on May 12, 2012
This is a BRILLIANT book. How to describe it? Part poetry, party novel, part meditation. Dany Laferriere uses language and form in a way that is unique and perfect for this work. The novel/memoir/poem begins with the author-narrator learning of the death of his estranged father in New York. Windsor Laferriere left Haiti in the 1960s, fleeing the persecution of Papa Doc Duvalier's brutal regime, just as Dany would later leave it in 1976, fleeing the similarly savage repression of Baby Doc Duvalier. Fathers and sons. Legacies of loss.
We follow the narrator to NYC, where he looks upon the body of the father he has not seen in fifty years, in his coffin. He begins to touch him, and then chooses not to, honoring the distance his father preferred. It's a heartbreaking moment, and there are many of them in this book.
While it's true that were I a poetry critic, perhaps I would find fault with the technical aspects of some of the poetry (Are some of the lines cliche? Are some of the images too abstract? Some of the line break arbitrary?). However, I am not a poetry critic, but rather a prose writer and novelist, and so I look at the work as a whole, as a narrative, and I judge it by it's capacity to move me, to broaden my empathy and to care about the characters. By this measure, it could not be more successful. This work is piquant with loss, spiced with longing. It is also political -- the discussion of hunger as the essential Haitian experience is powerful, as are the sections with his nephew, also named Dany. "We didn't know you were coming back," says his sister by way of explanation. "The exile loses his spot"
I was touched by the passages exploring the contrasts between Montreal winters (which I know very well) and the lush, almost suffocating tropical climate, and much of it contains wry humor. A young man the narrator meets speaks to him of Montreal and the lack of dictators there: "You don't live here? I came from Montreal. And there's no dictator there if I understand correctly. No, but there's winter. It's not the same thing. Of course not, I was joking. His face darkens. Is the winter so terrible up there? You have to go through it to understand it. So, it's subjective then? More like democratic."
THE RETURN is an elegant medication on exile, fathers and sons and identity. It also the story of mothers and sons, for the weight of the author's mother's continual grief is haunting. Laferriere questions his sister as to why his mother eats out of a blue plastic bowl when he has sent her a new set of dishes and a big box of silverware "that has never been removed from its packaging. She doesn't like it? On the contrary--it's her treasure. She takes it out once a month and cleans it. In the lamplight, her face is serene. She is still beautiful. She is wearing her face for special days. As soon as you leave, my sister tells me, she'll put her dark-day face back on.
I am overcome with such a feeling of remorse.
The feeling that everything is wasted.
My mother, and then my sister.
The woman have paid the price for this house."
Rips the heart out, that does. But along with the longing, loss and grief, there is also -- as is so typical of Laferriere -- humor. Consider the piece entitled, "In Praise of Diarrhea" for example. Then too, there is the wonderful section: "An Emerging Writer," in which the author talks with his nephew, who also wants to be a writer -- he thinks:
"To write a novel, I tell my nephew
with a sly smile,
what you really need is a good pair of buttocks
because it's a job
like the seamstress's
where you spend a lot of time sitting down.
You also need a cook's talents.
Take a large kettle of boiling water,
add some vegetables
and a raw piece of meat.
You'll put in the salt and spices later
before lowering the heat.
All the flavors will blend into one.
The reader can sit down to the feast.
It's like a woman's job,
my nephew points out, worried.
It's true you have to be able to change
into a woman, a plant or a stone.
All three realms are necessary.
Watching the vein in his temple beat that way, I know he's thinking fast. But you haven't explained the most important thing to me. What would that be? It's not just the story, it's how you tell it. Then what? You have to tell me how to do it. You don't want to write something personal? Of course. No one can tell you how to be original. There must be tricks that can help. It's always better if you discover them yourself. But I'll waste time. That's the point: time doesn't exist in this job. I feel like I'm all alone. And lost. What good is having an uncle who's a writer if he tells you he can't help you out? At least you know that much."
Finally, it seems to me Laferriere has created a collage of experiences and arranged them in a way that leads the reader through a haunting emotional landscape. In the author's own words, "I give importance to a minor event by ting it to a chain of events that are just as minor. I believe that stories aren't necessarily big or small but that they're all linked together. The ensemble forms a hard and compact mass that we can call, for convenience's sake, life."
I couldn't agree more. Although some readers may take a while to settle into the style and structure of this work, I urge you to make the effort, it will be well worth it. And, I would be remiss if I didn't congratulate translator David Homel -- he's done a hell of a job.