Bob Shacochis’s The Woman Who Lost Her Soul is a dazzling virtuoso in almost every way: a mind-bending narrative, an astute commentary on our country’s not so admirable espionage (during the Cold War and afterward), filled with complex characters, who constantly surprise the reader by their actions, and—yes, finally—a painful reminder (in case we needed it) that in matters of diplomacy the United States rarely practices what it preaches. Which is only to say that the novel will be unsettling to most readers except for neo-cons who will gobble it up and beg for more. Moreover, because of his interest in cultures, Shacochis doesn’t write so much from the position of John le Carré as his predecessor, Graham Greene, with a little bit of Denis Johnson (particularly Tree of Smoke) tossed into the brew.
Haiti, Croatia, and Turkey all loom large in the plot, beginning with strange events in Haiti during the American invasion in 1996-1998. There’s a rather profound observation on the second page that pretty much sums up what we are about to encounter, though when we read the passage, we have no actual context about what will unfold: “History walks on all of us, lashed by time, and sometimes we feel its boot on our backs, and sometimes we are oblivious to its passing, the swing of sorrow and triumph through humanity, sorrow, and then, finally, crippling grief fading to obscurity, which is perhaps why Americans want little to do with history, why perhaps they hate it, why prayer comes easier than remembrance, which is how history knots its endless endings and measures the rise and fall of its breath.”
Tom Harrington, an American lawyer and a human rights advocate who has worked in Haiti, gets a phone call from a guy named Dolan, who once worked for the FBI. Dolan convinces Harrington to go with him to Haiti for a few days because his American client’s wife was murdered there. The negative observations about Haiti begin almost immediately, not reflective of Shacochis’s opinions but his somewhat sleazy characters. Haiti is “too fucked up even to throw a good war.” The country’s “post-functional, a free-range concentration camp.” It isn’t until the two men get to Haiti that Harrington realizes that the woman who has been murdered is someone he knew and had had a sexual encounter with, though at the time she had another name. So we follow Harrington as he tries to reconstruct what happened to this woman (aka Renee Gardner) after he knew her.
This is where things get dicey. Two years earlier, Harrington knew the woman as Dorothy, an amateur photographer who explained that she was interested in taking photos of Haitian vodou ceremonies for anthropological reasons. Subsequently, she asked him if it was possible for someone to lose their soul, and his response was that Haitians believed that people’s souls were often stolen by loup-garous (werewolves), implying that she had come to the right place. Harrington took her to several remote sites where she participated in the rites with little concern for her camera. The caveat about Dorothy was that she was the most beautiful woman that Harrington (and all the other men in the novel) had ever seen, frequently mistaken for a movie actress, way out of her element in Haiti, but, in fact, a truly lost soul. Then the next thing he knows (two years later) is that she has been murdered while riding in an automobile with her American husband in a remote part of the country.
Abrupt shift, with no resolution about why Dorothy/Renee has been murdered.
1944-1945, Dubrovnik, Croatia. During the atrocities at the end of WW II, when Yugoslovakia is being formed and folded into the Communist bloc, an eight-year-old boy, named Stjepan Kovacevic, whose family are Christians, watches as his father is beheaded in front of him by Tito’s Partisans, including Muslims (Turks actually). Then his mother is raped by the same men and, as the mother and son flee the country, Stjepan swears that he will avenge his father’s death. Mother and son manage to flee to Palestine and eventually to America.
Another abrupt shift: Istanbul, 1986. This is where things get raunchy. It takes us more than a hundred pages to realize that Dorothy (now with the last name Chambers, and seventeen years old) is Stjepan’s daughter. Her father is an American diplomat in counter terrorism; they have lived overseas most of her life, recently in Kenya and currently in Turkey. Her mother and brother reside in the United States, but Dorothy lives with her father in a most peculiar relationship. He’s given her enemas well into her teenage years; he frequently parades around in front of her naked; it appears that it will only be a matter of time before their relationship becomes incestuous. Dorothy adores him. At least until he uses her (disguised as a prostitute) as the bait to trap a Croatian diplomat. To reveal more would be unfair for the reader other than to note that the plan pretty much runs amuck. But what we do understand is that Stjepan, now known as Stephan Chambers, has begun placing his daughter in increasingly dangerous situations, and that she will eventually assist him in his counter intelligence activities, some of them highly questionable, resulting in activities with gung-ho characters who are part of America’s clandestine activities overseas, which mostly means offing presumed enemies of the state.
One brief passage will suffice to demonstrate Chambers’ rabid loathing of Muslims: “What in God’s name were we doing in Iraq? Saddam killed a million Iranians for us. He should have kept going, right through Kuwait to the peninsula. Muslims killing Muslims, my God, that was the beauty of Afghanistan after the Soviets left. All those weapons we gave the mujos, they turned on themselves.” Oh, that it were that simple. Thus, Dorothy/Renee did not exactly lose her soul to the devil but to her father and his increasingly cockamamie plans to right all the world’s wrongs.
The Woman Who Lost Her Soul is an important novel, likely to receive major attention and on-going discussion, both by the literati and in diplomatic circles. International intrigue, and the sexual proclivities of those involved in such activities, ought to provide the novel with many readers. Shacochis wants us to believe not only that people lose their souls (“Justice was the blood sport of kings, human rights were the toilet that powerful men shit in”) but that countries do, also. Not just countries, like Haiti, that have been written off as hopeless, unfixable, but the imperial, invading ones also, couched too often in duplicitous exceptionalism.
Bob Shacochis: The Woman Who Lost Her Soul
Atlantic Monthly Press, 720 pp., $28
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.