The agonies of Haiti are written in blood

March 07, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

The Dew Breaker, by Edwidge Danticat. Knopf. 256 pages. $22.95.

Marx said that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. On the beautiful, tormented island of Haiti, however, tragedy repeats itself simply as more of the same.

Haiti was founded in 1804 in the wake of a slave rebellion that threw off French colonial rule and established the country as the world's first black republic.

The liberation was brief; decades of warfare followed, and were followed by oppression and abject poverty under brutal military governments and tyrannical dictators whose misrule has persisted more or less uninterrupted down to the present day.

So much tragedy invariably leaves its imprint on a people, a terrible tangle of history, biography, circumstance and chance that forms the emotional backdrop of Edwidge Danticat's luminous new novel, The Dew Breaker.

As Haiti's history was written mostly in blood, so Danticat's story revolves around a man who was intimately tied to the bloodletting -- as a torturer and executioner for the Duvalier regime. He was called the Dew Breaker because he preferred to collect his victims before dawn.

We meet him decades later, after he has moved to the United States, where he lives quietly with his terrible secret while working as a barber in Brooklyn and trying to avoid questions about his past.

This is necessary because the tightly knit Haitian community in New York is full of people who have lost parents, siblings and other relatives and friends to the apparatus of terror he once served.

Danticat's narrative is organized as a series of linked short stories, several of which have been published previously. Her characters are ordinary people -- nurses, hairdressers, janitors and professional funeral singers -- who find themselves inextricably enmeshed in their country's terrifying past and the lies that cover it up.

The Dew Breaker's American-born daughter is an artist who obsessively carves her father's portrait. When he unexpectedly confesses his crimes during a trip to Florida, she suddenly realizes that the face she has been scrutinizing for years belongs to someone she has never really known.

Her mother, Anne, the Dew Breaker's wife, turns out to be the sister-in-law of the last man her husband murdered before leaving Haiti. Even the janitor who rents a basement room in the family's house in Brooklyn is the son of two more of his victims.

In Danticat's moral universe, the ghosts of history are everywhere and inescapable. An elderly seamstress tells a reporter the man who tortured her in Haiti now lives just down the street. The Dew Breaker's daughter panics when she thinks she spots a notorious death-squad leader from Haiti's new government sitting across the aisle from her in church one day.

This is a tale of crime and punishment in the great tradition of Dostoevski: What good there is comes, if ever, at a steep price, and even then there's no telling whether it will last.

In Haiti's case, the lessons of history are not encouraging, and neither is Danticat, whose characters suffer mightily for their country's bloody past even as they struggle to overcome it.

Glenn McNatt has been The Sun's art critic since 1999. From 1985 to 1999 he was arts columnist, an editorial writer and occasional op-ed page editor for The Sun. McNatt earlier was a writer and editor for Time-Life Books and a reporter for Time magazine. He began his career as a teacher of literature and sociology at Brandeis University and Wellesley College.

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