It would be hard to overstate the sonic shock of Port-au-Prince, the endless tweaker mix-tape of hammering, sawing, drilling, of rumbling traffic, of horns and music, yowling dogs, crazed roosters, buzzing swarms of cheap Chinese motorcycles, and the riled-beehive hum of millions of human beings talking all at once. My first few days in Haiti, I walked around vibrating like a skeletal tuning fork.
I returned this past January, shortly after the fourth anniversary of the earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people and left another million and a half homeless. The day after my arrival, I was walking down a dusty, noisy street near the center of town and passed a rough-hewn cinderblock church, a cavernous space with crude turrets at the corners and iron bars across the windows. Inside, a choir composed of what must have been visiting angels was singing a Bach cantata, the angels hidden behind the walls and bars of the church but their song floating into the street like a break in the battle, a cool cloth laid over a fevered brow. And that’s how Haiti breaks your heart, with these hits of grace and beauty constantly sailing out of the wreckage.
About that wreckage—mounds of rubble are still everywhere, only now they have eight-foot trees growing out of them. Remember all the grand plans for “building back better”? For remaking the dystopian sprawl of Port-au-Prince? Not happening, though a drive of any distance through the capital reveals nerve-jangling volumes of heavy construction. Around the central plaza known as Champ de Mars, where virtually every government building collapsed in the quake, bright red fences seal off huge swaths of land where the new ministries are going up. One morning a Haitian friend drove me through the area, intoning the name of each future building we passed. Justice Ministry. Interior Ministry. Parliament building. So many new state buildings in a country where the state has been an abiding disaster.
My first night back, I went to see my friend Gary, an ex-pat American who has lived in Haiti for more than 20 years. We sat on his cracked terrace, much reduced by the quake, when a chunk of it went tumbling onto the school below. Gary couldn’t stop coughing, either a side effect of his cheap blood pressure meds or his lungs reacting to all the dust in the air. From the terrace, we could see Corail glimmering in the foothills 20 miles away, a slab of brilliant white light that seemed to float in the darkness like a vast flying carpet. Before the quake, Corail didn’t exist; now it’s a city of some 100,000 souls, virtually all of them resettled from the camps. Tonight, random flames bloomed out of the darkness above and around Corail, shards of hot flickering orange that flared for a minute, then faded out. A striking visual for a jet-lagged visitor on the lookout for signs and portents.
It’s the farmers, Gary said. They’re burning off the stubble from last season’s crop. That old way, I wondered, was it the problem or the solution? To me they were beautiful, those fires, vaguely menacing, but the next morning the mountains sat there looking as bland and innocent as a businessman after a night of S&M. I went to see my friend Nicole, one of the lawyers pursuing Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, Haiti’s former dictator, for looting the state, crimes against humanity, and various other sovereign legacies. The case was coming, she said. Slowly. It was a miracle they’d gotten this far. Meanwhile, Baby Doc’s son has a post in the administration of President Michel Martelly, and Martelly himself, who has yet to hold the parliamentary elections that were supposed to happen two years ago, is sometimes photographed in the company of his protégé’s father.
Down at the rambling gingerbread pile known as the Hotel Oloffson, I ran into my friend Georges, a Haitian physician who has lately become a leading voice for the reinstitution of the Haitian military, demobilized by former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1995. With its proud tradition of human rights abuses, and its role in countless coups, the return of the military seems to me and millions of others like a really bad idea. Why, Georges, why? He handed me his Très Confidentiel memo making the case, but wouldn’t let me turn past the cover page. Instead I got a lecture. Haiti needs the military to: one, defend the country’s borders; two, thwart organized crime and popular insurrection; and three, secure the country from terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda, so that the United States won’t blow us to smithereens because an attack was launched from here.
I saw a bumper sticker in English, WE ALL LIVE DOWNSTREAM. By then I’d developed a nasty cough, my respiratory filter backing up under the onslaught of airborne dirt and gunk. This was literally Haiti I was breathing, its actual soil taking flight after decades of deforestation and drought. I wheezed. I blew black snot out my nose. I began noticing the many billboards for sinus and headache medicines.
