Some foreign visitors to Haiti are horrified and run away screaming, and may later communicate their experience to prophets and pundits like Pat Robertson and David Brooks. Others—a crew including doctors, missionaries, journalists, NGO-niks and so-called “cultural types”—succumb to the considerable enchantments of the country and grow attached to it in the long run. It’s a sizable company, but small enough that the people within it tend to know each other sympathetically. We all share an affection for Haiti, one based in both a sense that Haitian culture has many valuable qualities that our own First World culture can no longer supply, and a set of Haitian experiences which, we tend to feel, can only be understood by those who have been through them. I’ve been going to Haiti since 1995 and have a passing acquaintance with Jonathan Katz, the author of The Big Truck That Went By; Amy Wilentz, the author of Farewell, Fred Voodoo, I know rather well. With the rest of our fellow travelers, we inhabit a sort of floating island that drifts over Haiti and the Haitian diaspora, never quite finding a permanent mooring.
Haitians, meanwhile, call all foreigners in their country blan, regardless of skin tone. Applied to a glove or a goat, this Kreyol word means “white.” Applied to us, it simply means we are not Haitian. When Wilentz published The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier in 1989, she became a prominent spokeswoman for blan engaged with Haiti. Her book chronicles the turbulent, violent and energetic period following the overthrow of the long-running Duvalier regime in 1986, and the emergence of a populist movement that coalesced around Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who would be elected president in 1990. The Rainy Season is a thorough and solid work of hard-news reporting and analysis; Wilentz also appears as a first-person narrator and actor in many of the scenes she describes, writing beautifully and vividly about Haiti, Haitians and her own evolving position among them. Since its publication, The Rainy Season has set the bar for other books of its kind.
Jonathan Katz is a relative newcomer to the Haiti beat but, to paraphrase a Kreyol proverb, in Haiti you can sometimes live nine years in one day. On January 12, 2010, Katz was near the end of a three-year posting with the Associated Press when his Pétionville house caved in on him during the most powerful earthquake to strike Haiti in centuries. His book begins with a gripping account of his escape from the rubble and his first hours spent circulating through the wreckage of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, with his Haitian driver and all-around fixer, trying to report on the disaster and also to learn if family and friends had survived and required rescue.
Katz’s blow-by-blow reportage of the quake and its immediate aftermath is riveting. The book’s deeper structure offers a concise and accurate history of Haiti from its revolutionary origins to the present day, and a clear and cogent analysis of how and why the massive, expensive effort to rebuild the country after the quake has, for the most part, failed. His lucid understanding of the latter problem is undoubtedly hard-won, as essential information is extremely difficult to extract from the fog of confusion suffusing Haitian politics and Haitian relations with the international community.
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In The Big Truck That Went By, a salient fact can pop upside your head like a piece of the iron rebar that urban Haitians use to reinforce—inadequately—their crumbly concrete-block structures. One of the book’s most valuable qualities is its thorough documentation of claims and suspicions that are more often announced than proved.