Just as the unnamed narrator does in this Caribbean intrigue, Mischa Berlinski lived in Haiti for four years, writing a novel and snoozing in a hammock while his wife worked for the United Nations peacekeeping mission. Except here, the narrator and his wife are cyphers. They have no role except that of observers, watching the political machinations of a local judge running to depose corrupt senator Maxim Bayard, and thus build a road from the remote town of Jérémie to Port-au-Prince.
Berlinski’s journalistic background and vivid imagination combine to create a rich Haitian tapestry, complete with steaming jungle, rubbish-strewn beaches, spicy plantains and Creole magic. From the language to the crumbling buildings, the remnants of French colonialism abound. Adultery and political chicanery alike are infused with Barbancourt rum, a glass of which the multitude of characters never seems to be without.
To ground us amid the chaos we have Terry White, a former Floridian sheriff who winds up in Haiti after going broke in the 2008 financial crisis. He is a fairly powerless UN policeman, who, desperate for something to believe in, dedicates himself to seeing the judge elected. He also beds the man’s wife, Nadia, a former singer with her own troubled history.
There is something very seductive about Berlinski’s excellent second novel. He has been compared, a little lazily, to Graham Greene, simply because he is an American who sets his stories in “exotic” locations – his debut, Fieldwork, took place in Thailand. Peacekeeping has more an air of John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil about it. Although this is fiction, Berlinski packs the book with a thousand lovely journalistic details, from the history of Jérémie’s poetry scene to recipes for love potions. Even zombies get a mention, in a funny scene wherein a supposedly dead man is spotted in the voting line. One of the senator’s supporters brandishes the constitution aloft, claiming there is no provision prohibiting the dead from casting a ballot. Matters are resolved when the man is forced to eat salt, which apparently the undead cannot abide.
With backstory coming thick and fast right to the death, the scope of Peacekeeping can become tiresome, but otherwise Berlinski capably manages Judge Johel’s oft-surreal run for office. It is no spoiler to reveal it ends – as it really did in 2010 – with a devastating earthquake. Pity a few other election campaigns did not suffer the same fate. JD
Atlantic, 400pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 3, 2016 as "Mischa Berlinski, Peacekeeping". Subscribe here.