|To Haiti, With Love and Squalor||View other pieces in "The New York Times"|
|By Mark Danner||August 11, 1991|
BEST NIGHTMARE ON EARTH
Haiti, as I learned that day, is a land of amazements. As he tells us in "Best Nightmare on Earth: A Life in Haiti," Herbert Gold was fated to learn the same lesson some three decades before, when he met in Paris "the teasing, laughing, flirting, Haitian bride of a black American friend" who informed him that she had grown up a stone's throw from the National Palace. "Haiti," asked Mr. Gold, already hooked, "has a National Palace?" Indeed, it has had several: the enormous tridomed neoclassical structure that, all gleaming white pillars and porticoes, floats in the swelter of today's Port-au-Prince like a ghostly mirage, and all of its various ghostly predecessors -- including the one that, one boiling August night in 1912, suddenly consumed itself in an enormous fireball, dragging the president and several hundred of his soldiers down to hell along with it.
The successor of that unfortunate gentleman endured barely nine months before expiring in his turn, apparently the victim of poison, and his funeral collapsed into chaos when two generals began shelling the cathedral: they were fighting over the succession. It was not the first time; for Haiti possesses not only a palace but also a vast and teeming history stretching back to its glorious independence from France, in 1804, when a half-million illiterate blacks defeated Napoleon's crack troops in what would be the only successful slave revolt ever recorded. Since then, while its Caribbean neighbors remained wards of colonial powers, a succession of home-grown dictators and tyrants has ruled the land, including one king, two emperors, and nine presidents for life. They gained the palace by insurrection, revolution, coup d'etat, and left it the same way: two were assassinated, one executed, one committed suicide (King Henry: he used a silver bullet) and 20 odd were violently overthrown. All the while, independent Haiti, which under France had been the wealthiest colony in the world, underwent a slow, inexorable economic decline, sinking into the swamp of incessant political turmoil to become the poorest country in the hemisphere and one of the poorest on earth.
A young writer named Herbert Gold stumbled onto this unlikely panorama during the early 1950's, when he sailed into Port-au-Prince on a white Panama Lines ship. Broke after finishing his first novel, with a wife and two young daughters to support, he had remembered the laughing, flirting girl in Paris and gone to his hometown library in Cleveland, where he uncovered an available fellowship at the University of Haiti. He planned to lecture on American literature, stay a year and a half, have adventures; in the event, his lectures were canceled after the first one -- he had made the mistake of declining, honestly but impolitically, to place Haiti's premier novelist on a level with Tolstoy, igniting a diplomatic incident -- and he spent not the anticipated 18 months but "a part of every next day and night of my life." He became, that is one of the "fraternity of Haiti fanatics," a diverse lot whose numbers wax and wane according to the political weather, and whose unofficial headquarters was then and remains today the Grand Hotel Oloffson, a great gingerbread palace on a hill that had served early in the century as the summer residence of a short-lived Haitian president (a man who distinguished the office mainly by his manner of leaving it: in pieces, torn limb from limb by his infuriated constituents) and later as a hospital for the United States Marines, when they occupied the country from 1915 to 1934. Visitors find themselves becoming Haiti fanatics for many reasons: they are drawn to the sad beauty of the mountainous, ravaged country; or they are entranced by the creativity, comeliness and extraordinary bearing of its people (who often seem, by their very gait, to express their proud knowledge of Haiti's long-past national glory); or finally they are mesmerized by the unfolding political history itself, which, depicted as the endless struggle for freedom of a beautiful people doomed by despotism and corruption and tyranny, has all the fascination and improbability of grand operatic tragedy. Mr. Gold could not have chosen a better time to join the ranks of Haiti fanatics. In the early 1950's, the country's coffers were relatively full from wartime exports, and the ruler was the "laughing, drinking, womanizing President Paul E. Magloire." A staunch anti-Communist, Magloire was popular in Washington -- Time magazine "depicted him as a Haitian Eisenhower" and put him on its cover -- and though, as Mr. Gold puts it, he "occasionally killed opponents and certainly didn't confuse himself with concepts of free speech or honest government," his rule is remembered by many Haitians with some fondness, for not only did he murder few (particularly when set beside the man who succeeded him), but the relatively prosperous economic times during his first years in power helped sustain a burst of creativity in the arts, especially in painting, that began during the late 1940's and came to be known as the Haitian Renaissance.
Haiti, notes Mr. Gold, "is poor in all natural resources but the energies of imagination," but it took a political movement, begun under the black nationalist president whom General Magloire had overthrown, to set free those energies by healing the wound that from the beginning had cut through Haitian culture, dividing the highly sophisticated, predominantly mulatto elite that spoke French, attended Mass and followed Parisian fashion, from the illiterate peasants who knew only Creole, practiced voodoo and lived their daily lives as their ancestors had done in West Africa four centuries before. Mr. Gold came to know many of the most important figures of the Renaissance, including the poet Felix Morisseau-Leroy and the painters Enguerrand Gourgue and Andre Pierre. Mr. Pierre, a voodoo priest, had begun his career by decorating his own temple outside the capital. He can still be found there, working his canvases and swigging clairin, the harsh Haitian rum.
Even more than the painters and writers, however, it is the sensual discovery of Haiti, the surrender to its colors and rhythms and smells, that dominates the early chapters of "Best Nightmare on Earth." Mr. Gold writes like the novelist he is, roughing in scenes and characters with a few economical strokes: Port-au-Prince from the bay is "a low jumble of thick-walled colonial buildings and corrugated tin sheds nearby, and the smoking slum of La Saline, then the irregular slopes with spots of gardens, cloud-shrouded mountains rising into the distance above the town"; the old neighborhoods climbing the lower slopes are lined with "gingerbread dream houses which seemed to be made of spun wood"; the drums that "rocked and rolled us to sleep [are] as soothing as low thunder, and no more ominous."
