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Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow

Sebastian Boensch

Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow

Fabienne Josaphat

The Unnamed Press, 256 pp.

The thrilling and nuanced opening of Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow, Fabienne Josaphat’s debut novel, introduces us to Raymond L’Eveillé, a cabbie in 1965 Port-au-Prince. He is parked outside a brothel, Chez Madame Fils, waiting for his fare, a john, to finish up. Raymond needs to make it home before the citywide curfew goes into effect at eight. He’s every age’s little man: he’s beleaguered with money problems, the water’s running through his fingers, there are no good choices for him. But it turns out that he actually harbors an exceptional ability—a superpower—that will shortly prove needed.

Raymond’s is a city and a nation living under the cloud of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s increasingly paranoid regime. Only two years before the novel’s action opens, Duvalier (Haiti’s self-appointed “President for Life”), in response to a coup attempt, ordered all black dogs in the country shot; he had come to believe that the coup’s chief conspirator, to evade capture, had transformed himself into one. Papa Doc is, per Josaphat, the “sinister figurehead for a sinister country.” His agents of terror and control are the rural militia known as the Tonton Macoutes, distinguished sartorially by their straw hats, blue denim shirts, red ascots, and—most importantly—the dark sunglasses that hide their eyes, sunglasses in which their victims can make out only their own terrified reflections. The glasses help “[fuel] the rumors” that the Tonton Macoutes are “not men but devils, evil spirits, loup-garou.”

So on one side, the Vodou militia, the 30,000 to 60,000 murdered over the course of Duvalier’s rule; on the other, the cost of rice, the impact of curfew on the sex trade and by extension the cab industry, and Raymond, the fellow trying to get through his shift, whose children are starving. This is the immediate situation of the story, the machine that sets it in motion—history’s big events, the big evil of them, and the little person who is slowly being crushed in the wheel. Raymond sits outside the brothel in the beat-up old Datsun of which he is immensely proud, listening to the relentlessly upbeat méringue—konpa music—on Haitian official radio, songs with lyrics that go, “Our new song spreads joy all over the streets.” Raymond reflects on konpa like a Port-au-Prince Philip Marlowe: “Its rhythms were intended to carry away problems. Too bad they always come back.

Then a jeep full of Tonton Macoutes pulls up down the block. Machetes and tommy guns flash in the night. Raymond, desperate for his fare, slides down in his seat and waits. He watches in the rearview as they close on him. He is on the point of cutting his losses when a fist pounds on the window. A man and his wife and baby daughter are outside, begging Raymond to let them in. “They’re going to kill us,” the man cries. Raymond reluctantly unlocks the door. What follows is a chase in which Raymond’s superior knowledge of the city and almost conjugal relationship with cars—”he’d spent most of his waking time inside vehicles, bent over engines, fixing and oiling auto parts”—allow him to save the family and perform the heroic act he had never imagined or wanted for himself.

But this is a novel in which the hero, after his heroic act, has to return home sheepishly, without his fare, to his wife, Yvonne, a hotel washerwoman. Her ruined hands are a point of repeated emphasis: “The very first time she’d held his face, he’d felt the damage of her life against his cheeks.” Quite sensibly, Yvonne tells him that he shouldn’t have done it, that it wasn’t right for him to take the risk considering his family’s dire poverty. He would make more money if he gave up driving cabs and worked in the tannery, but driving is all he knows (shades of a Michael Mann protagonist or Ryan O’Neal in The Driver). Yvonne has an uncle in Miami and wants to get the children there, but just last week twelve families died at sea trying to make the voyage. It’s as if Raymond’s heroic act were in the most important sense beside the point: it solved nothing for him. Life, unfortunately, goes on. There is a wonderful moment when Raymond comes home and hugs his children:

[He] let [them] hold him for a while and pressed his hands against their small backs. It often struck him how small Enos and Adeline were. He knew they weren’t getting enough to eat, and he couldn’t get past the guilt he felt when he ran his hands along their backs and felt their bones. But he loved that their smallness was still a kind of innocence in a place where so much experience was painful.

These lines, maybe the finest in the book, capture so much of the novel’s virtues, so much of what Josaphat understands about Raymond and his predicament. Yvonne is more practical than Raymond, but perhaps something more than that. She is willing to admit that death—even the death of these children whose smallness is a kind of innocence—is preferable to life in this place.

In the second chapter we are introduced to Raymond’s brother, Nicolas, a character who never comes into focus. The brothers’ acrimonious relationship becomes the novel’s subject, but Nicolas’s perspective remains obscure. A wealthy lawyer and university lecturer, he treats Raymond like dirt. The trouble is that we never come to understand why Nicolas does so or how he justifies his behavior to himself. He seems both sketchy and over-described. As a result the conflict remains unresolved for the reader even as it is, ultimately, resolved between the two men. Until the end, we remain aggrieved and bewildered on Raymond’s behalf.

Nicolas gets arrested and sent to the hellish prison Fort Dimanche for writing a manuscript exposing the crimes of the regime—a manuscript he inexplicably does not bother to conceal—and Raymond decides to save him. There are passages to savor: the description of how the men in Fort Dimanche’s cells treat infections (spoiler alert: it’s urine) and the sleeping-sitting-standing rotation the overcrowding requires of them are highlights (think House of the Dead or Fallada’s The Drinker). However, Raymond’s plan to break Nicolas out is ludicrous and involves Raymond’s intentional incarceration at Fort Dimanche. For all his deft touch with the Datsun’s clutch, Raymond is not Jason Bourne. He’s shoehorned into the role of hero in situations where his one superpower—cab driving—is useless. In the end, it’s hard to believe that Nicolas would have gotten out of prison, or that Raymond would have tried to save him. It is as if the novel, having already shown them to us, can no longer face its own hard truths.

Sebastian Boensch is a graduate of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Florida. He lives in the Hudson Valley. His short story “Death Sentence(s)” appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Subtropics magazine.