The Edwidge Dandicat Page—Two
by Rakesh Rampertab

The Edwidge Dandicat page consists of book reviews and articles.

Book Reviews:

Hiding From a Brutal Past Spent Shattering Lives in Haiti

Haiti's bloody and bitter history of violence, corruption and vengeance stalks all the characters in Edwidge Danticat's remarkable new novel, infecting their dreams and circumscribing their expectations. It is a nightmare they are all trying in vain to rewind and erase.
The title character, the so-called Dew Breaker, is a seemingly ordinary Haitian immigrant living a willfully quiet life in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter. But he is hiding a terrible secret: back in the 1960's in Haiti he was a member of the dreaded Tontons Macoute, the blood-soaked enforcers of François Duvalier's murderous regime.

The Dew Breaker's name came from the fact that he and his henchmen would usually arrive "before dawn, as the dew was settling on the leaves" to abduct victims from their homes; he tortured and killed untold numbers of innocents, including a much-loved preacher who dared to speak out against the government. The scar on his face is both a mark of Cain and a reminder of his violent past.

The other people in this book — who, we gradually learn, are members of the Dew Breaker's family and former victims and their family members — are equally in thrall to the past. Whether they have stayed in Port-au-Prince or left for the United States to try to write a second act to their lives, they all find themselves haunted by the long events that left them with broken bodies, fractured families or smashed hopes. For these characters the dead are not merely ghosts; they are palpable, intimately felt presences in their daily lives.

In her earlier books "Breath, Eyes, Memory," "Krik? Krak!" and "The Farming of Bones," Ms. Danticat, who was born in Haiti and moved to the United States when she was 12, demonstrated an ability to use her lyric gift of language and her emotional clarity to show how the public and the private, the personal and the political are intertwined in the lives of Haitians and Haitian-Americans, and to show how the past anchors and hobbles the present.

"The Dew Breaker" not only showcases these same qualities, but it is also Ms. Danticat's most persuasive, organic performance yet. As seamless as it is compelling, the novel recounts its harrowing tale in limpid, understated prose, using a looping structure of overlapping stories to tell the Dew Breaker's story by indirection.
It is a tale that uses its characters' experiences as a prism to examine Haiti's own difficulties in breaking free from a centuries-old cycle of violence and vengeance that continues through today, a tale that simultaneously unfolds to become a philosophical meditation on the possibility of redemption and the longing of victims and victimizers alike to believe in the promise of new beginnings held forth by the American Dream.

Ms. Danticat gives us few direct glimpses of the Dew Breaker. Instead we see him through the eyes of others: former victims, who believe they have seen him, their tormentor, walking the streets of Brooklyn, an evil spirit come back to torment them; his wife, Anne, a devout woman who believes in miracles and the miracle of his transformation; and their Americanized daughter, who has grown up thinking of him as an ordinary father, a man she can love and rebel against like any other child.

The Dew Breaker calls his daughter ka — the ancient Egyptian word for the soul; he sees her and her mother as good angels, his rescuers from his past. When he confesses his past to his daughter, she immediately wonders if he is "going to explain why he and my mother have no close friends, why they've never had anyone over to the house, why they never speak of any relatives in Haiti or anywhere else, or have never returned there or, even after I learned Creole from them, have never taught me anything else about the country beyond what I could find out on my own, on the television, in newspapers, in books?"

Each tale in "The Dew Breaker" could stand on its own as a beautifully made story, but they come together like jigsaw-puzzle pieces to create a picture of this man's terrible history and his and his victims' afterlife. Some of the puzzle pieces are missing of course, but this is a matter of design. It is a measure of Ms. Danticat's fierce, elliptical artistry that she makes the elisions count as much as her piercing, indelible words.

[Credit: The New York Times, March 10, 2004.]

No Room for the Living
By Michael Upchurch

Hallucinatory vigor and a sense of mission -- these are what, in her best moments, the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat brings to her sobering novel about ''two different peoples trying to share one tiny piece of land.''

The setting is the border country of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola and the year is 1937, a place and time when the longstanding hostility between the Dominican Republic and its neighbor, Haiti, is about to erupt into bloodshed, carefully orchestrated by the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo Molina. But Amabelle Desir, the Haitian housemaid who is the novel's narrator, gives little credence to the rumors of imminent violence. Instead, her focus is on the worries of her immediate household.

