- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 10, 2004


By Edwidge Danticat

Knopf, $22, 256 pages


In the first chapter of “The Dew Breaker,” artist Ka Bienaime discovers that her father, whom she has sculpted as a heroic prisoner, was never, in fact, in prison — at least not in the way she had believed him to be before he fled to America. Explaining why he destroyed her prized sculpture of him, he tells her, “Ka, your father was the hunter, not the prey.”

Since he is Haitian, this amounts to a confession that he has tortured and killed his compatriots. Indeed, he was one of the notorious Tontons Macoutes, who terrorized Haiti during the regime of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier.

Though Ka, who loves him deeply, is as surprised as she is shaken by this information, she sees that this explains why he has never invited people back to their home, never returned to visit Haiti, never discussed his Haitian family or friends.

He has kept a low profile, knowing well that many Haitians, both in New York and in Port-au-Prince, would like nothing better than to revenge the cruelties he practiced on them or their families 37 years ago.

Ka’s immediate problem is to figure out how her mother, Anne, has coped with this knowledge of her husband’s hideous career. Was she an accomplice — a huntress, with the same evil past?

Anne is a deeply religious woman with a devotion to miracles. Even more than her husband, she has kept to herself, behaving, as Ka now sees, “like someone that was nurturing a great pain that she could never speak about.”

Anne’s own explanation is that she and Ka have been her father’s good angels. They saved him from his own nature. “Look how calm he is. Look how patient he is,” she reflects, thinking of these changes in him as a small miracle, albeit a sad one. But her faith notwithstanding, “her life is a pendulum between forgiveness and regret.”

Anne is the closest that Miss Danticat’s novel has to a raisonneur. She knows the horrors of her husband’s past. She fled the Haiti of the Duvaliers with him, knowing some of what he had done, and learning more when he named their daughter Ka, after the beneficent goddess of Haitian myth.

But Anne is a born survivor with a religious faith not shared by either her husband or their daughter. Without her strength and convictions, what are they to make of his past? How are they to understand how a devoted father and loyal husband, who has made a quiet living running a barbershop, was once a ferocious torturer? And how are we to understand such apparent contradictions in human character?

This is a question of immediate importance, and not just because Haiti is once again in the news. Every day television and newspapers report terrorists and governments shamelessly threatening death and destruction on civilian populations. Every eruption of violence is followed by an aftermath when tortured prisoners come forth to tell their stories.

Killing fields are discovered, war crimes publicized, and their perpetrators hunted down. Haiti’s history is uniquely its own, but the tortures and persecutions its people have suffered are shared by multitudes around the world.

Miss Danticat tries not to shudder such events away into a murk of unknowable evil. Instead she offers the stories of Haitians who are directly or indirectly affected by regimes of terror.

There’s Dany, who watched his family burn to death, for example. As fate would have it, he rents a room from Anne, and gradually realizes that her barber husband, now much thinner and with a deeply scarred face, is the Macoute who set them alight.

Then there is Beatrice Saint Fort, a meticulous seamstress who has created wedding gowns for generations of Haitians living in New York. Before she left the island the soles of her feet where whipped and she was then forced to walk home on roads of hot tar. Now she continually finds new apartments because she is haunted by the belief that her torturer lives nearby.

There are Rezia, Mariselle and Freda, also living in New York and trying to pass their GED exam, while recalling their lives in Haiti. Freda left because she refused to sing a funeral song at the palace. Now she contemplates returning to join a militia. “If you join a militia, you’ll die,” says Rezia. “Then who will sing at your funeral?”

These tales are self-contained; indeed, most of them have been published as short stories in the New Yorker or other magazines. Together they work to sketch the lives of diverse Haitians, both on the island and in New York.

Interspersed are episodes from the life of Ka and her family, but it is not until the final chapter that we see her father as he was when he was a feared and powerful Duvalier operative. He fails his final mission, and thus will certainly become a victim himself. This precipitates his flight to New York and eventually his life as a quiet barber and family man.

But while this structure of intertwined stories effectively shows how lives change — how the reality of one period may belie the reality of another, and thus how hard it is to understand the history of other people or their characters — the fragmentation of the tales also leaves blanks and mysteries.

The questions raised about how the torturer reforms are not answered. Nor are the questions that must lie behind it: How did the torturer become a torturer in the first place, and how do fearfully repressive regimes take hold?

Miss Danticat writes lucidly and flexibly, creating the kind of prose that George Orwell likened to a windowpane — clear so the reader can see through. But what windowpanes show is surface reality; what lies beneath the surface, in hearts and minds, in prisons and dungeons, remains hidden.

Though “The Dew Breaker” is engrossing and often seems to be closing in on the mystery of cruelty, Miss Danticat’s language lacks the denseness of imagery or symbol that might have yielded even greater imaginative insight into the darkness at its heart.

What we see at the end of the novel is Anne, who now knows that her husband has told Ka of his past, reflecting that there is no way to escape the dread of loss. Like Rezia, Mariselle and Freda, we are left thinking of “the terrible days behind us and the uncertain ones ahead.”

Claire Hopley is a writer in Amherst, Mass.

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