In the Palm of Darkness: A Novel

Overview

The quest for an elusive amphibian in the mountains of violence-torn Haiti brings together an unlikely pair of hunters?American herpetologist Victor Grigg and his Haitian guide, Thierry Adrien?whose individual stories unfold and intertwine in a mesmerizing tale of love, sex, and fraternal rivalry; of the propagation and extinction of species in the natural world; and of the mysterious forces of nature that govern the fate of all living creatures.

In the Palm of Darkness is a ...

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Overview

The quest for an elusive amphibian in the mountains of violence-torn Haiti brings together an unlikely pair of hunters—American herpetologist Victor Grigg and his Haitian guide, Thierry Adrien—whose individual stories unfold and intertwine in a mesmerizing tale of love, sex, and fraternal rivalry; of the propagation and extinction of species in the natural world; and of the mysterious forces of nature that govern the fate of all living creatures.

In the Palm of Darkness is a compelling tale that reads like a murder mystery but also reveals a highly sophisticated and refined literary voice.

"Translation of Tâu, la oscuridad, a work by a Cuban-born author now living in Puerto Rico. English-language readers may wish for some background information about Montero or the context of her novel. However, they will find helpful a map of Haiti (not included in Spanish original) that will enable them to follow the protagonist's search for an extinct red frog"--Handbook of Latin American Studies, v. 58.

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Editorial Reviews

New Yorker
A dazzling, original fugue on love and extinction.
Boston Globe
A work of enormous beauty, violence, and unsentimental grace.... Montero writes with fire and acid.
New York Times Book Review
A resplendent piece of writing that brings throbbingly to life ... a world in which the magical and the occult flourish, and the gritty reality of ordinary life can also achieve a glorious sensuality.
New York Times Book Review
A resplendent piece of writing that brings throbbingly to life ... a world in which the magical and the occult flourish, and the gritty reality of ordinary life can also achieve a glorious sensuality.
Women's Review of Books
Montero nurtures her two characters and their relationship with such close compassion that it blossoms into something rare, original, and moving.
Kirkus Reviews
A Cuban writers's intensely imaginative portrait of the extremities of Haitian culture rings some fresh changes on the overfamiliar theme of intellectual arrogance humbled by its collision with "elemental" peasant wisdom. Montero subtly builds up a revealing contrast between Victor Griggs, a European herpetologist searching for the remaining specimens of an endangered species of amphibian, and his native guide Thierry Adrien's memories of his family's encounter with the island's ubiquitous spirits. This truly original novel is studded with surprises—not least of which is the concept of a species suddenly and entirely disappearing in a milieu where the living and the dead are known to mingle together more or less matter-of-factly. A refreshingly sophisticated treat.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060929060
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/28/1998
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 192
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.43 (d)

Meet the Author

Mayra Montero was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1952, but has lived in Puerto Rico since the mid 1960s. She studied journalism in Mexico and Puerto Rico and worked for many years as a correspondent in Central America and the Caribbean. She is presently a highly acclaimed journalist in Puerto Rico and writes a weekly column in El Nuevo Dia newspaper. Montero's first book was a collection of short stories, Twenty-Three and a Turtle. Her second book, a novel titled The Braid of the Beautiful Moon, was a finalist for the Herralde awards, one of Europe's most prestigious literary awards. Each of her subsequent books — The Last Night I Spent With You, The Red of His Shadow, In the Palm of Darkness, and The Messenger — has been published in the United States in translations by Edith Grossman, as well as in several European countries. Her other nonfiction work appears frequently in scholarly and literary publications throughout the world.

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Read an Excerpt

In the Palm of Darkness

A Novel
By Mayra Montero

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Mayra Montero
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060929065

Chapter One

Blue Sheep

A Tibetan astrologer told Martha I would die by fire.

I thought of it as soon as Thierry began talking about the feasts of his childhood. It was a gratuitous association, since he was really trying to tell me the name of a fruit he had tasted only once in his life, when he was still a little boy and had suffered an attack of what I think was malaria, and to comfort him his father brought this rare treat to his bed. From the description, I assumed it was a pear. Thierry chuckled quietly: That fruit reminded him of a young girl's flesh, and he had never again held anything like it between his lips.

