The great evoker of Haiti's magic

William Orem's third novel confirms him as a master at explaining the mysterious, often self-defeating country

Published October 7, 2010 12:30AM (EDT)

Midway through his new novel, "Killer of Crying Deer," William Orem deploys an epigraph from Meister Eckhart: Whoever possesses God in their being, has him in a divine manner, and he shines out to them in all things; for them all things taste of God and in all things it is God's image that they see. At a first glance that statement may look like a purely good thing, but the reader must also consider that not only the divine beauties of Creation are invoked, but also the terror, violence, horror -- so that the taste of God is often bloody, too bitter to be easily choked down, and yet somehow it must be swallowed.

Orem's third work of fiction, inspired in part by real events of the mid-16th century, involves contacts between pirates, Spanish missionaries and conquistadors, victims and survivors of the African slave trade and the Calusa Indians who were the first human inhabitants of the Florida Keys. The piratical parts of the story partake of the glow of boys' adventure stories, though finally they are more in the manner of Cormac McCarthy than of Howard Pyle. The Europeans, Indians and Africans who swirl through the story have plenty of swashbuckling to enact, but Orem is more deeply interested in their vastly different cultures and the friction between them -- friction that drives the sometimes muted, sometimes violent conflicts of the tale.

Orem's first work of fiction, the episodic novel "Zombi, You My Love," is also much concerned with cultural dislocation, this time between late-20th-century Haiti and the outside world, the latter mostly represented by the United States. It is far and away the best work of fiction ever written about Haiti, during this period, by a non-Haitian. Haiti's is an absorbent culture, and Orem often seems to have been absorbed completely; several of the episodes, which could function very well as independent stories, are deeply submerged in the Haitian worldview, and enabled by Orem's apparent fluency in the rich language of Haitian Kreyol, which he represents sometimes by serving it raw with just enough context to make it comprehensible, sometimes by translating it, with remarkable success, into stateside black English. Orem is equally fluent in the style of magical thinking that furnishes Haitian culture so much of its numinous power, and which at the same time, from an outsider's point of view especially, can make it so frustratingly self-defeating.

"I saw this happen: a middle-aged woman took her laundry to a tidepool near the shore at La Saline. The first thing she did was to make the sign of the cross over the water. Then she dropped the bundle of clothes, somewhat more than most had, on the ground and lifted up her sundress to urinate in the pool. Then she squatted down in the water and rubbed her clothes in it with a white, stonelike piece of hard soap. After she was done she cupped her hands and took a drink. Then she went home." Still, wise do-gooders, the secular missionaries from the First World, can behave as futilely, like the one who tries to whip a donkey across a stream too deep to be forded:

"The man unhooked one of the animals, and walking it a few yards closer so the women sitting in the grass could see, began flogging it with the strip. At first the animal did not react and the man began to beat it harder, his face growing sweaty and pinched around the nose. By the third and fourth blow the animal had begun to feel the pain, and eventually its white eyes rolled strangely in its head as if looking across the long canopy of trees for some understanding."

This difficulty in finding a purpose in suffering is a thread that runs through all Orem's work, and in "Zombi" it is confronted by both Catholic and Vodouisant believers. Most often it's the Haitians who can organize the daily agony of their experience into an integrated meaning that might justify the suffering -- like Fia, young heroine of the story called "Bright Angel," who visits a houngan (Vodou priest), once to abort her unwanted child and later to restore the lost child to the womb. Believing in the success of the latter operation Fia sits looking "out over the water toward La Tortue, Turtle Island in the north, and watched the evening light changing to storm-light, and knew it was inside her, this light. She knew that the Ile and the giant tortoises who swam over there and screamed when they dropped their yellow-gray eggs bloody in the sand and the sand itself were inside her; that the people who lived all around her and the rich ones and the poor ones were inside her as well. The Macoute had come back through to close down their shops again, and this time Fia stood right in the road looking at them, and all at once they were taken up inside her. She had them in her body, in her knowing place, and they could be no more outside her or away from her than the air she breathed. The whole street laughed as they saw Fia possess them all. Nothing would be a fear any more. Nothing would be anything now, because she had all things in herself. She sighed, resettling her thickened woman's haunches on the hard edges of rock; watching the mounting, pained clouds over la Tortue draw close. She was giving birth to the world."

