In Haiti, 'one day it will be over'

Monday Book Review

February 14, 1994|By J.P. Slavin

UNDER THE BONE. By Anne-christine d'Adesky. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 373 pages, $23. Ms. d'Adesky concentrates on an aspect of Haitian life often ignored by other journalists and authors: the plight of the economically bereft Haitian woman. Against nearly JTC insurmountable odds, poor Haitian families are usually housed, fed, dressed and disciplined by the working mother.

Ms. d'Adesky's prose is careful and her book intelligently structured, demonstrating an elegant transition from journalist to novelist. A Haitian-American, Ms. d'Adesky separately introduces the novel's six principal characters in the first four chapters. She then leads the reader through a three-week chronology and culminates by interconnecting the lives of the main characters.

The novel's protagonist, American human rights investigator Leslie Doyle, admires Haiti's poor, and when she arrives in Port-au-Prince to survey a development project, Doyle drives through a slum and reminds herself most homes are "dark, without electricity except for a single lightbulb." Ms. d'Adesky brings the reader into the life of Elyse Voltaire, a laundrywoman who lives in a crumbling house with one lightbulb. Voltaire, who is carrying the child of a Haitian who works as a miserably paid sugar cane cutter in the neighboring Dominican Republic, is falsely accused of murder and sent to prison. A victim of the naked injustice of Haiti's army-controlled legal system, she fears being raped by prison guards. One storyline shows how Doyle, working with contacts in Haiti's human rights community, wins Voltaire's release.

Besides describing Voltaire's ordeal, Ms. d'Adesky portrays the influence and religious integrity of Haitian voodoo by revealing Voltaire's dreams when she communicates with voodoo gods. It is in these moving ballad-like dream sequences, which Ms. d'Adesky also uses to write about a charismastic leader of a peasant farmers movement, that "Under the Bone" becomes a novel. Although fictionalized, "Under the Bone" is built around historical reality, and besides addressing Haiti's political complexities, it tackles the labyrinth of the island's class system.

Readers will learn about the dignity of Haiti's poor. The images of ragged and sick Haitian boat people, or of gun-toting Ton-Ton Macoutes, have given the world the wrong impression of them. Many in Haiti's middle and upper classes treat poor Haitians as inferior.

While the sexual tension between Doyle and her chauffeur, Clemard Rameau, is riveting, Ms. d'Adesky's portrayal of Rameau includes the reality of his working life: He's paid $25 a month and owns two pairs of trousers. But Rameau also fits Ms. d'Adesky's definition of a Haitian peasant: proud, honest, polite and insightful.

Although "Under the Bone" loses some of its grip and excitement in its final 100 pages, a crackling tension follows Doyle. She stiffens when she passes an army patrol, waits in fear of a police raid and wonders if a nearby gunshot was meant for her. Her heroic work, and the struggle of other human rights activists in "Under the Bone," is properly balanced when one of the Haitians tells Doyle: "We're here and we're waiting. For that one day when it will be over. That's all we can do -- that's all any of us can do. And one day it will be over, although I don't expect it to be in my lifetime."

That's an accurate assessment.

J.P. Slavin, a free-lance reporter, lived in Haiti from 1990 to 1993 and contributed to The Sun. He lives in New York.

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