Friday, January 22, 2010

Review: Brief Encounters with Che Guevara

I pulled Ben Fountain's 2007 book Brief Encounters with Che Guevara off my bookshelf this week — I was looking for a volume of short stories to read, and I had read only the first, wonderful story, Near Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera, quite some time ago. The choice was a timely one, as Fountain has spent a great deal of time in Haiti and the earthquake-ravaged country factors into most of the eight stories in the book.

Fountain's treatment of Haiti is fascinating (he visited the country over two dozen times before writing the volume), and he writes in an essay in the back of the book that he conceived of Haiti as "the New World paradigm, ground zero for the confluence of forces that exploded with the coming of the Europeans. Empire, politics, power, economics, race, plus the more recent catalyst of environmental degradation… the sum total of five hundred years of complex history seemed to be coming to a boil in Haiti."

The dangerous, complex history of Haiti reaches its boiling point in stories like Rêve Haitien, in which an O.A.S. worker helps smuggle Haitian paintings out of the country, and Haitian traditions appear in The Good Ones Are Already Taken, when a soldier returns to America from a stint in Haiti to surprise his young wife with the news that he has also wed the voodoo goddess Erzulie.

Fountain also sets stories in Sierra Leone, where an aid worker gets involved with smuggling blood diamonds, and in Myanmar, where a Texas golf pro teaches generals how to golf and unwittingly helps facilitate deals between them and immoral businessmen. The final story, Fantasy for Eleven Fingers, written as a biographical essay, focuses on two European piano prodigies born with 11 fingers who are able to play a difficult piece. This story doesn't quite fit topically with the others, but Fountain's depiction of the pianists focuses on their outsider status, the same position that protagonists in the other stories hold.

In each of Fountain's stories, the protagonists are well-meaning, but often naive, men and women who end up ensconced in dangerous or seedy affairs but come out all right in the end. Fountain writes both sides of each conflict convincingly, offering insight into where both sides are coming from. While all of the stories are terrific, the ones depicting Haiti are the strongest, with Haitian politics, history, beliefs and culture all factoring in. Though the Haiti of today and the next several years may no longer resemble the Haiti in these stories, Fountain's work is a thoughtful and intelligent primer for those of us who know little about the country. It's also impeccably written, with long, beautiful sentences and unconventional metaphors. I'm eager to see what Fountain does next.

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