“Peacekeeping” (Sarah Crichton Books/FSG), by Mischa Berlinski
While plenty has been written, fiction and nonfiction, about Haiti’s political disgraces, natural disasters, cultural enigmas and entrenched dysfunction, Mischa Berlinski’s new novel stands out for doing far more than dramatizing news headlines about the beleaguered Caribbean nation.
On its surface, “Peacekeeping” is about international intervention in Haiti. It also would be tidy to sum up his debut, “Fieldwork,” a finalist for the National Book Award, as a novel about anthropological studies in Thailand. Neither description really covers the ways in which Berlinski probes the failures of language when stories told by foreigners converge with stories told by locals.
Berlinski writes from personal experiences that he has transported to an alternate reality. He adds a disclaimer to “Peacekeeping” that he has reimagined recent Haitian history: the novel hinges on an election that did not happen before an earthquake crippled Haiti in 2010, and the U.N. peacekeeping mission he describes doesn’t share the same scandals or successes as the U.N. force in Haiti now.
“Peacekeeping” revolves around a failed Florida cop looking for a life reboot as a U.N. policeman, a light-skinned, diaspora-educated Haitian judge making a run in local politics and the judge’s dark-skinned wife whose deportee status has left her feeling trapped by her own homeland. It playfully picks apart cliches about Haitian resilience and mysticism to toy with the idea of suffering and whether wanting to do good creates its own kind of hell and absurdist theater for everyone involved.
Berlinski immerses the reader in an environment so richly detailed that one almost hears the buzz of insects through the pages, but the novel’s plot transcends its tropical setting, resulting in a deeper exploration of what it means to be an observer.