When Terry White, a former deputy sheriff and a failed politician, goes broke during the Great Recession, he takes a job training the Haitian police for the United Nations. He’s sent to the remote town of Jérémie, where there are more coffin makers than restaurants, more donkeys than cars, and the dirt roads all slope down sooner or later to the postcard sea. Terry is swept up in the town’s complex politics when he befriends an earnest, reforming American-educated judge. But when Terry falls in love with the judge's wife, the electoral drama threatens to become a disaster.
Edgy, daring, tightly plotted, and surprisingly funny, Peacekeeping confirms Berlinski's far-reaching gifts as a novelist. Like Fieldwork, it explores a part of the world that is as fascinating as it is misunderstoodand takes us into the depths of the human soul, where the thirst for power and the need for love can overrun judgment and morality.
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About the Author
Mischa Berlinski is the author of the novel Fieldwork, a finalist for the National Book Award. He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award and the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Addison M. Metcalf Award.
Read an Excerpt
By Mischa Berlinski
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2016 Mischa Berlinski
All rights reserved.
There wasn't much to the town, really — a triangular spit of land between a river and the sea, and shaped like the bowl of a natural amphitheater, most every street sloping down sooner or later to the azure stage of the Caribbean or guttering out inconclusively into twisting warrens of dirt paths, the houses degenerating to huts, then hovels. In the city center, old wooden houses listed at improbable angles. Energetic, prosperous people had built these houses and carefully painted them, but the salt air had long ago stripped away the color, leaving them a uniform grayish brown. There was a small town square, the Place Dumas, around which a flock of motorcycle taxi drivers circumnavigated in the course of every sunny day, maneuvering always to stay in the shade, and a filthy market where the marchandes hacked up and sold goat cadavers under a nimbus of flies. On the Grand Rue, merchants in old-fashioned shophouses with imposing wrought iron balconies sold sacks of cement or PVC pipes, or bought coffee. Jérémie had more coffin makers than restaurants. There were fewer cars on the streets than donkeys. The Hotel Patience down on the Grand Rue was said to be a bordello; word was that the ladies of the night were fat. Several little shops, all identical, featured row upon row of gallon-size vats of mayonnaise, which fact I could not reconcile with the lack of ready refrigeration, and bottles of Night Train and Manischewitz — local belief held the latter was a powerful aphrodisiac. You could buy cans of Dole Tropical Fruit mix, but you could not obtain a fresh vegetable; Jérémie was on the sea, but fresh fish was a rarity.
At midday, the dogs lay in the dusty streets panting, which is more or less what they did evening, morning, and night also, except when they copulated.
Whole days would pass discussing when the big boat from Port-au-Prince would arrive, staring out at the multicolored sea to register its earliest presence. The boat's arrival brought a momentary flurry of excitement as the cargo was unloaded and barefoot men, muscles straining, eyeballs bulging, dragged thousand-pound chariots of rice, Coca-Cola, or cement through the dusty streets.
My wife and I lived in a tumbledown gingerbread, at least a century old and shaded by a quartet of sprawling mango trees. It was one of the most beautiful houses in all of Haiti. A cool terrace ran around the house, where we ate our meals and dozed away the hot afternoons in the shade. In the evenings it was (mildly) exciting to sit outside in the rocking chair and watch thick purple strokes of lightning light up cloud mountains out over the Îles Cayemites. It was the kind of house in which one might have found behind the acajou armoire a map indicating the location in the untended garden of hidden treasure.
The windows of the house had no glass, just hurricane shutters, and very late at night I sometimes heard coming up from Basse-Ville the manic beating of drums and women's voices singing spooky songs with no melody. This was the only time Jérémie really came alive. My whole body would grow tense as I strained to hear more clearly this strange music, which would endure all through the night and well into sunrise. I had never before heard music like that. It was the music of a people laboring to communicate with unseen forces; it was the music of a people dancing wildly around a fire until seized up by some mighty unknown thing.
Only in these midnight dances would the languid tenor of the town change, revealing its frantic, urgent heart.
* * *
Our chef d'administration was a Trinidadian named Slim. His Sunday barbecues were animated by his personal vision of the United Nations as a brotherhood of man — Asian, African, and Occidental all seated together at plastic tables under big umbrellas eating hunks of jerk chicken. There were maybe a dozen of us there, in the dusty courtyard of his little concrete house.
I was talking to the chef de transport, Balu, from Tanzania — his long, glum face reminded me of Eeyore. Balu was unique in that in all his time in Haiti he never sought housing of his own. He kept a bedroll in the corner of his office and unrolled it at night. He had been living there for a year now.
I asked him once if this was difficult.
"I am come from African village!" he said. "This is everything good. I have electricity" — he was referring to the generators, which at Mission HQ went 24/7 — "I have water. Maybe I am not even finding a house as good as this. Why should I be paying for anything more?" Balu had been hired as local staff in Tanzania, supporting the UN Mission to Congo. He had done a good job and won himself a place in Haiti.
