Time and Space in Dany Laferrière’s Autobiographical Haitian Novels
Dany Laferrière: A Special Section
Born in Haiti in 1953, exiled to Montreal in 1976, and living in Miami since 1990, Dany Laferrière has in the period 1985–1997 published nine books of fiction, all closely reflective of the shifting geographic center of his concerns and attention. Already in 1994, after the fifth novel, Jacques Pelletier could suggest that Laferrière’s production comprised two distinct groupings: “a critical and ironic description of America as perceived by a Caribbean black man; a nostalgic evocation of Haitian childhood, that paradise forever lost” (11). 1
To assign Laferrière’s eight first-person, broadly autobiographical novels and one multi-voiced book of short stories to one or the other of the Haitian or North-American sequences is a fairly straightforward task; the novelist’s literary oscillations between the two geographic and cultural poles signalled by Pelletier are easy to map. To the first or North-American manner, in chronological order of publication, belong Comment faire l’amour avec un Nègre sans se fatiguer (1985), Éroshima (1987), Cette grenade dans la main du jeune Nègre est-elle une arme ou un fruit? (1993), and Chronique de la dérive douce (1994). These novels deal with the immigrant experience of racial difference, degradation, and exclusion, and a subsequent movement towards self-affirmation through sex in the first instance, and writing in the second.
At the opposite pole stand Laferrière’s four Haitian novels: L’odeur du café (1991), Le goût des jeunes filles (1992), Pays sans chapeau (1996), and Le charme des après-midi sans fin (1997). Presenting certain continuities of theme, locale, point of view, and structure, they speak of Haiti as the formative space of the autobiographical narrator’s pre-exile years, and particularly as the theater of his emergence from sexual and political innocence. A fifth book in the Haitian sequence, La chair du maître (1997), stands apart from the four first-person novels in that the short stories of which it is composed are with one exception recounted at a greater degree of narrative remove from Laferrière’s actual experience. As their links with traceable elements of the author’s biography are more distant, La chair du maître will not be accorded detailed attention in the present study.
Despite the geographic polarization so clearly visible in Laferrière’s writing, commentators have pointed out that the line dividing the two manners in fact remains somewhat blurred. Indeed, Pelletier himself, having affirmed the difference, proceeds [End Page 930] to stress the narrative homogeneity of the autobiographical novels: “The two groupings are nonetheless indissolubly linked, unified by a similar point of view, astonished, lucid, and confident, of a world to be seized and conquered” (11). Further, the apparent distance between the geographic extremes is in some cases illusory. The dominant sequence of Le goût des jeunes filles, for example, which requires placing it in the Haitian group, takes the form of a film scenario entitled “Week-end à Port-au-Prince,” which in fact is imagined by the narrator as he soaks in his Florida bathtub. In a broader thematic sense as well, the overlap is unmistakable: the pervasive sexuality of the American sequence, still embryonic in L’odeur du café, is paramount in both Le goût des jeunes filles and La chair du maître. And finally, if the act of writing is central to Comment faire l’amour avec un Nègre sans se fatiguer and Cette grenade dans la main du jeune Nègre est-elle une arme ou un fruit?, it is also predominant in Pays sans chapeau. This foreshadowing and echoing of voices, themes, and locales throughout the range of Laferrière’s writing compel us to repair to the common ground of the author’s imagination and experience as the only terra firma which allows us to contextualize the dramatic variety of his fiction.
It would be fastidious to specify at every step in this study that a distinction is to be made between the author and his at least semi-fictitious first-person narrators. Laferrière himself has declared, “In my books, I take myself as a character and I mix up true and false situations, with no scruples whatsoever. I don’t try to tell the truth; I try to find the primary emotion. Who cares about truth? What truth? What is important is whether it touches us or not” (Laurin 62). Nevertheless, as will be demonstrated, the links between the life-stories of the author and his narrators are so extensive and so precise that in all instances the term “narrator” as applied here to these novels can be understood to mean Laferrière the author speaking about himself, although at times taking liberties with truth and reality.
