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What are these barbaric rituals that pass for social and family life? Who are these fearsome creatures who linger in decaying mansions and at glittery malls, trendy weddings and dinner parties? These are the questions that trouble Simone, a beautiful, smart young Haitian woman. She has fled the chaotic violence of Port-au-Prince only to find herself in a world no less brutal or bizarre — a seemingly civilized landscape where dead sheep swing from trees, lightbulbs are ceremonially buried, fur-clad mothers carve ...
What are these barbaric rituals that pass for social and family life? Who are these fearsome creatures who linger in decaying mansions and at glittery malls, trendy weddings and dinner parties? These are the questions that trouble Simone, a beautiful, smart young Haitian woman. She has fled the chaotic violence of Port-au-Prince only to find herself in a world no less brutal or bizarre — a seemingly civilized landscape where dead sheep swing from trees, lightbulbs are ceremonially buried, fur-clad mothers carve terrifying goddesses out of pumice...and where learning to lie is the principal rite of passage into adulthood.
The primitive people of this darkly satiric novel are not, as one might expect, the backward denizens of some savage isle, but the wealthy inhabitants of the Hudson Valley in upstate New York.
The primitive people in this darkly hilarious novel are not where one might expect. Their native habitat is upstate New York's bucolic Hudson Valley, where they enact the barbaric rituals that pass for social and family life in decaying mansions and at glittery malls, trendy weddings and dinner parties.
"And this is the attic," Mrs. Porter said, "where supposedly my husband's ancestors hid out during the Civil War. They'd heard rumors that the Confederate navy was sailing up the Hudson. Of course by then the Porters had already been inbreeding for several generations past the point of total genetic depletion."
Why was Mrs. Porter taking Simone on this needlessly thorough tour of her mansion, volunteering personal and historic details Simone would never need, visiting places her duties would never take her, such as, Simone hoped, the attic? You'd think Simone was buying the house instead of wanting to come and work there, applying for a job as a cook and caregiver for Mrs. Porter's two children -- two bright little spirits, their mother said, who lately seemed slightly dejected.
Mrs. Porter took a dutiful breath -- deep inside her antique fur coat, her fragile bird-skeleton seemed to rattle -- and plunged ahead with the tiresome task of leading Simone through the attic, a labyrinth of gutted armchairs, fractured mirrors, curlicues of peeled veneer, lethal hairdryers, and toasters like mini-electric chairs. Simone stopped to stare -- rudely, she feared -- at some paintings stacked against a wall: portraits, caramelized by age, of pale ghostly men and women with ragged, empty, almond-shaped holes where their eyes should have been.
"Oh, the family portraits," Mrs. Porter said. "I suppose they do look affreux, When the children were tiny I used to let them cut out the eyes for their paper dolls. What could I have been thinking of? Some marvelous earlyprimitives. Well, they're Geoffrey's ancestors. Probably they deserve it. How do you say? Les enfants." She snipped the air. "Pour les poupées de papier."
And why was Mrs. Porter speaking French? Simone understood English and spoke with only a faint Haitian accent. In Haiti she'd studied with American nuns and then at the university, and though she worried that she sounded less intelligent in English than in French or Creole, it was difficult to tell, and in any case seemed appropriate; so many of the people to whom she spoke English expected her to be stupid. Certainly this had been true at the American embassy in Port-au-Prince, where Simone had been chief assistant to the U.S. Cultural Attaché, and also at the gallery where Simone worked weekends, persuading American tourists to buy her fiancé Joseph's paintings.
Joseph painted dancing couples, drummers, old women smoking cigars, black girls in white dresses carrying laundry on their heads -- and told Simone he hated himself for painting the white tourist's dream of Haiti. That was why he drank so much and ran off with every woman he met, though of course he'd given up women as soon as he met Simone. How hard it had been to see in him the person who drew those carefree figures, so relaxed they looked poured into their chairs, spilled out across the dance floor. Joseph yelled and threw beer bottles when the slightest thing went wrong. Then Duvalier left and the violence surfaced and scared off all the tourists, so that they still had the army and the tonton macoute but no more buyers for Joseph's work. As soon as Joseph understood what had changed and what hadn't, he first grew chilly to Simone and then ran off with Simone's friend Inez.
Simone and Joseph used to laugh at Inez, with her rich society-dentist husband and her crazy love affairs. But of course Simone was the crazy one for thinking Joseph wouldn't be curious, or that it was in her interest to enlist him as an ally against crazy love like Inez's. Inez bought six of Joseph's paintings, the only sale that month. It was just a few nights later that Simone saw them together in a café, Joseph's arm draped casually around Inez's shoulders, as if they were the window frame of some hot flashy car he was driving.
"I know what you must be thinking!" Mrs. Porter said. "You're thinking it's some kind of voodoo! You're looking at these paintings and thinking the Porter family must be into some kind of black magic!"
"No, not at all," Simone said quickly, though the truth was: No, not exactly. Mutilating paintings was very different from, say, decapitating a rooster. But for a moment she'd thought Mrs. Porter might practice some strange religion. There were portraits of children and puppy dogs, and their eyes had been scissored out, too. Simone was Catholic, though it had been years since she'd gone to confession.
"Oh, Haiti," Mrs. Porter was saying. "People used to go there. That marvelous creepy Graham Greene hotel and all that great naive art. But AIDS didn't do it a favor, exactly, and then there was all that violence, drowned boat people washing up on the beach all over the Florida Keys. I hear Port-au-Prince is a nightmare. Dead bodies on the street."
In fact, there had been a body on the sidewalk near Simone's house. One morning almost a year ago, on her way to work, she'd found a man sliced open from his collarbone to his waist. From a distance Simone thought the man was wearing a flower-printed shirt, but up close the print turned out to be dirt and hibiscus-colored bloodstains. Two fat crows hopped around, poking the corpse, interested and efficient.
Even so, even with the daily riots and killings and strikes, Simone might have stayed in Haiti. She wasn't the type of person to just move to another country. She was more likely to stay put and pray that nothing too awful happened to her. Inertia would have reconciled her to remaining where she was, insofar as you could be reconciled to gunfire rattling all night and the smoke of burning cars hanging over the morning.
But seeing Joseph with...Primitive People. Copyright © by Francine Prose. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Posted June 25, 2001
The art of caricature is here used to penetrate to the very heart of contemporary upper middle class social reality. Francine Prose ranks at the very top of current-day writers of serious fiction.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 25, 2008
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