Thursday 17 August 2017

For Want of a Truth Commission

A review of James MacKinnon, Dead Man in Paradise, Faber and Faber, London, UK, 2007.

Seldom does a work of historical investigation manage so delicate a balance between poetic nuance and forensic judgment, but it is even rarer for a journalistic probe into the mysterious death of a family member four decades ago in a foreign country to manage to illuminate the nature of an entire people and country, an illumination all the more powerful for its inability to penetrate, and yet at least to delineate, certain recalcitrant shadows. 

The only book I know to do something similar is Martin Pollack’s The Dead Man in the Bunker (1998) in which he pursues the truth about his long-dead father’s hidden past as an SS officer, which reveals almost more about the roots of anti-Slavic racism among Germans living in the borderlands of what became the Third Reich than it does about his own family.

The Dominican Republic is a country that has, unlike my own South Africa, or the more directly comparable Chile or Guatemala, not undergone the flawed-yet-purgative process of a sort of “truth and reconciliation commission” after emerging from decades of authoritarianism. South Africa’s commission was blessed by being covered by a radio journalism team lead by the poet Antjie Krog, which resulted in her harrowing book Country of My Skull (1998).

But for want of such an official inquiry exhuming its skeletons, the Dominican Republic, that forgotten Caribbean land of caudillismo, exquisite fruits, genocide, and crystal waters, at least has the interlocution of Canadian journalist James MacKinnon’s breathtaking true tale of his dogged search, stumbling in poor Spanish, for the truth behind the weird murder of his uncle, Catholic priest Arthur MacKinnon, at the height of the popular revolution that broke out in April of 1965. 

With a robust passion for the Dominican downtrodden, Padre Arturo was a natural mark as a trouble-making “red” for cold warriors like General Elias Wessin y Wessin, the tank brigade commander whose forces battled the youth of the revolution in the capital Santo Domingo until the US, fearing a second Cuba, landed Marines in May 1965 and the clock stopped.

But what then to make of the fact that in June 1965, alongside Arturo’s bullet-riddled body were two more gunned-down corpses – one a uniformed police lieutenant and one a plain-clothed police corporal – and while the dead cops are suspected of assassinating the priest, it appears that an army soldier may have gunned the cops down in turn, insuring 39 years of silence, in a country that harbours its silences? 

Who killed who, who gave the orders if there were orders, and why? Amid the suggestions of a political plot with a “blush of communism” lurks a possible motive of a cuckolded lover. But in a country struggling to come to terms with its past, nothing is as it seems and few answers are straightforward.

MacKinnon has an amazing eye for detail and a poetic sense of mood, plot, pace, dialogue and of place: “I can see the fires on the slopes as farmers clear the underbrush. In between them are valleys filled with flame trees, all of them ferociously in bloom. The canopy of flowers is the same colour as the embers that glow from the earth.”

What he has produced is a tour de force in what I term forensic meditation, the painstaking reconstruction of a scene of damage and loss, sifting through the evidence to strip away the layers of accumulated obfuscation, restoring its original simple brutality to the scorching light of the Caribbean sun, and in doing so, revealing many truths about themselves to the Dominican people.