Peacekeeping by Mischa Berlinski
Mischa Berlinski’s primary talent as a writer is his supreme humanity. A new writer on the literary scene, he’s already been marked as one to watch. His second novel, Peacekeeping, is good. Not exemplary, but good. This may be a tepid and bland assessment, but Berlinkski’s talent belies a greater novel lurks in the corners of this young author’s future.
Peacekeeping takes place in Jérémie, Haiti, where our nameless narrator tells us the story of an American ex-cop and an American educated Haitian judge as they rustle the bushes of local politics in an effort to get the Judge elected into the local government so he can have enough influence to build a road to the more affluent Port-au-Prince. After this plotline is established is when the stories really begin to pour from the text. It’s said in the book that the Haitians love their stories and Berlinski honors that from page to page. Every character introduced is fully fleshed out. Terry White, for example, our ex-cop, is brash and sometimes very simple but never fails to be good company, his humor and his charm never lost in his unsavory traits. His machismo manages to be gentle. His gruffness is caring. Every character is sympathetic even in their ugliness – each character rounded out and true. Getting to know everyone is the true meat of the novel and its subtle joy. Berlinski’s prose is modern but not indelicate. He is able to transform the banal simplicity of modern vocabulary into eloquence:
“Kay White told me later that she started seriously worrying about him all alone out there in Haiti those first few months, before he met the judge. Cops’ wives hear a lot of stories about their men and their service revolvers, the way their eyes get to tracing the oily whorls of steel, the gun hypnotizing them, telling them to do bad things.”
Another phenomenal accomplishment by the author is that he never seems sappy, never lays it on thick, never tries to invoke the inextricable gooey pathos that garners so much love in the Internet era. Haiti is poor and has many problems, but this is life for them and is treated as such. It is no novelty and it does not surprise Berlinski. This lack of romanticism is not without sentiment and is a welcome perspective on troubles in the world that forgoes outrage, pity and shock.
This elegance is important to keep because the pacing of Peacekeeping is slow. Amid the heat and poverty and corruption, the text Is languorous and takes its time. The frustration is part of the experience, much like The Trial, though lacking the agonizing philosophy Kafka is known for. Perhaps more akin to an Ingmar Bergman film, where the subtle facial tics and long gazes and vast characterization supersede plot, though again without the merciless worldview Bergman offers. One should focus on the little details, in any case, should not be eager unless they’re interested incurring the stubborn wrath of a plodding novel. Standing on its own merits, Peacekeeping is best read with a cool swaying breeze and a steady tone in the back – rhythmic crashing waves or persistent heavy machinery.
For all this praise, the major fault line is that there is nothing really daring about the book. It fails to be subversive or witty. Politics, love affairs, tragedy – all beats hit on cue. This is no reason for despair as there is no doubt Berlinski is only just barely hitting his stride. Peacekeeping is an exercise in patience and awareness, of noticing beauty and letting go of expectation.