Writing at the End of the World

Mayra Montero’s In the Palm of Darkness

 

by John Waldron

Hispaniola Crowned Frog
Hispaniola Crowned Frog. Photo by Robin Moore.

Mayra Montero’s In the Palm of Darkness (Tú, la oscuridad, 1995) takes us on an in-depth journey that allows us to understand relationships between the crises caused by climate change and coloniality (a term coined by Aníbal Quijano to describe the hierarchies left by colonialism).

 

In the novel, the author deals with frog extinctions and ecological devastation but only as a backdrop to the main narrative. Montero tells the story of the herpetologist Victor Grigg, accompanied by his Haitian guide Thierry Ariene, in search of what is possibly the last specimen of the red frog or grenouille de sang. The novel is set in Haiti during the tumultuous political times when former president Jean-Bertrand Aristides was in exile and the paramilitary TonTon Macoute fought for control over the nation through intimidation and violence. Victor is oblivious to the fact that he is in danger throughout the narrative. He feels that his status as a scientist and a Westerner will protect him from the environmental and political chaos that surrounds him. At one point, Thierry senses that a gang wants them to leave a mountain where they search for the frog. Focused on his objective, and thinking he is protected due to his status, Victor insists they stay. Thierry eventually convinces him, and as they are running down the mountain, Victor stops when he sees a journal containing his article left by the group that had destroyed his and Thierry’s camp. Seeing his name in print confirms his usual sense of self-importance, but the drug lords let him know what they think of his special status, “The most recent issue of Froglog, a monthly bulletin of data concerning the decline in amphibians, lay on a stone covered in a pile of shit” (45).

 

Thierry, on the other hand, is highly aware of all that is going on. Unlike Victor, Thierry is able to read the signs all around them because he learned about frogs from an eminent herpetologist, is a practitioner of Voodoo, and his brother is a Macoute. He is sensitive to elements that are unimportant to Victor and that form a background to their quest. The background comes to the foreground no matter how much Victor or we may wish to ignore it. In one instance Victor unwittingly witnesses a “necklacing” —a Macoute technique in which the victim is burned to death by tying him or her to a tire and setting it on fire. Oblivious to the danger he is in, he gets hit on the head and falls down unconscious. If we choose to discount the background, as Victor does when he unwittingly observes a necklacing, then we too may end up clubbed on the head.

 

hurricane damage
Hurricane damage in the Caribbean affects wildlife, including frogs. Photo courtesy of John Waldron.

 

Montero structures her novel in the form of Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin's “polyphonic” narrative. Some chapters are narrated by one or the other of the main characters, some by a cold, objective scientific voice frequently quoting from scientific journals about the extinction of frog species throughout the globe. Along with the Macoute’s violence and fear tactics, the chapters about frog extinctions provide a global perspective and apocalyptic backdrop to the narrative. Like the lynched and dismembered bodies that seem to accumulate at an accelerated pace as the novel nears its end, the disembodied voice comes to haunt the reader through sheer repetition. What also creates the sense of horror with these sections is that Montero provides no clear relation between them and the events confronting Victor and Thierry that, on the surface at least, seem to be the central narrative. Victor, Thierry and the last frog are finally united in death in the last section, told by the objective voice. Readers learn that, “The bodies of the scientist and his Haitian assistant, Thierry Adrien, were never found. The last, carefully preserved specimen of the grenouille de sang was lost with them at sea” (183).

 

Even more unsettling perhaps than their deaths and the ecological devastation—the dismemberments, necklacing and lynching—is the fact that the novel itself is about its own failure. It is about the inability of Victor to interpret the signs given to him and to make the connections that would save his, the frog's and Thierry’s life. That failure suggests the inability of narrative and art in general to imagine a way out of what ecologist Elizabeth Kolbert calls “the sixth extinction,” our own demise as a species. If narratives can sometimes help us reimagine our relations to each other and our environment, thus allowing us to create a better world, Montero’s novel is about our own failure to imagine or create alternative possibilities. The reason we cannot conceive of other options is due to our own blindness caused by coloniality. Like Victor, we are entirely oblivious to our connection to the devastation all around us. Living lives of relative luxury, we may travel to a place like Haiti and ignore the problems because we think they do not affect us, that they are just part of a place, people and culture that are eternally troubled, confirming perhaps racial biases that form part of coloniality. Montero shows the relation between inequities and environmental devastation, between the background and foreground of her narrative. However, through Victor, she also shows our own failure to recognize the connections.

 

Although we are all suffering the effects of climate change, the results of climatic devastation are not felt equally. The slow, ineffective and racially biased response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and now Maria in Puerto Rico shows how hierarchies created by colonialism create the ideological structure in which these inequities continue. Given a similar connection to coloniality and its limits, it is thus appropriate that Montero places the novel in Haiti because, as Lisa Paravasini-Gilbert argues, “the ghost of Haiti haunts the Caribbean imaginary.

 

Thierry, Victor and maybe even the frog could have been saved had Victor decided to pay attention to the Haitian herpetologist Emile Boukaka instead of discounting his knowledge. When Victor first meets Boukaka he tells us that he

 

had an image of him as a mulatto . . . less chubby and tropical than he actually was. . . he was absolutely black, intensely black, the skin on his arms gleamed as if he had been born in Africa... There, in the fat circle of that face, his nose, his bulging eyes, his thick half-smiling lips seemed to be dancing. (93)

 

As literary critic Laura Gillman observes regarding this scene, “Grigg’s taxonomy is not an innocent description but rather an ideological codification of racial difference that naturalizes relations of superiority and inferiority between the colonizers and the colonized” (“Inter-American Encounters in the Travel and Migration Narratives of  Mayra Montero and Cristina García: Toward a Decolonial Hemispheric Feminism.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. vol. 39, no. 2, 2014, 518). Victor’s interaction with Boukaka is the product of the ideological framework created by coloniality, a framework founded on racism, misogyny and capitalism, which prevents him from accepting what Boukaka has to say as knowledge.

