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Peacekeeping: A Novel
Peacekeeping: A Novel
Mischa Berlinski
Sarah Crichton Books, 2016
400 pp., 27.00

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Mark Walhout

Haitian Realism

Some of the stories may even be true.

On September 11, 2001, quite a few authors were writing novels, some of them set in New York City. After the traumatic events of that day, many of these authors found themselves, in their shock and grief, unable to go on writing. Those who did eventually return to their manuscripts had to decide whether or not to include the terrible events of 9/11. Claire Messud, for example, was writing a satirical novel (The Emperor's Children) about some feckless young adults adrift in the New York literary world. Then she had a baby, then 9/11 occurred. As she told National Public Radio, she shelved the manuscript for a while. When she came back to it, she felt compelled to incorporate 9/11, which meant reframing her story. The memory of that awful day, she said, turned her satire into a historical novel and gave her more sympathy for her characters.

Something similar happened to Mischa Berlinski in Haiti on January 12, 2010, when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck the island nation, devastating Port-au-Prince and its environs. Berlinski had been living in Haiti since 2007, when his wife, a lawyer, took a job with the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission there. When the quake struck at 4:53 in the afternoon, Berlinski was in his office in Port-au-Prince, working on his second novel. After hitting the save button on his laptop—a true writer's reflex—he ran outside. As he wrote in The New York Review of Books (February 25, 2010), it never occurred to him that he might die, or that his wife and infant son might perish. He was right—they all survived, as did his novel-in-progress. That novel, Peacekeeping, has now been published, six years after the earthquake.

Our narrator may not be a saint but he seems to be constitutionally incapable of hating anyone. He's too interested in their stories.

Without giving too much away, I can reveal that the earthquake of 2010 does indeed figure in the novel. Peacekeeping is not about the earthquake or its aftermath, however. It is not a Natural Disaster Novel, the way Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a 9/11 Novel. It is a novel about the people, culture, and politics of Haiti. Its main character, the appropriately named Terry White, is a Caucasian peacekeeper from Florida. Almost all of the rest of the novel's characters are Haitians, although the most important of them, Judge Johel Celestin, is known to the locals as Juge Blan ("Judge White") because of his American education and accent. Johel's Haitian wife Nadia and Terry's American wife Kay complete the two couples at the center of the novel.

Like Berlinski's first novel, Fieldwork (which I reviewed for Books & Culture in 2007), Peacekeeping is narrated in the first person by an American observer who stands in for the author, barely participating in the action. Like Berlinski himself, this unnamed narrator is a novelist whose wife works for the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti, although she never appears in person. He befriends the down-on-their-luck Whites, admires Johel Celestin as a man of principle and a reformer, and is fascinated by the beautiful and mysterious Nadia. As the novel unfolds, we learn that the relationships between Terry, Kay, Johel, and Nadia are, as they say, complicated. Early on, I feared that our narrator was destined for an adulterous liaison with Kay White. But I needn't have worried—he remains a literary device, not a real character.

When he was writing Fieldwork, Berlinski decided that what he needed to keep things interesting was a murder. In Fieldwork, the murder has already been committed, and there's no mystery as to who the murderer is. The only mystery is why: Why did the anthropologist murder the missionary? In Peacekeeping, too, there is a murder—or is there? It's not certain, and even if there is a murder, there are different stories about why she did it. But that's Haiti for you, at least in our narrator's eyes. Haiti is a land of stories, and some of them may even be true, as our narrator is fond of saying. There are quite a few Haitian stories in Peacekeeping, and some of them are true, such as the sinking of the Trois Rivieres ferry, which happened shortly after Berlinski and his wife arrived.

Up to a point, Berlinski's use of conventions drawn from crime fiction is understandable. UN peacekeepers monitor and advise local police on criminal proceedings, and Terry White is a peacekeeper. Indeed, he's a hard-boiled detective with twenty years of experience, and he talks like Sam Spade or Mike Hammer or Aaron Appelfeld (the hero of the detective novels published by Mischa Berlinski's famous father, David). Some of Terry's language is not suitable for quotation, but here's a fair sample:

"What you got to understand is that this woman is a world-class ballbreaker. She's had it in for me since the day I showed up."
"What do you think her deal is?"
"Who knows? She's Queen Marguerite, and if you don't lick the royal boot, you get patrol."