After great effort, Mr. Gold persuades a voodoo priest to reveal for him a portrait of the great snake god, Damballa Ouedo, which no unbeliever may see, and is at last rewarded with a glimpse of a "photograph . . . dog-eared, frazzled, and woebegone, of Harold Stassen." He spends his afternoons taking coffee and chatting with a "Circle of Philosophers" headquartered in Kenscoff, a mountain village high above the capital, the Haitian Switzerland, then gets lost in the maze of streets near his house. "I would stop and ask for the street by name. No one knew it. Then I asked where the new white man lived, and was led home immediately by people who had never seen me before."
The evenings are spent drinking and dancing, and not infrequently he and his friends cross paths with fun-loving stalwarts of the regime -- from the General President himself, whom he spots in a nightclub surrounded by bodyguards, with his personal bottle holder stationed behind his chair, to powerful underlings like Col. Marcaisse Prosper, the chief of police who bore a diamond question mark on his tie and who was well known for his effeminate manners, his lavish mansion (worth millions and built on a $350-a-month salary) and his eager brutality.
The sexual commerce between Haitians and white visitors is also a theme of Mr. Gold's book, from the American expatriate fashion photographer who acquired the habit of marrying lovely Haitian girls when they were 11 or so and divorcing them when they grew too old (about 14), to the homosexual pimp with his salon full of pet monkeys and young Haitian boys in tight jeans, to the American ladies Mr. Gold dubs "the minglers" for their habit of circulating evenings in the Oloffson, casting a covetous eye on the attractive Haitian officers who line up at the bar in their dress uniforms like fruit ripe for the picking.
At home, Mr. Gold's houseboy becomes possessed by Ougoun Feraille, the voodoo god of war, and manages to recover only after a visit to his neglected mother and an offering of rum and cake at the local temple. Following a game of tennis, Mr. Gold's partner, a millionaire representative of American companies in Haiti, discovers on the front seat of his Buick a chicken, plucked and painted blue: a serious curse. The man collapses to the ground, his mouth foaming in rage. "You don't believe in black magic," Mr. Gold says to him, once the man has recovered. His friend shrugs. "Of course I don't. But it's bad for business if people know I've been cursed."
To believe isn't the point; the spirits of voodoo, a complicated and beautiful religion long trivialized abroad as malign mischief with pins and little dolls, inhabit the Haitian hills, dominate the Haitian consciousness from infancy. Mr. Gold writes: "The Haitian parent still warns his family against the werewolves that cruise at dusk in automobiles without license plates, leaping out to gobble up the souls of unlucky children. Kids at a birthday party automatically choose the piece of cake farthest away on the plate -- why be turned into a zombie? A woman of the elite makes fun of the baka, the loupgarou, those imps, werewolves, and malevolent spirits of the dead, and the tricky voodoo loa, gods; she was educated in Paris and had an automatic dishwasher in her kitchen; but one evening, this lovely and witty person told me she saw with her own eyes a peasant woman kneeling and praying in a field, carrying a plate in her joined hands. A star shook itself loose and fell into the plate."
Mr. Gold's two small daughters, he discovers one day, have secretly learned to speak Creole (a rich amalgam of various African dialects, French and a sprinkling of English); their servants and their neighborhood friends instinctively address them in "the natural language of children." One day, the mother of one of their favorite little friends comes calling: "'You like our daughter?'
"'Very much.' She was a lovable little girl, her hair done in braids with an assortment of ribbons.
"'Please take her with you when you go. Give her a chance.'
"We explained that this was not possible, we could not separate her from her family, it was inconceivable to us.
"'I love my daughter very much. I am willing to let her go home with you. I give my permission.'
"'Please,' we said. 'It's impossible.'
"'She will learn to clean your house. She is a good girl. If she does her work well, you could also send her to school.'
"Our neighbor gazed at us with grief. . . . Puzzled, just wanting information, she asked: 'You are racists, Monsieur et Madame?'"
Mr. Gold would have much to learn about the exigencies of race in Haiti. Ever present yet rarely discussed before strangers, the racial stratification of the society is at once the poisoned legacy of the French and a creation deeply, uniquely Haitian. An acquaintance of Mr. Gold denounces the American's new-found tennis partner, who happens to be blue-black in color, maintaining that the man owes his wealth and influence solely to his light skin. A young mulatto woman, daughter of a president, remarks during a sailing party that there are no "Negroes" in her family, asserting that she descends "from an infinite series of mulattoes."
Color in Haiti is not only skin; it is also "good hair," the right nose, the various facial characteristics that mark their bearer as a sacatra, a marabou, a grimaud, a sang-mele, or any one of the dozens of other racial categories worked out in colonial days. One constant, though, is the urge of an ambitious black to "put a little milk in his coffee," and an influential black man in particular is in a position to trade his power and position for a lightening of the family bloodline through marriage.
A mulatto -- the
word describes a person who is endowed not only with a particular skin
color but a certain place in the class hierarchy -- will be raised by
black servants, will very likely have his first sexual experience with
a black housemaid, will patronize black prostitutes during his early manhood;
but it is very bad form at best, and disgusting at worst, for a highly
placed mulatto to marry a black (and for a wealthy mulatto woman to do
so, unless the groom is powerful indeed - a minister or president -
is thought to be particularly offensive).