I’VE BEEN wondering when someone might tap him. I’d been curious about his literary take on the beyond-words disaster that is Haiti. Madison Smartt Bell has been down deep in Haiti writing, writing, writing for more than a decade — novels, biographies, considerations. But not from a physical “there” a “there” in his mind — a sort of spiritual umbilical cord, if you will. He finally popped up last week on the newspaper pages and I was comforted to see it and his list of voices from and about a place that has for so long appeared to be very definition of struggle and sadness. This from the NYT on Sunday.
Today is a good day to remember that in Haiti, nobody ever really dies. The many thousands who’ve had the breath crushed out of their bodies in the earthquake, and the thousands more who will not physically survive the aftermath, will undergo instead a translation of state, according to the precepts of Haitian Vodou, some form of which is practiced by much of the population. Spirits of the Haitian dead — sa nou pa we yo, those we don’t see — do not depart as in other religions but remain extremely close to the living, invisible but tangible, inhabiting a parallel universe on the other side of any mirror, beneath the surface of all water, just behind the veil that divides us from our dreams.
I’d wondered what had propelled him to Haiti in the first place. I think one of the first books of his I happened to find in my possession wasn’t Washington Square Ensemble, the one everyone talks about but Straight Cut. That led me to the short stories and then, another novel and then. But in an interview in the Cronin Review, Bell explains the suspension bridge that led him from is city stories to the tangle of Haiti, which started with his 1992 novel Dr. Sleep:
To my mind, Dr. Sleep was the end of a whole trend in my work. The book is basically structured as a prayer, and Adrian Stother’s internal monologue drives the story. After I had finished it, I realized in a way I hadn’t before that all the novels I had written up to that time were spiritual pilgrimages of one kind or another. Though they are by and large couched in the form of thrillers, they’re essentially experiments in religion. My model for that is Dostoyevsky, who was basically a thriller writer with a lot of religious obsessions that he was trying to work out. I wasn’t completely aware of this strain in my own work until I’d finished Dr. Sleep, or was well on the way to finishing it.
Just that little ‘graph reminds me of why I’d always enjoyed what fell into my lap of his: The way that Bell expresses this notion of the act of writing as a “spiritual pilgrimage” is set down with such simplicity — no smoke, mirrors or rituals — beyond the one that forces you to sit down and confront what’s in your head and on the page.