This sort of hard-boiled dialogue can be quite humorous when it comes from Terry. But I, for one, was not amused to hear similar crudities emanating at times from the lips of Juge Blan and even our narrator. It's out of character.

I thought I detected another literary influence in Peacekeeping, namely, magical realism. There's plenty of magic in the novel, or, more accurately, happenings that are reported or believed to be magical. Our narrator typically relates these happenings just as he heard them, without interjecting his own skepticism. Here, for example, is his retelling of Nadia's voyage to Florida as a young girl:

Even the men began to cry because in the black clouds and pelting rain they saw the Baron. So Nadia sang to La Sirene, Erzulie of the Waters, who was so charmed by this maiden's song that she implored her lover Agwe to let the boat ride on his back a little longer. Nadia came to the coast of a place that the others called Miami.

Passages like that remind one of Gabriel García Márquez or Chinua Achebe, authors who speak with the voice of the people and transport us to their world. Not that Berlinski is a García Márquez or an Achebe, true literary magicians who never break the spell of enchantment.

But the Haitians are not the only characters prone to magical thinking. Terry White may not believe in Baron Samedi or Erzulie or the other Loa of Haitian Voudou, but he believes in God. Early in the novel, Judge Celestin asks our narrator whether he thinks he has a destiny. All he can say is "Maybe," thinking to himself, "It's easy for the guys drinking a cold beer on the beach to figure that this is the way it's all supposed to be." The narrator then asks the same question of Terry, who replies, "No doubt, brother. I know His strength. We're all here for a reason." Terry is a Southerner and a Republican and an evangelical, albeit not a very convincing one. Earlier in his career, he thought he was destined for public office in Florida. Now he believes it's his destiny to save the Haitian people.

What does Mischa Berlinski think of foreigners like Terry who parachute into Haiti intending to do good? When he left Haiti after five years of residence, he tackled this question in The New York Review of Books ("Farewell to Haiti," March 22, 2012). His answer was judicious: "Some of these projects work; some don't." But he had observed only one foreign intervention in his corner of Haiti that was "fundamentally transformative." That was the Haitian Health Foundation, a Connecticut-based charity that has been working in Haiti for over thirty years, providing basic health care to a quarter of a million rural Haitians. "Such dedication," he noted, "requires a transcendent personal engagement on the part of its organizers. It is no surprise to discover that they are motivated by the most serious religious commitment." Berlinski didn't name him, but the founder of HHF is Dr. Jeremiah Lowney, an orthodontist who was knighted by Pope John Paul II to the Order of St. Gregory. (Donations may be made at www.haitianhealthfoundation.org.)

Terry White, alas, is no Jeremiah Lowney. He can't save Haiti (or even his own marriage, for that matter). But our narrator likes him anyway, just as he likes Kay and Johel and the inscrutable Nadia. Even the villains of the novel, such as they are, receive sympathetic treatment. Our narrator may not be a saint, either, but he seems to be constitutionally incapable of hating anyone. He's too interested in their stories—both the stories of their lives and the stories they tell about themselves. He may not be an official peacekeeper like his wife, but I'd like to think that his stories contribute, however indirectly, to the work of peacekeeping. You can't keep the peace unless you hear from all sides.

I began with 9/11 and the Haitian earthquake, and so I will circle back to them by way of conclusion. The egregious Jerry Falwell infamously opined that 9/11 was God's judgment on America for its tolerance of homosexuality. In Peacekeeping, people also attribute the earthquake to divine retribution. As our narrator observes,

It amazed me how quickly Haitians turned this most random, most inexplicable of events into a story. It was always the same: grievance led to anger led to death. The only difference in this story was that the aggrieved party was God. But nobody could tell me what made Him so angry. I suppose I'll never get a good answer to that one.

The perceived lack of a good answer to such questions drove the young James Wood (who, no longer young but eminent, reviewed Peacekeeping in The New Yorker on March 21) to reject his father's God in anger. But that's not Mischa Berlinski's style. He knows that people need their stories, and that some of them might even be true.

Mark Walhout teaches English at Seattle Pacific University.

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