Edwidge Danticat: Surviving Life

Anu Lakhan on The Dew Breaker, by Edwidge Danticat, originally published in the Caribbean Review of Books

  • Edwidge Danticat

The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat (Knopf, ISBN 1400-041-147, 256 pp)


Edwidge Danticat’s preoccupation with the woes of Haiti and its diaspora are unsurprising. No one is supposed to be easy about a country that mortgaged its future for its freedom (150 million francs in 1838 for France to recognise its independence) and went on to be ruled by a series of dictatorships, each one characterised by insurgence, corruption, and poverty. All of Danticat’s books deal with the Haitian experience, both on the northern Caribbean island it shares with the Dominican Republic and in the US diaspora.

In The Dew Breaker, the young Haitian-born writer stares long and hard at a phantom that has been haunting her work since its inception. The figure of the tonton macoute stalks through the stories of Krik? Krak! (1995) menacing, threatening, torturing. In the novel Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994), he may be the faceless nightmare of Sophie’s mother: the man who raped and impregnated her. While Danticat’s work explores other themes, like female sexuality and alienation, the terror inspired by the macoute is often what drives either the conscious or unconscious action of her stories.

The Tonton Macoute was originally a mythical bad-guy used by Haitian parents to scare naughty children; he went about collecting recalcitrant thumb-suckers, bed-wetters and other juvenile wrong-doers, and stuffing them into a sack. In 1959, when François “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s now legendary death squad took the name of the bogeyman, the horror became the lived reality of Haitians for decades to come.

Danticat takes on the task of demystifying the figure of the tonton macoute — the “dew breaker”, as he was also called, because of a tendency for rude pre-dawn awakenings — by drawing him out of the darkness of both myth and infamy. The nine stories in The Dew Breaker are strung together — not as coherently as a family tree, but not as loosely as six-degrees-of-separation — mostly linked by the presence, real or imagined, pivotal or marginal, of the dew breaker himself.

He tortures, rapes, and murders. That is the easy part, dealt with in Danticat’s earlier books, and news reports for 50 years. How he became that person is a matter less easily resolved. The book begins disconcertingly with the dew breaker at his most vulnerable, as an old man forced to reveal his violent and shameful past to his only child. Danticat wastes no time in posing the difficult question. “Manman, how do you love him?” the daughter asks her mother, when she learns that her father did not suffer at a notorious Haitian prison but rather had his office there. To love him, knowing what he has done, is to accept, and in accepting and moving on, to forgive, no?

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The answer comes in the form of the stories that follow. He is an assassin; yes. He is the recurring delusion of an old woman; also believable. He is (and here we begin to feel unsettled) an old refugee barber, a landlord, a father, a husband; in short, a man. His existence is the sum of all his experiences and influences.

It would be convenient for us to think of such a person as existing for a single moment — the moment in which he commits a terrible act, say, or the hideous second in which his daughter hears him say the words. If such people existed for only a moment, we could contain them in our logic and isolate their threat. But lives are not so neat. The story of the dew breaker does not begin and end when he kills one or other of his victims. He had a childhood. He made a decision to join the Volunteers for National Security. Later, he fled to America, married a woman whose brother he’d killed, and together they had a child. That whole person, the man with regrets and hopes and weaknesses, the man who loved Egyptian history and lost his sense of taste to a childhood zinc deficiency, this is the person to whom we must reconcile ourselves.

Frighteningly, it’s not impossible. Danticat’s prose, always deft, grows more disarmingly forthright with each book. We do not even feel guilty about the fact that we are understanding and accepting the dew breaker’s story. We believe in his past and future. Like his wife, like life on the whole, it is perhaps less about articulated forgiveness and more like simply carrying on.

When Duvalier set up the rural militia for the protection of his regime, they were licensed to terrorise the country with complete immunity from legal consequences. They were the miliciens, tonton macoutes, dew breakers. And they were all volunteers.

In the early 1960s, a young Yale professor, Stanley Milgram, undertook a series of experiments in which volunteers were ordered to deliver electric shocks to a benign stranger. The machines weren’t real, and the stranger was an actor, but the subjects weren’t cued in. In spite of the protests and cries from the adjacent room, an alarming number of people seemed willing enough to electrocute a complete stranger for no reason other than that a man in a lab coat had paid them $4 plus taxi fare to do it. Milgram’s obedience experiments defamed and discredited him as a scientist, and they made the world more than a little nauseous. This study did not tell us from whence we get Hitlers, Mussolinis, or Duvaliers, but it did say something about where their followers come from.

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In The Dew Breaker’s first story, “The Book of the Dead”, the daughter carves statues of her father in a crouched, submissive pose. The ragged scar on his cheek and his ongoing nightmares remind her of his time in Casernes, one of Haiti’s most feared prisons, where she imagines him tortured and humiliated. The day she is to deliver her first completed sculpture to a buyer, her father disappears from their hotel room before daybreak, taking the piece with him. To explain to her why he has thrown it into the river, he must confess to her that he was not the hunted but the hunter. This is the only story in which the man who turns up throughout the collection is given a name. It is the surname he shares with his daughter, and we hear it when she is trying to find him, as though it is only through her, his future, that he has an identity that can be shared. The name is Bienaimé: “good friend”.

The final story, “The Dew Breaker”, is the fine print. It fills in the wheres and hows that led him into and eventually out of one life and into another. Peasant boy whisked off to the capital to hear the president, sees the power and privileges of the paramilitary, and decides, yes, his father was right, he “would never carry a knapsack on his shoulders or a machete in his hand”. He enlists. The irony is not too subtle, but it does the job: macoute literally translates to “knapsack”, and the tonton macoutes were notorious for machete wielding.

He rises steadily through the ranks, until he botches the assassination of a local preacher. Mistakes that reflect badly on the regime don’t go unnoticed, and he has what one might generously call a tough boss. As he flees for his life, bleeding from the gash inflicted by the preacher, he collides with a distraught woman running through the street. The preacher’s sister, half mad with fear, knows that she is too late to help her brother, but decides to nurse this strange wounded man, whoever he is. It’s not impossible. It’s not even improbable. No one knows better than people from small places how hopelessly interleaved lives are. Add to that hysteria, fear, and silence, and anything can happen.

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The stories in between these two are very like other stories Danticat has told in her previous books. They are stories of separation and loss, and — sometimes even more difficult — of reunion of lovers, parents, siblings. She revisits themes of silence and the silenced, the impotence of voicelessness. While the subjects are familiar to Danticat readers, she continues to revise and refine her narrative. The earnest, diary-like immediacy and intimacy of Breath, Eyes, Memory gives way to a style that is more reflective, more thoughtful. In The Dew Breaker, Danticat has, for the most part, managed to unburden her characters and stories of the heavy metaphoric roles they had previously been forced into. The stories here are strong, and the writer is wise to leave them to stand on their own, to be told for their own sake, and not because of what they might symbolise. A good story will always speak to us across differences.

Ultimately, whatever the escape or coping mechanism, these are survival stories, for both the wounded and the torturer. Proof that beyond the critical moment there are stories, and it is these stories, not the headlines, that make up our lives.


Reproduced with permission from the Caribbean Review of Books (CRB), August 2004. Copyright Media & Editorial Projects Ltd (MEP) and the CRB.