My friend Doc, an ophthalmologist, was contemplating another run for the Senate, aiming to win the seat that was stolen from him back in 2006. Doc is brilliant—practices medicine, speaks seven languages, and writes insightful, non-pissy art criticism. In conversation, a typical sentence from Doc might begin, “It was immediately after the First Punic War, no, excuse me, it was the Second Punic War ... ” When he was mentioned as a potential candidate several years ago, bad people started calling his cell. Don’t even think about it, Doc. We know where you live, Doc. What about your wife and kids, Doc, aren’t you worried about them?
“Doc,” I said, “you need a break.” Along with a few other friends we spent two days in Jacmel, an old port town on the southern coast. We hung out. We talked. Worse things than chaos can happen to a country, said Doc. Being helpless, that’s worse. Being a totally destitute nation where powerful countries can experiment with their drugs, send their medical students to practice surgery, use children for sex or anything else. And every few years they hold elections where the president and députés are elected to do nothing, just for show. That’s what I fear, helplessness.
Floating on my back in Cyvadier Bay one morning, I was nearly rocked to sleep by the swell’s rise and fall. Through half-lidded eyes I watched egrets nesting in the palms, and tiger-striped butterflies crossing the sky in front of my face. Jacmel might be the gentlest, most prosperous place in Haiti, but even here you see the country’s terrible wear and tear, the old buildings in various states of collapse, the mountains turning gray as the topsoil washes away. On bad days, I think Haiti might be a sinking ship, too far gone, too used up to save. As with any sinking ship, the goal then is to get as many people off as possible before the thing goes down.
And if it does go down? Then we will have lost what is arguably the most revolutionary culture in history. Back in Port-au-Prince, I went to visit André Eugène, one of the sculptors of the Atis Rezistans collective whose lakou, his compound, sits amid a warren of sheet metal and cinderblock shacks off of Grande Rue. This is, by any measure, a hard neighborhood, smack in the crapped-out heart of Port-au-Prince, and it’s here, sandwiched between an outdoor welding enterprise and a guy selling tires, that one finds the entrance to the Sistine Chapel of the New World, or at least the late-capitalist, post-industrial proletarian version.
Eugène met us at the doorway to his lakou, a tall, round-bellied man with a pleasant moon face. From the hut at the back came the sound of a man singing, his thin voice accompanied by a single drum.
“Oh yeah,” Eugène gestured that way, “we’re doing a little ceremony. I’m going to the consulate tomorrow to renew my visa. I don’t expect any problem, but we do a little ceremony just in case.”
A hundred years ago, Marcel Duchamp gave us a new kind of art with his ready-mades: art as appliance, gadget, plumbing fixture, the mass-produced thing randomly plucked off the assembly line. The Atis Rezistans give us the flip side of the ready-made, after it’s been used up and dumped here at the ass-end of the world. Call it the already-destroyed,the ruined thing resurrected to speak all the singular, morbid truths of its earthly career.
We fanned out to goggle at Eugène’s surreal coherencies of scrap metal, carved wood, computer and cell phone parts, hardware, human bones, paint, glass, plastic, and animal remains, random junk repurposed in theopomorphic form. How to describe the stuff? How about this: the pantheon of the vodou gods, the lwa, transported to the world of Mad Max, nimbly adapting to post-apocalyptic circumstance. Or this: Goya on acid and in 3-D, with distortion, satire, vulgarity, and violence, every item an affront to the ruling order. It’s not the Rezistans for nothing, and their work has a spiritual engine that dropped out of the rest of Western art several hundred years ago. No wonder Warhol latched onto Jean-Michel Basquiat; he wanted some of that heat, but when you go where you go in Haiti, when you see what you see, you start to think Basquiat was neither more nor less than a medium-good Haitian artist feeling his way toward the real.
Chickens pecked at the concrete floor. Neighborhood kids followed us around. The little vodou ceremony slotted easily into this dailiness, even when Eugène received, courtesy of the lwa, tangible evidence that his U.S. visa would be renewed. We left at dusk, and later that night drove past the headquarters of Digicel, Haiti’s dominant cell-phone company owned by an Irish mogul. Already the biggest structure in Haiti, the Digicel building was undergoing a major expansion. Time, apparently, was of the essence; I saw something I’d never seen in Haiti, construction crews working the night shift under piers of spotlights, their labors revealed in a flood of brilliant, bleached-bone white.
Ben Fountain is the author of the novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.