Fabienne Josaphat’s Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow is an ambitious and impressive first novel, a love letter to Haiti and its people, a tale of two brothers who repeatedly manage to find their way back to each other — and to redemption,
The novel is set in Haiti in 1965, during the repressive and brutal regime of François Duvalier, aka Papa Doc, aka Baron Samedi. The working poor are increasingly destitute. The populace at large is kept in check by measures such as nightly curfews and the menacing Tonton Macoute, Papa Doc’s militia. Speaking out is a death sentence.
Against this backdrop, we meet brothers Raymond and Nicolas L’Eveillé. Raymond is a taxi driver, proud of his lifelong propensity for hard labor. His younger brother Nicolas is a law professor so averse to getting his hands dirty that when the boys were growing up on their family’s farm, at harvest time Nicolas would refuse to put his feet in the mud. Instead, he would read, earning vicious beatings from their father. One might suppose Nicolas would adjust his behavior after the first or second time — he’s purportedly a brilliant student — but he doesn’t. Many times Raymond stays up all night, “tending to welts on his brother’s body.” But did Nicolas thank him? Reader, he did not. Instead, he taunted Raymond for his inability to read.
By the time the brothers are in their 30s, they have escaped the family farm for Port-au-Prince, but they remain enmeshed in their family dynamic, with Nicolas clearly disdainful of Raymond’s poverty. In the opening pages of this plot-driven novel, each brother is thrust into action shaped by the oppressive political realities. We meet Raymond behind the wheel of his taxi, and within minutes he is careening through the narrow streets of Port-au-Prince, Macoutes on his tail, with a fugitive with wife and infant cowering in the back seat.
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Raymond, in the moment of deciding whether to allow the terrified family into his cab, had one thought: “What kind of man was he?” As we quickly learn, he is the type who unlocks the car door and then expertly propels his aging Datsun through the obstacle course of the city until he delivers his cargo to safety.
We soon meet Nicolas. The scene is in his office with two old and venerable friends, but the action is no less intense. Nicolas has written a manuscript exposing aspects of Papa Doc’s regime and has summoned his friends to help him publish the work. Apparently, despite the topic of his exposé, he doesn’t grasp the potential harm to himself, his family or his friends, although all are only too happy to enlighten him. “To ask us to help you with this — it isn’t just madness, it’s callous disregard for everyone’s safety,” his friend Georges tells him.
Nicolas, however, remains oblivious but committed. He regularly courts danger in the classroom as well, coming precipitously close to denouncing the regime during his lectures. “Resignation sickened him” is all we are told regarding his motivations.
The expected happens: Raymond’s wife leaves him, decamping with the children to Miami because they are starving in Haiti and better days are not on the horizon. A few days later, Nicolas is arrested. (The first rule of writing an anarchist manuscript is: Don’t show your friends your hiding spot.) Raymond escorts Nicolas’ wife and infant to safety, then hatches a plan to rescue Nicolas from Fort Dimanche, the torture-chamber prison where he’s been detained and is scheduled for execution.
As the novel unfolds, the brothers confront unspeakable brutality and deplorable conditions, and find within themselves an immense determination to survive. While Josaphat’s descriptions of the conditions within the prison are vivid, she is not as strong at conveying the characters’ inner lives. We never really understand either brother. Although we can ascribe Raymond’s heroism to the fact that Josaphat sets him up as a saintly figure, Nicolas remains a cipher.
The suspense is well-maintained throughout, though one does wish for better editing at times. There is a fair amount of repetition thematically and on the sentence level, and the writing can be uneven and prone to clichés.
But there are many instances where the prose is vivid and lovely, beginning on the first page where we are introduced to the realities of the regime through the paper bills that Raymond is counting: “Even on faded paper, the president’s eyes were accusing, spying on him through thick-rimmed glasses.” Josaphat, a local writer whose poetry was featured in Eight Miami Poets (published by Jai-Alai Books), has written a heartfelt and thought-provoking novel that grapples with serious issues.
Andrea Gollin is a writer in Miami.
Meet the Author
Who: Fabienne Josaphat
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 12
Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables
Info: 305-442-4408 or http://www.booksandbooks.com/