three key players are heard from different angles, we are connected to Nirvah and her desperation, we learn more of the husband’s larger schemes outside of working in the newspaper, and we learn of the Secretary of State’s extreme power, the hold he has over almost everybody in Haiti. Nirvah wants to find out about her husband’s fate, keep him alive so he can return to her and their teenage children, Raoul Vincent wants to possess Nirvah in both body and mid, sexual favours only part of his grander scheme to infiltrate her life.
As per a number of Haitian works the voodoo influence is bubbling along in the background, and Nirvah’s neighbour is an ex-hooker who was possessed and returned from the death as a priestess. Nirvah receives a visit from the Secretary of State, down her dirt dusty road, where he sweats profusely in her overheated home, he is not seen for a while, as the road outside is getting paved:
I know who’s having the road paved. I knew right away, though at first I didn’t want to believe it. The enormity of the thing threw me for a moment. But I don’t dare translate the significance of the act, which is not something to be done lightly, into specific ideas. Secretary of State Raoul Vincent does not do anything lightly. My health and well-being cannot interest him simply out of brotherly love. I’m starting to understand the meaning and depth of the word power in my country. Power in the service of urges, instincts, and lust. My impending future is gathering like black storm clouds. He has not come back to my house in over a month. Maybe he’s on vacation? Generally a secretary of state does not stay away for that long. So I’ve had no reliable news about Daniel. Time passes, and hope like a golden thread stretches out endlessly, precious and so fragile. I asked Dr. Xavier to go to see him, to speak to him without mentioning my name, just to get some news about Daniel. When I saw him again the doctor didn’t have much to tell me. The Secretary of State did not receive him.
Gifts then begin arriving, jewellery, the house is installed with a generator and air-conditioning, the lust of Raoul is getting closer, those storm clouds are gathering at an alarming rate and to make matters worse the neighbourhood is gossiping about her involvement with the Secretary of State, roads don’t get paved for no reason:
“Maggy, my dear, let’s leave principles aside. I’m in a pretty exceptional shithouse, don’t you agree? I understand Secretary of State Raoul Vincent is trying to buy my favours. And I also see that he’s willing to pay dearly to get them. The question is whether to go against his logic or not and to weigh the consequences in both cases. For now, the idea of f-ing that guy is unbearable to me. But I’ve asked him to save Daniel, and in a way I knew I was knocking on the devil’s door…”
My friend widens her eyes; she’s never seen this pragmatic side of me. I have to grow up fast, Maggy. With every passing day Daniel drifts further away from me, from the children. With every passing day a little bit more of what we’ve built so far is destroyed, and it was already pretty fragile. I have very few weapons left to fight with. I just have my skin, my body, my sex. But I can always wash them later. Like earthenware, they’ll be even lovelier.
Slowly Daniel as a character drifts further away from us the readers, as his diary is destroyed, and the voice of the teenage daughter (in the first person appears).
This is a very harrowing read, the craft involved in having multiple voices is a hard ask and Kettly Mars manages it with aplomb. Having Daniel exit, the daughter enter, Raoul Vincent (the abhorrent power hungry manipulator) in the third person so we are removed from his behaviour just enough and then to have our main protagonist slowly unravelling as her world collapses and her decisions are constantly questioned in her own mind keeps you enthralled throughout.
By no means is this an easy book to read, the abuses, mental, physical and sexual are not for the faint hearted, however to see a writer bring to life the horrors of living under a dictatorship in Haiti is a revelation. To remain grounded in her own country, even after living through the regime (she was born in 1958 in Port-au-Prince) and then to expose this raw underbelly to the wider world through her writing is extremely admirable. A writer I will definitely explore further should any of her works be translated. This is also a book I see featuring on the 2016 Best Translated Book Award lists, so long as the exposure of its release is increased somewhat. Published by the University of Nebraska Press in July this year, the coverage has been limited to date, however given the strength of the work I’m sure it will gain further support over the coming months.