By Anne-christine d'Adesky
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York, 1994
ISBN # 0-374-28066-5

A review by Bob Corbett

Perhaps one of the most difficult things to understand about Haiti for a foreign observer is: How do they go on? How can people dig so deeply for hope after the constant barrage of misery, terror, torture and murder that has marked the long history of this nation.

Elyse Voltaire, one of the central characters of this account, helps us get a glimmer of better understanding. Falsely arrested, beaten, held in prison, her village burned to the ground and her family missing, Elyse makes to go on, to begin the search for her loved ones, to evade the revenge of the Macoutes and simply to live.

Anne-cristine d'Adesky's "novel" is a curious book. "Novel" would not be the word I would use. It's 371 pages of very interesting and informative reading, part story, part investigative observer's account, prose poem, series of vignettes, even a play within the "novel." The writing is vivid and tends to grab you. Often I would find myself caught up in the story, only to have it abandoned or obscured by other writings, most of which were more interesting than the story-line anyway. It seems that whatever it is d'Adesky wants to share with the reader, is not the normal "story" of a novel.

d'Adesky, a journalist of French and Haitian descent, has a sensitive and observant eye for Haitian culture and is well informed of the political horrors of contemporary Haiti. This book is set around 1983, when the terror of the de facto government was nearing its peak. It is loosely centered around the investigations of an American human rights observer, Leslie Doyle. It features all the requisite characters, a courageous Roman Catholic priest who works for the disenfranchised and political prisoners, sympathetic members of the elite, several Haitian political prisoners, a super jerk American diplomat/CIA type and even a renegade from inside the Macoute camp who provides information to the forces of "goodness." The difficulty is that it's never clear that the forces of "goodness" do much good. Perhaps that's the genius of this work, namely that d'Adesky faces squarely the fact that despite the great posturing of such folks, they accomplish very little that improves the situation of the Haitians.

For me the most fascinating characters of the book are those we get to know least, the Haitian resisters. We know of their courage and their uncanny ability to survive things that most of us could never survive. But it is the blans and the elite who figure most prominently in d'Adesky's account. This whole phenomenon is not at all surprising. The world in which Leslie Doyle operates is the world of the big shots, those not in prison, but those who do their work, but do it from their lovely houses in Petionville or from the gallery of the Hotel Oloffson. One Haitian doctor sees through this and complains gently about the foreign activists who flood into Haiti:

"Why do these people from the outside only care what's happening to us after someone dies or is murdered? That's the only thing that counts to them. But it doesn't count if people are hungry. You see what I mean?"
"Absolutely," he agreed. "But I do think the people doing human rights work share your opinion. I really do."
"Maybe," she said doubtfully. "But then why can't we get money from those same organizations to buy medicine or food? The only things that interests them are our reports. That's what they like -- statistics. That's how they think about us -- we're statistics.

Again, it is to another Haitian freedom fighter that d'Adesky provides a provocative reflection on the Haitian plight, and the relative power of the U.S. in relation to their struggle. His conclusion is that Haitians must carry on their struggle in their own fashion and not rely of the outsiders.

"Did we really get rid of Duvalier? You want to pretend, everybody wants to pretend. But is was not only us. The Americans, they put Duvalier in the palace, they gave him the money to kill all our best people, and they let Jean-Claude steal the national treasure, and then, just like that, they put him on a jet. A criminal who deserves to have his head cut off. Koupe tet, boule kay. The Americans and the French, we know who put Toussaint in that French prison and let him starve to death. The same French. We have to think about La Vogue when we think of our enemies. We have to make the Haitian remember he is not like the American or the French or the Dominican who gives the criminal a hiding place and a big house and lets him spend stolen money.
"Koupe tet, boule kay. Cut off the head, burn down the house. We have to listen to Dessalines. Look how they cut off Boukman's head. We have to bleed the bad blood from our veins. Wherever there is bad blood, blan, milat, neg."

UNDER THE BONE is worth reading, but not really for the story. The interesting Haitian characters, the sensitive meditations on Haitian life and struggle and the vivid and arresting writing are worth the read. But don't let the story, or lack of story turn you off. Just read past it and learn.


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu