Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Forgiveness and fear in Danticat's "The Dew Breaker"

In The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat, we see a troubled Haiti. Like most countries with a selfish government, we see a president who treats his citizens in the worst possible way. The president feeds his people suffering, torture, muteness, and a gigantic dose of fear and hopelessness. He has no tolerance for “betrayers,” even among his own camp. He has macoutes, the people who loyally serve under him. The macoutes, in display of their own corrupt power, institute within their community a set of atrocious behavior against their own folks. When, for protection, the president and his wife later flee their leadership position, the orphaned macoutes start getting a taste of their own treatment. The formerly silenced people in the community start killing the macoutes in very terrible ways, for example, burning them alive and all the kinds of behaviors you can expect when the latent anger of the people finally explodes in all the splendor and rage of a volcano.

The character of most interest to me is Ka’s father, one of the worst of all the macoutes, who took torture to a whole new level of ingenuity. He was a torturer of the worst kind, playing mind games with people, giving them a false hope of release /comfort only to torture them even more.

The thing that interests me in this character is the way his story is told. His story begins when he is a reformed man. He has a daughter, an artist named Ka, or “good angel,” and a wife, Anne. He has a loving family, and he is an all around loving dad, who is, however, haunted by the memories of some horrible past. At first, he seems to be a victim, the “prisoner” in a sage war. Then we find out that he isn’t the victim at all; he was the one that inflicted pain on people--he had been the monster. The nightmares he has are of his own terrible actions. The reader is then distracted by the story of others, of people on both sides of the emotional and political war.

Then in the final installment of the story, we learn more about him, the man who made torturing people into an exotic game. We learn about how horrible he had been, how his surviving victims still live in shocked silence about the horrors he put them through. Still, despite his terrible actions, I could not help feeling pity and sympathy for this macoute. His crimes, the horrors he committed were told from the standpoint of the past, to give the impression that he is not that way anymore. We learn about his past, about how he was recruited as a macoute, how he had lost his family structure, and how he had helped to restore his family’s home with his newly found “power.” I was not as judgmental and critical about this macoute’s actions, because the narrative demanded that I hear his story as well. I could not be so angry and put off by his crimes that I should refuse to hear his story. I admire Danticat’s ability to humanize such a monster, to make one sympathetic to him. The narrative seems to drive the message that given the right condition, there is a monster (big or small) in each of us.

Sometimes, behind most torturers is a victim in hiding. This is somewhat true in this story. This macoute’s family was torn apart when other macoutes had claimed their home for themselves. His father consequently ran mad and his mother disappeared. His sense of himself, of his security must have chattered with his family's breakdown. So Ka’s father does not fall neatly in one of the two categories of victim or perpetrator. He is in the middle, inhabiting both. But can this really exist? At one point, wouldn’t taking the role of perpetrator outweigh any sense of victimization that might have precipitated one’s perpetrator self?

The macoute’s final mission is to kill a preacher, a man who had been using his sermons to inspire rebellion against the government. We learn about the preacher, about how his wife was poisoned because of his political sermons, about how he had lost a younger brother from his previous place of citizenship, and we experience his courage. The macoute publicly captures the preacher, who is then put through all sorts of torture and beating as he is driven to the prison, to casernes, the place of no return. Then in an interesting twist, the macoute learns that he had disobeyed, that he was supposed to kill the preacher instantly, instead of arresting and torturing him to death and thereby making him a martyr. So they want him to release the preacher and warn him to desist from preaching any politically charged sermon. In the final interaction between preacher and macoute, there is violence. The preacher marks him—pierces his face with a sharp piece of wood, thereby scarring his face. The macoute in return shoots the preacher with his gun.

Seeing the pool of blood and the unnatural way that the preacher is positioned on the floor, the macoute runs outside and starts to puke. Why? He has seen worse things than this! Or maybe because this is a preacher, he feels some special remorse for killing a man of God. I love the preacher's last thoughts about the significance of the mark the macoute must now carry for all to see. The narrator puts it beautifully, "Whenever people asked what happened to his face, he would have to tell a lie, a lie that would further remind him of the truth."

This mark seems to be the macoute's saving grace, the inspiration for his remorse and repentence. Every day he looks at himself, he will see and remember his grave actions--this is enough to prompt most people to change, because one is unable to avoid confronting one's terrible actions. Surprisingly, the macoute all of a sudden wants comfort, he wants someone who is going to comfort him. Why this need? His disobedience now on two levels (that is, failing to kill instantly and then killing when told to free) would probably also make him the target of death. Maybe he was now facing issues about his own mortality. A catholic, maybe he was thinking about the judgment he would have to face, and the hell he would have to go through. In the midst of his bleeding face and his desire for comfort, he meets a girl, the preacher’s stepsister, who has been running like a crazy woman, trying to find her brother. She runs dead on into him on the road. She is determined to go into the prison to inquire about her brother, but he convinces her not to, since people who go in there never come out. They head to his place… He later tells her that he is free, that he has “finally escaped,” implying that he was a prisoner, which in some sense he was. Now this macoute and the woman are the parents of Ka.

Some have praised The dew breaker as a story that shows the power of forgiveness, of the love in the human spirit. I agree, but I also believe that this story reveals something a bit more profound.

This story left me asking what forgiveness truly is. How does it display itself? If you find out that the only person you love, the only person you have in life or feel secure in is the same person who killed your family, what would you do? Which is a worse life, living with this loved one despite his crime, or abandoning him and living each single moment crippled by the horrors of one’s life? It seems a bit easier to pardon, to overlook the beloved’s past actions and cloak it in the color of the past. But is this forgiveness?