Most blan, which is what Haitians call their foreign visitors, are incapable of such visionary synthesis, though some (like Orem himself, one suspects) absorb certain Haitian qualities, like endurance and indifference to time: the white woman "just standing there in the street as if she could stand for another hour or ten hours or ten days if she wanted to, and who didn't seem to need to drink; who didn't seem unsettled in the least by the taxi drivers and beggars who called out to her, their skin so unclean that portions of it were flaking away in little clots; who didn't seem bothered by the sunlight that had been like a hammer on one side of his skull since before he had debarked the little lime green airplane with its cannon-and-drum insignia ... It was her lack of any needs that made him feel small, insignificantly tiny in this insignificant island world. He was State Department. The immense sun was grinding him down like a gnat ."

"Zombi" is set in the period of the rise toward power of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a phenomenon that attracts that U.S. State Department spy. This aspect of the story is reminiscent of Robert Stone's "A Flag For Sunrise": "He had come down to check on the status of three American missions and, in a more vague way, the political implications of their work. People up north were once again feeling uncomfortable about this funny little nation-state. And missions had gone socialist before; even Catholic ones."

The missionary nurse Ava Barkley is potentially a target for the State Department snoop's interest, and yes, her political thinking is just the sort of thing he would suspect. "Maintaining an unstable government in the third world when it is linked to economic activity is a very productive strategy. You never let it fall completely, lest somebody rebuild it the way Castro did, off the monetary grid; but neither do you let it stand, lest it demand a living wage and enter into something like a true free market, of which U.S. world trade was certainly not one. Ava had heard it all before, for years now. At one time she had felt the same fresh thrill, the same lucent possibility for change. Now it seemed only the young voices of the enthusiasts changed, growing jaded and silent, arriving fresh and anticipatory the next rainy season to take up the battle again."

Ava dives, again and again, into the depths of senseless suffering. She spends a great store of her loving care on a youth so badly beaten by Macoutes that his eyes have swollen completely shut. In the end it turns out he has no eyes; they've been gouged out, by Macoutes for no reason, or possibly for use by "underground organ people."

A doomed love affair between Ava and the free-floating journalist Thomas LeFay (pilot-fish for the author and reader) is the drawstring that pulls the elements of this book together. Thomas can never quite manage to pull Ava free of her equally doomed vocation, which is secondarily humanitarian and religious first. One of the book's most wrenching passages shows him a part of the reason why.

"'One day'" in her childhood, Ava explains, "'I found a robin's nest in the crook of a barn roof ... I was amazed at the twisting together of stems, of twigs, amazed at the way it was built, the way it made sense ... On the third day the eggs were cracked open and there were chicks in the nest, their heads wet and new and uncertain, and they were nothing but those open beaks, the open hungry beaks. I thought they were the weakest things in the world.

"'I came back the next day with earthworms I dug up from my mother's garden and cut into pieces. And I leaned over and fed them to the chicks, one piece at a time, handling them into the nest and into the little mouths. I was leaning over and holding on with one arm and I could feel the air from the barn filling up inside my clothes, the hay smell and the seed smell moving over me. And the next day when I came back the mother robin had knocked all her chicks out of the nest.'

"'Because you touched them.'

"'That's right. Because I touched them.'"

This desperate hopelessness of the desire to do good, often though not always for the glory of God, is at the heart of all Orem's work. "That's when I first thought I understood Christ," Ava tells him, concluding the parable of the chicks. "What he wanted to do with his life, what he had tried to become." The inevitability of failure no longer needs to be spoken.