We were lying in the underbrush and I let him talk a while. It's impossible to keep a man like Thierry quiet for long. We had just recorded the voice of a superb specimen, a tiny frog with a blue abdomen that lets itself be seen only one week during the year, and I was thinking that the joy of having captured the sound helped me to be tolerant. Perhaps it was joy and not the story about the pear that forced me to think of death, my death, and what Martha had been told in Dharmsala. "He said my husband would be burned to death"--I could hear her voice, furious because I had suggested there must have been some misunderstanding--"and as far as I know, you're the only husband I have."

Thierry was still waxing nostalgic about how well you could eat in Jeremie thirty or forty years ago, and I concluded it was pretty ironic for anyone to prophesy that kind of death for me considering how much time I spent submerged in ponds and lagoons, drenched by downpours in swamps, crawling along riverbanks, my mouth full of mud and my eyelids rimmed with mosquitoes. I said as much to Martha.

"That's no guarantee," she replied, happy to contradict me. "A person can burn to death in an airplane, a hotel room, even on a boat, you know, when you're right on the water ..."

Martha brought a coat home from Dharmsala. It was a gift from Barbara, the friend who made the trip with her. It was too coarse for my taste, but she claimed it was made from the wool of the blue sheep, and had I ever heard of that sheep? It was the favorite meal of the snow leopard. I stared at her and she returned my gaze: The coat was the best proof that Martha herself had become Barbara's favorite meal.

When you're in a profession like mine, it's very easy to catch certain signals, identify certain odors, recognize the movements that announce imminent amplexus (the term used for sexual congress between frogs). Martha refused to have me go with her on that trip--years before, when we were first married, we often talked about traveling to India some day--but she didn't say it like that, she calculated first and said it with even greater cruelty, if that's possible: Since I had to fly to Nashville for my conference--she said "your conference"--she'd take off a couple of weeks and travel with her best friend. She avoided mentioning the place they'd be visiting, and I went along with it, swearing to myself I wouldn't ask a single question, and gradually my suspicions were confirmed: by the brochures that suddenly appeared in the house, by a couple of books on the Hindustanic Plate--Barbara is a geologist--and finally by the plane tickets. Martha kept them in her briefcase, then one night decided to take them out and leave them on the big table in the study; she obviously intended me to find them there, look at them without saying a word, and understand. One needs a lot of understanding.

Shortly before Martha left, she told me she had put a list of the hotels where she'd be staying, and the approximate dates, on the computer. She laughed and said she had used the file name "Hindu Voyage," and I pretended I hadn't heard. At the last minute she wouldn't let me go to the airport with her; a friend of Barbara's had offered to take them both, and so we said good-bye at home--that same night I was flying to Nashville--with no insinuations or reproaches. I assumed that any attempt to ask for an explanation would only be humiliating for me.

Thierry often says that the bad thing isn't if a man feels afraid to die, the really bad thing is if a man never thinks about death at all. He doesn't say it in those words, he uses other words, probably better ones. Thierry's eloquence is solemn, profound, almost biblical. When Martha returned, much later than planned, she brought back the blue sheep coat as if it were a trophy, along with a smoldering certainty about the kind of death awaiting me in my present life--she emphasized the phrase "your present life." Then I realized that during the whole time we had been separated, the possibility that she was somehow leaving me had never entered my mind. Just to be polite, she asked about the response to my paper, but I didn't have a chance to answer, there was an interruption, a telephone call for her. She talked briefly and came back, even felt obliged to try a second time: How did it go in Nashville?

The idea for this expedition had, in fact, surfaced in Nashville, but I didn't tell her so. A few hours before I was due to leave for home, I had received a dinner invitation, a white card with an engraved drawing of a small gray frog: Professor Vaughan Patterson, the eminent Australian herpetologist, would expect me at eight at the Mere Bulles restaurant, and would I please be punctual.

I was so flattered that I did something extraordinary: I rummaged through my suitcase to see if I had a clean shirt and jacket. At seven sharp I walked out of the hotel and started down Commerce Street, which leads directly to Second Avenue, right across from the restaurant. It was a short distance, it wouldn't take me more than fifteen or twenty minutes, but I wanted to be there before Patterson arrived. He was known as an impatient man with a short temper and sheer contempt for colleagues who talked to him about anything but amphibians. Yet all of them would have fought for the privilege of sitting at his table. Patterson was the greatest living authority on everything having to do with the African anurans; his work with the Tasmanian axolotl was legendary, and he boasted of keeping alive, when the species was already considered extinct, the last specimen of Taudactylus diurnus, sole survivor of the colony that he himself had bred in his laboratory in Adelaide.