"I am not even number one in my village, or number two — I am number twelve!" he said. "If you ask anyone in village when I am boy where Balu will go one day, nobody will say, 'Balu is going one day to United Nations.' They will say, 'Balu, he is going straight to Hell!'"
Balu showed me photos of the house that he built for his family. The house was large and concrete, surrounded by a low wall. It was the Africa the Discovery Channel never shows: Balu had a subcompact car in the driveway, and there was a flowery little garden. Mrs. Balu was a pretty lady of substantial girth in a magnolia-printed dress, and the little Balus were obviously having some trouble sitting still for the photo, all smiles and teeth and elbows. Then there were Balu's eight brothers and sisters and their wives and their children and a congress of cousins and the elderly Mama Balu, Papa Balu having gone to his sweet reward.
I asked everyone I met on Mission to show me their families, and all the photos always looked like Balu's: the concrete houses, the fat wives, the children, the new car, the flat-screen television. There was something reassuring and wonderful about those photos. If you understand those pictures, you'll understand something about the world we live in.
When Balu gets back home to Tanzania, he'll be showing Lady Balu and the Baluettes photos of his life on Mission. Somewhere in those photos there'll be a photo of me and a man named Terry White. For reasons known only to himself, Balu insisted on taking a picture of me with Terry — he seemed to think, because we were both Caucasian American males, that we formed a natural set, like unicorns. He got the two of us lined up in a row and said, "Now you make smiles! You are beautiful man!"
Terry White! Who would believe such a name if it wasn't his? No novelist would dare choose such a name in the context of Haiti. If you are white and walk down a Haitian street, someone will shout "blan!" at you within a minute; and if you walk for sixty minutes, you will hear sixty voices shouting "blan!" It meant "white!" and it meant "whitey!" and it meant "foreigner!" It meant "Hey you!" Sometimes it meant "Gimme money." Sometimes it meant "Go home," and sometimes, it just meant "Welcome to my most beautiful country!"
In the photo Balu took that afternoon, Terry the White and I are standing in a dirt field with some banana trees behind us. Terry W. had been deputy sheriff in the Watsonville County Sheriff's Office in northern Florida, not far from the Georgia border, and nothing in his appearance ran contrary to stereotype of the southern lawman: he stood about six feet tall, with broad shoulders and a thick waist, heavy legs, and a pair of solid boxer's hands. I later learned that he had been on the offensive line in high school, and you could see it in his chest and feel it in his calluses. In Balu's photo, he has his arm draped over my shoulder: I remember its weight, like a sack of sand. His face was square, not handsome, but not ugly, the kind of mug that you would be unhappy to see asking for your license and registration, but would find reassuring when he pulled up beside your stalled Subaru on a dark night on a lonely road. His short dark hair was interwoven with a subtle streak of gray. He was wearing military-style boots, cargo pants, a gray T-shirt tight across his broad chest, and a khaki overshirt to conceal his sidearm. He gave the impression of brooding, powerful strength; a short, restless temper; and sly intelligence.
Terry was in Haiti as a so-called UNPOL, or United Nations Police, assigned to monitor, mentor, and support the fledgling national police force. The Mission was established in 2004, when the former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, fled the country in the face of a violent rebellion spreading down from the north. In his absence, the new government of Haiti, lacking legitimacy, popularity, and power, and confronted with a nation in chaos, requested the assistance of the United Nations Security Council, which responded by creating this vigorous, well-funded multinational peacekeeping mission.
The theory behind the Mission was this: In his time in power, Aristide had dismantled the military and neutered the police force, fearing, not without good reason, a coup d'état from one or the other. The coup came nevertheless; and now the future of the country and the eventual guarantor of security and domestic tranquillity would be a new police force, the Police Nationale d'Haïti (usually referred to by its acronym, the PNH), which the United Nations would train and equip. For this purpose there were about two thousand UNPOLs in Haiti, distributed about the country, of whom there were about twenty-five in Jérémie: a dozen francophone West Africans; a pair of former antiterrorist commandos from the Philippines; four or five French Canadians; a couple of Sri Lankans; a Romanian woman; two Turks, both named Ahmet, hence Ahmet the Great and Ahmet the Lesser; a Jordanian; and one American — Terry White.
Now, I should say straightaway that people either liked Terry very much or could not stand him; and when people said they couldn't take him, I understood. He was a know-it-all: "What you gotta understand about voodoo ...," he said when I mentioned that I had been visiting local hougans. "What you gotta understand about the African law enforcement official ...," he said when I mentioned one of his colleagues. He wanted to argue politics: "What liberals don't understand ...," he said. He didn't let the argument drop: "So you really think ..." He told me how many people he had tased, and he offered to tase me to show me how it feels. He called Haiti "Hades," which was amusing the first time, but not subsequently. He called his wife his Lady. He was vain: I told him I got caught in a current down at the beach and came back to the shore breathless; he told me that his boat once capsized in the Florida Keys, leaving him surrounded by sharks. Even Terry White's kindnesses had about them some trace of superiority: "If you ever hear a noise outside the house at night, just give me a call," he said. "You stay inside. I'll come down and check it out." Between men, those kinds of declarations have meaning.
