Haiti: The Compromising Reality

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Antonio Bolfo/Reportage by Getty Images
A boy sleeping in a pile of plastic bottles at the Truitier landfill, Cité Soleil, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, April 2011

Amy Wilentz knows Haiti very well. She has a quarter-century of experience with the country. She speaks excellent French and Creole. She understands Haitian history intimately. She has the patience to sit with Haitians for hours, and the empathy to listen as her Haitian informants talk. She is marvelously observant and in command of a prose style sufficiently supple and imaginative to communicate her observations. Her naive illusions about the place have long since been stripped away.

Her first book about Haiti, The Rainy Season, was published in 1989 and depicted what seemed at the time a crucial moment in Haitian history, as the thirty-year dictatorship of the Duvaliers collapsed and a new nation emerged. The Rainy Season is an enthralling book—it remains so even now, at a remove of decades. (The book was republished in 2010 with a new introduction by Wilentz.)

The Rainy Season slips into the interstices between journalism, ethnology, history, sociology, and memoir; it is above all a traveler’s account of Haiti. Dozens and dozens of characters appear in this book, emerging from the page as full-fledged personalities, from vivid, flawed, never mawkish street children to the cynical “Well-Placed Embassy Official,” from voodoo priests to Baptist missionaries. So much of its power comes from the author’s moral clarity: the Haiti of The Rainy Season was a place in which elemental battles of good and evil were being waged; one could not be neutral; and every character is defined by his attitude toward the battle. There is no doubt where Wilentz’s sympathies lie: anger is an element of her literary personality. Here it fits her subject.

The Rainy Season was one of the few books about Haiti that I read before coming to the country for the first time in the spring of 2007. So panoptic, so detailed, so precise, and so evocative was The Rainy Season that I felt as if I knew the country intimately without having spent so much as a day there. I was for many months like the character Pyle in The Quiet American, clutching a volume of the imaginary York Harding’s works on democracy.

For a long time, I saw Amy Wilentz’s Haiti before I saw my Haiti. The two nations were not necessarily at a remove from one another, but neither were they entirely coincidental. The country had changed a great deal in the interim. The Haiti that I found in 2007, unlike the Haiti that Wilentz wrote about in 1989, was morally muddled. I found it impossible to acquire a sense of certitude.

The Tonton Macoutes, once so terrifying, were now geriatric. My wife worked for a United Nations peacekeeping mission that some denounced to me as neocolonial foreign occupation, but that others told me was all that had kept Haiti from degenerating into mass murder. I could …

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