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No Other Life.

The hopes and contradictions of Haiti's liberation theology movement -- embodied in the rise and fall of its first freely elected president, Fr. Jean-Bertrand Aristide -- are the subject of Brian Moore's new novel.

The fictional setting is the Caribbean island of Ganae, a poor, black republic whose citizens speak Creole and French. A mulatto elite controls much of society, even the country's bishops' conference. Ganae has a dictator, Jean-Marie Doumergue, nicknamed "Uncle D," clearly an echo of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier.

But this is not a Haitian novel. Moore sidesteps Haiti's unlimited complexities early in the novel: "The people of Ganae know no other lands. They live in a world apart. ... Its endless struggles, its cruelties and despairs seemed a tale so frightening that, if I told it, no one would believe that such a place existed."

Instead, Moore uses Aristide's story to argue a thesis based on Catholic pragmatism: The objective of the theology of liberation, empowerment of the poor, is a long process and cannot be achieved through traditional means such as choosing a leader to take you to the promised land. Such a leader will face enemies that in the short term have the power to crush him or her.

Moore argues that empowerment must come to the individual by the reawakening of the individual.

Aristide, a spellbinder, was elected president in a landslide in 1990, only to be overthrown in a 1991 coup. (A U.N.-brokered accord signed July 3 calls for Aristide to return to Haiti by Oct. 30.)

Moore's Fr. Jean-Paul "Jeannot" Cantave is a more physical man than Aristide. After a coup overthrows his controversial government, Cantave takes cover in ditches, climbs steep hills and rides a motorcycle while hiding from the military. I think Aristide would faint if put on the back of a motorbike.

Moore chooses a first-person narrator to weave the tale: Fr. Paul Michel, a Canadian missionary. Michel struggles -- like Padre Jose in Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory -- to maintain his beliefs. He wrestles with his vow of celibacy. Like many a Greene character, he is never strong enough to follow his instincts.

Cantave is an orphan from poor, rural Ganae who is enrolled in Catholic schools by Michel. They quickly form a mentor-star-pupil relationship and the brilliant Cantave is later ordained into Michel's order.

Cantave is assigned a ghetto parish in Ganae's capital where his uplifting and politically charged sermons quickly turn Cantave into a national leader.

Many call him the Messiah: "As we knelt, looking up at Jeannot, frail and childlike in a surplice which seemed to have been made for someone twice his size, it was as though he led us into a world from which all other worlds were shut out. As he raised the communion chalice, and in that solemn moment changed bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, we who watched were filled with a certainty that he, by the grace of God, performed a miracle on that altar."

Cantave's church is burned by a rightwing goon squad. Cantave is expelled from his order for preaching political evangelism and is later elected president.

There is a fascinating account of a closed-door Vatican meeting where the prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Innocenti, plays politics like a smooth power broker and, surprisingly, sends signals that the Vatican is supportive of the Cantave government. (There are no indications the pope feels the same way about the Aristide government.)

The novel hints at Aristide speeches accused of promoting class warfare. Moore is clearly troubled by this. Michel constantly wrestles to justify Cantave's implied -- and at times direct -- calls for violence. Sounding like a speech Aristide delivered three days before the coup, Cantave's words are strong. "People have been killed. These things have happened and we sorrow for the dead. But we do not repent. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord. Justice must be done."

A conservative priest asks Michel, "Why does he always wind up sounding violent, even when he's making sort of an apology?" Michel answers with words Aristide supporters understand: "He has enemies. We don't. We haven't been shot at, forced into hiding, our church burned down, our parishioners killed."

Belfast-born Moore has written highly acclaimed novels such as The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and Catholics. Although he left the church at an early age -- and told NCR in 1985 that he still considers himself an agnostic -- his novels are haunted by spiritual questions behind both public and private lives. Although he usually observes his subjects from a distance, this story is plucked from the headlines.

His thesis is extremely relevant. Aristide's moderate supporters hope he has learned political maturity during his two-year exile. They feel he can succeed only if he seeks consensus and not the immediate empowerment of Haiti's poor.
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Author:Slavin, J.P.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 27, 1993
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