A spectrum of lives touched by torture
Stories about the legacy of abuse in Haiti
As the world hopes for a quick return to order after this month's revolution in Haiti, Edwidge Danticat offers a warning about the persistence of disorder for those who have survived. A native of Haiti who moved to the United States when she was 12, Danticat earned a devoted audience for her debut novel, "Breath, Eyes, Memory" (1994), which earned Oprah's approval, and "Krik? Krak!" (1995), which became a National Book Award finalist.
Her new novel seems less autobiographical than either of those ("My father, thank goodness, is not in this book," she writes in the afterword.) But she's still wholly devoted to both the culture of Haiti and the indelible legacy of its violent past.
"The Dew Breaker" takes its strangely beautiful title from a survivor's description of President Duvalier's torturers: "Mostly it was at night. But often they'd also come before dawn, as the dew was settling on the leaves, and they'd take you away."
Most of the nine chapters in this novel appeared earlier as short stories in either The New Yorker or other collections. Their assemblage now as a book would strike a distracted reader as haphazard, but the stories relate to one another like beautiful shards of a broken vase. They're all sharp, their order jumbled, and while some fit together clearly, others seem frustratingly hard to place.
Considered together, though, they describe the trajectory of psychological shrapnel that emanates from political terror. In fact, this sense of disjunction in "The Dew Breaker" is thematically significant in a way that it can be in few other novels made from collected stories. The effort to draw connections between characters and events in these chapters reflects, in some mercifully small degree, the challenge faced by victims of torture to render their lives whole. And Danticat is equally interested in the inverse challenge faced by a retired torturer, who must keep the unmentionable aspects of his life disassociated from his reformed persona.
"The Dew Breaker" opens with a haunting story told by a young artist who's driving from New York to Florida with her father to deliver a sculpture. Like much of her work, this impressionist object has been inspired by her father's ordeal in a Haitian prison. "My whole adult life," she writes, "I have struggled to find the proper manner of sculpting my father, a quiet and distant man."
From an early age, her love for him was so desperate that she "vowed to always tolerate, even indulge him," but that promise is tested to the limit when he discards her sculpture just before they arrive at the patron's house. "I don't deserve a statue," he tells his daughter. "Your father was the hunter, he was not the prey."
In a moment - a horrifying version of every child's surprise at a parent's complexity - she must realign her entire concept of her father. The loss of the sculpture, she realizes, is just a symbol of a more devastating calamity: "I have lost my subject, the prisoner father I loved as well as pitied."
Danticat's dispassionate style glides along with chilling equilibrium. Her stories rarely touch the real nerve - the torture chamber itself - but faint sensations of dread or revenge or even relief radiate through these characters, all of them somehow connected to the Dew Breaker.
In "Seven," a Haitian immigrant in New York nervously waits for his wife, whom he hasn't seen for seven years, since the day after they were married. He's living in a basement with two other men (unaware that their landlord is the retired Dew Breaker). He's determined to make everything as nice as possible for her: His roommates promise not to appear in their underwear or mention "the other women." He also hopes she won't hear about Abner Louima, the Haitian man recently beaten and sodomized by the New York City police. As in most of these stories, the characters are caught in silence while their minds labor through impossible demands.
In "Night Talkers," a young man returns to Haiti to tell his elderly aunt that he's found the man who murdered their family. He couldn't bring himself to confront the Dew Breaker in New York, but he let him cut his hair and even crept into his house and stared down at his sleeping face to wonder, "Why?"
A story about the Dew Breaker's wife describes the never-quelled anxiety of a woman devoted to a reformed murderer. The threat of exposure haunts every day among her fellow immigrants in New York. She never knows when a rally against Baby Doc or some lesser torturer will suddenly lash out and identify the man she loves, the hardworking barber, the kind father of their daughter. She develops an insatiable appetite for miracle stories, hoping to confirm the transformation of her own husband. But she's always unsteady, "her life a pendulum between forgiveness and regret."
Only after we've caught fragments of his victims, his colleagues, his family members then and now, do we meet the Dew Breaker working on his last kill in Haiti. It's a flawless finale that frustrates our desire to see the monster drawn to mythic proportions. Instead, we see something more complex and disturbing, a man troubled by his work, a little bored with torturing, prone to errors, and afraid for his own safety.
The victims are dead or shocked into silence. Danticat allows her characters (and readers) no answers, no resolutions. She's a master at capturing the inarticulate sorrow and bafflement that evil inspires.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail Ron Charles.