The Rainy Season – an exemplary work of literary journalism

The squalls come, one after the other, as if generated by a dark machine somewhere over the horizon. Here in this quarter of the Indian ocean the northern hemisphere summer months of June and July signal the ‘winter’ rains, or what passes for winter on these humid latitudes. During these months of the Kusi monsoon the coast receives around 70 per cent of its annual rain. Now, daytime temperatures are 28 degrees instead of the 33 degrees we experience in December and January. At night the mercury might dip as low as 21 – cool enough to send people looking for jackets and woollen hats.

         In the tropics the rainy season can a sullen and sad time. Rain muffles and casts a cloaking mist around things which would otherwise be appreciable. You could call the effect mist-ery; the appeal of the suddenly hidden. The air is thick, as if knitted from water. As the squalls roll in a hush comes over an abruptly deserted beach, the scrub robins are silenced and the monkeys huddle in the inner branches of neem trees.

            Rain and its symbolic dimensions have never been put to better literary effect than in Amy Wilentz’ The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier. The book is a triumph of literary journalism in the vein of Norman Lewis’ Naples 44 (the subject of a previous article on this site) or Aidan Hartley’s The Zanzibar Chest. Literary journalism is a genre I’ve always been attracted to, but it is a demanding form, requiring a depth of knowledge, and long-term engagement in – usually – turbulent parts of the world.

            Written in the 1980s, finished in 1989, published in 1990 and reissued in 2010 by Simon and Schuster, I find on opening The Rainy Season’s pages again, twenty-five years after I first read it, its power intact. It is an elegant and supple fusion of journalism, anthropology, history and memoir. Wilentz, a former correspondent for Time magazine, brings to her magnum opus a tentative, inquiring approach, alive to contradiction and contrariness. Wilentz builds a symbolic universe to underpin both the book’s bulk and its subject: the wayward, nonsensical will of history.

            ‘Writing about Haiti now I always feel like a surfer skimming a tidal wave or a skier on an avalanche,’ the author writes in her introduction. ‘I have struck my own balance, but it doesn’t matter because the world is slipping away beneath me, carrying me to places I never meant to go.’ She rides the rollercoaster of happenstance, patiently cataloguing the minutae of life in post-dictatorship Haiti as much as the rise and fall of Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the Roman Catholic priest who ascended to the country’s presidency first in 1991 and went on to re-assume office twice – an unlikely trajectory which provides a narrative backbone to a book of otherwise encyclopedic impressionism. Of Aristide, this ‘slight, young priest in a slum parish’, as Wilentz writes, ‘from the day Duvalier was overthrown until the moment of Aristide’s exile, it was as tough fate and character were pushing the priest into history with a firm and ineluctable hand.’

       The book has a byzantine cast of characters, some of whom disappear within a couple of pages yet are so vividly portrayed they linger in the mind. Wilentz has a talent for capturing anecdote and allowing it to speak to wider truths. The Rainy Season is more than the sum of its parts, somehow – a travelogue of a country in convulsion, but also a personal search for a moral compass to guide her through Haiti’s epic clash of history, good, evil, hope and despair. Technically it is a masterful example of how to narrate from within experience, rather than framing it formally with the eye of the outsider in mind, an exercise that introduces an element of self-consciousness. This can only be done successfully, I wager, when the writer has a profound knowledge of their subject. Otherwise such an approach can comes across as fey and solipsistic, even opportunistic.

         Somehow, its dense fabric of experience, supposition and reportage feels uncannily like life. Its chapters are embroidered with micro-portraits: the souvenir sellers forced to abandon their touristic wheeze-of-the-moment in the form of figurines with pop-up penises, when the AIDS epidemic hits in the late 1980s the to shady cultural attaches and scathing portraits of western aidmongers, or the briefest snapshot of the woman in a pink dress outside a pink house holding a machete prepared to defend her country. An intimate tone and mineral clarity underwrite her talent for storytelling. Wilentz frames complex political ruses and macabre anecdotes in a way which makes the predicament of Haiti at the time if not comprehensible, at least turns them into a series of paintings of startling presence. More than anything, though, I am struck by this book’s ineffable quality – a sense that while it might on the surface be about Haiti, beneath the narratives of history and politics lies another reality intent on refuting any assumptions of coherence, of logic – that history can be understood. ‘Nothing You See Is What It Seems to Be,’ a Haitian proverb puts it. There may be a level of perception just beneath the patina of ordinary reality, which is no more than a decoy for a deeper but elusive truth.

        And then there is the rain. Wilentz returns to it again and again, until it becomes more than a preoccupation, but rather an experience which binds all people on this half-of-an-island nation: ‘You can almost feel the cold rain when it begins to come in from behind the nearest mountains.’; ‘The rains usually come in toward nightfall, and they are dangerous not only for ground transportation but for aircraft as well.’ ‘And then the clouds came down off Boutilliers, the low black sky hid all the mountaintops and the sea.’

       In such passages the author captures not only the texture of sensory experience but the languor and habits of life that are peculiar to localities. It’s not mere pathetic fallacy; there is a metaphorical dimension to this rain. The rains are symbolic of the currents and the seasons of history, never mind the hasty pas de deux of fortune and misfortune. Tropical environments in particular are tied to the rain, they read and renew themselves by it. But there is also a chastening quality to the tropical rain which the temperate latitudes lack. Its vague admonition says, you can try to apprehend, to understand, but any such gains may be as fleeting as the wind.

         As I write now another squall is powering in from the ocean, from a place in the general direction of Zanzibar. A curtain of rain sweeps the top of the waves, lifting them and joining with their spray until the surface of the ocean is a single roiling entity, as if it were boiling from within. Soon we will rush around, gathering chair cushions and sun loungers, stowing them underneath cornices. Torrents will pour through the louvred windows, soaking the living room and leaving puddles on the floor. The sound of the sea will soften and a temporary languor will envelop us while we wait for the rain to pass.