A Nice Place for Extinction: Frogs in Haiti

June 15, 1997

A Nice Place for Extinction


In 1992, in the mountains of Haiti, an American herpetologist named Victor Grigg and his local guide, Thierry Adrien, are searching for a specimen of Eleutherodactylus sanguineous, the ''blood frog,'' which is believed to be on the verge of extinction. As they proceed on their journey, Victor, who is escaping from an unacknowledged loss, listens to Thierry's fabulous tales of his life and family, of growing up and growing old in Haiti, a country that has been transformed from a place of lush abundance to a sere, mutilated, inhospitable land. But while the two men hunt for the secrets of nature, the macoutes, the deadly thugs who have had so much to do with Haiti's downfall, close in on their own human prey. IN THE PALM OF DARKNESS, the first of the Cuban-born writer Mayra Montero's four novels to appear in English, is a resplendent piece of writing that brings a mysterious and murderous country throbbingly to life. In a pitch-perfect translation by Edith Grossman, Ms. Montero evokes a world in which science and technology have barely intruded, the magical and the occult flourish, and the gritty reality of ordinary life can also achieve a glorious sensuality. Ms. Montero's novel pinpoints the tragedy of the human species as it threatens inexplicably to devour itself, while at the same time exalting the impulses that lead people to live so hungrily, to feel so voraciously.

Monday, July 28, 1997; Page C05
The Washington Post


By Mayra Montero

Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman
HarperCollins. 183 pp. $21

The many facets of death congest this novel, its author's first to be translated into English: the fear of death, the anticipation of death, the closeness of death, the natures and mysteries of death, the places of death. In the course of the narrative, the extinction of life is experienced as a scientific enigma, a spiritual phenomenon and as a transport of the living into another, strangely equal realm.

Yet curiously, death is not an obsession here. Instead, helped by Edith Grossman's fluid translation, it is the lens through which Mayra Montero, a Cuban now living in Puerto Rico, focuses on her real interests: cultures in conflict, and the ways contrary beliefs and customs interact when thrust together, sometimes complementing and sometimes debasing each other.

"In the Palm of Darkness" is set primarily in Haiti, a place where spirits walk and where toads die. The latter is what has attracted Victor Grigg, an American herpetologist at loose ends. Thinking (with what seems to be ample evidence) that he is losing his wife to a woman, he has come to Haiti at the request of a dying colleague to search for a specimen of the possibly extinct grenouille du sang (blood frog).

It is one of the mysteries of modern biology that numerous species of amphibians are disappearing all over the world, and the author frequently interrupts her narrative to recount, in chilly, uninflected prose, many of these baffling extinctions. The fact that nobody can explain them, or even offer up any acceptable theories as to why they're occurring ("Where do they go," Victor asks himself, "what is it they fear, why the hell do they run away?") becomes a metaphor for all that is still mysterious and when the scientist first encounters Thierry Adrien, a Haitian who is to be his assistant on the quest for the blood frog, he is disappointed. The man is too old, too weak, too unscientific. But, as Victor soon discovers, he does know his frogs. Also, the American learns as the narrative progresses, Thierry is thoroughly at home in the world of instinct and of spirit, a place the scientific method cannot touch. This familiarity will turn out to be essential.

Eventually, and at first hesitantly, the two men forge an unlikely alliance, tracking down rumors of the elusive grenouille du sang even as they themselves elude the disembodied walking dead and some more substantial but equally haunting thugs. Their partnership, both in the effort to find the frog and in sidestepping the dangers of the Haitian mountains, deepens; as it does, "In The Palm of Darkness" turns abruptly meditative.

With their initial wariness behind them, Victor and Thierry begin to find unexpected points of contact. Both are outsiders, disconnected from their pasts. The son of a zombie hunter ("a very difficult job"), stepbrother of a Macoute and lover of his father's lover, the Haitian is a strange mix of things, equally accepting the specters of the mountains and the scholarly quests of Western science, but not quite comfortable with either. As Victor puts it, "he too was a dying species, a trapped animal, a man." For his part, the American never seems to have reached any kind of harmonious relationship with his bitter, suspicious mother, with his father, a loner who raised ostriches, or with his increasingly secretive wife. The result is that he is too solitary as well, cast out by circumstances, apart and on his own, clinging to his science, but drowning nonetheless.

Joined in their isolation, the two complement each other, but not just in loneliness. Their estrangement allows the author to reflect on the experiences of people from different cultures thrust together but living on the edges of their separate worlds. Once Victor and Thierry get over their doubts about each other, they come together in exploring those edges, and something momentous happens.

The two cultures seem somehow to fuse. Not in the sense that the Haitian would now be at home in Western academic circles, or that the American would find tranquillity among the zombies, but that the two men become joined in their search for answers. The questions each is asking may still be different ones, but they arrive at surprisingly similar destinations so that the fate they share at the end, while maybe a little pat, manages to strike most of the right chords.

The reviewer writes frequently about Latin American literature.


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