In this sense, the nine books published to date by Laferrière make up parts of a whole, what the author himself has termed his as yet incomplete “American Autobiography” (Bordeleau, “Le fils . . .” 28), with the notion of “America” being accorded a very broad sense to include Canada, the United States, and Haiti. When the novels are considered thus as distinct chapters of a life chronicle, their geographic and cultural polarization takes on a new significance: the very act of relating the North American adventure presupposes the need to assemble a tableau of the Haitian formative milieu. Telling successively his emergence from childhood (L’odeur du café, Le charme des après-midi sans fin) and adolescence (Le goût des jeunes filles), and his return at maturity to the zone of discovery experienced as a young adult (Pays sans chapeau), the narrator probes the depths of past experience in order to circumscribe his present energetic, explosive identity and to found his creative urgings on an ever-present and continuously reaffirmed starting point. “I wrote Comment faire l’amour avec un Nègre sans se fatiguer to become famous and L’odeur du café to find myself,” Laferrière has stated. “They thought I was far away from Haiti but I was right there, in the thick of it. From the very beginning” (Demers 44). To the extent that Laferrière the North American writer has in fact been changed by absence, he nonetheless retains a desire to exercise the option of total, integrative return: “I want nothing to have changed during my absence. I would like to take my place again furtively among my [End Page 931] own people, as if nothing had happened, as if I had never left them. But at the same time, I don’t deny my departure” (Pays 93). It is this normal wish for an all-encompassing repossession of lost time and space that inspires the autobiographical project of the adult writer in exile.
Although at the present time Laferrière is attracting increasing critical attention, a current list of substantial studies of his work is not long (Berrouet-Oriol, Lamontagne, Naudin, Prophète, Purdy, Vassal). Further, this critical writing has concentrated principally on the novels of the American sequence, especially Comment faire l’amour avec un Nègre sans se fatiguer (Berrouet-Oriol, Lamontagne, Naudin, Purdy, Vassal). At the same time, while some writers of reviews and other short studies have praised specific qualities of the Haitian sequence (Demers, Marcotte, Pelletier), a certain amount of criticism has tended to be dismissive of this simpler, more bucolic and nostalgic writing. Naudin, for example, studying the four North American novels in 1995, brushes aside in a footnote Laferrière’s two Haitian novels published by that time, and declares: “Laferrière is not to be classified with [other exiled Haitian novelists] weighed down by their memories, by their nostalgia for the native island [sic] with its past and present problems” (48). Jonassaint, reviewing L’odeur du café, speaks of it as “a childhood novel in the style of children’s stories: fragmented, repetitive, subjective” (21). Of the same book, Sileika reports: “It is a simple and intermittently charming story told by a ten-year-old boy in a voice that is convincing enough for a child that age” (53). Reports such as these, however, tend not to take into account the wider context of Laferrière’s writing, and concentrate on specific, rather limited impulses or episodes. Furthermore, with respect to Sileika’s comment in particular, it must be recalled that, as is usually the case with autobiographical portrayals of childhood, the story is in fact being told by an adult narrator years after the events: L’odeur du café, despite its apparent simplicity, is part of a complex network of fictionally recreated chronologies and spaces that, taken together, form a much larger autobiographical picture. The same comment applies, of course, to the other novels in the Haitian series.
Bearing in mind Laferrière’s overall autobiographical project, it is not surprising that both Haitian and the North American novels deal with carefully delineated time periods in the writer’s personal history. As a group, the Haitian novels, with which we are concerned here, permit the recreation of a discontinuous time-line leading from the narrator’s middle childhood up to (but not including) the events that preceded his departure from Haiti in 1976. Further, they contain a multitude of specific signposts which point both to events in Laferrière’s own life and to the broader sequence of happenings in the world about him. Nevertheless, the novels were not written following the chronological order of the reconstructed sequence of episodes. Rather they reflect the order in which the narrator recollects past events, with the fourth novel picking up where the first one leaves off, following the [End Page 932] development of later events in the second and the third. This particular chronological order in the Haitian series clearly emphasizes critically important persons, events, and environments, as viewed by the mature, cosmopolitan, and successful writer.