 

Victor’s thought, limited as it is by coloniality, leads to his and Thierry’s demise. Boukaka says that, “when Damballah desires it, the great flight will begin . . . The great flight has begun . . . You people invent excuses: acid rain, herbicides, deforestation. But the frogs are disappearing from places where none of that happened” (96). Victor’s response is astounding. He says, “I wondered who he meant by, you people” (96). He does not question Boukaka’s premise or his argument. It is almost as if he does not hear a word Boukaka says excepting “you people.” It is unfortunate that he did not probe the reference to Damballah in Boukaka’s warning. If the frogs are being called back to the ocean, the last thing you would want to do is get on a boat with a frog. Yet that is what Victor does, leading to his and Thierry’s death. Victor cannot consider what Boukaka says as “knowledge” because of the divide produced by coloniality that shapes the ideological limits creating Victor’s and our worldview.

 

Victor’s ignorance and bigotry frame all of his interactions. When he first meets his future guide, he says, “he looked too old, even sickly. . .I concluded that in the field at midnight, setting out on the difficult treks of an expedition, this man would not be of much use to me” (19). Victor then draws the frog he is looking for, and Thierry takes the pencil to correct the drawing. Victor is momentarily shaken, his worldview unsettled. He says, upon seeing the perfected drawing, “now I was the one trying to gain a few moments” (19). As Gillman argues, Thierry, “creates cracks in this ideological system” (518). The “cracks” however unsettling they might be, are not enough to transform Victor in time to save him. His demise leads to the realization that he and we must listen to the stories and knowledges of other people and integrate them into our own if the planet and we are to survive. However, Montero’s novel shows the failure of any transcultural communication limited as it is by coloniality.

 

Critic Marcus Embry argues that Montero’s novel rehearses the demise of transculturation—often expressed through the literary genre of magical realismand of the novel itself. Embry contends that In the Palm of Darkness, “we have a novel that is remarkably flat in terms of narrative spaces to which we can assign a politics of resignification, because the narrative spaces are about extinction. There is no salvation in any death in this text, and there is no significance in death. Death opens no narrative possibilities” (“Mapping a New Literary Century in the Caribbean.” Body Signs: The Latino/a Body in Cultural Production, 2011, 144). Further driving the nail in the novel’s coffin, Embry connects the death in this novel with the death of magical realism as a possible imaginative tool that might create the possibility for planetary salvation.

 

Montero also shows how his emphasis on reason and objectivity leads to Victor’s inability to see what may be more important and eventually to his death. Victor is emblematic of the mind/body split, which is foundational to modernity, the scientific method and ultimately colonialism/coloniality. His imbrication in coloniality is evident in his dismissal of other knowledges. On the first page of the novel Victor says of Thierry, “I let him talk a while. It’s impossible to keep a man like Thierry quiet for long” (1). At the beginning of the next chapter Victor narrates, chapter three, he says, “I began taping my conversations with Thierry when I realized that between stories he was inserting important information about the frog” (18). Victor first shows his authority over Thierry’s right to speak and then separates stories to look for what he considers important while Thierry sees everything as connected. Thierry tells us, “That’s a defect of mine when people tell me something: I always keep track of the ones in the background, the ones who disappear for no reason. The forgotten ones” (12). With this statement both Thierry and Montero invite us to look at the different, perhaps forgotten narrative threads running through this novel as well as to keep track of the “forgotten ones” something that Victor might see as a “defect.” Nevertheless, as Embry points out, the novel emphasizes our failure to do so.

 

Thierry, the person whom Victor would rather silence, becomes the locus for a possible narrative of resignification. Contrary to the scientific vision that tries to place the rational observer standing in a superior position to the observed, Thierry is both the observed and the observer. Thierry like Boukaka is highly erudite in both herpetology as well as local knowledge. It is in the non-hierarchal intersection of these two types of understanding where narratives can be reshaped and new worlds can be imagined.

 

Such possibilities prove very troubling to Victor. He is incapable of seeing the interconnection between the decaying nature and the anarchic political situation surrounding him. Though he does learn quite a bit from Thierry, he does not learn enough to save his, Thierry’s and the frog’s life. Montero’s narrative becomes a warning to what happens when we forget stories because they are unsettling.

 

In the Palm of Darkness is about many things, ecological devastation, the political chaos in Haiti caused by a history of colonialism/coloniality, failed relationships, the extinction of species, and the failure of magical realism among others. Ultimately it confirms what Elizabeth Kolbert argues in The Sixth Extinction, humans have a special proclivity for destruction even when it means they are destroying themselves. However, rather than just a journey to the apocalypse, the events allow us to become aware of the atrocities we have committed and that have led us to where we are now. New possibilities, new imaginings will make us feel unsettled. However, if we choose to ignore what unsettles us, we risk ending like Victor, a victim of our own blindness and false sense of security.

 

John Waldron is an Associate Professor of Spanish at the University of Vermont.