BEST NIGHTMARE ON EARTH: A LIFE IN HAITI

By Herbert Gold
Prentice Hall Press, New York
ISBN: 0-13-372327-5 $19.95 hardbound

Reviewed by Bob Corbett

Herbert Gold first went to Haiti as a 22 year old student would-be writer in 1952. He's been back many times over the years, usually as a journalist. Gold immensely enjoyed his days in Haiti. "In fact," he tells us, "Haiti was not bad to me, Haiti was mostly bad to Haitians." Gold's Haiti was not always the nightmare of his title. Actually, it's not until the elections of 1988 that Gold believes Haiti deteriorated into this best nightmare. Gold went to the airport to cover President Prosper Avril's return from China. He was astonished with the floral display.

"I stopped translating General Romulus's discourse and tried to calculate how much the baskets of flowers cost this country where people who used to go hungry are now starving and showing symptoms of kwashiorkor. When I lived in Haiti, this didn't exist, nor did yaws. The Duvaliers and their legacy have brought them both."

Gold's analysis goes to the core of why this is a very bad, though entertaining book. He never bothered to really know Haiti. He knows the french toast of the Grand Hotel Oloffson, where he usually lived. He knows quite a few of the rich and famous. His fascination with people, both Haitians and visitors, seems in direct proportion to how degenerate and corrupt they are. Gold's Haiti is that of the gentile balcony of the Oloffson, the Haiti of the elite, the rich tourists, the wealthier districts of Port-au-Prince. In that world of the past 30 years Duvalierism has made all the difference.

But what of Haiti herself? Not merely Port-au-Prince, but the millions, the 7/8ths of the people who farm the rural areas and produce the wealth of Haiti? What has Duvalierism meant? Perhaps a stronger version of corruption, brutality, exploitation and nightmare than earlier versions of Haitian authority -- yes. But something new? No. Different people suffered, and the snug, smug, sophisticated and arrogant people who populate Gold's Haiti were the losers in this round. Gold deeply regrets this and longs for the good old days when the masses knew their place and the privileged white visitors and elite of Pacot, Petionville, Kenscoff, and, of course, the veranda of the Grand Hotel Oloffson, could be assured their elegant life without interruption by the politics of the 7 million people of Haiti.

It seems I spend so much of my teaching time trying to get past exactly the Herbert Gold sort of portrait of Haiti and get to the Haiti of the masses of disenfranchised Haitians. Books like Gold's make the job just that much more difficult.

However, if one can abstract from Haiti, Gold does tell amusing and interesting tales. He seems to have an uncanny ability to meet the most exotic and bazaar people, and to be readily accepted by them. There are times when I have enjoyed an evening meal, a few drinks and good conversation on the veranda of the Oloffson. I know that the Herbert Golds, the Petitpierres, the elite Haitians, the jet-setting, sex starved tourists are part of the Oloffson. It's something I watch from the outside. Gold lets us inside. The only danger seems to be if you take this world of a few hundred people to be Haiti. Gold is quite clear in his subtitle "a life in Haiti." He makes no pretense that he presents Haiti herself, just his life. The difficulty is that one can come away believing that the Grand Hotel Oloffson is the capital a country of a few hundred rich weirdos!

Gold tells great stories. But, he doesn't write a coherent book. Perhaps these were pieces he's written here and there for magazines and then lightly edited them into this whole. I know this is the case with his hilarious monkey story. I remember reading the original. The book is filled with repetition. On numerous occasions were are told that each kilometer up the Kenskoff road means one degree cooler temperature, and that Baby Doc was the 9th president-for-life, and that Dieudonné Lamothe is a famous Haitian runner and so on. Perhaps Gold has forgotten that he's told us these things before, sometimes two or three times. Perhaps he just believes that with repetition we'll remember better. But I suspect he just didn't bother doing a careful edit of previously published materials.

This is not a book about Haiti. It's a book about Herbert Gold. A fun and entertaining book, but one that gives the reader a very limited and warped view of the country of Haiti.


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu