By Mayra Montero
Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman
New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1997
ISBN: 0-06-018703-4. (hard bound) $21.00
Reviewed by Bob Corbett
Mayra Montero weaves a strange and very dark tale of hopelessness, magic, love lost, sex, eroticism and frogs. Actually frogs are at the center of this eerie tale set in Haiti in 1992 and 1993, but ranging over the years in flashbacks.
Victor Grigg, an American herpetologist has come to Haiti to search for a frog, The blood frog, (grenouille du sang), perhaps the last of this species on earth. He hires Thierry Adrien, son of a zombie hunter from the area of Jeremie. In a series of flashbacks were learn much of the lives of both Grigg and Adrien, and see how their own sad lives mirror the hopelessness of the dying frogs species around the globe. All of it suggests that Haiti, lost in its own violence and history, is dying as well.
Nothing is really said or claimed. It's much more mysterious, symbolic, mystical. There's not much of a story in the normal sense. The herpetologist comes to Haiti in November of 1992, hunts for his frog, and the story ends by February 1993. Four months of real time. The novel is in the flashbacks. Grigg's life and marriage are on the rocks. His wife has taken a woman lover and openly scorns him. He's a herpetologist and species of frogs are dying out all over the globe. Each of the many chapters begins with a news-like story of another species of frog mysteriously disappearing. The author clearly rejects ecological arguments for these species dying off, claiming that such explanations can't work in the particulars to explain the extinction of the frogs. They just have decided it is their time to die. Thierry's life is even harsher. His father deserts his mother for Frou-Frou, who later becomes Theirry's lover, "like a son having sex with his mother." He has children with several different women (but not with Frou-Frou), and they all die young, a couple violently.
The book weighs heavily on us. No theory here. Just lives. Told by Montero with power, pulling us into her web and making the hard times of Haiti in 92-93 live for us in the agonizing lives of these people. More and more as the book moves on, one senses the pending doom, but we realize that she's not really talking about frogs, or herpetologists or Haitian guides. It is Haiti that is dying, not destroyed by it's environment, but in some gruesome magical way, by history itself. It's just time for it to cease to be.
I read the book between Christmas and New Year's! For me a happy time of family, relaxation, a period of break from my normal routines, filled with lots of Christmas music. But this book weighed me down. I knew only 15-20 pages into to it that it was not for now, and I couldn't put it down. Whatever I think of Montero's vision, it was not thought that dominated in the experience of reading this novel. It's what she made me feel that frightened me so. There's a sense in which I utterly detested this novel, and another, stronger sense in which I think it's one of the best pieces of fiction I've ever read about Haiti.
Mayra Montero was born in Havana in 1952. She has published four novels and a short story collection, but this is the first of her novels translated into English.
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