The first novel in the sequence, L’odeur du café, was published in the third trimester of 1991. According to the narrator’s affirmation, the action is set in the summer of 1963 (Odeur 11), the year in which Laferrière himself turned ten on April 13 (Éroshima, chronologie 145). The narration is not continuous, however, as the novel includes flashbacks to events such as the death of the narrator’s grandfather (39–41) and references to even earlier family history. The concluding chapter, in which the narrator explains his reasons for writing the text, bears the title “The Book (Thirty Years Later)” (200), and establishes the period of the narrator’s recollection. However, again taking into account the book’s autobiographical character, we must understand the number to be approximate, since Laferrière wrote the novel in Miami in late 1990 or 1991 over a period of a month (Demers 44, 50), which is to say from 27 to 28 years after the events.
The imagined film sequence in the second Haitian novel, Le goût des jeunes filles, leaps ahead eight years to “the end of the month of April 1971” (Goût 37), during a weekend leading up to François Duvalier’s death (206). Although the dictator’s demise is announced in the novel on a Monday, in reality the declaration was issued on Thursday 22 April, the morning after his death on April 21 (Globe  1). The discrepancy is slight, and can be explained by the author’s decision to have the film sequence take place over a weekend, as indeed it must (the title of the film being “A Weekend in Port-au-Prince” [Goût 33]), and also perhaps an understandable lack of concern for historical accuracy to such a point. In any case, Laferrière had just turned eighteen at the time of these important events.
The setting for the imagining of the film scenes by the autobiographical narrator in his bathtub is laid out in two preliminary chapters entitled “Opus I” and “Opus II” (Goût 11–32). In these chapters, the narrator states his age as thirty-nine (25–26), and draws attention to the period of “twenty years” (11) or “almost twenty years” (27) that has elapsed since the action portrayed in the film. As Laferrière turned thirty-nine in April 1992, and as the novel was published before the end of the year, the events of the preliminary chapters presumably take place between mid-April and late summer of 1992.
With respect to the dating of the third novel, Pays sans chapeau, whose “achevé d’imprimer” is given as 7 May 1996 (226), the published evidence is conflicting. Writing in the Montreal Gazette in June 1996 of her interview with Laferrière, Janet Bagnal states that the author’s six-week return visit to Haiti, the basis for the action described in the novel, took place in 1995 (H 1). This seems reasonable, as Laferrière would have been able to complete the visit and submit his manuscript in time for printing to be completed by May 1996. However, in the novel itself, the narrator, who has just arrived in Haiti and is actually composing the text during his visit, declares, “Today, I am forty-three years old” (29). Laferrière himself turned forty-three on 13 April 1996, little more than three weeks before the novel was printed! Further, he states, “My grandmother left for the country without a hat already four years ago” (23). Since we are told elsewhere by Laferrière that Da died on 17 October 1992 [End Page 933] (Charme 201), it is unlikely that he would have used the figure of four years, even approximately, before the beginning of 1996. We may thus conclude that Laferrière in fact advanced the age of the narrator in the novel by at least several months to make it coincide with his own close to the time of publication.
It may be noted in addition that the scenes of Port-au-Prince during the mature narrator’s visit are interspersed with references to experiences shared with his companions, notably Philippe, Manu, and Antoinette, during the period of their young adulthood lying between the events of Le goût des jeunes filles and leading up to Laferrière’s departure from Haiti in 1976. This novel is thus exceptional in that the primary narrative sequences, expressed in present tense, imply a leap ahead in time, with only secondary episodes in the novel appearing as flashbacks.
