This novel about the Haiti earthquake in 2010 shows us: People persist
January 12, 2010 a catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti, killing around 250,000 to 300,000 people. In the chapter “Die together” of The art of death, macabre and brilliant commentary work, Edwidge Danticat writes about watching TV coverage in Miami that day, in shock.
Perhaps because the footage of the helpless trapped people was so difficult to take, much of the TV coverage quickly shifted to professional rescues led by strangers … among the stories that might have been too devastating to look, some were told by members of my family. hundreds of people who, individually or in small groups, stood guard near a pile of rubble and spoke to their trapped loved ones as they fled, dying so close but out of reach.
Danticat directly points to the cacophony that television cannot show, but soon it switches to a mode of detached rumination.
It takes a rare rigor to go from visceral mourning to the detachment of a literary critic or a journalist. Danticat demonstrated the skill of the former. Haitian-Canadian-American writer and scholar Myriam JA Chancy demonstrates her skill in new novel What a storm, what thunder, a product, Chancy writes in his acknowledgments, of listening to the stories of survivors for six months after the earthquake – and for years after.
The novel, passing from one character to another, jumping non-chronologically from 2014 to the day of the earthquake (“Douz Janvye” in Haitian Creole) to the days before or months after, is the most far possible from a tearful account of a terrible tragedy: it is a precise, although fictitious, reconstruction of the many types of individuals and experiences during and after the tragedy; carve out a life in the markets of Port-au-Prince or in camps for internally displaced persons (IDP) or in a taxi in Boston with a razor-sharp palette knife.
Last August, the deadliest earthquake since that fateful day struck Haiti, killing 2,200 people and injuring many. Random, in a recent interview with NPR Weekend edition, responded to the coincidence of a new disaster as an investigative journalist, denouncing the infrastructure of corrupt NGOs that permeate post-disaster Haiti: “The question is not so much what Haiti can learn,” a- she declared. “I think the question is what can we learn from Haiti, which is currently going through two earthquakes in recent history. And people persist.”
Ma Lou, an elderly woman who runs a stall in a market in Port-au-Prince, is a hub for What a storm, what thunder, beginning the book by introducing us to a number of key figures that we will meet later with learned stoicism. “That’s what we do, we old merchants: we watch,” says Ma Lou. “But this time, many of us market women jumped into action, even as our bones creaked for lack of cartilage and oil.”
One way or another … Chancy rarely slips into a state of utter despair, and she doesn’t take away her autonomy from the most despicable people. –
Perhaps the most heartbreaking set of characters consists of a family, parents Sara and Olivier, whose two daughters are immediately crushed in a house, and whose eccentric son, Jonas, loses a leg and exists in a liminal space between life and death throughout the book. . Meanwhile, Sara sinks into madness in a camp for displaced people; Olivier’s apparent abandonment of her is an open question until he comes out in his own chapter later in the book.
One way or another – despite stories of teenagers being sexually exploited in IDP camps and the opportunistic monetization of water by a Haitian businessman – Chancy rarely slips into a state of utter despair, and it does not take away its autonomy even from the most abject people. She has impeccable credibility – and a clear goal: people don’t persist, not just suffer.
Chancy evokes a remarkably restrained and intense closeness to the reader, perhaps much like the people Danticat mentions in The art of death – those who watched over the aftermath of the earthquake, talking to their dying loved ones through the rubble. Never since WG Sebald has anyone succeeded in evoking such a rich sense of the history of disaster.
Kamil Ahsan is a New Haven-based biologist, historian, and writer. He is an editor at Barrelhouse and his work has been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The American Prospect, Salon and Chicago Review.