Amabelle's Dominican mistress, Senora Valencia, is still recovering after giving birth to twins, then quickly losing one of them to crib death. In addition, a field laborer from a nearby sugar cane plantation has been killed in a hit-and-run accident, and the Senora's soldier husband is the culprit. As Amabelle and her Haitian lover, Sebastien Onius (who witnessed the killing), are drawn into the funeral arrangements for the dead man, they must consider the matter of avenging his death. And facing this crisis also means acknowledging what they mean to each other. In short, there's drama enough in Amabelle's immediate vicinity to distract her from whatever larger fate the Generalissimo has in mind for his country's Haitian minority -- until the slaughter begins, and she and Sebastien become separated in their efforts to escape it.
Danticat -- the author of one earlier novel, ''Breath, Eyes, Memory,'' and a story collection, ''Krik? Krak!'' -- capably evokes the shock with which a small personal world is disrupted by military mayhem. Even the title of ''The Farming of Bones'' reflects this duality, referring both to the grueling work that takes place on the sugar cane plantations and, implicitly, the massacre to come. Despite this complex shading, the novel doesn't consistently achieve the nimble intensity of Danticat's strongest work in ''Krik? Krak!''

The trouble, perhaps, is that Danticat's storytelling invention has been inhibited by the respect she has for her novel's historical sources. It is surely telling that the prickly yet affectionate servant-mistress bond between Amabelle and Senora Valencia (Amabelle always refers to her as ''Senora,'' even though the women grew up together) feels more astutely observed than the relationships among the Haitian characters, who are too uniformly noble to be entirely convincing. It also feels contrived when, in a flashback, Danticat orphans the young Amabelle on the Dominican-Haitian border during peacetime, although the account of her parents' death is unsettling enough to work.
There are technical oddities as well that detract from the power of Danticat's story. The novel opens with what appear to be two alternating narrators -- suggested by different typefaces and contrasting prose styles. Yet it soon becomes clear that both voices belong to Amabelle, a device that seems miscalculated and unnecessary. More worrying are moments when the book's dialogue smacks of historical-epic-speak. (''Do you know that you can trust him who offered this place to you?'')

Thankfully, there's no such creakiness in most of the descriptive prose. Danticat knows the value of understatement in bringing nightmarish scenes to life, and a spare, searing poetry infuses many of the book's best passages. The randomness of death; the second-guessing about where safety lies; the silence after an act of butchery in a remote mountain farm: all are eerily evoked, as is the fluid heedlessness of a crowd's hysteria when Trujillo appears in a border town at the height of the violence.
Some readers will wish that Danticat had supplied more information on the wider context of Haitian-Dominican animosity, including the two countries' long history of mutual invasion. But her primary concern is to depict the unfortunate lot of the Haitian migrant laborers who have only ''the cane to curse, the harvest to dread, the future to fear,'' and who have no politics beyond an instinctive clan loyalty and the need to seek work wherever it might be.

''The Farming of Bones'' doesn't end with the massacre. Rather, Danticat probes its aftermath in scenes that, although lacking the momentum of the book's earlier chapters, vividly convey the strangeness of the survivors' plight and the sense of unfinished business in what is left of their lives: the marriages that might have been, the savings that went up in smoke. At times, the novel reads like a small-scale ''Gone With the Wind,'' retold from the servants' point of view. It also provides an unnerving reminder that the appalling rationale and logistics of ''ethnic cleansing'' have been with us for a very long time.

Not surprisingly, given her subject matter, Danticat's customary wry wit is present only in small doses -- as when Amabelle, a spur-of-the-moment midwife helping to deliver Senora Valencia's second twin, remarks, ''I was feeling more experienced now.'' Later there is also a hideous dark humor in the absurd minutiae of persecution: the pronunciation test given to suspected Haitians whose inability to trill the Spanish ''r'' in ''perejil'' (''parsley'') could result in a death sentence.

In these and other passages, ''The Farming of Bones'' offers ample confirmation of Edwidge Danticat's considerable talents. Yet her finest work has led us to expect even more.














© 2001