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Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

From the relative safety of the Dominican Republic, Brown recalls the events of his recent past in Haiti. He remembers his return to Port-au-Prince from New York on board the Medea, a Dutch cargo ship. On the passage, he meets the Smiths, an elderly couple from Wisconsin who hope to establish a vegetarian center in Port-au-Prince, and the British “Major” Jones, who drops mysterious hints about his exploits as a jungle fighter in Burma during World War II.

The owner of the Hotel Trianon in the hills above Port-au-Prince, Brown was unsuccessful in finding a buyer for the hotel while he was in New York. At one time, the Trianon had been a prosperous enterprise, but it suffered a decline in fortune with the ascendancy of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier to the Haitian presidency and the withdrawal of American aid. Ruled by Papa Doc and his secret police, the Tontons Macoute, Haiti is “a country of fear and frustration” in which roadblocks and searches, torture and murder, are commonplace.

Leaving the Medea, Brown passes by the Columbus statue on his way up to the Trianon. Before he left abruptly for New York, the statue had been the place where he would meet his mistress, Martha Pineda, the wife of a South American ambassador. He is surprised this evening to see her Peugeot parked near it. Believing that she is meeting another lover, he is hurt that she would choose that place. He finds her alone, however, in the car. “It’s a better place than most to miss you in,” she tells him. Later that night, Joseph, the Trianon’s maimed bartender, shows his employer the body of Doctor Philipot, dead of self-inflicted wounds, in the swimming pool. The Secretary for Social Welfare and coincidentally the man to whom the Smiths have a letter of introduction, Doctor Philipot had fallen out of favor with Papa Doc. After hiding in the Trianon for four days, with his capture by the Tontons Macoute imminent, he dressed himself “for burial in his neat grey suit” and “cut his wrists first and then his throat to make sure.” Brown summons his friend Doctor Magiot to help him hide the corpse.

Doctor Philipot’s body is discovered several days later. On the road in front of the hotel, Brown and the Smiths, now his guests, witness the first of the bizarre events that significantly contribute to the Smiths’ disillusionment: Captain Concasseur and the Tontons Macoute interrupt Doctor Philipot’s funeral procession and steal the coffin from the grieving widow. When Brown accompanies Mr. Smith and Doctor Philipot’s successor on an official visit to the proposed site of Duvalierville, the great tragedy of the corruption and violence endemic to life in Haiti is objectified for the vegetarian activist in the ruined landscape, leveled by government bulldozers, from which all local inhabitants, save a legless beggar and a justice of the peace, have been driven away. It is not long before the Smiths abandon all hope of establishing their vegetarian project in Haiti and leave for the Dominican Republic.

(The entire section is 769 words.)