At my university the entire freshman class is asked to read an assigned book before arriving at college. The book is then discussed in small groups led by suckers faculty members who volunteer for the job. This year I volunteered since the book was not long and looked interesting. The book was “The Dew Breaker” by Haitian author Edwidge Danticat. The novel is composed of a series of interrelated short stories revolving around the life of an unnamed character who in his youth was a Tonton Macoute, one of the militia members propping up Haitian dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier. The Macoutes were known for their sadistic and repressive tactics against political dissenters, and the lead character was a well known torturer and overall thug. He eventually moves to the New York where he begins a new life as a barber and family man, keeping a low profile in the local Haitian community for fear of being recognized. The stories do not follow a linear sequence and jump around from character to character, taking place both in Haiti and in NY in the period between the 1960’s and the present. Some stories are about characters who were imprisoned and tortured in the past, others are vignettes about the main character’s family life, others are more tangentially related. In the end they all sort of come together and one understands how all the stories were linked. In general though, while what the author was attempting was a good idea, I think the book failed in what it was trying to do. None of the characters or their motivations really come to life and the whole thing seems a bit lacking in immediacy. It definitely doesn’t compare to other books on the topic of torture, like the horrifying “Requiem for a Woman’s Soul” by Argentinian Omar Rivabella or the play “Pedro y el Capitán” by Uruguayan author Mario Benedetti. It’s also not particularly good as an immigrant narrative, much better is Jhumpa Lahiri’s amazing story collection “The Interpreter of Maladies”. Nevertheless Danticat’s is an interesting book, the descriptions of life in Haiti are particularly good and it raises some interesting moral issues, ripe for discussion with a gaggle of incoming first-years.
After discussing some of the timelines in the book and background on Haitian history, I started to ask the students their opinions on some of the moral issues raised by the book. One, whether it is possible to find redemption after having committed such horrible acts?Whether the main character should be forgiven, after showing remorse for his past and living for many years as a law abiding family man? While I was firmly in the “No” camp, several of the students did think that it was possible to seek redemption without being brought to justice. That we should always be ready to forgive. That people can change. Which was interesting. I also asked them who is morally responsible – the torturers themselves or those giving them orders, and whether they think that the main character had a choice in signing up with the Macoutes. Again, many argued that he was just acting for self preservation in an oppressive regime, just following orders, doing his job. And that for the most part people who do these things, are usually acting for self-preservation and would not commit heinous acts if given a choice. But at least the way the character is portrayed, it makes you think that he was a sadistic monster, feeding off of his own power, above and beyond what is called for for self-preservation. So then I asked them, well what about US MPs in Abu Ghraib, were they acting by choice or for self-preservation? Or those doing the waterboarding for the CIA, did they have a choice not to do it? It seems like in these cases, the moral choice not to follow orders has relatively small consequences, yet people still commit horrible acts, and based on those pictures from Abu Ghraib, they do it with gusto.
Hopefully I didn’t traumatize too many of the students in the seminar, ruining their booze-filled orientation week. But hopefully I did shake them up a little – welcome to college!