Read an Excerpt from 'Peacekeeping' by Mischa Berlinski
Mischa Berlinski. Photo by Louis Monier/courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux


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Read an Excerpt from 'Peacekeeping' by Mischa Berlinski

In this excerpt from Mischa Berlinski's brilliant new novel, a young Haitian lawyer enlists a Vodou priest to unite him with the love of his life.

Mischa Berlinski's first novel Fieldwork was a finalist for the National Book Award. On March 8, FSG published his second novel, Peacekeeping, about a former deputy sheriff named Terry White who joins the UN and is sent to Jeremie, a small town in Haiti, to train the police. While there, White meets a judge named Johel, who studied in America. White convinces Johel to run against the corrupt Sénateur Maxim Bayard in an upcoming election.


Then White falls in love with Johel's wife, a singer named Nadia.

In this excerpt, Johel is at the beginning of a promising career in law in New York. Everything has been going according to plan, but then he sees Nadia, the performer at his bachelor party. He falls in love at first sight, and spends a night with her. Since then, he has been consumed by the thought of her.

What is unique and wonderful about Berlinski's writing is the clarity of his intelligence. He is also an actual storyteller, and he seems to have a good heart.

From 'Peacekeeping'

Later, Johel's mother, worried for her big, sad boy, insisted that he visit the family hougan in Brooklyn. Here was a man with good understanding of the power of the celestial realm. Johel had known Monsieur Etienne since he was taken as a boy by his mother to visit the dark and cavernous hounfort before the great spelling championship. Then the hougan had prescribed for the young Johel as follows: to bathe in five liters of water taken from three different rivers and mixed with two liters of rainwater, two liters of springwater, two liters of seawater, and a dash of consecrated water from the altar of the church. The hougan had been consulted on all matters of significance since; and Johel's life had been, under Monsieur Etienne's guidance, a series of triumphs.

Monsieur Etienne was now in his late 80s, and from early morning until first starlight he accepted visitors who gathered in the anteroom to his professional chambers as he counseled, consoled, advised, and cured those in need of change of fortune, those who sought to win love, or those who sought to escape love's curse. His face was lined, as if by the daily accretion of sorrows his profession obliged him to absorb. His room was lit by precisely 43 candles. The raw white rum that Monsieur Etienne spilled on the floor to please the various thirsty members of his pantheon burned Johel's eyes. On the wood floor of the apartment, the two ladies who served as Monsieur Etienne's acolytes had chalked in intricate swirls the veve of the great lord Damballah, a pair of snakes whose intertwined forms explained the most profound mysteries of the universe, if one had eyes to see and sense to understand.


When he had heard enough of Johel's sad story to understand it was a matter of love, Monsieur Etienne spoke at length in soft Creole. Monsieur Etienne didn't have a quorum of teeth left in his mouth, and the words went to mush somewhere between palate and lips. Johel had trouble understanding him in ordinary circumstances, but when Monsieur Etienne's red eyes fluttered behind his eyelids and his body trembled and the spirit came down to talk through Monsieur Etienne's dried-out lizard tongue and his thin, drooly lips, it was anyone's guess, really, just what Ogoun was trying to say. Even the acolytes were confused, the fat lady saying that love was like a blessing, and the other lady, who was thin and seemed to Johel generally more sensible, suggesting that love was like a curse. Johel's sorrows had not impeded the acuity of his legal mind, and this seemed to him a significant distinction, but both acolytes were agreed that the remedy to Johel's sorrows could be obtained, Ogoun and the good Lord willing. Johel would be freed of love, Ogoun said, if he could offer Ogoun some trace of her presence.

At first Johel presented the long dark hairs he gathered from his pillow. This proved nearly disastrous because only after the lampe had been lit, only after Monsieur Etienne had implored Saint Jacques, only after the libation had been spilled, did one of the acolytes think to ask Johel about the hair. Elaborate discussion ensued, and soon both acolytes were laughing at the innocence and stupidity of men. They very nearly had united Johel for life with some anonymous impoverished woman who had sold her hair once upon a time to make the extensions that now drifted down Nadia's back. " That lady, she's broke and bald!" the fat acolyte said, eliciting from Monsieur Etienne and the thin acolyte choking squawks of dried-out laughter. When Johel presented the long nightgown he had bought for Nadia, the acolytes ran the cloth between their assessing fingers. They knew from the lace and satin and embroidery right to the penny how much such an object costs. But for the magic to be effective, Monsieur Etienne was obliged to pose intimate questions. Had the lady obtained her pleasure in this item? he asked. Johel affirmed that she had, recalling the nightgown slipped up above her slender waist as she ground herself down onto him, her eyes closed. But Monsieur Etienne leaned close to Johel and cautioned him that the power of the celestial realm was infrangible and unforgiving. He spoke to Johel as an older man speaks to a younger man. He told Johel that he was the father of 17 children and had known more women in his lifetime than waves break on the shore, and still he hardly knew when the pleasure in a woman's body was genuine or had been feigned—such was the malign trickiness of women. You never knew how fully you had possessed one. Now there could be no mistake.


