A River named Massacre

Edwidge Danticat: Farming the BonesPublished by Soho Press Inc, 1998/ Abacus 1999(In Hebrew by Kinneret Books; translated by Adi Yotam, 2000)

The year is 1937, the place - a blooming village in the Dominican Republic, not very far from the border with Haiti. A young woman named Amabel, a Haitian, speaks in a soft, thoughtful voice about the family that employs her as a maid - senora Valencia, her father who is called Papi, and other servants and employees of the hacienda. The picture is almost idyllic - the narrator is fond of her employers, worries about the pregnant Valencia and and respects her Spanish-born father, who sits every day beside the big radio trying to hear the latest news from his distant homeland, which is in the throes of civil war.
But dark shadows are falling on this apparently calm scene. At night Amabel dreams about her parents - they drowned before her eyes in the river that separates the Dominican Republic from Haiti, and left her, an eight-year old child, on the foreign bank. It was Papi and his only child Valencia who took her home and raised her kindly. But in her dreams Amabel relives her parents’ drowning. Her lover, Sebastien, a Haitian labourer employed in a nearby sugarcane plantation, tries to relieve her nightmares, but he himself is haunted by the memory of his father’s death in a hurricane that ravaged Haiti some years before. The Haitian workers in the area meet every morning on the bank of a stream where they bathe together and chat in their language, known as Kreyol - a creole dialect based on French with African elements. They are tense and anxious because of persistent rumours about Haitian workers being killed, about the murderous intentions of the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo - a fascist who admires Mussolini and Hitler - and they discuss plans to flee to their own country. Even those who were born in the Dominican Republic are not citizens, and they all fear for their lives.

The problem faced by those who wish to get rid of the Haitians is that there are also black and mulatto Dominicans. How are they to be distinguished from the Haitians? This is where the innocent word “perejil” - Spanish for parsley - comes into the story. It serves as a kind of “shibboleth” for testing suspected Haitians, who cannot pronounce the rolling Spanish “r” and throaty “j”. In their language, parsley is “pesi”. Even Amabel, who grew up among the Dominicans, does not always pronounce the word convincingly.

Before long the shadows gather into a frightful scene, though the narrator’s tone never slides into hysteria. After the birth of Valencia’s twins their father, Senor Pico, comes home. An officer in the army of Generalisimo Trujillo, whom he greatly admires, he names the male twin Rafael after his hero. There is talk about a major military operation “near the border”, which Senor Pico is to command. The time has come to flee, and Amabel arranges with her lover Sebastien and his sister Mimi to meet at the church, but she lingers to take care of Valencia... In that brief time the Haitians in the village are rounded up and massacred, among them Sebastien and his sister.

Amabel and a few other Haitians from the vicinity escape over the mountains, hoping to cross the border without running into the Dominican army. On the way they stop at a cluster of abandoned shacks which had been occupied by Haitians - and find them hanging from the trees, men, women and children. They themselves are caught and horribly beaten, but manage to escape and cross the river, whose highly symbolic name is Massacre - in memory of a battle that was fought there during the Dominican struggle for independence from Spain. Many Haitians drown, or are shot by Dominican soldiers from the bridge.

Thousands of Haitians died in a matter of days, and the few who managed to reach Haiti arrived wounded, crippled, tortured in body and soul. None of them will ever live a normal life again. The second part of the book takes place in Haiti, where Amabel passes her life dreaming that perhaps Sebastien and Mimi escaped the massacre after all. Crippled and scarred, she makes a living sewing, and her dreams, populated by her dead parents and friends, are more real to her that the surroundings. And so till 1961, when the news comes that Rafael Trujillo was assassinated. The Haitians celebrate the death of their great enemy, and the ageing Amabel is suddenly driven by a desire to visit the Dominican village where she had lived, and see the places where she and Sebastien had loved each other.

This book is a literary tour de force. It is, on the one hand, an historical novel, with many elements from the history of the island’s two nations - including a speech by Trujillo, which sounds quite familiar, because racist fascists don’t become extinct, they’re only replaced.The writer creates the sense of time and place so well, that all the historical parallels spring to mind without a nudge. Armenians in 1914, Jews and Gypsies in World War II, Hindus/Muslims in India/Pakistan in 1947, Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994... Time and again people have hidden in cellars, trees, caves, sewers; time and again the survivors remain scarred physically and mentally, haunted by nightmares, stricken with guilt for having survived. But this is a work of fiction, and Danticat communicates all the above in a story that is almost unbearably gentle, even lyrical. The name of the Dominican village where the story begins and ends is Alegria - joy in Spanish - so ironic, yet not absurd. All the elements made for joy are there, except...