The events of Le charme des après-midi sans fin, the latest novel in the set of four, take place after 1963, the year portrayed in L’odeur du café, and are presented in a form and style strongly reminiscent of those of the first novel. The affinities between the two texts are certainly intentional, and reflect the narrator’s design, in the second book, to extend the experiences related in the first. With respect to the precise time period described in the later work, the narrator refers to certain events of L’odeur du café as having taken place “last year” (28, 64). Further, we are told by the narrator that many of the individuals depicted in Le charme des après-midi sans fin had already died before the end of 1964, during an epidemic of malaria which followed the passage of Hurricane Flora (201) (the latter event having occurred in October 1963). It is clear, therefore, that Laferrière is referring to the summer of 1964, in which he was eleven years old, and this despite his declaration to Dominique Demers that he “confronted Port-au-Prince at the age of twelve” (50), a momentous event immediately preceded by the narrator’s definitive departure from Petit-Goâve described in the penultimate chapter of Le charme des après-midi sans fin. Finally, the act of recollecting the events narrated in the novel takes place during a period of time running up to the narrator’s return visit to Petit-Goâve on 11 August 1997 “just before sending this book to [his] publisher” (201).
In each novel, then, events of a particular period of the narrator’s Haitian past are recounted from the viewpoint of a specific moment some time later, when Laferrière himself, with whom, once again, the narrator is indissolubly identified, was already living in North America. The order in which the four Haitian novels were published reflects the chronological sequencing of the primary narrative components: the narrator in each novel situates the telling of the stories at a time shortly preceding (or, in the case of Pays sans chapeau, coinciding with) the actual dates of submission of the manuscript by the author and subsequent publication. Further, the publication dates of the novels constitute a sequence which follows that of the primary narrative components (1990–1991–1992, early 1996, early 1997) and which is linear in form.
At the same time, the chronological order of the secondary narrative sequences of the novels, those sections devoted to the description of past events by the narrator and which determine the main centers of fictional interest (Pays sans chapeau again excepted), is quite different. From 1963 in L’odeur du café, to 19–22 April 1971 in Le goût des jeunes filles, to about 1973–1975 in Pays sans chapeau, to 1964 in Le charme des après-midi sans fin, the time-line actually bends back upon itself. The secondary narration of [End Page 934] Le charme des après-midi sans fin appears as the extension of that of L’odeur du café, being tenuously joined to it by means of the references to 1963 contained in the relation of events of 1964.
The explanation for this departure from strict chronology lies in the power of Grandmother Da’s presence in the mature narrator’s reminiscences of his childhood. In the second novel, he strives to experience and communicate the same immediate, vivid, and visual image of Da that he used to introduce the character in the first one. While in the postscript chapter of Le charme des après-midi sans fin the narrator affirms, “I wrote this book for just one reason: to see Da once again” (201), we are reminded of the images used to introduce the microcosm of L’odeur du café in that novel’s second paragraph: “Try to stop at number 88, rue Lamarre [in Petit-Goâve]. It’s very possible that you may see, sitting on the verandah, an old lady with a serene and smiling face beside a little boy ten years old. The old lady is my grandmother. You have to call her Da. Just Da. And I am the child” (Odeur 11). Just as for Proust and Eliot, the end for Laferrière really is the beginning: the conclusion of the Haitian sequence, as it is presently constituted, is precisely the point at which, with the first glimmerings of adult awareness, the narrator pulls away from an amorphous early childhood in order to confront a sterner order.
Closely related to Laferrière’s use of interwoven chronologies in the Haitian novels is his representation of the multiple spaces in which the constitutive episodes take place. We have seen that the disjointed sequence of events recounted at a secondary degree of remove (in which the narrator relates his recollected past) find their place in the more orderly linear chronology of the more immediate and recent autobiographical primary narrations. This primary order is of great importance, as it reflects the author’s structuring of the remembered past according to the priorities of his present concerns.
In a like manner, the spaces described in the novels are structured, ordered, and emphasized as the result of a similar interplay between present situations and recollected displacements and progressions. The innumerable microcosmic spaces evoked in the Haitian novels take their place along a sort of macrospatial axis that simultaneously extends from the principal sites of the action back into the imagined localities of family prehistory and ahead, through the looking-glass, into both the uncertain and vertiginous world of the narrator’s North American future and, curiously, a dreamy Haitian world beyond reality described in Pays sans chapeau. Like fruit distributed along a branch, the myriad locations of the individual episodes of these novels take their places along this macrocosmic axis.
