A haunting, if unsatisfying, novel of the 1937 massacre of Haitians living on the Dominican border.
In 1930, dictator Rafael Trujillo Molina took control of the Dominican Republic, a regime that would last until his assassination in 1961. Although Trujillo was of mixed race, he was said to consider blacks inferior, and was rumored to wear face powder in order to lighten his complexion. Philoctète’s novel centers on this flawed man and his anger over the “Haitian invasion” (not only for the increasing rates of intermarriage but also the effects of Haitians entering the Dominican workforce). In October 1937, Trujillo ordered his army to kill all Haitians in the border region, using their machetes so as to make the massacre appear the action of furious campesinos. Before the 17,000 Haitian men, women and children—many of whom had been born in the Dominican Republic—were slaughtered, they were asked to pronounce the word “parsley.” If they could enunciate correctly, their lives would be spared. At the core of Philoctète’s story are Pedro Alvarez Brito, a mixed-race Dominican, and his Haitian wife, Adèle Benjamin. As Pedro leaves for his shift at the sugar factory, an army truck filled with soldiers roars by. In a dreamlike sequence, Adèle, hanging up the wash, is commanded to say the word, which apparently kills her. Was it the utterance that caused her death? Or was her throat cut as part of Operation Cabezas Haitianas? Pedro returns home to see his wife sprawled in the dirt; she is alive but has lost her mind. Will this couple, a humble symbol of the land, survive?
Philoctète’s work is not an easy read; although dense with footnotes, for those unfamiliar with the history of the Dominican Republic, the story will remain somewhat opaque.