A novel by Marian Shaw
Les Editions Du Cidihea, Quebec, Canada, 1988
Reviewed by Bob Corbett
"In the land of hunchbacks the straight man walks unwelcome." Frank Austin is a white, American flour merchant walking straight and unwelcome in Haiti's Summer of 1957. These are the turbulent last days of Col. Paul Magloire's regime. Presidential elections are scheduled and one candidate is the little known country doctor, Francois Duvalier.
Frank Austin lives in the world of whites and wealthy mulatto businessmen, plotting, scheming, staying on top of the events. This is the story of his fall from grace, and the rise of the hunchbacks, the lowly poor of the capital's slums--the rise of the Cagoulards, the predecessors of Duvalier's dreaded Tonton Macoutes.
Austin is the book's most interesting character. He knows what's going on around him; knows the disdain the Haitian people have for the white foreigners. And he shares their views. Shortly after Duvalier is elected the Cagoulard strongman Dieudonne forces Frank to pay $1000 to get his daughter's visa. Frank finds himself in sympathy with Dieudonne, and is unconcerned with his rich mulatto friend, Frantz.
"I can't help it, Austin said. What would Frantz think if he told him he'd been happy to hand over the money, that he felt he owed it. As a white man he owed it. And he was happy to see black men coming to power, even if they bungled it, which they probably would. He knew they were going to turn his money into ammunition to shoot people like Frantz."
This is also Sarah's story. Frank's 16 year old daughter, home for summer vacation from her exclusive east coast boarding school, falls in love with Robert Deland, son of Magloire's army chief. It's a romance of rebellion and sexual exploration. But these are dangerous times and Deland a catastrophic choice. The romance brings the death of Sarah's innocence, virginity and of her lover himself. Yet she learns precious little from the affair, leaving Haiti in the final scene, still filled with resentment toward her father.
The stories of Frank, Sarah and their close associates are interesting tales, but not the book's greatest strength. Sarah's story is an old one, told better by other authors. Frank, the guilty ugly American is a more interesting character. But what makes the book of special interest to students and lovers of Haiti are two things:
"Land of hunchbacks," Shaw calls Haiti. But these are angry and savvy hunchbacks. Anywhere they can they will steal from the foreigners. It is their right. Frank Austin's cook, housemaid and lover, Claire, steals food and money whenever she can. Houseboy, old Eugene, steals rum for his wedding. Dieudonne makes Frank pay to save his daughter.
Perhaps Shaw's best exploration of this theme is in the story of Jake Ames' business failure:
"A friend of his, Jake Ames, a golfer, a retired Navy man, used to tell him about his mahogany business. The wood I buy cheap. They don't know what they're selling. If I didn't buy it, they'd burn it, that's how dumb they are. I've got a bunch of workmen down there, carving and polishing, for nothing. Just about. Then I sell the stuff to American tourists. Really jack up the prices. Slick as a whistle, easy as pie. When Ames went broke, the Navy flew him out in the middle of the night. Peg said the servants were stealing everything in sight while Dodo was hurriedly packing. Just what she could put in a suitcase was all she could take with her because the plane was so small....What do you suppose could have gone wrong with Jake's business?
"Nothing mysterious about it. A little here, a little there. Money stolen from the petty cash. The original investment was dispersed, eaten up. He'd probably been overcharged for every purchase he ever made because he didn't know the price. Wood, machinery, the water cooler, sandpaper. A rich American like Ames, a big shot, what could it matter? He'd never miss it. Raw wood and finished pieces had been stolen. All the way down the line, agents, office boys and workmen had nicked away at his profits in order to take home a profit for themselves. And in the end he had nothing to fall back on, didn't even know what hit him....He shook his head. Ames' business, doomed from the start."
Frank is such an interesting character because he alone among the whites is sympathetic to the hunchback's stealing from the straight. He alone sees that the exploitation works both ways. He displays a mixture of guilt which makes him accept and laugh at the stealing, but self- interest which forces him to minimize the stealing where he can. I identify so closely with Frank! He is my own persona being acted out in a novel. Like Frank, I constantly struggle to have our own projects run honestly, fairly and as the contracts say. Yet when we are bested and things stolen or we are cheated, I have a hard time not feeling the same joy of guilt which Frank describes in the earlier passage.
