In our collective memory there’s a consensus that the United States invaded Haiti in 1994 to restore democracy and inject the island with an 18-month dose of revitalizing American can-do, but that memory would be an illusion. Learning the wrong lesson from Vietnam, Bill Clinton destroyed the island to save it, handing the whole mess off to the United Nations and a Babylon of international agencies. And yet, 10 years later, Haiti was still languishing in democracy’s neonatal intensive care ward.
Out went the elected president in a coup d’etat, in came another iteration of the United Nations peacekeeping mission, a 10,000-strong force of soldiers, police and bureaucrats, including, in 2007, a U.N. official whose husband was a freelance journalist and novelist named Mischa Berlinski. Berlinski remained with his wife in Haiti until 2011, occasionally firing off reports about the country for the New York Review of Books, which earned him the scorn of the writer Amy Wilentz , the apparent gatekeeper of all things Haiti, who accused Berlinski of ignorance and racism. Berlinski, Wilentz argued, thinks, like many U.S. foreign policy types, that interventions are good, saving places like Haiti from outright barbarism. Readers of Berlinski’s marvelous new novel, “Peacekeeping,” however, might find themselves puzzled by Wilentz’s snarky accusations.
Berlinski’s first novel, “Fieldwork” (2007), was set in northern Thailand, another of his wife’s postings. It garnered splashy reviews by Stephen King and Hilary Mantel, a National Book Award nomination and a $50,000 Whiting Award.
Anyone who has read “Fieldwork” will immediately recognize in Berlinski’s second novel what can now be understood as the author’s MO. Not only does he choose to immerse himself in exotic locales, he also insists on anchoring himself, Mischa Berlinski, journalist and novelist, as the narrator, intermediary and witness. The result is not fictionalized autobiography but something a bit more playful or maybe even spellbound, as if Berlinski had gone native into his own books, unable to pry himself out of the dynamics of the story’s spectacle.
In an author’s note at the end of “Peacekeeping,” Berlinski explains, “I am not I, you are not you,” which seems perfunctory as far as assurances go. If one good meta-wink deserves another, then I’m not me, either, Bob Shacochis reviewing this book. Rather, in an alternative universe, I’m the fellow who met Berlinski in a bar in Port-au-Prince, where the two of us made a pact to write novels about Americans who want to make the world a better place. And then we died laughing, real tears rolling down our cheeks.
Seriously, despite the fact of Haiti’s geopolitical purgatory, a nation occupied and molested by external (and internal) forces for centuries, when you’re not suppressing the urge to weep for the suffering of Haitians, there’s much to laugh at in “Peacekeeping.” For starters, the protagonist is Terry White, a.k.a. Terry the White, a U.N. policeman stationed in the far-flung city of Jérémie on Haiti’s coastline. After 20 years as a deputy sheriff in a Florida Panhandle county, White, “the stereotype of the southern lawman,” lost his career, his home and his inner compass when he played in the Big Boy sport of Florida politics. “He was a know-it-all,” writes Berlinski. “Even Terry White’s kindnesses had about them some trace of superiority.” The U.N. mission in Haiti offers him a chance to reboot himself.
White is passionately committed to protecting good people from bad people. Haiti, of course, feeds and frustrates the noble desire of such personalities, never more so than when White enters into the orbit of Johel Célestin, a light-skinned, Kennedyesque district judge who speaks with “the clipped inflections of educated American speech.”
Célestin, who went to New York as a child fleeing the brutality of the Duvaliers, returned to Haiti six years ago, long enough to have developed a tactile sense of intolerance for the injustice crushing the lives of everyday Haitians. He has reluctantly decided, with White’s prodding, to become a candidate for the Haitian Senate. His entrenched opponent, Sen. Maxim Bayard, also light-skinned and a former exile, seems to be an easy target, appearing to represent the moral bankruptcy infecting the core of Haitian politics. But in the hands of an accomplished novelist such as Berlinski, no character’s assigned roles are what they seem to be.
Célestin’s lover and future wife, the blue-eyed, ebony-skinned Nadia, is presented as a foil to these three men and their various shades of pale. She hovers and swoops as the story’s avatar of blackness, the vessel through which flows the terrible history of Africans in the New World.
“Peacekeeping” gallops ahead toward the horizon of tragedy, yet the novel is brightened by the author’s sense of the absurdities that saturate an enterprise like a U.N. mission and the weird, byzantine intimacies at the ground level of globalization. Berlinski is also delightfully deft with dialect and bawdy humor — to do otherwise would be a disservice to Haitians and the brilliant spectrum of their culture. In this respect, the novel belongs next to Herman Wouk’s “Don’t Stop The Carnival,” a comedy about a white American’s middle-age crisis in the Caribbean, until Berlinski’s narrative suddenly reaches a disaster. Then it resembles Thornton Wilder’s masterpiece “The Bridge of San Luis Rey.”
But too often Haiti has been a stage for the kabuki performance of our good intentions, as well as a mirror reflecting the vanity of our exceptionalism, and it’s never a bad idea to look toward Haiti for a reality check on who we are in the world. “Peacekeeping,” in that sense, is a welcome bearer of enlightenment and a raw reminder of the limits of empathy.
Bob Shacochis’s most recent novel is “The Woman Who Lost Her Soul.”
By Mischa Berlinski
Sarah Crichton. 372 pp. $27