The first time I ever heard of Léon Laleau’s book Le Choc, was in Myriam J.A. Chancy’s book Framing of Silence. It’s one of the first novels written about what Haiti was like during the U.S. Occupation, and it was written in 1930, four years before the occupation ended.
Laleau’s book opens with parishioners exiting Sacred Heart Church in Port-au-Prince, and with two churchgoers gossiping about the engagement of Maurice Desroches and Josette Raynald. Maurice comes from a proud Port-au-Prince family, headed by Ernest Desroches, a father who’s very much a nationalist, and his compassionate mother Juliette Desroches. The novel demonstrates how Maurice’s life is forever changed by this Occupation, and how he as an idealistic young man of twenty years of age, transforms into a bitter, pensive patriot. One of the most profound characters in the novel is Le Ganet, a Roman priest who’s a close friend of Maurice, who Laleau placed in the novel to serve to awaken the conscience of Maurice.
It’s interesting to note that Laleau precedes the novel with this brief note:
Ceci n’est pas un roman.
Ni un acte d’accusation.
Encore moins un plaidoyer.
Riens que des faits notés comme ils furent vecus.
Des faits tout nus.
Des faits tout simples.
Et leur répecurssion dechirante aux entrailles d’un jeune homme qui avait vingt ans, en 1915, lorsque les Américains débarquèrent en Haiti.
This isn’t some romance novel.
Nor a list of accusations.
An even less a pleading.
Nothing but occurences that are noted here, just as they happened.
And their tearing effects in a young man who in 1915 was twenty years old, when the Americans landed in Haiti.
Despite this disclaimer, Laleau’s character Le Ganet tells Maurice Desroches prior to the arrival of the U.S. Marines:
Vous ne vivez pas assez pour votre patrie et vous être trop nombreux a vivre d’elle. Quelle est le rêve de toute jeune homme de votre age? Être secretaire de Delegation, pour pouvoir s’eloigner du pays et l’oublier. Quel est le désir de tout homme de trente ans? Avoir des fonctions bien appointés ou il est loisible de tout faire pour se tailler une fortune qu’il ira ensuite dissiper en pays etrangers?
You don’t sacrifice yourself enough for your country, and there’s so many of you who live off of her. What’s the biggest dream of all the young men your age? To become secretary of a diplomatic corps abroad to get away from the country and forget it. What is the primary desire of men in their thirties? To have a lucrative government job that they can make a fortune from, to afterwards spend and enjoy it in some foreign country.
The Desroches family don’t live too far from the palace, so on July 27th, 1915, they along with Maurice are eyewitnesses to horrendous events. The president Vilbrun Guillaume Sam flees from the Palace to the French Embassy. More than 150 prisoners have been slain in Port-au-Prince’s penitentiary, among them the sons, fathers, and uncles of one of the most prominent citizens in town. Guillaume Sam is dismembered, and his general Charles Oscar Etienne is also killed. The Marines land in Haiti; martial law is declared. The rosey days of Maurice Desroches’ youth will come to an end, as his personal dignity and that of his generation are threatened.
Laleau appropriately called his novel Le Choc, which can be translated as The Shock, The Surprise, the Jolt. It’s a cultural shock, as U.S. Marines come into Haiti. It’s a jolt to patriotic Haitians like Ernest Desroches who resent foreign presence in his country; and it’s a surprise and a wake-up call to the the Haitians who Father Le Ganet had characterized as being self-serving.
When an officer among the U.S. Marines, a certain Lieutenant Martine begins to pay Josette Raynal—Maurice’s fiancée some attention—her color-struck, position-seeking mother Louise does everything she can to separate Maurice and Josette, and get a foreign husband for her daughter. Maurice is humiliated, his manly pride hurt, and as he reflects later to Father Le Ganet:
Un peuple qui, dans plus de huit dixièmes de ses Etats, a légalisé presque la haine du nègre, peut-il aider un peuple de nègres?
A nation that, in more than eight-tenths of its states, has practically legalized the hatred of the Negro, can it help a nation of Negroes?
Laleau’s book is very powerful; it starts out like it’s going to be some ordinary book, but as the pages are flipped, it really builds up in emotional momentum. It’s so gripping to witness Maurice Desroches’ transformation from this naive, idealistic person, to someone who decides to take charge of his destiny.