The second contribution of Shaw's work are the glimpses of Haiti's culture and lifestyle. I've selected several passages which give a flavor of these insights.
"He thought of the time Peg got so outraged about the delivery of the bread. We don't need bread every day, she told the man at the back door, tall, grinning, an enormous basket on his head, loaves sticking out at the top. Come every other day. But the man continued to deliver the long loaves of French bread, all chewy crust and holes, every day. A week went by before Peg went down to the bakery. She came home in a fury, quoting Madame Pierre, imitating her. Hands on her hips, passive, immobile, Madame, no one in Haiti can remember every other day. It was every day or nothing and that was that."
"There was an incredible rumor in circulation about the telephone cable. Some months ago a huge trench was dug in the middle of the Grand-Rue. Pipes were laid and the road was repaved. But now, people said, by some error for which no one would take responsibility, only the pipes were underground. Empty pipes without cable. So they had begun all over again, digging up Grand-Rue, the main thoroughfare, impassable for months."
"They were talking about Magloire, the intended coup. By now it was all over town. In some mysterious way everyone knew about it. No mystery at all, really. Everyone in Port-au-Prince had found out about the plot to keep Magloire in power, just as he had, by getting up early in the morning, by getting out on the street and talking to someone. The dentist, the jeweler, anyone. By word of mouth, messenger, the yardboy over the back fence, the famous telediol was at work. By drum, they said. And Austin was flattered to be included, to be taken aside for the rasping whisper and the quick slap of the hand over the mouth. Remember, I didn't say anything, the eyes said."
"Eugene appeared at the end of the table. Maybe he wasn't old, maybe he just looked old. But he was wrinkled, wizened. He seemed to be shrinking, he grew shorter every year. He wore wrinkled gray pants, one of Austin's old shirts. The sleeves had been cut back. He held a gray felt hat, a city man's hat, my hat, Austin thought, in front of his knees. "How old are you?"
"I don't know, he shrugged. Then he beamed. But I know how to tell."
"When I was a boy, Dartiguenave was president. And this house was here. It was far, far from town. Maitre Bauman came here on horseback. And then blancs came, Americans, M. Townseld, M. Harrison, M. Kinsley." "Eugene's mind seemed to be wandering. Dartiguenave? I think he was president during the Marine occupation. Austin was busy calculating. Let's see, 1916, that would make you about forty, or a little older, depending..."
"Quarante ans, Eugene repeated."
"If you want I can check the date for you in my book."
"No, no it's fine. It's a fine age. Forty years, just imagine. He shuffled back to the kitchen, shaking his head."
Lastly, there are some interesting tidbits about Papa Doc Duvalier just before his election. Perhaps the most interesting claim of Shaw is that most of the form of life we associate with Duvalier was well in place before Duvalier arrived--the terror, corruption, even the Tonton Macoutes (in the form of the dark glasses clad toughs, the Cagoulards). The full-range of the land of hunchbacks is a tradition long before Francois Duvalier.
Nonetheless, people didn't know what they were getting. In those innocent days of Summer, 1957, Austin reveals the elite's assessment of Duvalier:
"Duvalier, Duvalier, Austin took up the song again. Duvalier was the mysterious little doctor candidate. How did he fit in? No one seemed to know much about him. He was a black man, a man of the people, the slogans said. Why not? Why wouldn't a humble country doctor make a good president for Haiti? But the elite were against him. He was an ignorant peasant, a voduiste. They made fun of him. Shorty, owl eyes, dunce. The army would manipulate him they said. He was so harmless they were afraid of him. Like the turtle in the song, without teeth how could he bite?"
Not only were the elite wrong about Duvalier, but Shaw's Americans were just as mistaken.
"And what do Americans think of him? As a man lucid, honest, competent, a thinker, a sociologist, but a man close to his people, a doctor, to minister, to heal the sick. What was wrong with that?"
Marian Shaw's novel is not a great book, but it is a worthwhile one for people interested in Haiti. Shaw remembers a lot from growing up in Haiti. It hard not to speculate just how much of this novel is fiction, and how much is Marian Shaw remembering life as she lived it, or wished she'd lived it in the Summer of 1957.
The book is being distributed in the United States by:
The Haitian Book Centre
P.O. Box 324
Flushing, NY 11369
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