Jonathan M. Katz’s new book about the aftermath of Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010 is fascinating but frustrating. An Associated Press reporter who lived in the country for two years before the disaster, Katz brings an on-the-ground flavor to his depiction of events that is more vivid than those in the more ponderous tomes published in the wake of the calamity.
Katz’s description of the day of the earthquake — a day that could have killed him — is wrenching and terrifying, and his descriptions of the often-callous diplomacy in its aftermath are bitterly convincing. His minute dissection of the failure of most of the promised aid and the misdirection of much of what did arrive is a valuable contribution to understanding how the international community should respond to such crises in the future. Even more chilling is his account of the indifference and subsequent obfuscation of the United Nations mission in Haiti and the fact that its troops introduced a cholera epidemic to the country that killed at least 7,000 people.
But Katz’s sharp lens turns fuzzier when he writes about the Haitians themselves. Early on, he states that he relied on his fixer — a driver/translator/guide — “for everything” during his time in Haiti, and so the account we see is what that fixer showed him, not the account of a journalist venturing forth to immerse himself in the country on its own terms. That’s a pity; Katz is a talented writer, and surely he had interesting thoughts about the subject. His window into Haiti’s byzantine political culture also seems to come from a single source, a former government minister who cannot on his own puzzle out the entire riddle of Haiti’s venomous political landscape.
Katz’s desire to see straight lines where tortuous twists and turns lie means that he tends to oversimplify complex situations. This habit become most problematic when he tries to assess Haiti’s history before he got there. Puzzlingly, nowhere in The Big Truck That Went By does he mention one of the events that probably more than any other destroyed Haiti’s rural agriculture and accelerated the urban migration to the capital that would be wrecked by the earthquake: a U.S.- Canadian funded program which, in the 1980s, succeeded in destroying 1.2 million of the Kreyol pigs that formed the backbone of the peasant economy.
Legislative elections in 2000 that saw journalists and opposition politicians murdered and their homes and party headquarters burned down are said to have suffered from “alleged fraud.” The chronology of the late 2003/early 2004 armed rebellion that (along with massive street demonstrations) would eventually bring down the government of then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide is also fudged, with Katz blaming the action on a “small band of well-armed rebels” when in fact the movement began among a street gang of former loyalists in the northern city of Gonaives, incensed in their belief that Aristide had murdered their chieftain.
Even given Katz’s admirable doggedness as a journalist, there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of love for Haiti in this book. Not for its mist-shrouded mountains, its azure coastal waters, the seductive gingerbread architecture that still rears up unexpectedly in its provincial towns or — with the exception of his fixer and the story of an earthquake-displaced family he movingly chronicles — the Haitians themselves. The Haitians in fact seem to rather irritate Katz, constantly bending his ear with unwanted conversations to the point where he can “hardly ask for directions.” At one moment, he admits that, despite having lived in the country for almost three years, he had rarely “let his guard down” with Haitians, which translates into a lack of intimacy with and insight about the people at the heart of the story.
Katz is a writer of considerable talent, with an often mordant and memorable turn of phrase. Had he schooled himself more thoroughly in Haiti’s history and immersed himself to a greater extent among its people before setting pen to paper, he could have produced a knockout of a book. Despite its many virtues, ultimately The Big Truck That Went By represents another example of what Katz himself exposes so thoroughly of the international community’s involvement with Haiti: Something of a missed opportunity.
Michael Deibert is the author of “Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti.”