Friday, May 25, 2012

A Familiar Setting

I recently finished reading three books set in Haiti that show different ideas about and experiences of this place.  I enjoyed The Comedians the most of the set (probably because it was the most political) but I also liked the variety of voices in Haiti Noir.

The Comedians, by Graham Greene, is set in Haiti under Fran├žois Duvalier (Papa Doc), written by the owner of the fictional Hotel Trianon (based on the Ollofson).  It’s a clever but saddening satire of politics in Haiti and elsewhere, but sometimes hit too close to home.  A few bits and pieces I found interesting are included below.

“Your first refugee, Excellency,” Hamit said. “I was half expecting you, Monsieur Philipot.”
“Oh no,” the young man said, “not that. Not yet. I understand when you claim asylum you have to make a promise not to engage in political action.”
“What political action are you proposing to take?” I asked.
“I am melting down some old family silver.”
“I don’t understand,” the ambassador said, “Have one of my cigars, Henri. They are real Havana.”
“My dear and beautiful aunt talks about a silver bullet. But one bullet might go astray. I think we need quite a number of them. Besides we have to deal with three devils not one. Papa Doc, the head of the Tontons Macoute and the colonel of the palace guard.”
“It’s a good thing,” the ambassador said, “that they bought arms and not microphones with American aid.” (p.131)
This excerpt represent my idea of the book; there’s conflation and the sense that political talk is often cheap and has more to do with playing a role than really addressing an issue.  Action, however, involves significant risk and is often best left to others.


“Perhaps the sexual life is the great test. If we can survive it with charity to those we love and affection to those we have betrayed, we needn’t worry so much about the good and the bad in us. But jealousy, distrust, cruelty, revenge, recrimination…then we fail. The wrong is in that failure even if we are the victims and not the executioners. Virtue is no excuse.” (p.139)
I liked this reflection.  It’s spoken by the most sincere character and seems useful for a place and time in which other structures are falling apart.  


“No, I don’t despair, I don’t believe in despair, but our problems won’t be solved by the Marines. I’m not sure I wouldn’t fight for Papa Doc if the Marines came. At least he’s Haitian. No the job has to be done with our own hands. We are an evil slum floating a few miles from Florida, and no American will help us with arms or money or counsel. We learned a few years back what their counsel meant.” (p.232)
This sentiment is repeated in other ways elsewhere in the book.  Living in Haiti, I completely agree that any solutions to Haitian problems will come from Haitians and not from foreigners.


The title of The Rainy Season: Haiti then and now, by Amy Wilentz, promises some insight into or at least reflection on the current political situation.  Instead, it captures a variety of events Willentz lived or observed while she was in Haiti in the 1980s.  I like the way she devotes significant time to ordinary people she meets along the way in addition to those with a role in Haitian history.  For me, the dinner parties or the discussions between journalists that she recounts weren’t nearly as interesting since they remind me of my own limited view of politics and developments here.


Haiti Noir is a short story collection edited by Edwidge Danticat.  Some of the stories seem predictable, others seem overly gruesome, and in still others you see the characters’ care for one another.  It’s fascinating to see what authors with a connection to Haiti imagine or sensationalize about this place to create mysteries.  The publisher (Akashic) had a neat idea of creating these collections set in all different places and although this is the only one I’ve read, I figure the fears they illustrate vary greatly.