And Johel recalled the green eyes set in the angular face, and her rapid breathing, and the tensing of her hands on his chest; how her body had paused and gathered strength; how her thin musical voice had made a sound almost like a song. So he said yes, this was the lady's nightgown.

Monsieur Etienne began to look unwell. His head rolled alarmingly from side to side. His breathing was shallow. Johel began to sense that strange tingling in his skin that always accompanied the arrival of Ogoun. The acolytes began to chant, "Open the door! Open the door!" Then the aged prophet sat upright, his yellow eyes commanding, like lights in fog.

His mother always said, "Good magic is expensive."

Ogoun was a warrior, a being born to command, to plunge into the fray, sword in hand. He feared no mortal nor no thing divine. Now he surveyed the room into which he had been peremptorily summoned. With eyes that saw all that has happened and will come, he regarded Johel.

The acolytes said, "Hail, Ogoun! Master of the snake!"

Ogoun said, "From the place of lightning and darkness I come from the sleep that is not sleep to see a man who will be great and not great." Johel was never sure where Monsieur Etienne ended and Ogoun began. Some part of him always wondered, until just the moment when Ogoun was present, whether Monsieur Etienne was nothing but a canny old showman. But when Ogoun was present, his doubts were silenced.


Ogoun said, "Black clouds gather fast and wash away the hillsides. Water rises and drowns the women. Trees will come across mountains and fish will live on land. No man walks who can stop you. You are the wave that sweeps and washes clean the shore."

Johel said, "I'm here, Ogoun—"

"—for the hummingbird, the bird of love, who never stops flying, never sups from the same flower twice."

"That's right."

"Put money on the table."

Johel pulled out his wallet and placed a hundred-dollar bill on the table. Ogoun stayed silent, staring off into the distance. Johel added another. His mother always said, "Good magic is expensive." Then Johel added a final bill, and Ogoun said, "We can help you."

The procedure that followed was lengthy, and when a month later there was still no trace of Nadia, when his heart was still like abraded flesh, Johel called Monsieur Etienne on the phone to complain. Patience, the older man advised, patience. There exists the time of men and the time of spirit: There are no clocks or calendars in the celestial realm.

The powerful beings who had taken possession of Johel's amorous dossier required a full year to act. Then she called. She was in jail in Dade County. She had been arrested together with Ti Pierre and two other members of the band as they went up north from Miami; dogs smelled the cocaine in the trunk. This was magic surely of the most powerful order. How many times had the band driven north with no problems whatsoever? How many dogs had sniffed the car and smelled nothing?


What Johel thought on his way down to Miami was this. He thought he'd send her back to Haiti and he'd be free. For months, he had dreamed about her every night, rolling over in his sleep and moaning with sorrow and pain—and then the dreams had stopped. He'd started dating: nice women, professional women, women who understood the kind of life a man like Johel needed. Once, he'd even gone on vacation with a lady. The two of them went to Paris, and for five days Johel didn't think once of Nadia or her green eyes, just thought how nice it was to be in Paris, eating fine French food and seeing the museums. A friend told him that Jennifer McCall was engaged, and he sent her a card, wishing her all the happiness in the world. She wrote back, graciously wishing him the same.

Then, when he saw Nadia in the visitors' room in a prison jumpsuit, he knew he was lost to her forever. He knew that nothing mattered more to him than those eyes. He felt the magic with which she had ensnared him throb in his veins. Johel saw her delicate, almost childlike face and he knew that some prison spell would simply kill her: One day she would close her eyes and her soul would slip away. Johel remembered stories of the days when Haitians were slaves. There was a tribe from Guinée—his mother had told him, her mother having told her, stories like this one handed down through the Haitian generations—who when the chains were locked on, simply died. A sob, a moan, and then the overseer found the bodies of these strong men and lithe women in the cane fields. That was in Nadia's blood—and it was in his blood too.


When she saw Johel, she did not cry. Her restless green eyes roamed across his swollen face. He knew that she had no one in the world but him. So he called a man whose business card read "Criminal Law" and wrote a check, and then he waited. The law is like this: There is the sea, and there are currents in the sea, and only an expert sailor knows the deep currents where the real force and energy of the sea dominate. Only an expert sailor knows how to navigate the hidden shoals and reefs of the law, knows how to find safe harbor even in a vicious storm. The man with the business card made a deal. In exchange for her cooperation and on account of her youth, she will be deported. Nothing else.

When Johel told her this, she didn't understand. Then she did, and now, for the first time, she began to cry. She had not cried when the police stopped her and Ti Pierre; she had not cried when her cousin called from Haiti the year before and she learned that her mother, the lady who had sold her across the waters, was dead. Nothing brought the water to her eyes until she learned that Johel was sending her back to Haiti. For her, Haiti's the prison: The ocean is a wall, the hills are bars, the guards are everywhere. And she will be alone. Nothing frightens her more. Nowhere is life harder than her Haiti, not even here in some Florida prison. She looks at Johel and sees in his smile the cruelest betrayal.

She looked at Johel and saw that he understood nothing at all.

And so she sat in the chair across from Johel and cried until Johel did understand. Then he didn't think: He made the most important decision of his life as naturally as breathing.

Excerpted from Peacekeeping by Mischa Berlinski. Published by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Mischa Berlinski. All rights reserved.