Breath, Eyes, Memory
Section One: Chapters 7–8
Martine takes Sophie shopping to see the neighborhood. At Haiti Express, they mail a cassette to Atie, while Sophie wishes she could shrink herself to fit in the package. Next, they buy Sophie some school clothes. Martine has heard horror stories from other Haitian mothers about the difficulties their children have had fitting in, and she exhorts Sophie to learn English quickly.
Later, Martine takes Sophie to meet Marc, her long-term boyfriend. Marc is a well-dressed, relatively affluent Haitian lawyer, who works in a peaceful, well- kept neighborhood removed from the graffiti and chaos of Martine's apartment. Marc warmly greets Martine, formally introduces himself to Sophie as Marc Jolibois Francis Legrand Moravien Chevalier, and promises to take Sophie and Martine out that evening.
That night, Marc takes Sophie and Martine to a hole-in-the-wall Haitian restaurant in New Jersey that he claims is the best in America. Since his mother's death, Marc has been trying to find a restaurant that can match her delicious Haitian cooking. The restaurant is tiny and lively, packed with Haitians discussing politics and the diaspora. Martine introduces Sophie to the waiter, who looks long and hard into her face. Sophie cringes under his gaze, knowing she looks nothing like her mother.
Dinner is somewhat awkward. The food comes very late, and Sophie notices Martine and Marc eyeing each other as if there are things they cannot say because of her. Marc, speaking in a slightly patronizing voice, asks Sophie what she would like to become, and is not impressed by her ambition to become a secretary. Meanwhile, Martine maintains that Sophie will become a doctor, and that she will not even consider dating before the age of eighteen.
In the summer months before school starts, Sophie spends her time at work with Martine. Martine works days at a nursing home, cleaning up after bedridden old people while Sophie watches TV in the lounge. At night, Martine babysits an invalid old woman, sleeping on the floor by her bed while Sophie sleeps on a cot in the living room.
One night at the invalid woman's home toward the end of the summer, Sophie becomes lonely and homesick on her cot and asks Martine to stay in the room with her. Martine cannot stay, but she lingers to talk. Sophie tells her that she wishes she could get a job as well in order to alleviate her mother's fatigue, but Martine dismisses this suggestion, insisting that Sophie's job is to educate herself. Looking into Sophie's face, Martine asks her if she, Martine, was the mother that Sophie had imagined. As a child, Sophie had imagined her mother like Erzulie, the vaudou loa and Virgin Mother, "the healer of all women and the desire of all men." But Sophie tells Martine that she couldn't ask for better.
Changing the subject, Martine tells Sophie the story of how she met Marc. He had been her amnesty lawyer, and over the course of the legal proceedings they had become friends. Marc is from a very upstanding Haitian family, and Marc and Martine's relationship would not have been possible in Haiti. But for the moment Martine is happy. Marc helped her to bring Sophie to New York, and she will stay with him so long as he does not ask anything unreasonable.
Martine asks Sophie if she has ever liked a boy, and Sophie says no. Martine explains that her own mother used to test her and Atie as girls to make sure they were virgins by attempting to insert a finger into their vaginas to see if their hymen had been broken. Martine reveals that her testing stopped early, as she was raped by an anonymous man in a cane field when she was sixteen. It was this rape that produced Sophie, and though Martine never saw her attacker's face, she cannot help but look for his features in Sophie's face, so different from Martine's own.
A critical difference between Haiti and America is exposed by the nature of Martine's work. After sending Sophie to New York, Atie returned to Dame Marie to take care of Grandmè Ifé, her aging mother. Meanwhile, in New York, Martine works at an old folks' home, cleaning up after parents whose own children have abandoned them. The nursing home is a cruel parody of the American attempt to build everything bigger, better and more efficient, exposing the nagging inhumanity of this effort. In effect, the New World has devised a way of farming out responsibility to others, freeing the affluent child from the weight of duty. And while the novel clearly acknowledges that duty, affiliation and human responsibility are often debilitating burdens, Chapter 8 raises a number of subtle questions about the true effects of a liberation which frees one entirely from one's family and from other people.
Martine's boyfriend Marc, the soi-disant Marc Jolibois Francis Legrand Moravien Chevalier, is the book's first developed male character. In contrast to the powerful absence of Donald Augustin or Sophie's father, Marc is definitively present. His exquisite name and his obvious class confirm the power, status and access that the novel has so far attributed to the world of men. Yet his clothes, pomp and circumstance attest to a superficiality, a slight sleaziness and a concern for propriety, themselves evidence of Marc's regard for "the systems" of capitalism and patriarchy which have served him so well. More telling is Marc's insistence on connoisseurship, and his confirmed willingness to drive great distances for authentic Haitian food. Among the dispossessed, mobility is a sign of affluence and freedom. The irony of Marc's search for "authenticity" is that it is only those, like him, who are rich and free who can afford to find, compare, and patronize far-flung pieces of "local color" squeezed into back alleys and catering to the working poor. Likewise, Marc's gourmet pickiness about his food is itself a kind of conspicuous consumption, an indication that he can afford to be picky and need not settle for less. Against the novel's larger concern with food as a symbol of love, of nourishment, and as something rare and precious, Marc's antics seem a deliberate expression of his privilege. Yet as his praise for his mother's cooking versus his very American connoisseur attest, Marc's character embodies the paradox of a successful immigrant trying to reconcile a romantic affiliation with his home country with a loyalty to the new country which has given him that success.
Martine's revelation, at the end of Chapter 8, of the truth of Sophie's birth raises critical questions of the body as both a site of pain and as pain's witness. The odd fact that Sophie does not look like her mother, which at the end of Chapter 7 was merely uncomfortable, now takes on a troubling significance. Sophie's face, by implication, must look like her father's, the rapist whose face Martine never saw. The attacker's face, covered during the rape, is thus equated with Sophie's own, starkly visible face. Indeed, Sophie's very existence is a continual witness to the horror that her mother suffered. With this disclosure, the novel begins to confront the great burden that the past places on human relations. Sophie's first months with Martine, far from the innocent meeting of strangers, represent an attempt for each to come to terms with the human beings who exists beneath the crippling conceptual and contextual weight of words like mother, daughter, attacker, pain, body, violation, absence, and rape. Each must attempt to reconcile the reality of the other person with the wealth of longings and betrayals that this other represents. In a particularly touching moment, Martine acknowledges the difficulty of such a project when she asks Sophie if she is the mother Sophie had dreamed of. Though Sophie had always imagined her mother as the goddess Erzulie, she tells Martine that she could not ask for better. In this exchange, the novel counters the acknowledged difficulty of reconciliation with a compassionate indication that it is possible.
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