Space in Laferrière’s Haitian novels is indeed a highly fragmented medium: a catalogue of the distinct places named and described in his writing, with which individual narrative segments are associated, would be lengthy indeed. This fragmentation of the semi-fictional universe is reflected in the visually segmented character [End Page 935] of Laferrière’s writing, which with few exceptions is divided into short passages (very frequently less than a page), each generally with its own subtitle, the short passages in turn being arranged in larger groupings. The most extreme example in the Haitian sequence in this respect is the first novel, L’odeur du café, its 200 pages being divided into seven major sections which in turn contain 38 chapters made up, again in turn, of a total of 261 unnumbered, subtitled microsegments. Despite their sequential arrangement, in which each generally relates to the preoccupation of the chapter and section in which it falls, individual microsegments nonetheless retain a high degree of thematic insularity and stylistic coherence. These qualities are considered by Pelletier to be reflective of journalistic writing, a form in which Laferrière has of course extensive personal experience:
On a stylistic level, [Laferrière] practices writing that is shot through with orality, borrowing the rhythmic qualities of jazz and blues. This gives his writing a syncopated, elliptic character, very light, very rapid, where our gaze slides effortlessly over a smooth surface, void of irregularities, threading rapidly together a series of vignettes centered on fleeting moments, vanished and evaporated as soon as they are suggested. His writing is similar . . . to reporting, where one reality chases another with a narrative logic that obeys the laws governing the universe of the news flash and the video clip.(12)
The other novels in the sequence, although similar to L’odeur du café in length, are marked by fewer textual divisions. Nevertheless, segmentation is still a noteworthy characteristic of the writing. Le goût des jeunes filles (207 pages) contains three major sections divided into 42 subdivisions made up of 54 microsegments, while Pays sans chapeau (225 pages) is made up of 25 chapters set out in five major divisions comprising a total of 150 subdivisions. Le charme des après-midi sans fin (201 pages), however, is more simply organized, with 113 microsegments arranged in four major textual sequences. In each case, individual passages tend to be devoted, as Pelletier has noted, to the description of a fleeting moment of experience, frequently associated with a particular place in the larger spatial continuum.
In order to describe, first of all, the macrospace within which the numerous minor loci of all four novels are arranged, it is useful to recall the narrative ploy upon which each novel is founded, and its relation to the principal spaces represented. L’odeur du café and Le charme des après-midi sans fin share the same basic narrative structure in that these stories of childhood are told by the adult narrator, living in the United States at the time of their composition, and yet seemingly untouched by the tensions revealed in the novels of Laferrière’s North American sequence. Here, the image is one of a unidimensional looking back, a pure recollection of childhood events lived out in the small coastal town of Petit-Goâve to the west of Port-au-Prince. Within these two novels, Petit-Goâve is in a sense suspended between two important spatial poles named but not actually visited: the village of Les Palmes, on the one hand, and Port-au-Prince on the other. While Les Palmes is associated with the family’s past and manifests its metonymic presence in Petit-Goâve in a remarkably pungent way, the [End Page 936] capital imposes on the village a violent, destructive tyranny, indicative of realities which, later in the Haitian sequence, become part of the narrator’s direct experience.
It is to the distinct world of the capital that the narrator moves in the other two Haitian novels, Le goût des jeunes filles and Pays sans chapeau. Describing Port-au-Prince at different periods of the narrator’s life, the two novels taken together reveal a somewhat ambiguous tableau of the city. The secondary narrative sequence of the first novel, set in the capital, is recounted, as we recall, by the adult narrator lounging in his American bathtub. Guns and violence, sex and forbidden caresses: such are the essential ingredients of the colorful scenes viewed by the narrator in his youth both freely moving about the streets and other public places in the city, and later hiding in a house located across the street from the gentler world of his mother’s home. In Pays sans chapeau, the narrator, now an adult visitor returning to Haiti, finds himself once more staying with his mother in Port-au-Prince, but this time, as he experiences anew her maternal attentions, after an absence of twenty years, the narrator’s wanderings take him alternately into the real world of his own past remembered and to a world beyond reality, a Haitian world in dream-time inhabited by Vodou gods and goddesses.
