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A crusade to heal the world

Mountains Beyond Mountains: Tracy Kidder, Random House: 322 pp., $25.95

September 07, 2003|Herbert Gold | Herbert Gold is the author of several books, including "Haiti: Best Nightmare on Earth."

Manipulative and cunning in the service of his political and medical causes, a crusader against disease on a worldwide scale, Paul Farmer is an immensely complicated contemporary American. With his brilliance, charisma and effectiveness -- and his heedlessness -- Farmer offers a formidable subject for the prize-winning journalist Tracy Kidder.

Farmer sets a trap for Kidder, and part of the fascination of "Mountains Beyond Mountains" lies in wondering: By the end of the book, will Farmer be canonized or will Kidder slip out of the trap and offer judgment?

Kidder's generosity leads him toward canonization. He races around Haiti and the world, accompanying Farmer on his lunges toward fulfilling a vision of the Good, applying the familiar thoroughness that became his trademark in "Among Schoolchildren," a year in the life of an elementary school class, and in "The Soul of a New Machine," his story of a small company's race to build a computer. Kidder notes the damage, in the form of disappointed love and insulted friendships, Farmer caused by his persistent demands that others fulfill his own particular dreams.

The history of Haiti is filled with saviors, gurus and messiahs. It's brave of Kidder to place so much faith in the colorful figure of the self-sacrificing Dr. Farmer, who indeed treats the sick, stirs up trouble for the complacent, stimulates philanthropists, fights against the manipulations of American power. The best part of Farmer's philosophy is plain crazy American rage against injustice.

Farmer's soul seems to have been formed by an eccentric Catholic boyhood (his family lived in a school bus, a tent and a rickety boat), his scholarship days at Duke University and Harvard, the curiosity that led him to graduate work in anthropology, his contact with liberation theology and Marxism, and the maturing of a passion for righteousness combined with a gift for medicine.

What might have seemed like attention deficit disorder, mania or mere oppressive fanaticism was tamed by an extraordinarily agile mind and the ability to enlist others in impossible projects. Whatever blocked his path only spurred him to force his way through. Kidder chronicles the extraordinary degree of his success.

In Haiti in 1983, he found the blocked path that most challenged him. At that time, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, son of the monstrous Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, used to brag that he was bringing democracy to Haiti but never saw a contradiction in his title, President-for-Life. Organizing a health center in a desolate region, Farmer found the world that needed him most and, later, met Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the priest who seemed to fit his ideals. Aristide left the priesthood, became president, was overthrown in a coup and was brought back, thanks to American arms, in 1995.

But the guru on the pedestal did what gurus tend to do. Aristide had feet of clay; he poured water on his own feet, assenting to the murder of his opponents, lavishly rewarding his followers, not living up to his promises. The empty pedestal is still worshiped by the faithful; this book gives no indication of how Farmer, who still works in Haiti, deals with his friend's extreme devolution.

A fascinating undertow in this narrative is the tension between Kidder's will to believe and his journalistic skepticism. Kidder surrenders quickly, perhaps too quickly, in favor of an acolyte's enthusiasm for disheveled energy. He is clear-eyed enough to allow glimmers through the display of so much virtue, and one tender strand in the book is an account of a despairing love affair between Farmer and Ophelia, the daughter of Patricia O'Neal and Roald Dahl. (They seem to remain close friends even after he marries a Haitian woman who is willing to let him ignore her and follow his star.) It also comes as an unpleasant shock to Farmer to discover that he loves his own baby more than the stillborn child of a Haitian peasant. He describes this as "a failure of empathy." How a reader responds to "Mountains Beyond Mountains" may depend on where one stands on the spectrum of belief in guru saints. The example of Mother Teresa gushing over Baby Doc's wife -- noted by Kidder -- offers a cautionary note. (A woman who went to Haiti with Mother Teresa to work in her AIDS hospice told me, upon her return, that she hated "Mother" more than anyone she had ever met. The candidate for sainthood turned off the hot water in the hospice "because not everyone in Haiti has hot water.")

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