By Steven D. Salinger
New York: Crown Publishing, 2001.
ISBN: 0-609-60728-6. 262 pages
Reviewed by Bob Corbett
On this e-mail list we have often spoken of foreign images of Haiti. However, those images we discussed were spoken images we had heard, or were on TV, radio and film, or were in mainly non-fiction writing of journalists and scholars. In this latter connection I think of Robert Lawless' book HAITI'S BAD PRESS.
However, and interest I have had for years, and one with I share with Leon-Francois Hoffman, is of images of Haiti in foreign fiction. In running a check of my own library program of novels concerning Haiti or Haitians which I own, I note I currently have 218 novels on the shelf and another dozen or so on order.
Little by little I read them and make notes on the images of Haitians portrayed by these writers. My own collection is at least 90% of English language authors, with a few translated novels thrown in. They are a great mix with some simply excellent ones like Madison Smartt Bell's novels, Alejo Carpentier's Kingdom of this world, Harold Courlander's The Bourdeaux Narrative, the novels of Frances Temple, Mayra Montero's In the Palm of Darkness among others.
On the other hand there are also so some horrible it is hard to believe. Curiously, the novel under review should not be confused with another novel of the same title, White Darkness by David A. McIntee, is among the absolute worst. In that novel "he TARDIS lands in Haiti in the early years of the First World War. And the Doctor, Bernice and Ace land in a murderous plot involving voodoo, violent death, Zombie and German spies. And perhaps something else -- something far, far worse." I do want to separate that novel off into a far different category that the present White Darkness which is under review.
Normally these novels about Haiti and Haitians are uniformly bad, either portraying Haitians in quite negative stereotypes, or simply getting them completely wrong. When I decided to tackle the recently released White Darkness by author Steven D. Salinger (not THAT Salinger, a different one), I was curious as to what I would find, and just how much Haiti and Haitians would figure in this novel set in Brooklyn.
I was pleasantly surprised on both counts. This is light fiction, a rather gripping tale of greed, cruelty, violent sexuality and danger lurking in every page. But the story is quite well told, and while the very genre itself warns me much too early that everything will eventually turn out okay, the tale along the way is worth the trip. For me it was that lighter book I always carry to read while on the subway or those few moments of reading I can snatch with I don't want to be into a book where I pen and paper at my side for note taking.
The main story line is of a ring of criminals in contemporary Haiti who are working with the CIA. Oddly they are mainly army officers and lowly soldiers despite the non-existence of the army in Haiti today. Colonel Hugo Ferray (ah, yes, say it a time or two and find the hidden lwa in the name. Many of the key Haitian characters have names that are also names of lwa) heads up a hit squad who kills people for the CIA. All of the victims are extremely wealthy Haitians, but we are never given the slightest clue why the CIA wants them dead. There is no hint they were politically active. Ferray never physically involves himself in the killings, but he sadistically visits the victims minutes before his army squad invades their always extremely remote estates and destroys all the people, committing rapes and brutality in the process. Then the house is always plundered of all its valuables. Ferray is quite rich, having all this plunder for himself plus safety deposit boxes of gold in the U.S. seemingly from the CIA.
Meanwhile in Brooklyn Miz Ark (whose name is actually Arcenciel, from which Salinger derives the name Sirene) runs a Haitian restaurant, a front for an underground channeling service for illegal Haitians. Next door to her is Moe Rosen, a second generation, but unsuccessful Jewish jeweler. (Okay, we do have to have the token white guy hero in all this.) Moe's father ran a very successful store here before the neighborhood became poor and black, but Moe has hung in with his store, downgrading the quality jewelry he sells.
The plot is intricate and fun, so I've only set the stage; all of which you'd learn in the first few pages. Ferray's chief aid is Miz Ark's brother; things go wrong on one hit in Haiti and Ferray heads for the states. His greed and cruelty bring him into conflict with Miz Ark and Moe. You have to be careful of 31 year old Jewish jeweler superheroes, but lots of fascinating stuff fits in between the necessary formulas.
Salinger's treatment of the Haitian characters is quite believable. With the exception of an exaggerated notion of Voodoo which figures rather heavily in the novel, and which I'll discuss below, he presents real people who are distinctly Haitian. They are human; mixed personalities of decent qualities (except for the arch evil Colonel Ferray) and less decent qualities. They aren't just poor black folks dressed up as Haitians, they really ring true of a distinctness of Haiti and left me wondering where Salinger picked up his insights into being Haitian. I recall one scene when Miz Ark returns to Haiti and stops at a roadside outdoor market in the provinces. Salinger's treatment of the deferential and even girlish manner of the market ladies in the presence of someone who obviously has money to spend, was quite convincing, reminding me of many similar situations I've been in at those same markets.
However, Salinger is writing for the American (and perhaps Haitian-American) market, and is required to make Voodoo a central organizing component of the novel. As I've already mentioned most of the major character's names are semi-homonyms for lwa. Ah, the lwa. One of the only really aggravating aspects of the novel was his chosen spelling as: "l'wah". I found this to be an extremely odd choice especially since he lists a very well known Haitian houngan as one of the people to whom he gave special thanks for help. I wished the Voodoo expert would have suggested a different spelling.
There is general tone of respect for the religion throughout Salinger's novel. It does play a huge role in the lives of nearly all the people, except for the cynical and evil, Ferray, which initself suggests a certain respect: the basically decent Haitians are followers of the lwa. This is not a Voodoo of wild feats and fantastic happenings with the exception of a single scene in the climax of the novel which is built around a Voodoo service. There some possessed by a spirits bites off the neck of a bottle and chews the glass. Not what I've seen in dozens and dozens of simple Rada services I've been to. In my own experience what has characterized Voodoo has been its simple ordinariness, not its spectacular events. Nonetheless Salinger seems to capture a respectful sense in which poor and mainly unlettered Haiti peasants, both in Haiti and now in Brooklyn, live their lives and find in the lwa and in ritual help in dealing with the hardships of the world.
In my score book of images of Haiti and Haitians by foreigners Salinger does fairly well. There is virtually no image of Haiti the country. The curious fact of an operational army (or maybe he intended this as sort of an underground pseudo-army -- it was very unclear) suggested a less than in-depth knowledge, but he did drop a few hints that he knew of Aristide, his image and troubles, but Haiti itself figures much less than Haitians. The Haitians he treats with respect and, I think, a good deal of general accuracy. Virtually all the characters are of the peasantry, and the bit we learn of the aristocracy is rather stereotypical, not so much as morally repugnant elite, but as folks who have just turned their attentions inside and pay almost no attention to the external world. Voodoo may be a bit too central to this image of Haitian life, but, as we have recently been discussing on the e-mail list, there is a great deal of controversy among ourselves on just how central is Voodoo in Haitian life. I lean strongly to the view that it plays a dramatically central role in much of the countryside, and that seems to be the sort of view which Salinger has presented.
The novel is a suspenseful light read filled with Haitians, many of them quite likeable and believable. You may well enjoy the book.
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