Set in a Washington, D.C., hospital, "Across the River," Orem's second book, presents a spectrum of human suffering on the scale of the Book of Job. There's a little girl crazed by visions of Christ, a boy whose life will be sliced down to nothing by a hopeless operation on a brain tumor that would otherwise kill him altogether, the man who rushes to the hospital because he's thought better of his decision to commit suicide by drinking gasoline. In these extreme cases, doctors are of little help: "they weren't trained as philosophers ... they only knew brute facts: it lives, it dies, it enjoys or enjoys not those strange idiosyncratic elements they were told to preserve" -- that is, thought, memory, personality, and maybe the soul if there is one.

Cures are impossible and comforts are hollow; it's like watching Ava try to feed those baby birds. The parade of worst cases brings up the question, what kind of deity permits such things? Divine revelation comes to the Christ-maddened little girl this way: "And he shows me where his bloody holes are and where they tear his clothes ... And they take him to Golgotha, which is, the place of the skull. And he dies and takes me with him to Gehenna, which is the place of burning. Of harrowing." At the opposite pole of religious sophistication is the Jesuit priest Johan Cahillane, who gives regular lectures to patients and staff on the ars moriendi or the art of dying. Once Johan believed that in ministering to the moribund, "that through those wilting fingers he made contact with the Christ of love." But his own faith has been shaken by a close friend's descent into premature dementia praecox, another slayer of the self: "Lucas had been not killed or burdened with sorrows but stripped down, his capacity removed." In the end, when Job's questions are hurled at him by a youth infected with HIV, Johan can only reply, "I'm sorry your eyes were opened."

"Across the River" is a meticulously formal work. Each of the three brief sequences (Loss, Longing, and Transformation), presents precisely ordered reappearances of characters and motifs, and each concludes with a brief poem. Orem is a poet and playwright as well as a fiction writer, and in its brevity, intensity and formalism, "Across the River" could be considered prose poetry, though most episodes do have considerable narrative drive. His third book, by contrast, has a more conventionally linear structure than any other fiction he has written so far.

"Killer of Crying Deer" returns to the Caribbean basin of Orem's first work, but at a much earlier time, when social workers and NGO-niks have not yet been invented, and the well-meaningness of the missionary has a very different flavor than Ava's. Commandante Albenix, a proselyte of Spanish Catholicism, brings converts to the true faith by killing them, though taking care to feed them the sacraments at the same time. "If one so fallen can still have repentance in his heart," he explains to his assistant, "we do him a great favor by bringing him to his reward ... If not, we also do God's justice."

A simple formula, and characteristic of early Spanish activity in the New World, especially in the Caribbean archipelago, that catalytic crossroad where Africans, Europeans, and Native Americans came together for the first time. The conquistador turned priest Bartolomé de Las Casas, a historical figure somewhat more beneficent than the fictional Albenix, invented the idea of African slavery in Hispaniola (today's Haiti), in hope of saving the Taino Indians, of whom he was fond, from extermination. The Indians perished anyway, though Africans were dragged in by droves. Orem's novel finds a way to represent all three corners -- Africa, Europe, America -- of the triangular slave trade.

It is also a story of assimilation, of drowning oneself in an alien culture and so becoming a new self. Most of the main characters enact this transformation. Kofi, an African enslaved in Benin, "remembered the time when he no longer knew who he was. His old self, what he had once in his own mind called his Mmuo Spirit, left him and fluttered off in the shape of a fish. He watched it lift into the sky and be gone, and what was left instead chained into the hull was empty inside, an unassigned slate." When the British plantation where Kofi labors is sacked by pirates, he begins to write himself a new identity, emerging finally as Black P'ter, second only to the captain in his talent and enthusiasm for violence. "Kofi is dead," he says when he meets Halima, a friend from his Benin village also adrift in the African diaspora, knowing she can never regain her old self either, "any more than he would see the world inside himself that had once lived and flowered there."

The pirate captain Quirinius Whitepaul takes another captive, an upper-class British boy named Henry, so favored by him he is not even raped but instead adopted and made one of the pirates, acquiring much of their murderous skill. Henry's pirate identity, Roojman, is interrupted when a shipwreck casts him ashore in the Keys, and he is taken in by a Calusa tribe, which calls itself simply the People. There his pathway to assimilation comes through another outsider, Speaking Owl, a girl from a different tribe, the Ais, now adopted into the People. As her project, and eventually as her lover, Henry is reborn into the People under a third name, Starfish.

