Mischa Berlinski’s new novel, “Peace-Keeping,” is a dark, funny, powerful read.
The novel follows on the heels of Mr. Berlinski’s critically acclaimed debut, “Fieldwork,” which relayed a fictionalized account of the author's experience in Thailand. The two books deal with many of the same themes, including the individual quest for power and the effect of globalization on developing nations.
This time, however, the action is set in Haiti, following the lead-up to a fictional election for a seat in the Hatian Sénat.
Johel is a well-meaning, American-educated judge whose entire campaign rests on the promise of building a road for his countrymen. Roads are a powerful political force in Haiti: Without them, Haitians are unable to travel or sell goods – or have any hope of moving towards a more secure economic standing.
Roads are also a powerful symbolic force in this novel, knitting together the diverse cast of characters that populate this fictionalized Haiti. There are Kay and Terry White, whose marriage nearly collapses when their finances run dry during the 2008 financial crisis. There is also Nadia, who meets the judge when he is a young practicing lawyer in New York City.
While road-building is the path for survival for Haitians, the choices these characters make as they intersect each other’s lives lead them down very different, and occasionally even disastrous, emotional paths.
At the beginning of the novel, Kay asks, “Is there anybody who doesn’t want to be a good person deep down?” This question in many ways seems to set up the whole frame of the novel and the clash between well-meaning international aid workers and native Haitians that drives the plot.
Each group has a different perspective on how Haiti should be run, which in “Peace-Keeping” creates a satire that bites like truth. In one scene, the Taiwanese contingent of the United Nations Police (UNPOL) donate a fire truck to the island, but it doesn’t work because it has no gas or water. It is a merely symbolic gesture that does little to improve the quality of life in Haiti.
The book’s detailed attention to political nuances can feel dry at times. Overall, however, the action is quick enough that it makes up for any occasional lags. Readers may be reminded of Junot Diaz and “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” when they come across Berlinski’s acerbic footnotes about UNPOL.
One area where the novel shows its strengths is in its portrayal of the primary female characters. Kay and Nadia are trapped, each in her own way, by the actions their male counterparts do or do not take, as they attempt to fix Haiti. Kay believes Haiti will be a place where she can fix her struggling marriage even when it may not be the proper solution. Nadia, on the other hand, is unable to leave Johel simply because she has nowhere else to go.
A sense of exhaustion and futility pervades the novel, enabling readers to become immersed in and understand the perspective of a Haiti that is by turns perseverant and defeated. Yet “Peace-Keeping” never slides completely into despair.
Early on in the novel the narrator, Terry White and Johel meet for lunch, where a young, poverty-stricken boy approaches them, asking for money.
“His hair was reddish-orange at the roots: protein deficiency,” Berlinski writes. “You could have taken his picture and put it on the cover of Save The Children’s Annual Report, both from the cherubic cuteness and the desperate poverty POV.”
The child smiles and stands at the table until Terry gives him money. Terry wishes he didn’t have to give him coins, but there is no choice; the child will either eat or starve. It is true that he should be in school, but like the roads that give a promise of a better life, without food he will be unable to progress.
Terry is not the only one in the novel who faces the difficult question of what to fix first, if foreign entities should even be in the position of doing so. Later in the novel, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) muses: “The tragedy of peacekeeping … was that you are inevitably on the wrong side of someone who is in the right.”
What, then, motivates someone to either return to or visit Haiti? For Haitian nationals, the answer is that Haiti is almost more than a national identity or cultural tie, it is an inescapable part of one’s very core. For foreigners, Haiti does not offer a traditional escape or path to redemption, but an opportunity to find oneself immersed in a challenging and proud landscape. The nation is a paradox, but Berlinski describes it honestly. Readers will be glad they made the trip.