BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : Imagining Haiti Through the Prism of Many Lives : UNDER THE BONE by Anne-Christine d'Adesky ; Farrar, Straus and Giroux $20, 369 pages


Nominally a novel, "Under The Bone" is actually a collage of literary techniques assembled to present a mural of contemporary Haitian life.

In that impoverished and exploited island country, anguish has a thousand shapes, misery a million forms. To convey that sad and almost infinite variety of suffering, the author uses reportage, drama, verse and fantasy, loosely linked by the observations of the narrator, an American employee of a human rights organization.

Leslie Doyle has come to Haiti to investigate the false imprisonments, beatings and murders that have continued long after the death of the tyrannical "President for Life" Francois Duvalier and the exile of his corrupt and thieving son, Jean-Claude. Though her special mission is to document the outrages committed against the women of the country, she soon realizes that Haitian brutality is anything but gender-specific.

"Under The Bone" begins with the story of a young peasant woman who discovers a corpse in the stream where she bathes. Innocent of any connection to the dead man, she is nevertheless imprisoned; her pathetic plight serves as a metaphor for thousands of similar cases.

Haiti, like many Central and South American countries, has an invisible population: "the disappeared," people who have vanished from villages and towns never to be seen alive again.

Though Elyse Voltaire will escape death, her sufferings are explicit, extended and tragically typical. The stories of other women are presented in brief vignettes; Elyse becomes the voice of the silenced.

Like the author, Leslie Doyle lived in Haiti as a child, the daughter of the American envoy. Her sojourn left her with an enduring love for the land and a knowledge of the Creole patois spoken by all, though the so-called "elite" use it only in private. Translated sentence by sentence for our convenience, that patois is sprinkled generously throughout the book, lending authentic flavor but impeding the pace of a narrative already slowed by didactic explanations of past events. As in any discussion of Haiti, questions of class and color loom large, and d'Adesky confronts these sensitive issues unflinchingly.

Though the dialect term blan (white) originally referred only to the white overlords, it has long been used to describe anyone with power or wealth, regardless of color. A black general can be blan , the self-indulgent descendants of French colonists and slaves are blan , and so are all foreigners. Depending upon the context, the word can be either a derogatory epithet or a neutral description--a succinct way of distinguishing the shrinking group of "haves" from the vast majority of "have-nots."

While d'Adesky has assembled a sizable cast of characters intended to represent various aspects of Haitian political and social life, each major figure is so laden with opinion and attitude that he or she tends to become merely a spokesperson for a particular point of view.

Gerard, a lawyer who longs to be a playwright, offers the entire first act of an allegorical drama in which all the actors are crows--a sardonic Haitian version of "The Parliament of Fowls."

Dr. Sylvie, a compassionate physician, tries valiantly to improve the lot of her patients, but is forced to work within the limits of a bankrupt system. "If you want to know how someone died," she says, "you can usually find out through an autopsy. But if you want to know how they lived . . . you have to look somewhere else--under the bone," a definition of the challenge also faced by the writer.

A humanitarian priest, Father Emmanuel, struggles to reconcile his activist impulses with the constraints imposed by his vows. A troubled former army officer must deal simultaneously with the burden of his past and the realities of the present. Cedric, a political activist central to the story, never appears in the flesh, though the search for him reinforces the image of a country where those who oppose the regime do so at the risk of their lives.

Background is supplied by the shadowy figures of the extravagant and frivolous upper class disporting themselves as if Haiti were their private fiefdom to be plundered at whim, their luxurious lives in stark contrast to the wretchedness surrounding them.

At home in the lush but depleted land, intellectually and emotionally involved with Haiti's tragic plight and thoroughly familiar with the customs of the country, the author creates a vibrant setting for her panorama of human misery, but as in many murals, the individual figures in "Under The Bone" are painted with the literary equivalent of a broad brush.

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