Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Rainy Season by Amy Wilentz

I discovered this scholarly discussian of Haiti in the aftermath of the Duvaliers when I saw Wilentz interviewd by CNN soon after the January 12 earthquake. Published in 1989, this is arguably the heavyweight reportage on modern Haiti. At one point in the book (p. 170) Wilentz hears "We Are the World" booming from a huge cassette player, an eerie foreshadowng of the remake that was recorded this February for Haiti's earthquake victims.
Wilentz does an excellent treatment of how Papa Doc Duvalier brought the ascendent mulatto elite to their knees through massacres and confiscation of property and forcing flight, ultimately creating a huge Haitian diaspora, over a million, especially in the U.S. Post Duvalier, two new pseudoclasses emerged. Peasants would refer to the returning mulattos "Li se yon dyas" (He's from the Diaspora), likewise the response would be "Limemn ? Se ti makout li ye" (Him ? He's just a little Macoute").
She also gives compelling explication of the role of voodoo and how it was opportunistically adopted by Duvalier and fused with his thugs the Tontons Macoute. Since the U.S. occupation in 1915, the Haitians have suffered ostracism from foreign forces and subsequently the mulatto elite in an effort to wipe out the peasant voodoo religion. At the onset of the AIDS epidemic, nonbelievers often adopted voodoo as a last resort for treatment, inevitably for naught. The Creole word katrach is fascinating, referring to the four "H"s, homosexuals, hemophiliacs, heroin users, and Haitians.
THe Haitian Revolution in 1804 would be the world's only successful slave uprising and rendered the U.S. and Haiti the only two independent nations in the Western hemisphere at that time. It has been a long hard road since then.
Haitian fatalism is best described in resignation by the Creole motto Bondye Bon (the Good Lord is Good). Doing and undoing is what Haitian politics is all about. "Neg fe, neg defe" (what one man does, another can undo). Haitians generally describe politics as a process of correcting the mistakes of the past.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Brothers by Yu Hua

This is without a doubt one of the most brilliant books I have ever read and highly entertaining and LOL-funny to boot. Even at 641 pages, this wonderful novel is a real page turner, I could not put it down. Fundamentaly it is an epic about the old China vs. the new China as exemplified by two stepbrothers who could not be more different. This book was published in two volumes (2005 and 2006) in China and sold over 1 million copies.
The first chapter is hilarious and details the adolescent entrepreneurial instincts of Baldy Li, who catches a glimpse of the village's most beautiful girl, Lin Hong, in the local latrine. His ability to extract payments from the local population (in the form of "house-special" noodles at the People's Restaurant) to hear his description of her buttocks will leave the reader in stitches. Suffice it to say that he becomes a fat cat capitalist in the scrap metal business and ultimately faces moral issues with choices he has made in life. On the other hand, his brother, Song Gang, is a bit of a loser and is destined to spend a life in poverty, yet generally takes the moral high road. Of course, they both fall in love with Lin Hong.
Graphically violent scenes from the Cultural Revolution are difficult to swallow, especially those involving the beating of the boys' father, who is saddled as being a landowner during Mao's reign. In fact, the transition from that dark era in which millions died of starvation to the hyper-capitalism in evidence in China today is fascinating.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Immaculate Invasion by Bob Shacochis

I must say that the dialogue found in Amazon and other reviews of this book is decidedly more interesting than the story itself. This is a book that has generated some small degree of controversy amongst Haitian cogniscenti as well as the military personnel that participated in Operation Uphold Democracy (9.19.94 - 3.31.95). Aristide was the first democratically elected President in Haiti on Feb 7, 1991. In September, he was ousted in a coup d'etat. The military leader, Cedras, made a deal with the U.S. (UN brokered at New York's Governors Island in 1994) to peacefully hand over control back to Aristide.
Bob Shacochis (now professor at Florida State Univ.) was an embedded journalist for 18 months within a Special Forces ("SF") commando detachment. In fact his detailed coverage of military organization and protocols, filled with opaque acronyms makes for a distracting read for the uninformed. SF guys who were in Haiti complain that the author's characterization of Haiti as incapable of self-governance is racist. Other comments contend that the Haitian people were complicit in obstructing the restoration of democacy, a theme that Shacochis misses.
In one instance, Shacochis was literally saved by ODA 311 (SF unit) when he was caught in the crossfire in a Limbe casern. One reviewer feels that this shaded his attitude on reporting about the SF behavior. One observer says that the fundamental role of the U.S. was to protect class privilege by stopping a revolution, not a coup d'etat.
The U.S. goal was to restore Aristide, then hold elections to remove him, and go home. It didn't work out that way. Let's hope that our post earthquake presence is more successful.