Peacekeeping by Mischa Berlinski
Sarah Crichton Books, 2016; 372 pp
Reviewed by Jordan Williams
Peacekeeping is a caustically written political thriller set in Haiti. But it is not, strictly speaking, a novel about that nation. Author Mischa Berlinski was living in Haiti at the time of the devastating 2010 earthquake and published some of his observations in the years that followed. Although he seems to have marshalled all of his impressions of the nation's predicament to produce the main thrust of his narrative, Peacekeeping isn't actually about the impact of the earthquake either.
Near the novel's end, Berlinski's narrator (who is also an author living in Haiti at the time of the earthquake) offers a rather poignant reflection on his precarious position as storyteller: “Serving no end and motivated by nothing, an earthquake is everything fiction is not. It was only when my wife found a new job, far from Haiti, that I was finally able to get back to work." With this observation in mind, I think readers will have a fair idea of what they won't find in Peacekeeping. Berlinski's primary focus isn't the people of Haiti themselves but rather their social environment, which is peopled by the kind of characters who really interest him. One such character is an alcoholic owner of a car dealership in Indiana, who chases sobriety while making biannual trips to improve drinking water in Haiti. The narrator marvels at one point that “only in Haiti do you meet people who find it a diversion to build infrastructure.” The novel soundly critiques the thin veil of charity that often covers unregulated ambition, egotism, and corruption in Haiti, making it a challenging read, since truly likable characters are hard to come by.
In my opinion, reading this novel isn't unlike watching Adam McKay's recent film adaptation of The Big Short. The context and setting are undeniably based in reality, but without a near complete suspension of disbelief, the audience risks careening soul-first into an abyss of the obscene. The Big Short can't really be a movie about the Great Recession because it only empathizes with the millions of families who lost their homes to foreclosure from a great distance. But that shortcoming also frees the film, allowing it to provide a thrilling account of greed and intrigue with an inexplicable Margot Robbie bathtub scene.
Berlinski embraces cynicism in a way that makes it possible to tell a story set in Haiti centered around characters such as the conspicuously named Kay White who, prior to moving to Haiti with her failed politician husband, did her part to fuel America's millennial housing boom by selling South Florida real estate to “every Tomaso, Ricardo, and Miguel . . . with credit as fluid as tap water.” Berlinski also creates characters such as Nadia, a heavily exoticized Haitian woman who becomes the wife of the powerful Judge Johel Célestin only after a lifetime of being sold into the possession of one man after another. Berlinski writes these two women empathetically, but they mostly serve as casualties of the ambition of their husbands, who hatch a plan to win political office and build a road that will facilitate free commerce in the secluded town of Jérémie. Of course, they make enemies of Sénateur Maxim Bayard who wishes to keep the town dependent on his largesse.
The intrigue that ensues is often entertaining, and the novel isn't without moving passages. However, given that corruption in Haiti has also been the domain of an excellent novelist, Edwidge Danticat, in recent years, it's difficult not to judge the scope of Peacekeeping against that of Danticat's recent Claire of the Sea Light. Berlinski has certainly established himself as a writer with a discerning eye when it comes to writing about Americans and aid workers abroad, but his insights tend to come in broad strokes. In the genre of political thrillers with a conscience, Peacekeeping is a solid entry, but a less cynical focus on the lives of his Haitian characters could have elevated it into something even more moving.