In 1755, when an enormous earthquake and subsequent tsunami nearly wiped the city of Lisbon off the European map, it caused a crisis among philosophers, especially those who tried to work out theodicy – the part of theology that attempts to understand the question, "How can an all-powerful God permit evil to occur?" In response to philosophers such as Leibniz, who argued that God had created a balance that produced "the best of all possible worlds," Voltaire wrote his satirical masterpiece, Candide, or The Optimist, in which he set his hero, Candide, out on a series of adventures in which God's benevolence is revealed to be fiction.
That same tone of satire born from great tragedy suffuses Dimitry Elias Léger's extraordinary novel, God Loves Haiti (HarperCollins, 272 pages), which is the debut text of the new Artful Book Club, a collaboration between Winter Park's Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens and Writer's Block Bookstore.
Polasek curator Rachel Frisby reached out to the bookstore and they came up with the club as a new way for the community to experience the Polasek. "As an avid reader myself, I can't think of a better complement for literature than art," Frisby says, "especially with our current Haitian-themed exhibition [Contemporary Visions of Frantz Zéphirin: Haitian Mystic], which has a culturally transportative quality." Writer's Block development manager LeAnne Rollins says not only will Léger's novel enrich understanding of the Polasek's current art show, the book club could have a larger effect: "To be able to immerse yourself into another culture by art and literature that you may not be familiar with can only open your eyes more to the world around us."
Set in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, which destroyed the vast proportion of the country's infrastructure and killed approximately 300,000 people, the novel's plot is narrated through the points of view of three individuals involved in a love triangle. Their stories contain harrowing accounts of the 35 seconds of the initial quake. At least 60 percent of government buildings pancaked in less than a minute and 25 percent of Haiti's civil servants were killed, creating a situation in which international help was needed for the crippled government to coordinate rescue operations.
Natasha, an artist and the Haitian First Lady, is boarding a plane when the quake strikes. "My God, am I dead? she thought. Is this hell? Heaven? Could time really have run out on me before I'd painted my Sistine Chapel?" It's just one of the panicked thoughts she has at finding herself a "Caribbean version of a lava-caked citizen of Pompeii."
In the meantime, her new husband, who, until this point as president "had been terrible at it," seems to grow taller by a foot in response to the crisis. His wife observes: "Finding the courage gene at the one moment in his life when he would be forgiven for not having any. Who was this man?"
The third member of the ménage à trois is Alain, who has woken up after being thrown from his car, which was itself thrown into the air when the roads buckled. As the possibilities for what could have happened run through his mind, he considers, then drops the possibility of a nuclear bomb:
"Oh my God, an earthquake. It was an earthquake! Had to be. But there's no history of earthquakes in Haiti. None whatsoever. His parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents never mentioned it. And picking apart the nation's colorful, sorrowful, and thrilling history is all Haitians do. It's a sport, the fucking national pastime. History is all we have to take pride in, since our greatest achievement occurred in 1804, and we hadn't contributed fuck-all to humanity in the intervening two centuries save a few good books and paintings. Dining out on the heroes of independence of 1804 allowed Haitians to overlook the mess we made of the present. No one would have overlooked a major earthquake in this society's, and indeed the world's, constant search for proof that Haitians are or aren't God's children, put on one of earth's most beautiful corners to suffer absurd streams of misfortune."
From the opening pages forward, the narrative is told in counterclockwise order, situating the characters when disaster strikes and describing how the passionate affair between Natasha and Alain is interrupted by her pragmatic decision to marry the President of Haiti, who falls in love with her after seeing her art. A stream of other characters flow through the book, including a big Hollywood star who comes to Haiti to help rebuild and a priest who argues that the misfortunes that strike Haiti are proof that Haitians, like Jews, are God's chosen people.
It would have been easy for Léger to turn each of his characters into cardboard cutouts in service to the greater story of Haiti's tragic history and the devastating earthquake, which appears to be just one more awful thing inflicted on the country by a God who "loves" Haiti. But Léger is much more talented than that, and he manages to convey both the sense that his characters are ordinary people caught in the middle of a history-defining moment and the utter absurdity of Haiti's position in the world.
Readers seeking a redemption story in God Loves Haiti will have to adjust their expectations. This is not a "come to Jesus" kind of book. But the sardonic humor that suffuses the narrative of those awful days in January of 2010 provides exactly the necessary compassionate, satirical response to the words of "Christian" televangelist Pat Robertson, who claimed that Haiti's tragic history was punishment for a Satanic pact its revolutionaries had made in 1804 in order to secure the country's independence.
Frisby quotes Albin Polasek as saying, "True art stimulates beautiful thoughts, and one cannot occupy their mind with beautiful thoughts and not be the better for it." While Robertson's thoughts were anything but beautiful, Léger's rejoinder in the form of God Loves Haiti is true art.
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