Dance on the Volcano
By Marie Vieux-Chauvet
Translated by Kaiama L. Glover
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono
492 pages, paperback
With Dance on the Volcano, the late Haitian writer Marie Vieux-Chauvet gave us an epic story that is both beautiful and bitter. While the novel (the second work by Chauvet to be translated into English) is not flawless, it is an effective reminder of the power art can have in times of tyranny.
The story, which takes place in Port-au-Prince just before the Haitian Revolution of the early nineteenth century (back when the country was still known as Saint Domingue), traces the rise of a light-skinned mestive (mixed blood) named Minette. (Although this work is considered a novel, it is based on real-life people.) Both she and her younger sister, Lise, have amazing singing voices that capture the attention of a Madame Acquaire, who along with her husband is an actor at the Comédie of Port-au-Prince. At first, she simply gives them lessons, but when the Comédie runs into financial problems, the Acquaires decide to break the law by offering Minette to perform in a duet on stage, hoping to cause a sensation.
But while her family are excited about this opportunity that has never been given to a person of color before, Minette begins to discover a darker reality. Even though she and her family belong to a group of “freed” people of color, they lack many of the same rights as their white counterparts. And even though some wealthy people of color own slaves, all freed non-whites are always under the watchful eye of whites who feel they’ve already been given too much freedom.
Just before her first performance, she witnesses a runaway slave being captured and whipped. Seeing the humiliation of this slave evokes a strong feeling that — along with the advice of her tutor, Joseph Ogé — helps her through the stagefright she feels during her first performance.
Immediately a series of images unfurled in her memory at a dizzying pace: images of backs riddles with lashes of the whip — one scarred over, the other still bleeding from fresh wounds. A long shudder traversed her body. She heard those lashes of the whip in that very moment, striking thousands of bloody backs with a loud, dull sound. Joseph’s voice whispered in her ear: “You’ve got to tell yourself you’re playing for high stakes now. Your voice is your weapon and you’re going to use it.”
(Joseph, by the way, is the brother of Vincent Ogé, one of the real-life figures of the Revolution who makes a brief appearance in the novel.)
Her first performance is a triumph, and she immediately becomes a celebrity. But while her star is on the rise, Minette learns that no matter how popular she becomes, she will still have to fight to gain the same kind respect that her white contemporaries earn so easily. First, she and her family are banned from attending the theater’s after-parties. Then for a while, she works without getting paid. Fed up, Minette tries to get a long-term contract from the Comédie’s greedy and bigoted agent, François Meplès, who steadfastly refuses. She also becomes an unfair target of a white journalist who not only downplays her talent but seeks to destroy her.
Meanwhile, her passion for justice grows stronger, even though the other theater actors and the director warn her to stay out of politics. She meets a family of freed men and women who help maroons (runaway slaves). They have connections to Joseph and other revolutionaries like André Rigaud and Alexandre Pétion. And while Minette can be arrogant and hot-tempered at times, she is willing to put herself in harm’s way just to help others. In fact, it’s this passion that prevents her from staying with Jean-Baptiste Lapointe, a wealthy freedman who abuses his slaves and her only real true love.
Dance on the Volcano can admittedly be a tough book to read at times. Chauvet gets very graphic at times in her depiction of the white’s cruelty to others, and the amount of bloodshed increases exponentially toward the end of the novel. In fact, for a while, it seems that Minette is all of a sudden pushed to the background of her own story. Yet at the same time, the revolution seems rushed, especially the events that occurred between 1791 and 1793.
But these flaws are minor in the grand scheme of this very potent work. With the help of translator Kaiama L. Glover, the reader gets a sense of what it was like to be living on that metaphorical “volcano” known as Saint Domingue that eventually erupted. And while Minette may not always be likeable, Chauvet makes her at least sympathetic throughout the entire work. After all, many times she’s only reacting to a society that is so brutal to her people.
That said, there are moments of beauty throughout the book, especially when Minette is singing. One becomes so convinced of Minette’s ability to enchant that one wishes it came with a soundtrack. Sadly, the real-life Minette died long before the age of recording. However, while the music may be lost to time, thanks to Chauvet’s book, the person who helped to break down racial barriers during a tumultuous time in Haitian history will not be.
Christopher Iacono lives with his wife and son in Massachusetts. You can learn more about him at cuckoobirds.org.