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Book review: Anthology revisits the vibrant, often disturbing literature of Haiti

 
 
 <span class="cutline_leadin">Haiti Noir 2: </span>The Classics. Edited by Edwidge Danticat. Akashic. 320 pages. $15.95 in paper.
Haiti Noir 2: The Classics. Edited by Edwidge Danticat. Akashic. 320 pages. $15.95 in paper.

Meet the author

What: Edwidge Danticat introduces “Haiti Noir 2: The Classics” with Jessica Fievre and Marie Ketsia Theodore-Tharel

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables

Info: 305-442-4408 or www.booksandbooks.com


In the foreword to his novel The Comedians, Graham Greene conceded that even an imagination as practiced as his could not embellish the horrific reality of Papa Doc Duvalier’s Haiti. “Impossible to deepen that night,” he wrote. Due to the cost and availability of reprint permissions, Greene is absent from Haiti Noir 2, the latest addition to Akashic’s Noir series, which has been giving readers a hardboiled tour of the world, deepening the night of familiar and unfamiliar places alike.

Although the authors here are not nearly as famous as Greene, they do not disappoint. A few discuss life under Duvalier; the rest cast a wider net. They evince variety in style and theme while still committed to exploring the dark recesses of a nation that is, as Edwidge Danticat observes in her introduction, “sadly known more for its natural and political disasters than its exciting and vibrant literature.”

The first Haiti Noir appeared in 2011, almost a year to the day after one such disaster, the earthquake that leveled Port-au-Prince and its environs. So well-received was it, that Akashic asked Danticat to again take time away from her own work and edit a second volume. The result is a worthy sequel that skillfully uses a popular genre to help us better understand an often frustratingly complex and indecipherable society.

Preface to the Life of a Bureaucrat by Jacques Roumain is an uncomfortably probable study of a dream deferred. Would-be novelist Michel Ray returns from a sojourn in Europe. After experiencing “The Great White Silence,” racism and invisibility, he is happy to be home. But as the years pass he grows disillusioned with Haiti. He loathes the hypocrisy and pretentiousness of the light-skinned elite and bourgeoisie. And he is pressured by family to give up his writing and accept a comfortable sinecure. The end has a nice twist, a cautionary reminder that spiritual death can come with the frightening ease of a stroke of a pen.

Belief in the supernatural plays a significant role in the collection. A Strange Story, by Ida Faubert, is more than about drug-induced zombies; it looks at the consequences of religious abuse. The title character of Oresca, by Paulette Poujol Oriol, is a voodoo priest who takes revenge on two boys who harass him. The Enchanted Second Lieutenant, by Jacques-Stephen Alexis, is set in 1914, shortly before the U.S. invasion and occupation of Haiti, and follows a Marine who has an eerie experience when he goes off into the mountains in search of treasure.

A White House with Pink Curtains in the Downstairs Windows, by Jan J. Dominique, is unreliably narrated by a woman who may be living in a haunted house. The ghosts she describes are scary, but are they all in her mind, and if they are, what really happened to her husband? The answer will disturb your sleep. A solid piece of psychological horror fiction, it would pass muster with Shirley Jackson and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Ben Fountain is not Haitian, but his contribution is a standout. In Reve Haitien, things don’t go bump in the night, they go bang bang. It is the early 1990s. Aristide has been overthrown and the streets are not safe. Mason is a white OAS observer whose job consists mostly of counting bodies. One day, he is approached by an art collector of sorts who offers him a chance to act for a change. Of course, it does not go as planned. We are talking about Haiti, after all, where, as Mason realizes, “Life … had the cracked logic of a dream, its own internal rules.”

Exercising her prerogative as editor, Danticat included one of her stories. The Port-au-Prince Marriage Special is a heartbreaker about a teenage maid at a hotel who contracts AIDS from a tourist. Her kind employers get her medical attention, but the Third World is a golden trough for quacks and exploiters who feed off the ignorance and desperation of a congenitally oppressed people. No wonder the poor girl’s mother is so hard on her, even when she is ill. You can’t hope to survive under those conditions without petrifying your emotions and accepting the inevitability of misery.

Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.

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Miami Herald

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