on June 8, 2011
This is labeled a novel, but that is stretching things. By his own admission, Haitian-Canadian author Dany Laferrière writes only about himself; this book is essentially a memoir of his return to Haiti after spending 33 years as an exile in Montreal. A memoir, moreover, written largely in verse, though short passages of prose increasingly break up that texture. Although written as sixty separately-titled poems -- chapters, trains-of-thought, call them what you will -- there is a narrative line of sorts. Awakened by in the middle of the night by news of his father's death in New York, the writer tidies his affairs in ice-bound Montreal, takes the train South to attend his father's memorial service, then flies to the heat and color of Haiti to break the news to his mother. She has remained in Port-au-Prince all these years after her husband's exile by Papa Doc Duvalier half a century before, only to see her son similarly forced into exile by the dictator's son, Baby Doc. And now his return.
This book, the 2009 winner of the prestigious Prix Médicis in France, has yet to be translated into English. It will not be an easy task. Not because the language is especially difficult; on the contrary, Laferrière writes in simple slightly idiomatic French, with an admirable directness of expression. But the very simplicity of the language, poetry that reads almost as prose (or vice-versa), leaves the translator no obvious stylistic or structural guidelines to mark the difference between flat fidelity and the author's finely-tuned evocation of the sights, scents, sounds, and people of his native land. There are charming moments, certainly: a cemetery painted in bright colors and primitive style by people for whom "la mort semble simple comme bonjour"; or . . .
La démarche indolente
pendant sa promendae du soir.
La nuit devient
But horrors also: street people roasting a cat on a spit while its owner calls "Mitzi" in the distance; a woman whose son dies at the side of the highway because cars won't stop for fear she may be a bait for robbers. The book is full of comments about things that change, things that stay the same, and that terrible Haitian history, turning it into a land to which one can truly belong only in exile. All seen through the eyes of this middle-aged Odysseus returning to an overcrowded Ithaca where poverty and beauty go hand in hand.
I have to say that there were sections in the middle of the book where I could not discern much direction. Laferrière meets up with person after person whose main interest in meeting him seems to seek "surtout la confirmation qu'ils ne sont pas morts." The prose thickens and pushes out the verse. But then at the very end, the opposite happens. Laferrière goes to Baradères, the little village on the coast where his father was born. The prose ends. The verse becomes more poetic, at one point even evoking Rimbaud. In the shade of a banana tree, time is suspended. Finally, a true arrival . . . but one that feels like a kind of farewell.
on October 17, 2010
Un homme reçoit un coup de fil au milieu de la nuit: son père est mort à New York, un père qu'il n'as pas vraiment connu. Il entreprend un voyage vers le Nord à partir de Montréal avant de se diriger vers le Sud, d'abord à New York pour les funérailles de son père et ensuite à Port-au-Prince où vivent encore sa mère, sa soeur, son neveu et d'autres.
L'écriture mêle vers libres et proses. Les critiques s'entendent qu'elle est originale. Moi, ce qui m'a attiré vers ce roman dès la première ligne, c'est la voix. Une voix très juste. Tellement juste que j'ai eu l'impression d'entendre une voix me lire le texte tout le long. Une voix qui observe, note, réfléchit et questionne. Tellement limpide qu'elle va droit au coeur. Elle nous emmène dans un Haïti qu'on ne connaîtra jamais: le pays d'un homme exilé par la force des choses, d'un homme qui a vécu plus de trente en exil dans un pays du Nord, d'un homme qui a connu la faim sans la connaître (lire le chapitre poignant intitulé "La faim")... , d'un homme avec une troublante limpidité de la voix et une grande acuité du regard.
Il faut toutefois dire que l'appellation "roman" sur la couverture est déconcertante. N'est-ce pas un récit autobiographique? Des fragments et des réflexions sous forme de vers libres et de prose? Au début, je cherchais le roman annoncé et je ne le trouvais pas.
Ce livre est à lire et à savourer lentement. Après sa lecture, vous ne regarderez plus Haïti de la même façon.
On his last day in Montreal, the "cold white city where I've known the strongest passions" and his "home" for several decades, Wilbert reflects on exile and loss:
"Exile in time is more pitiless / Than exile in space.
I miss / My childhood more intensely / than my country."
What must it feel like to return to the country of your birth and childhood that you have not visited and experienced in more than thirty years? And, that you had to leave in the dead of night after friends and associates disappeared or where found dead... Why go back at all, what will it mean? Told in the first person, Dany Laferrière has written this outstanding and strangely absorbing novel that appears to be an amalgam of imaginative fiction and subtly disguised real life memoir, set against his poetically evoked country of birth and youth: Haiti.
Surprisingly, the book opens with a long poem, introducing the reader from the outset to the author's inventive way of telling his story: alternating throughout between poetry and prose. I must admit that, not being a great fan of poetry, I was initially reluctant to immerse myself in The Return (L'Enigme de retour) when I first held the French original in my hands. Yet, once I started, I became very quickly and totally immersed in Laferriere's ways of writing with its mix of prose, relating encounters and events and poetry, evoking surroundings or reflecting on observations or emotions. The narrative flows seamlessly between the two styles, each with its own rhythms and different tone and 'feel' of language, yet harmoniously combined so that after a while you are no longer conscious of the poetry or prose sections. The novel has been exquisitely translated by David Homel.
Why go back? A phone call in the night brings the news that his father, who spend most of the son's life in exile, has died in New York. It is only the son who can bring the devastating news to the mother, left behind in her village. Wilbert embarks on the journey that takes him on a meandering path via New York to Haiti, cautiously rediscovering what he remembers of his childhood days, making connections first with strangers, exploring the city, Port au Prince, staying away from family and friends. Slowly, he connects again with his nephew and then his sister and, after reaching a certain comfort level, does he feel strong enough emotionally to visit his mother and, even later, search for his father's village and people. Both parents and their stories come alive in his memories and his poems.
The title of the French original conveys an important aspect of the novel that the English translation cannot: the "enigma" of returning. The evocation of mystery is prominent and the Wilbert's journey is as much into the known past as into the unknown present and future. In physical terms it is expressed through recognizing changed landscapes, changed circumstances of the people he knew. Yet, for me even captivating is the psychological level where the middle aged man has to confront his childhood longings, how he may be able to bring the past and the present into some form of balance and ultimately, who he is and where he should be. Where is home? [Friederike Knabe]