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When the Devil Smiles at You
Charles Taylor (the madman of Liberia) has his footprint all over Alexander Maksik’s second novel, A Marker to Measure Drift. The main character, Jacqueline, whose consciousness narratives the story, has fled Liberia, lucky to get out. After a flight out of the country with the assistance of her former lover, she’s stranded on a Greek island—left on her own, with little more than a change of clothes in her backpack, starving, confused, hallucinating, on the verge of madness. Her father was a minister in Taylor’s government, Jacqueline herself worked in the ministry of tourism, and for too long she also admired him.
As she tells an acquaintance late in the story, “I liked him. I liked him when he was in our home. I liked him when he brought me pretty boxes of Belgian chocolate. I liked him when he smiled at me. But I didn’t know him. For a very long time, most of my life, I didn’t know what he had done. And my father pretended not to know what he had done.” She was still a girl then, but when she was a little older, her insight began to change: “My father was a believer.” Still later, when she was a teenager in a private school in England, in Cheltenham, her mother warned her, “Stay here…. Now. After you graduate. No matter what your father says. No matter what he offers you. No matter his promises. Never come home, JaJa. Promise me.”
But she returned to Liberia, and her mother was right—horribly right—so right that as Jacqueline walks around the island in the Aegean, confused, searching for food or work, unable to distinguish the past from the present, it is her mother whose voice we also hear. Mother and daughter carry on a constant dialogue, her mother as super ego, controlling everything Jacqueline does, every move, thought, conversation. And although her mother was a control freak, she was right; and since Jacqueline did not heed her warning in the past—do not return to Liberia—she can’t ignore her mother’s gnawing voice much later when she is in Greece.
Jacqueline survives for a time giving foot massages to tourists on the beach, earning a few Euros to keep her going. She sleeps in a cave. She thinks about her lover, a journalist, who helped her flee Liberia; her younger sister, Saifa, who was pregnant; her parents, with their conflicting personalities. She longs for her family, “as they were years ago, a particular version, a version that may have never existed.” Her thoughts are incoherent; other times lucid, describing an innocent past—before the brutal end that so traumatized her that even in safe territory, Greece, she is afraid to seek help, tell anyone about her ordeal, even ask for food. Suicide becomes an option—total madness another. One wonders how many illegals walking around foreign environments have been so brutalized that they can’t even ask for help.
Months into her displacement—when she has little consciousness of time—another young refugee, a woman from Macedonia, takes her to a restaurant for a drink, and the floodgates open up. With numerous interruptions, pauses, delays and after a fair bit of ouzo, Jacqueline realizes, “The distance between recollection and experience is shortening. It is difficult to distinguish between memory and storytelling, between storytelling and experience, between the present life and the other. She is unsure whether there is a difference. She closes her eyes and tries to separate the filaments, tries to extricate one strand from another.”
“Taylor was the president. My father’s friend. My father’s boss.” And when the revolutionaries attacked Taylor, they also wanted to destroy all of his supporters, the officials (and their families) close to him. People were killed because of their loyalty to the butcher of Liberia: “murder, torture, rape, sexual slavery, terrorism, looting, the unlawful recruitment of child soldiers under the age of fifteen, the murder and kidnapping of UN peacekeepers in the performance of their duties.” And the so-called liberators overthrowing Charles Taylor do almost the same. You probably know the rest of the story.
Alexander Maksik’s A Marker to Measure Drift covers familiar territory—brutal regimes in Africa and the terror they unleash, too often spiraling out of control: a survivor’s tale. It’s a powerful story in need of judicious cutting, too often belabored in spite of Jacqueline’s catharsis at the end of her rambling.
Alexander Maksik: A Marker to Measure Drift
Knopf, 240 pp., $24.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.