Flânerie, Tragedy

  • Dany Laferrière
    Tout bouge autour de moi. Mémoire d'encrier
Reviewed by Mark Harris

All of Dany Laferrière’s previous books have been written in the voice of a dandy, even if that voice has varied significantly from work to work. The author of Comment faire l’amour avec un négre sans se fatiguer was a droll cocksman, while the narrator of Chronique de la dérive douce was a cultivated but impoverished flâneur; the essayist behind Cette grenade dans le main du jeune négre est elle une arme ou un fruit? took positions on various issues of the day that were almost aristocratically idiosyncratic, whereas the atypical third person narration of La Chair du maître suggested a Marlow on the other side of the colour bar. The immature chronicler of Le goût des jeunes filles was wise beyond his Caribbean years, while the overworked novelist of Je suis fatigué was pretty close to the end of his ink-stained tether. As for the magic realist manufacturer of Je suis un écrivain japonais, ethnic identity had become a football which could dribbled with insouciant panache. Only in L’énigme du retour, an account of the author’s return to the island he had been forced to leave thirty-three years before, do we encounter a Laferrière with fewer disguises and masks (despite a number of haiku-like constructions that are redolent of Heian serenity, not to mention a certain degree of cultural dislocation, à la Aimé Césaire).

None of these personas are found in Tout bouge autour de moi, a book about the Haitian earthquake which the author witnessed at first hand. For once, one of life’s vicissitudes was sufficiently large to defy irony of every kind. This time out the gate, Laferrière had to take the role of reporter more seriously than he ever had before (which is ironic, in a way, since the man was a journalist long before he became a writer; not only that, he was a journalist brave enough to drive the Tonton Macoutes to hunt for his life).

Thus, Tout bouge autour de moi begins with a highly objective account of what Laferrière experienced when the earthquake struck. Facts are laid out as dispassionately as possible: “Une secousse de magnitude 7.3 n’est pas si terrible. C’est le béton qui a tué.” This said, Laferrière’s detachment from the events can’t help but be mitigated by the fact that he was actually there when the catastrophe struck (“Je ne savais pas que soixante seconds pouvaient durer aussi longtemps”). What’s more, Port-au-Prince is a city where family matters a great deal: “Autour de moi, les gens n’arrêtent pas de crier dans leur portable: ‘Où es ton frère?’ ‘Où est ta soeur. . . . ’” The titles of the short chapters into which this book is divided could not be more matter-of-fact: “LES PROJECTILES”; “LA NUIT”; “LA RADIO”; and “LES PREMIERS CORPS.” Laferrière himself was ensconced in a hotel that was less damaged than most, but even here life assumed the dimensions of a post-apocalyptic J. G. Ballard novel. “La salle de bains est située au dessous du restaurant. Personne, à part les employés de l’hôtel, ne s’était encore adventuré jusque-là. On a trouvé deux grandes serviettes blanches près de la piscine.”

Soon, however, the author returns to the subject matter that propels most of his work, the people in his life who mean something to him, this time with few, if any, disguises standing in the way. These include his mother and the aunts who raised him, old friends (some of whom had previously served as mentors), and a nephew with literary aspirations who does not entirely trust his uncle’s motivations: “J’aimerais que vous n’écriviez pas là-dessus” (a travel journal would be okay, it soon turns out, but not a novel about this degree of human suffering and loss).

While most of this book is set in Haiti, there are side trips to Montreal, Paris, and even Tallahassee that are equally instructive. Thus, the author’s wife makes one of her extremely occasional cameos, even though “[s]a seule obsession c’est de protéger sa vie privée. C’est rare que je parle d’elle en public, plus de cinq minutes.” As for his eldest daughter, it seems that she’s now studying francophone literature at an American university because “‘Les universités américaines sont bourrés de fric. . . . ’” Along the way, the author even manages to make offhand— but intensely interesting—comments on everything from Amos Oz to the truly unbounded Haitian passion for Brazil’s national soccer team.

It’s the friends and relatives who still live on the island, however, who are the real subject of this book: the quiet, stubborn, cantankerous, superstitious, and ultimately indestructible heroes who always make sure that Haiti survives, no matter what happens. Laferrière prides himself on not wearing his heart on his sleeve, but here he does just that. In a dry-eyed, dignified fashion, of course, but that aesthetic choice that only makes the half-concealed feelings of this former dandy all the stronger.

This review “Flânerie, Tragedy” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 214 (Autumn 2012): 171-72.

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