In January 2010, a massive earthquake hit Haiti about16 miles west of Port-au-Prince, and the immediate carnage killed thousands of people and leveled buildings for miles. In the days that followed, dozens of aftershocks claimed more lives. Accurate accounts of the death toll remain hard to come by, but estimates range from 100,000 to more than 300,000. Even now, the scale of the tragedy is difficult to contemplate, much less to comprehend.
First-time novelist Dimitry Elias Léger seems uniquely qualified to sift through the real and psychological rubble. He was born in Port-au-Prince and studied at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. His writing career has led him to jobs at the Miami Herald and Fortune magazine. He has also served as an adviser to the United Nations during the disaster recovery operations, so he has some unique and valuable insights.
God Loves Haiti is set before, during and after the tragedy. The story moves back and forth in time, speaking to the horror of the situation and to the characters’ confusion. For them, nothing is stable any longer, not even the earth beneath their feet. Time itself has become unreliable.
The story itself is fairly conventional, though it boasts some lovely flights of surrealist fancy. The moral center of the novel resides with Alain Destiné, a suave and educated businessman. He has been having an affair with Natasha Roberts, an artist who has decided to leave Haiti and move to France with her husband, the President of Haiti. They are about to board their flight out of the country when the unthinkable happens.
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“Natasha was about to blaspheme. She resisted the impulse. Barely. She sensed, on a primitive level, the scale of the rupture in history that had taken place. It frightened her. Her arms and legs and feet were caked with dust, so were her lips, face, and false eyelashes. With no warning, something had transformed her into a Caribbean version of a lava-caked citizen of Pompeii. And she was not alone. The moans of the wounded men and women both inside and outside the airport, which had been faint and distant, grew closer and louder. Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! they said.”
By switching between several narrators, Léger provides a Rashomon-like range of vision about the event. On her way to the airport, Natasha had taken the precaution of locking Alain in a closet and throwing away the key.
“It was an earthquake! Had to be,” Alain realizes. The event gives him the opportunity to reflect — albeit profanely — on Haitian culture: “But there’s no history of earthquakes in Haiti. None whatsoever. His parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents never mentioned it. And picking apart the nation’s colorful, sorrowful, and thrilling history is all Haitians do. It’s a sport, the … national pastime. History is all we have to take pride in, since our greatest achievement occurred in 1804, and we hadn’t contributed … to humanity in the intervening two centuries.”
Alain sounds especially negative about Haitian history, but he’s the one character determined to stay in the country and make things better. But with the president and his wife now overseeing an international recovery effort, the love triangle Léger has constructed begins to bend and twist.
The episode that best distinguishes God Loves Haiti from your run-of-the-mill disaster story, however, comes fairly early in a chapter titled “God Is On Line One.” The President, prone on the tarmac, has a vision in which all of Haiti’s previous leaders line up to speak to St. Peter and plead for eternal salvation. First in line in Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who after participating in the Haitian Revolution named himself Emperor JacquesI.
“To a man, they told Saint Peter to send them to hell. They could have been better men, they said. Then, one step ahead of the President came the turn of the so-called devil himself, President Dr. Francois Duvalier.” It’s a fascinating and powerful scene, one that could easily be counted among the most memorable passages written about that nation.
In God Loves Haiti, history, religion, politics and love — of each other and of our own sorry selves — come crashing together in remarkable and memorable ways. Léger’s rich knowledge of his homeland informs the lives of otherwise unremarkable people like us while they experience the sort of hardships we spend our entire lives praying to avoid. It’s a heartbreaking and lovely novel about what it means to survive the cataclysmic and about what’s lost — and perhaps even what’s gained — in the process.
Andrew Ervin is the author of the novel ‘Burning Down George Orwell’s House,’ coming in May.
Meet the author
Who: Dimitry Elias Léger in conversation with novelist Edwidge Danticat
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables
Info: 305-442-4408 or www.booksandbooks.com