From Les Palmes through Petit-Goâve to Port-au-Prince, the major axis of the narrator’s geographic progression in Haiti mirrors the actual sequence of periods in his life; from the primordial perfection of family prehistory through the ambiguities of childhood and adolescence, and culminating in his return to the equivocal Haiti of a restored President Aristide, the narrator discovers, and then rediscovers the land of his birth.
At the beginning of L’odeur du café, the narrator mentions that Petit-Goâve is located but “a few kilometers from Port-au-Prince” (11). Although the actual interval of some 60 kilometers between the two locations is greater than that implied in the novel, the psychological distance between them is in fact even greater. The overwhelming presence of the great Tapion mountain (“le terrible morne Tapion” ) to the east of Petit-Goâve reinforces the relative isolation of the town from the capital. Moreover, Laferrière has reported that the perilous trip by truck actually took some eight hours: “The road was really dangerous. You risked your life if you took it. It was filled with holes and skirted [deep] ravines” (Demers 50).
The novel contains numerous references to nearby communities lying along this horizontal east-west coastal axis: Miragoâne and Petite-Guinée to the west, La Hatte, Grand Goâve, and Léogane to the east. Those located closest to Petit-Goâve are in fact visited by the narrator, as they lie within walking or cycling distance (Odeur 14, 114–16). The more distant are present only as names, with Petit-Goâve remaining, as is generally the case with the locality of our childhood, the center of the narrator’s formative universe.
If the east-west axis is one punctuated by real, accessible locales, to the north and south lie places of special interest on another plane, the most important of these being the hill town of Les Palmes to the south. Although the narrator does not in fact visit the town (located, in reality, only some 15 kilometers distant), it is a place of primary significance as the source of the famous coffee of the novel’s title. Clearly evocative of a now inaccessible perfection, this remarkable brew brings to Petit-Goâve a [End Page 937] metonymic presence of the distant town: “One day, I asked Da to explain paradise to me. She showed me her coffee pot. Da prefers the coffee from Les Palmes to all others because of its aroma. The aroma of the coffee from Les Palmes. Da closes her eyes. The aroma makes me dizzy” (Odeur 16). Noteworthy in the passage is the slide from past tense to present, a transformation which stresses simultaneously the hallucinatory and transcendental nature of the olfactory experience, qualities reminiscent, as Prophète has pointed out (309), of Proust’s involuntary memory.
To the north of Petit-Goâve, across the sea in the opposite direction, lies the misty island of La Gonave, source of salt and mahogany (Odeur 133), to which a group of mariners sets out in the morning, praying for protection to Agwe, the Vodou god of the sea, and from which they return later in the day (133, 136). Like Les Palmes, the island is a mystic, unreal place, the object of the child’s wonderment. Further, it is not surprising that the sea itself is depicted as a mysterious and dangerous medium, associated with strange myths and inexplicable fears. Just offshore from the town a monstrous “sea dog” patrols the shallows. In an extended sequence, the narrator reveals that the creature is none other than a transmuted form of the dog that the dead Gédéon once possessed in life, and which he now sends forth from the world beyond to punish his still-living enemies (143–48).
The undisputed geographic center of the action of the novel is, however, located precisely on the verandah of Da’s house, where the ten year-old narrator spends much of his time during that summer of 1963 being nursed through a bout of malaria: “I had to lie in bed for the whole summer holiday. Da let me stay on the verandah . . .” (12). It is here also that Da sits, enthroned on her “solid chair from Jacmel” (42), receives her visitors, and engages in discussions with her grandson. From the verandah, the narrator can both see the surrounding mountains, “bald and smoking” (12), and watch “a red sun plunge gently into the turquoise sea” (12). More than just a part of home, it is truly a window on the universe.