All that said — I liked him. He was, for one thing, a good storyteller and an effective, if cruel, mimic. When you talked to Terry, time passed very quickly. This was a kind of charisma. So when he told me about an argument he'd had with a colleague a couple of days before, I was all ears.
They'd been headed up to Beaumont, Terry said, and the whole way out, Ahmet the Great was talking about some lady they saw lifting her skirt and taking a leak on the side of the road. She was balancing this big basket on her head at the same time. There was a decapitated goat's head covered in flies visible in the basket. "You gotta figure the rest of the goat was in the basket, too," Terry said. Granted, maybe it wasn't the prettiest spectacle in the world, this lady dropping to her haunches — "You probably wouldn't paint the scene with oils and hang it on the living room wall" — but she did what she was doing with a heck of a lot of grace, for a big lady.
"What you got to realize is that those animals weigh upward of forty pounds," Terry said. "Just try it, peeing like a woman with a goat on your head."
In any case, it was Ahmet the Great who opened the discussion that day on the way to Beaumont.
"In my country, is big shame for lady pee," Ahmet said. "Is never something lady do."
Terry said, "In your country the ladies don't pee? I can't believe that."
"In my country, is big shame lady pee like animal in streets. In my country, lady pee like lady."
"And how does a lady pee, Ahmet? Riddle me that, my brother."
"Not like cow or animal in street."
This argument went round and round, up into the mountains and down, past seaside Gommier and pretty Roseaux and muddy Chardonette, one of those arguments that start out as banter but before long start to rankle, just two guys in a car, each thinking the other's an asshole.
"So just where is this lady supposed to pee?" Terry said. "Just stop in the nearest Starbucks?"
"In my place, lady not make pee in side of road like animal or dog."
"Are we in your place?"
"In my place, we have no United Nations. No peacekeepers. Lady not big shame, like here. My place is no-problem place."
Terry looked at me. The incident had been weighing on him. There was hardly a tree in sight, a lady's been walking since before dawn with a goddamn goat on her head, she feels the need — who the hell was Ahmet to judge her? People here gotta live in poverty, suffer from dawn to dusk, sweat rivers, and die young — and Ahmet, with his pompadour and mother-ofpearl–handled revolver and three-bedroom apartment in Ankara, is going to tell them in their own country where they can and cannot pee? What you got to understand is that this was the hajji mentality.
"So what do you think?" he said.
Here was an examination it was very simple to pass. "Their country," I said.
"Damn straight," Terry said. "Who the hell cares where this lady pisses?"
"Not me," I said.
"What you got to understand is that for the towelheads —"
"I hear you, brother."
"Those ladies —"
"They suffer, man. They suffer."
I don't believe Terry had expected me to capitulate so quickly. He seemed unsatisfied. We sat in silence for a moment or two, until from the other table a harsh, cruel laughter broke the early-evening calm. A couple of UNPOLs — one from Burkina Faso, the other from Benin — were trying to feed scraps of barbecued chicken to the chickens pecking under the table and were kicking away the hungry dogs attempting to steal some chicken for themselves. This was cracking the table up. Terry got a disgusted look on his face, seeing that.
"Knock it off," he said. "You don't got to humiliate those damn birds. It's enough you're eating their carcasses."
The Africans laughed. Terry glared at his colleagues for a long time in a way that wasn't friendly. I don't think they understood the menace implicit in his low voice, or they thought laughter would defuse it. The guy from Benin kept feeding the chickens their kin. Terry's stare was a prelude to standing up. It shocked me how swiftly his mood had switched from placid good humor to something nearly violent. An afternoon with Terry White was not necessarily relaxing.
Then the tension was over. The African UNPOLs backed off, still laughing, and Terry grinned at me: we were complicit, if but for a moment, on the side of justice. That gesture endeared him to me.
Terry told me that before coming to Haiti he'd been in law enforcement almost twenty years. "What you gotta understand is that a professionally conducted interrogation isn't fair," he said. Terry talked, he gave examples, and with a little prompting, he talked some more. Later he told me that his testimony had sent a man to death row — that's something. How'd that feel? "Like it was the best thing I ever did," he said, but not callously, rather as the only decent end to an all-around bad business. Terry told me that he'd been active in Florida Republican politics for years: at one point he'd taken a run for sheriff and lost. "Now, that's a brutal game, Florida politics. Those boys don't play." So how'd you end up in Haiti of all places? He told me about Marianne Miller, Marianne Miller being his erstwhile rival back home. The upshot of the narrative cul-de-sac was that no one had appreciated what a terrific law enforcement official he was, not least the new sheriff, who had let Marianne Miller whisper poison in his ear, which had led to the complicated imbroglio that had led to the best interrogator in Florida being out of a job, then going broke, then ending up in Nowhere, Hades.
Excerpted from Peacekeeping by Mischa Berlinski. Copyright © 2016 Mischa Berlinski. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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