When I walked into the restaurant, forty minutes early, Patterson was already there. He smiled timidly, you might almost say sadly, congratulated me on my paper, and offered me a seat beside him. I noticed that he had skin like cellophane, and frail, small, rather stiff hands. With one of them he began to draw on his napkin. I watched him become engrossed in sketching a frog, he didn't even look up when the waiter brought his drink. Eleutherodactylus sanguineus he wrote in small letters when he was finished, framing the name between the animal's paws. He handed me the drawing.



Continues...


Excerpted from In the Palm of Darkness by Mayra Montero Copyright © 2005 by Mayra Montero. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Reading Group Guide

You want to know where the frogs go. I cannot say, sir, but let me ask you a question: Where did our fish go? Almost all of them left this sea, and in the forest the wild pigs disappeared, and the migratory ducks, and even the iguanas for eating, they went too. Just take a look at what's left of humans, take a careful look: You can see the bones pushing out under their skins as if they wanted to escape, to leave behind that weak flesh where they are so battered, to go into hiding someplace else.
IntroductionIn the Palm of Darkness brings together two men, each of them hunters, from different worlds. Victor, a respected scholar and expert on amphibians, has come to Haiti in search of what may be the last existing eleutherodactylus sanguineus, or blood frog. Thierry is a local Haitian guide who grew up hunting zombies, or ghosts, in the jungles and hillsides of his native country. As the two men traverse Haiti's desolate landscape, they tell each other of their past life and loves, entrancing one another other with their stories. But in the quest for their elusive prey they stumble upon gruesome evidence that the area they're searching is a hideout for murderous macoutes, Haitian thugs and drugrunners who are using the hillside to store their shipments. While Thierry tries to dissuade Victor from pursuing his frog, the scientist tries to apply some logic, some natural order to the threat they face from these men. "Nothing very serious," he says, "can happen to a man when all he looks for, all he wants, is a harmless little frog." But in this dangerous country, murder and violence are part of the natural order. Monteroparallels this truth with another mysterious phenomenon, including the sudden worldwide extinction of various types of frogs. These disappearances are beyond the comprehension of even the most learned herpetologists and ecologists. But in Thierry's world, life and death, magic and science, love and hate, are all seamlessly intertwined. Montero's exploration of the seemingly disparate realms of science and spirituality shows us how each has its hold on the human and natural world. Questions for Discussion
  • In this novel, two men from completely different societies are brought together by their common interests. How does Montero contrast the lives of Victor and Thierry? How do their similarities and differences play into the novel's themes of love, extinction, violence and tragedy?
  • Montero uses as a leitmotif the mysterious disappearance of certain amphibian populations throughout the world. How is this phenomenon an apt metaphor for the troubles that have plagued the Haitian people?
  • How does Montero portray the scientists who come to Haiti? Are they pursuing their own self-interests at the expense of the Haitian people?
  • Victor and Theirry's quest for the "blood" frog ends with a sad and ironic twist. From its beginning to its end, how does the story of the hunt for the frog illuminate man's relationship to the natural and supernatural worlds? About the Author: Mayra Montero was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1952, but has lived in Puerto Rico since the mid 1960s. She studied journalism in Mexico and Puerto Rico and worked for many years as a correspondent in Central America and the Caribbean. She is presently a highly acclaimed journalist in Puerto Rico and writes a weekly column in El Nuevo Dia newspaper. Montero's first book was a collection of short stories, Twenty-Three and a Turtle. Her second book, a novel titled The Braid of the Beautiful Moon, was a finalist for the Herralde awards, one of Europe's most prestigious literary awards. Each of her subsequent books -- The Last Night I Spent With You, The Red of His Shadow, In the Palm of Darkness, and The Messenger -- has been published in the United States in translations by Edith Grossman, as well as in several European countries. Her other nonfiction work appears frequently in scholarly and literary publications throughout the world.
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