Inside the house, only a few select rooms are mentioned: the bedroom, the dining room (“Da’s domain” ), the “grande salle” at the front of the house where, in the past, the narrator’s grandfather stored his sacks of coffee during the time his business still prospered (28), the “black living room” which is “the only mysterious room in the house” and where the narrator has nightmares (31). These rooms are mentioned only because of their relationship with the narrator’s discoveries through dreamy observation or dialogue. They reappear periodically throughout the novel (and later in Le charme des après-midi sans fin) as progressively the various constituent parts of the town, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, are fit together.
Elsewhere in the Petit-Goâve, a number of other special spaces radiate out from Da’s house, with the principal axis extending down the street in front of the house to the port area, into which the narrator is initiated by his grandfather (132) and by Willy Bony, the local customs official (133–36). A location of crucial importance in this regard is the school, where, after hours, the narrator furtively penetrates with his daring friend Auguste and experiences a bizarrely comic initiation to sex by plunging his penis into an inkwell while sprawling on a desk: “Auguste tells me that that’s the way you do it with girls. A girl’s sex: a black hole with liquid inside. A blue liquid” (Odeur 77). The association of initiation with school is a common one in literature; the [End Page 938] linking of the act of writing with sex foreshadows in a memorable way one of the underpinnings of Laferrière’s whole North American fictional sequence.
The exploration and discovery of Petit-Goâve, begun in L’odeur du café, are pursued in the Le charme des après-midi sans fin. The town’s cemeteries are touched upon briefly in the earlier text, where the narrator learns that they are the residence of the terrible Baron Samdi, the Vodou “master of the dead” who works his fearsome will among the living (Odeur 83). However, they now take on greater importance as the narrator is a year older and more attuned to more dramatic aspects of human existence. In a society permeated by Vodou beliefs, the cemetery is not just a depository for the dead. The children’s cemetery in Petit-Goâve, to which the narrator repairs with his friends Rico and Frantz, is the site of momentous discoveries of a world beyond that which is concrete and visible. When a rainstorm erupts, the boys seek refuge in the home of old Nozéa across the street. The woman recognizes Frantz, lists his genealogy, and declares that even at the present time she is on familiar terms with his long-dead grandfather (Charme 68). This familiarity with the other world is further emphasized when she announces that she is the fiancée of Baron Samdi: “The day I dance in his arms will be the most beautiful day of my life” (69). In a passage suggestive of the malaria epidemic of 1964 to which Laferrière refers at the end of the book, she prophesies that Rico will die of “a terrible illness” (69), while later she predicts, not surprisingly, that the narrator will travel far before returning home to die in Petit-Goâve (70–71). Finally, Nozéa reveals that Frantz is possessed by a spirit whom she addresses as “papa” and who inspires in her “a sacred terror” (70). “Yes, papa. . . . Excuse me for having disturbed you. Yes, yes, yes . . . Yes, papa . . .” (70), she stammers, speaking not to the boy but to the spirit within. Although the respectful form of address “papa” is habitually added to the name of Vodou gods, it is also of course part and parcel of the nickname of President François Duvalier, who affected a costume suggestive of the traditional attire of Baron Samdi in order to associate with himself the terrorizing qualities of the god. The cemetery is thus a privileged place for the initiation of the children not only into traditional beliefs but also into their presence and active role within contemporary Haitian society.
Other locations in the town are similarly associated with the acquisition of deeper understanding. The town’s port area is the setting for evening walks to escape the heat, but also for flirtations (35–37). The school yard is the scene of an epic boxing match between Lipcius, the bully from the state school, and Batichon, the drunken champion of the narrator’s Catholic school (57–60). Rivalries thus begin to take on the overtones of wider social and cultural conflict. Similarly, Saint-Vil Mayard’s barber shop is better known as the place where town notables assemble to play chess. In fact, Petit-Goâve is not just the Haitian chess capital: “Certain people . . . claim that Saint-Vil Mayard’s barber shop is the nerve center for the game of chess in the whole Caribbean” (32). More importantly, though, the game brings together representatives of opposing political and social factions. An epic match between the prefect of police Montal and the government commissioner (“the battle between the executive and judiciary promises to be bloody,” declares the wise notary Loné ) prefigures the political strife which casts its shadow over the second part of the novel (83–163).
