Spring and summer of 2016 have brought us some of the best new fiction in ages, particularly and unusually during the summer season best known for steamy beach reading and lifestyle novels.  Younger writers from around the world are flocking to the novel, and/or short fiction, with great success, and we don’t even have to read the formulaic creative writing school novels of yore (character defined by sayings on T-Shirts–that kind of thing–C-team Ann Beattie, in short).  And because of globalization, we’re reading fiction from countries rarely represented in contemporary fiction in the near past: some of the best writing is coming from Nigeria, Kenya, Tunisia, Egypt, and/or coming from immigrants creating that hybrid novel, that of two cultures; Andre Aciman is one of the best practitioners of same.  India and Pakistan are pouring out superb contemporary novelists.

One of the finest young immigrant writers is Mischa Berlinski, whose first novel, Fieldwork, took place in The Phillipines, and which was a National Book Award Finalist. Berlinski’s one of the finest students of character in current contemporary literature, and he takes his knowledge of character into exotic countries, places, settings.  His new novel, Peacekeeping, takes place in contemporary (or recently so) Haiti: one of the great strengths of such novels is how much we readers can learn about the cultures of these places, and how the American presence has so altered the histories of these countries as to make parallel narratives entirely: the Americans and the indigenous populations have completely different experiences and perspectives.  I am just finishing Hard Red Spring, by Kelly Kerney, which links four narratives in Guatemala between l902 and the present.  The paranoia that hangs like dark clouds over these countries is created by constant military coups, conflicts between differing native tribes subverted by military presences and by American corporate interests (United Fruit rears its particularly ugly head in Kerney’s book). Reality itself is constantly questioned in such novels, as that lived by the poor peasants is entirely different from those of the ruling classes. No wonder no one could figure out what was going on in El Salvador back in the 80s and 90s  until Joan Didion, The Queen of The Surreal, went down there and basically intuited these varied levels of differing realities: only a mind like hers could make sense of the seemingly senseless, the layers of perceived realities.

Berlinski’s superb in laying out plot devices, including the absurdity of United Nations troops randomly assigned to countries like Haiti, where they’re supposedly peacekeepers but have no legal right to act as such under byzantine UN rules and regulations; most of their presence in such countries is almost completely pointless, and both soldiers, volunteers from NGOs , and natives all understand this, so that Surrealism is bound to dominate, and it creates a kind of sophisticated paranoia that’s utterly fascinating as no one knows the real from the simulacrum or the entirely invented.  Berlinski keeps to four main characters, an American who’s joined the security forces as an advisor in Haiti, an American of Haitian birth who returns to his homeland (he’s a New Yorker at heart) with a commanding career as a corporate lawyer behind him; he has arrived with his traumatized/victimized wife, a woman also of Haitian birth who has partly manipulated him into marrying her and into returning to Haiti; he will begin a political career that’s beyond bizarre, taking on vested interests of such vast corruption that it’s often difficult to determine who the bad or good guys even are.  And the narrator, another American doing duty in Haiti in a murkier capacity, is the fourth character, though our former Floridian who’s joined the security forces, whom Berlinski describes with the accuracy of Shakespeare doing both MacBeth and His Lady, is a character of such great profundity that though we’re first tempted to write him off as a beefy, former Florida cop, he is one of the two most fascinating characters in the novel.  His wife appears from Florida to help run the campaign of our Haitian born lawyer as Senator to the federal government in Port-au-Prince. The current Senator is beyond corrupt but brilliant and never uninteresting; his charm is vast, and his ‘people’ love him.

What the current Senator will do to hold on to power, and what our lawyer has to do to garner votes, becomes the main plot of the novel, but all the secondary players are utterly fascinating, and totally convincing.  We know to watch the victimized wife; there are enough clues as warnings, but what she pulls off in the end is completely astonishing (the book’s also a mystery of sorts , paying tribute both to Graham Greene and to Paul Theroux).

So Berlinski interweaves several truly passionate love stories through the narratives of political intrigue.  The passion(s) that grow between and amongst the main characters grow(s)to such great heights that we realize that Berlinski is aiming for seriously high literature, admirably tough stuff that does remind us of great tragedies.  All these people have pasts they are avoiding by moving to Haiti, and in spite of America’s current cynicism, we are repeatedly made aware of a certain innocence amongst the Americans in Haiti, of a need for redemption, of desires to reclaim the best parts of themselves: the marriage of the Florida cop and his overspending real-estate driven wife is one of the most complex in recent literature: Berlinski’s genius with this couple is to make them seem simplistic and let us understand how much they’re not: theirs is one of the most fascinating marriages in recent literature, so that Berlinski jumps genres within this novel, from mystery to love story to transcendence, almost to an overriding spirituality: it’s a brilliant book. The other relationship, between the American-born, Haitian lawyer who married the very mysterious Haitian born jazz singer, whom he meets at his own engagement party back in New York, but later feels compelled to save (watch out for that territory! rescue fantasies!) is also the stuff of high drama and nearly operatic power. She will become the “cherchez la femme”: there’s real power in victimhood.

We aren’t necessarily expecting a novel of such complexity and depth when we start reading it, but Berlinski pulled off the same feat in his first novel, Fieldwork, which was equally brilliant, and dealt with born again Christians in The Phillipines, again taking reasonably mundane material and make it into high art. The culture(s) of Haiti make perfect backgrounds for the evolving tragedies that are forthcoming; questions of love and loyalty and power all circle through this superb novel.  Berlinski’s a master at how character and place interact and have a causative effect on one another:  Peacekeeping is truly one of the year’s finest novels; I recommend it wholeheartedly: be prepared for a masterful novel when you read this one.


–Daniel Brown

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