I imagine that forgiveness would rid one of fear, of guilt, and maybe even give one a sense of pride that one has risen above a most difficult challenge. So is Anne’s continued relationship with her ex-macoute husband that of forgiveness? No, not entirely. Both Anne and her husband are very fearful of being discovered (and this is understandable, since there are people seeking the heads of macoutes). More importantly, Anne harbors shame and guilt in her heart. She is overly concerned about what her daughter thinks of her decision to stay with her husband, and I think this reflects her disbelief that she could still continue to love such a man. It seems Anne is apologetic for loving such a husband, and this betrays the falsehood in the idea that her continued love for her husband is motivated primarily by forgiveness or love. We see that Anne is momentarily speechless when her daughter asks her, “Maman, how do you love him?” She even acknowledges that the cliché idea that “atonement, reparation, was possible and available for everyone,” is useless, and she seems to see it more as a tool to overcome the uncomfortable silence in talking about her relationship with her husband.

She and her husband do not think about each other’s lives before they met. The husband did not tell her the truth, incomplete as it was (he said he handed her brother over to someone else), until after they were married and had Ka. The couple never admits to the true story of what they were, of the role they each served in the war of their lives. The husband does not consciously admit that he had killed her stepbrother, and Anne does not consciously admit that her husband had killer her brother. Both of them instead choose to believe that the preacher had set fire on himself, in the prison, as news later reported. It seems they exist in a public sphere of denial. They dance slowly and sadly around a lie that is veiled in a layer of truth while praying that no one would expose the veil. Anne seems to carry the burden of their relationship on her shoulder. She carries his secret and her secret knowledge about who he was, while the husband seems free and unbothered, except in his dreams.

In a relationship such as this, at least as presented in this story, forgiveness is not the only factor. Certainly, forgiveness is needed in order to allow one to focus on the good and the present, rather than the past and the bad. I believe that the other factor holding this relationship together is fear. Fear that one’s world can be so terrible. Anne by embracing the world that is so fearful and horrible hopes to be protected from it. Her husband, by embracing one to whom he can expect hatred and disgust, by having her love and loyalty, seems to absolve himself of the horrors he had done--he has taken on her innocent face and discarded his marked one. It is only through Anne’s love that he finds forgiveness and remorse for his past actions. She is the one who is constantly praying, and she is the one who is always looking over her shoulder and over her husband's shoulder.

This story explores the very instinctual and basic parts of our selves: the desire to survive. In Ka’s father, we see his struggle to survive (to feel safe) in his threatening physical world, by becoming one of the dominant and ruling team. When he starts to lose hold of this power, his emotional world comes crashing down, and he takes as hostage and redeemer, a victim of his past behaviors. In Anne, we see a woman faced with the horror of watching passively while her family dies. She finally finds love, finds some sort of security, and she struggles to survive mentally and emotionally by embracing, protectively, this only solid, formerly corrupted, lover of her life. As the text says, “it was a more strange kind of attachment, yet she could no longer imagine her life without it.” To lose this love was to realize her worst fear come to life. It is choosing between two evils: to love her husband, believing that the monster within him is dead, or to hate her husband, believing that the monster is still alive to scare her. It is easier to see the monster dead. And in here lies her tremendous capacity to forgive: her ability to believe that the monster is dead.

The macoutes all had wives and children who loved them. While the macoutes are now being tortured and hunted, the loved ones cannot stop the hunting, for they see the justice in it, but they protect their guilty one because of the life they had built together. There is forgiveness, but there is also desperation. Which one came first, desperation or forgiveness? I think it is the latter. Does it matter? Ultimately, no.

I am still digesting Danticat’s book. But so far, she reminds me of the power of the mind. It gives power to a woman to fight a bear to save her child; it gives power to lift a car to save her child. It also gives power to withstand even the most terrible of horrors. It seems also that this power can allow one to psych one’s self, in order to make one feel safer in one’s self and in the world.

The mind is so powerful because it is so fragile. It is like a little child wrapped up in layers of armors of various complexities. We are our minds, and the mind, it seems, can do anything to protect itself, to allow it to live relatively peacefully and happily.

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At 1/6/06 8:08 AM, Blogger Susan Abraham said...

Hi Rose,
I'm reading this late at night and can only read the half of it today because it's so strong and hard-hitting in the way that I meant, you have written out and conveyed the right emotions so well.
It sounds like even here, you have all the makings of a good, serious novel with dark tales to tell. You're obviously very much at home writing non-fiction because it's superbly executed even in this post. And I suspect there may be strong underlying statement of non-fictional sentiments even in your debut novel. It's all top-class, Rose. You're a good writer.

At 2/6/06 6:18 PM, Blogger Rosemary Esehagu said...

Hello Susan,

Thank you for stopping by and for your compliment. You are right; my book has some non-fictional elements in it, which is to be expected. The book is grounded in what I think are very real and important issues.

As for the strength or intensity of my post on Danticat's book, the book provoked it. It is a good book and I would recommend it to anyone.

By the way, for your reading pleasure, check out my newly published poem, Tomorrow will come, at The theme for the June issue of the magazine is metamorphosis.

At 5/6/06 8:43 AM, Blogger Susan Abraham said...

I guess to me, Rose, every issue in life, no matter how trivial or frivolous it may be to someone else..would be just as real in an intense way to the next person.
So to me, the word 'real' can be pretty deceptive.
Sometimes, things are not always shown in the obvious. Even suffering can take many forms in its most dramatic - easily seen or subtle - i.e. known only to the intuitive.
And that's because no one commands the same perception of things. I have read your poem. I read it the other day. Indeed, you write poetry very well. Congratulations, Rose!
And I still can't get over the banana colour of your blog.


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