Some of Orem's knowledge of the 16th century Calusa comes from the memoir of Hernando D'Escalante Fontaneda (a castaway on whom Henry's character may be partly based), but undoubtedly he's had to invent a good deal too, and it is a rich and persuasive invention. The narrative passes extended moments in the consciousness of the Caffekey, a sacred tribal leader understood to be both male and female at once, who confides to his twin (a sort of shaman called the Other One), "There is that in me which fades ... My voice fails in my mouth. My moon is closing, almost gone." Perhaps the Caffekey senses that the days of the People are numbered too. Albenix is abroad in the Keys, looking for Indians to convert in his special fashion. Captain Whitepaul has survived with his crew and is trying to lure a new ship on shore, and hoping to recover his boy.

Whitepaul is the only character in all Orem's work who seems to be just slightly derivative, owing something to Judge Holden of Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian," a figure approaching omniscience and omnipotence and whose ruthless amorality makes a god of war. Given, like the Judge, to vatic utterances, Whitepaul may also be a proxy or apostle for a sort of savage god, a jaguar in both spirit and flesh, called by the People the Killer of Crying Deer. Under his leadership, the pirate crew embraces the notion of hell to the point that it loses its position on the Christian spectrum of being and becomes the entire world.

Cormac McCarthy is set apart from most writers by his vision of an order in the universe that has nothing at all to do with anything humans may project toward it, gods or demons or anything else. Orem is far more interested in organized religion, especially Catholicism as borne by the Jesuits, who proved themselves throughout their history to be far more willing than any other Christian missionaries to adapt themselves, and sometimes even their religion, to the alien cultures they encountered. Henry is not the first European to land among the People; he has been preceded by Daylaylo, a shipwrecked Jesuit, from whom the People have learned to associate the European phenotype with the word "Jesus" -- but not, as it turns out, very much more. The People perceive Daylaylo's crucifix as "a wizard bound inside a trunk, stretching his arms and bursting from imprisonment." The religion he meant to bring them is eroded by theirs.

The little Key deer are sacred to the People; to kill one is "the worst crime," Henry shouts at a warrior he catches doing just that, "the worst your people can commit. Is that why you do it?" Whitepaul, and the amoral determination he represents, would certainly answer with a simple affirmative. Daylaylo gives Henry a more subtle explanation: "The words are closer, I think, to He Kills The Deer, They Weep .... When the deer becomes lost it makes a sound, trying to be found again. The cat follows that sound ... The People say when it cries, the cat and deer are the same ... Cat and deer, deer and cat. It calls to pantera to come and take it. And the cat cries out as well."

This pattern of imagery permeates all Orem's work, if you take it to stand for suffering humanity adrift in the cosmos, crying out for guidance, rewarded with death. Captured and garroted by Albenix, Daylaylo confesses this vision with his dying breath: "he saw the Panther: its sinewy form slung over the flesh of the branches like a throne. Its pelt had become star-filled and in its jaws hung the spotted deer, kicking ... Lord, he said. I am not worthy to receive you."

But the novel's conclusions are not all so uniformly dismaying. According to the People's belief, to pursue the Killer of Crying Deer into the wasteland where it lives ("the long stretch of nullity that was left after creation, the loneliness, the unformed place" -- in reality apparently the Everglades) offers some promise of transformation, if not redemption. "For a man to go into the wastes ... was to become un-man, un-self ... To return from the wastes was to become man." Against all the odds -- and they are quite high -- some avatar of Henry/Roojman/Starfish survives the journey, and this extraordinary novel ends with an unexpected vision of hope -- from a writer determined to look into darkness from every conceivable angle.

By Madison Smartt Bell

Madison Smartt Bell is the author of twelve novels. His most recent one is "Devil's Dream: A Novel About Nathan Bedford Forrest." (Pantheon, 2009)

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