Haitian Book Club: Massacre River by René Philoctète

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Dear lovers of books by Haitian authors and books about Haiti…

Today’s Haitian Book Club selection is Massacre River by René Philoctète (New Directions, 238pp, $13.95), a translation of Le Pays des Peuples mêlées (The Country of People of Mixed Blood), by Linda Coverdale.

If you’ve heard of Massacre River, you know it is right between the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and you probably are aware of the 1937 slaughter of Haitian sugar cane field workers in the Dominican Republic. And it probably won’t come as a surprise that the plot of the novel Massacre River treats that event.

Philoctète’s book is laced with so much lyricism, you wonder at times if you’re not reading a cluster of poems. A sample: “With an angry hand, Pedro Brito decapitates a flower whose name he does not know. A bitter perfume clings to his fingers. He dips his hand in the dew. The scent stays bitter and strong. Like the presence of the beast, or the servants of savagery.”

This flower-destroying Pedro Alvarez Brito is a sugar factory worker and the husband of Adèle Benjamin, a native of the Haitian town Belladère. Adèle is part of a generation of Haitians who are born in Haiti and who sometimes are buried in Dominican Republic territory. Pedro is born on the side of the border where there’s little distinction between Haitian and Dominican, so strong are their family ties.

Jacques Stephen Alexis’ book General Sun, My Brother treats the same subject as Philoctète, but apparently the books have different philosophies. The conclusion that one attained from reading the Alexis book is that there is no place like home, though elsewhere may have greener pastures. Through the relationship of Adèle and Pedro, Philoctète offers this concept of compromise and unity of two lands. Another aspect of Massacre River is the fictionalized glimpse into the inner workings of General Trujillo, the Dominican president who orders the massacre.

A border thrown into turmoil by color prejudices, the love between a Dominican and a Haitian, makes Massacre River not just a historical account of a devastating event, but an unforgettable, well-written love story.

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