Top critical review
A Disjointed Look at Evil in the Duvalier Era
on 16 December 2009
Haiti has always struck me as a place with fascinating history, and since my grandparents lived there from 1967-69, I've been curious to learn more about that particular period. This slim novel, which deals at least partially with that era, seemed like a good way to get a taste of life under the repressive dictatorship of "Papa Doc" Duvalier. It opens with the story of a young woman who's just sold her first sculpture, a mahogany statue of her father. She's on her way to Florida with her father to deliver the piece to the wealthy actress who's purchased it. But this celebratory trip is derailed when the father reveals that the distinctive facial scar he got in prison in Haiti as a young man was not the result of being a prisoner. Rather, it was received from a prisoner when the father was one of the Tontons Macoute militiamen who terrorized the country during the Duvalier regime. The horrific revelation kicks off a series of chapters in which the legacy of that regime is examined through the eyes of a variety of Haitians, many of whose lives have been affected by the sculptor's father.
The term "chapters" actually isn't quite accurate -- the sections are really distinct short stories, all of which have links of varying directness to the father in the first story/section/chapter. Indeed, as I later found out, a number of them had been previously published as freestanding short stories. This structure makes for a kind of choppy narrative, as there are not only a revolving cast of characters, but shifts in time and location throughout. While this approach does allow the author to look at Haiti's past from a variety of perspectives, it can also be somewhat distracting, as the reader has to stop and work out the connections between the characters in various stories, which takes one out of the whole process of immersing oneself in the book.
And despite these various perspectives and a few descriptions of violence, I never quite felt that the book conveys the sheer nastiness and brutishness of the Duvalier regime. What's more present is the psychological element, the mental scars that last forever, on both the victim and the one committing the evil. One thing that's kind of nice about the book is that the father never makes any pretense that he somehow earn forgiveness or redemption for the evil he's done. Nor does the author attempt to "explain" what causes people to do evil -- the answer is simple, you give some people power and they will do evil. Remove the power and they will cease to do evil. It's a simple and tragic equation, but one that bears revisiting. In the end, the book was just too disjointed for me to really enjoy, but it's definitely worth checking out if you've got an interest in Haiti.