BOOK REVIEW / SHORT STORIES : Lifting the Human Spirit Above the Wretchedness of Life : KRIK? KRAK! by Edwidge Dantikat ; Soho $20, 230 pages


"Beyond the mountains there are mountains" goes one of the Haitian proverbs that work their tutelary spirit through Edwidge Dantikat's stories. The Creole sayings of that unfortunate island keep it in one particular sense from being utterly bereft. For Haitians to hurl those six laconic words at the harshness that forbids them passage is to acknowledge it and lift it at the same time. Haiti's proverbs, like Chekhov's plays, light up what rises when men and women are borne down.

So do the best of these pieces by a young and beautifully voiced Haitian American writer. When Guy falls to his death from the balloon he has stolen, or Liliane jumps after the dead baby she has hurled from the raft in which she is fleeing Haiti, or an old immigrant woman turns to laugh and be reconciled with her bitter past, Dantikat's words go the opposite way from the terrible things she writes so truly about.

Can words redeem starvation? If they could anywhere it would be in Haiti, where one of its greatest proverbs mocks hunger with a sudden expulsion of the breath: "If you cannot eat from a plate of soup you can always spit in it."

Of the stories in "Krik? Krak!"--the traditional spoken invocation to a Creole folk tale--one or two beautify their pathos with a little too much arranging. The best of them, using the island tradition of a semi-magical folk tale, or the witty, between-two-worlds voices of modern urban immigrants, are pure beguiling transformation.

"A Wall of Fire Rising" uses a man's dream of freedom and the frail sanctuary of a family home that can neither keep out the dream nor survive it. It is told wonderfully well, in the voice of a little boy whose father, Guy, struggles desperately for an occasional meager job at the sugar mill, and whose mother, Liliane, walks two miles each morning to fetch water.

The child lives in the sweetness that his parents fight to maintain. To Liliane, though, Guy speaks of his despair at living in the same wretchedness that enslaved their parents; and of his dream of flying in a balloon that belongs to the mill's owners. God would have given men wings had he meant them to fly, she says. No, Guy replies, what he has given them is a reason to fly: "the air, the birds, our son."

Like millennia of women whose men's longings have made widows of them, Liliane is tragically skeptical. But when Guy takes the balloon and falls to his death she refuses the foreman's request that she close his eyes: "My husband, he likes to look at the sky."

That is moving but not quite finished. In another story we hear that Liliane killed herself years later when her son moved to Miami. Irony cuts the uplift; curiously, it lifts it higher. In a powerful, ghastly story, a Port-au-Prince maid, unable to bear a child, finds a dead baby, names it Rose and hides it for days, washing it frequently to dispel the odor. Finally she tries to bury it at night beside the swimming pool. Though he has been her lover, the gardener calls the police. (However far the poor are from the rich, they are even farther from each other.) Again, the lofty Gothic horror gets a twist of Haitian irony. "We made a pretty picture standing there," the maid remarks. "Rose, me, him. Between the pool and the gardenias, waiting for the law."

"Caroline's Wedding" is set in New York where two sisters teach in the city schools and live with their mother. They are mainly Americanized; Gracina is about to get her U.S. passport and Caroline will marry her Bahamian fiance, Eric. The prospect scandalizes Ma, who maintains her Haitian ways and longs for the formalities of a village engagement.

For Ma, America is exile. When one daughter dons a T-shirt for a softball game, Ma sews on a lace collar. It is a perpetual duel with Eric, who goes to the trouble of cooking Ma a dinner only to be snubbed because it doesn't taste Haitian. There are layers of comedy and, interleaved, of loss and bitterness. The deepest bitterness is a memory. Her husband, who drove a New York taxi to provide for them until he died, had divorced her in Haiti to marry a woman in America so he could immigrate; then he divorced the woman and remarried Ma. It was done out of extremity and love, but it killed love between them. They were never intimate again.

Dantikat tells of Ma's gradual reconciliation; at the end she accepts Eric and brings herself to tell her late husband's favorite joke. In a way "Caroline's Wedding" is a variation on other tragicomedies of two generations of immigrants--Italian, Jewish, Chinese. But that does not make it less precious or original. In our literary ecology each species is treasured: The finch is no less a miracle because there are warblers, wrens and thrushes.

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