On 6 December 1492 Columbus landed on a big island in the Western Caribbean and named it La Spaniola, which later became Hispaniola. “I found many islands inhabited by men without number,” he wrote to his patrons, the Catholic monarchs Fernando and Isabela. “All these islands are very beautiful... full of varieties of trees stretching up to the stars;... some of them were blossoming, some were bearing fruit;... vast plains and meadows, a variety of birds, a variety of honey, and a variety of metals excepting iron.” Such was the island of Hispaniola, which was later divided between Spain and France.

The French colony, in the western third of the island, was named St Domingue, and before the French Revolution it produced a quarter of all the income of France! Many French cities, such as Marseille, Bordeaux and Nantes, developed thanks to St Domingue’s sugar, cocoa, coffee and cotton. And all that wealth was generated by black slaves imported from Africa. At the end of the 18th century there were in St Domingue about 40,000 Europeans - some born on the island - and about 28,000 people of mixed African-European descent, and half a million African slaves. The French Revolution decreed the end of slavery, but the local white oligarchs fought against it. The slaves’ attempts to seize their freedom were crushed, and the great uprising began. In the course of it all the whites who did not escape were slaughtered, and on the first of January 1804 the black republic of Haiti came into being. Toussaint L’Ouverture, its brilliant, charismatic leader, was treacherously captured by the Napoleonic General Brunet, and died in a French prison. The first black republic in history was forced to pay crushing reparations to France. It was not the first nor the last time in history that victims were made to compensate their tormentors.

Since then Haiti has been one of the most tragic places on earth. The exploitation and oppression did not end with slavery. Entire regions of the beautiful country have turned into barren wilderness. Between 1915 and 1934 it was ruled by the United States, but even after the Marines departed, Haiti remained a source of income and a playground for Americans, largely thanks to a big sugar company and National City Bank. One corrupt dictator after another were approved and backed by the United States. In the 1930s the Haitian writer Jacques Roumain wrote a novel entitled “Les gouverneurs de la Rosee” (“Masters of the Dew”), which was translated into many languages, including Hebrew. It describes the desparate struggle of a Haitian village to save its fields from destruction. For the past half-century at least, Haiti has been the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Many Haitians work in the neighbouring Spanish-speaking republic, where they have no civil rights. In 1937 between 15,000 and 20,000 Haitians were slaughtered in a massacre organized by Rafael Trujillo - the event at the heart of this novel. Later the Dominican dictator apologized and even paid compensation for the survivors - which Haiti’s corrupt president Stenio Vincent simply pocketed.

Edwidge Danticat, 32, has lived in the United States from the age of twelve and writes in English, but her writing is wholly Haitian - not only in the two novels she has so far published (this is the second), but also in her short story collection, entitled “Krik? Krak!” (the opening formula of Haitian storytelling). She draws on the impressive literary heritage of French-speaking Antillean writers and poets, such as Aime Cesaire, whose great poem, “Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal” is considered a masterpiece. The influence of these writers spread across the ocean to the intellectuals of Francophone Africa, among them Leopold Senghor, and contributed greatly to the cultural movement known as Negritude.

Curiously, the historical background of this novel has a Jewish aspect. During the Evian conference in 1938, in which representatives of the League of Nations discussed how to aid Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and Austria, the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo offered to accept hundreds of thousands of Jews. Why the offer was not taken up is a matter for historians, but Trujillo’s motive was obvious enough. As he said in a speech he gave before the massacre the previous year, “Our homeland is Spain. Their homeland [the Haitians’] is darkest Africa...” An influx of European Jews would have reinforced the white population in the republic.

I discovered this beautiful novel by accident, and hastened to recommend it to an Israeli publisher - only to discover that it had already been published in Hebrew by Kinneret, as had Danticat’s first novel, “Breath, Eyes, Memory” (which is less mature). But they were entirely overlooked by the critics, though the Hebrew translations are quite good. The cover of this novel bears a detail from a painting by Paul Gauguin - someone must have confused Haiti with Tahiti... If Trujillo’s offer had been acted upon, perhaps Israelis would have been more aware of the difference.


Note to editors: The spelling of Spanish names and words is correct: Isabela (not Isabella), Generalisimo (not Generalissimo) etc. I didn’t use the Spanish diacriticals, because they wouldn’t pass in e-mail.