Wednesday, 27 January 2010

The Dark Glamour of Haiti

I was drawn to Haiti as a na├»ve young travel writer 30 years ago because in The Comedians Graham Greene had made it seem a darkly glamorous and dangerous place. Greene was there during Papa Doc’s reign of terror and by the time I arrived it was his son, Baby Doc, who was ensconced in the white folly of a palace which now lies in ruins, as uninhabitable as the rest of city around it.

The fabulous, exotic Grand Hotel Oloffson, where Greene had set his story, still stood on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince and one of Greene’s original characters, (the gossip columnist, Petit Pierre, in the book), Aubelin Jolicoeur still propped up the bar.

‘He has made himself one of the country’s leading characters,’ I wrote at the time, ‘affecting cane, monocle, cravat and a theatrically camp manner which makes many unaware of just how much influence he has at the presidential palace and in ministerial offices.’

In one of those ministerial offices I met the island’s then director of tourism, ‘a Gucci-clad minister by the name of Theo Duval’.

‘Why do we travel?’ he mused. ‘To feel in a pleasant way, to make a loop in the straight line of our existence, escaping into timelessness, a dreamlike state in which we are not reminded of our servitude.’

It was the first truly poor place I had ever visited and I was shocked to see how close to the brink of chaos people can survive, and frightened to see how fragile a veneer civilisation actually is.

If I remember rightly The Comedians ends with one of the departing characters throwing a handful of coins from a car window, causing a dangerous riot amongst the scrabbling horde of street children – an image which we are now seeing magnified and repeated nightly on the news.

‘When people come to Haiti,’ Aubelin Jolicoeur told me, ‘they always try to make the story funny. They never take it seriously. All through the centuries we have been ostracised by the world because we were the first black republic. Always we are misunderstood and misinterpreted. There is a bad spell on Haiti.’

Well, I guess no one is laughing now.