- The Talking Dead:Narrating the Past in Yanick Lahens's Bain de lune
Dead men tell no tales. However, in Haitian author Yanick Lahens's fourth novel, Bain de lune (2014), the voice of a recently murdered woman insists on being heard. What is remarkable in Bain de lune is not, however, that the dead do indeed tell tales but rather how the tale is told. In the novel, Lahens employs two narrative voices: the first-person (je) narrator, linked to the mutilated body of Cétoute Florival that washes up on the shore of a Haitian village, and the second-person plural (nous), which embodies an ambiguous collective of Haitian peasants and bourgeois landowners spanning time and space. These distinct narrative voices and the formal division between je and nous within the novel call into question conventional wisdom on the narrative capacity of the recently departed but also, and perhaps more importantly, illustrate the novel's active engagement with the past, as Bain de lune undermines traditional distinctions of past, present and future.
Recipient of the prestigious Prix Femina in 2014, Bain de lune traces the lives of two Haitian families through a narrative that spans from the US Occupation of Haiti in the early twentieth century to the present day. Adding breadth and complexity to a rich story, two distinct yet overlapping narrative voices unfold the history of the Lafleur and Mésidor families. To help manage the plurality of voices and myriad characters, the novel includes two paratextual elements. The first is a family tree spanning at least seven generations, and the second is a glossary of the Kreyòl terms and Vodou spirits that appear within the text. Ostensibly serving as guides for the reader, these elements send another message: Bain de lune is rooted in Haiti's history, and unpacking that history requires specific tools for uncovering the past. This article reveals and examines the narrative elements Lahens employs to engage Haiti's history. Specifically, I argue, the two distinct narrative voices offer a historical matrix that allows the novel to uncover Haiti's history in a way that challenges traditional historiographical practices. [End Page 119]
To fully appreciate the novel's position within contemporary Haitian literature, it is imperative to understand its lineage within the contexts of both Haitian literature and Lahens's previous works of fiction. More specifically, I consider the implications of what seems to be a return to the Haitian peasant novel amid post-earthquake literary production in Haiti. Furthermore, the fact that Lahens revisits characters and themes that appear in a short story titled "Bain de Lune," from 1999, reinforces the significance of a return to the past in the production of the novel. This double return surrounding the book's genesis works with the dual narrative voices employed in the novel to reveal an active, almost inescapable, engagement with the past and further uncover a complicated, ambivalent relationship to history. Contradicting previous notions of "pastlessness" within the Caribbean, Bain de lune reveals an overabundance of the past, perhaps highlighting the singularity of Haitian authors and their relationship to history as distinct from other Caribbean authors.1
Freak of History
Recent scholarship has focused on Haiti's position in a globalized framework, drawing attention to what the editors of a special edition of Contemporary French and Francophone Studies have called "a new understanding of Haiti's place in the world, and the world's place in Haiti."2 This special edition seeks to posit Haiti as an active player in a globalized world, suggesting that the nation should not be seen as an aberration, "a freak of history," but rather an integral part of the history of the Western world.3
If indeed Haiti is a central player in a globalized world, it has rarely played by the rules, often disrupting or outright discrediting Western discourses on statehood, revolution, and history. For instance, Michael T. Clark suggests, in the modern era of nation states, Haiti has never existed as a sovereign state but rather as "a field of power between the Haitian peasantry and the outside world."4 Furthermore, it has been observed that Haiti is...