In this troubled section, the town takes on an entirely new character as government [End Page 939] forces, headed by the sinister Montal, declare a curfew which empties the streets of the town’s inhabitants and confines them at midday within the darkness of their shuttered homes. “In a few minutes all the houses will be closed up as if it were midnight” (127), cries the narrator as the normal order is turned topsy-turvy. A Vodou priest named Nèg-Feuilles (in Kreyòl, “nèg-fèy” [“leaf-man”] designates a country hick or yokel; here it recalls the expression “doktè-fèy,” indicating a traditional herbal healer) has already, in the way of a seer, warned Loné of difficult times: “Loné, there are serious things on the way these days. The sky is low, the clouds are heavy, and the sharks are circling close to shore” (91). In the end, there are massive arrests, and a man, significantly named Prophète, is beaten into unconsciousness and dumped onto Da’s verandah (138–40) by the mocking and cruel militiamen.
At the conclusion of the novel, the strife destroys the narrator’s idyllic existence and propels him into the living hell of Port-au-Prince portrayed in the next novel in the sequence, Le goût des jeunes filles. References to the corrupt character of the capital, absent from L’odeur du café, abound, ironically, in the Le charme des après-midi sans fin, where they paradoxically recall events of Laferrière’s earlier novels and at the same time constitute a foreshadowing of events in the narrator’s later life. The town judge in Le charme des après-midi sans fin, who bears the fitting name Auguste, declares, “Those people in Port-au-Prince have never had any respect for the law. They think they are above the law” (Charme 101). And when violence erupts in the town, Da and her friend Fatal agree that the crackdown has been ordered by a higher authority; “Port-au-Prince,” mutters Da (137). In a sense, then, the capital city represents the opposite pole in Haiti to the paradise lost of Les Palmes. In the novel as in reality, the metropolis draws all of Haiti inwards, enveloping it in a cloak of deprivation and terror.
In Le goût des jeunes filles, Port-au-Prince indeed takes on a full demonic character, especially when it is contrasted with the gentler world of L’odeur du café. However, its devilishness is introduced in a curiously ironic way in two introductory chapters which set out the narrative framework of the novel and preface the film script which itself makes up some 85% of the entire text. The title of the first of these chapters, “Twenty years later, a little house in Miami,” specifies the time and place of the preparatory action. Spaces successively occupied in these two chapters are of the utmost importance in determining the form of the following sequence.
The narrator in 1992 has come to his aunts’ home in Miami to pick up a parcel containing a book of poems by the Haitian poet Magloire Saint-Aude, mailed by his mother from Port-au-Prince. “The old copy from my adolescence” (24), he remarks. It is precisely the book from which he reads in the novel’s film sequence, set in 1971, during a weekend spent in hiding from Duvalier’s secret police in a house across the street from his mother’s. Each of the thirty-nine scenes of the film script is introduced by a line of poetry by Saint-Aude, who, as the narrator says, “remained Duvalier’s friend right up until his death” (28). Indeed, they both signed Le manifeste des griots, a text which, in the narrator’s words, is “the Caribbean equivalent of Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf” (28). Paradoxically, references to the sublime surrealist poet with links to the ferocious Duvalier dictatorship thus punctuate the whole novel and lead us, through poetry, into an explicit relation of the horrors of Duvalierism as lived by the narrator. [End Page 940]
Although the book of Saint-Aude’s poems supplies a link between the two episodes, it is not the only one. A photograph and two telephone calls mentioned in the introductory chapters further remind him of the fateful weekend and serve to launch the film sequence. “I am an aquatic being” (23), he observes, and in a room in “The Southern most motel [sic]” (32) on Key West, at the American latitude closest to that of Haiti, he prepares his dream: “I run the water. And I slip gently into the tub. I like being enclosed inside the tank. In the fetal position. Nobody knows where I am. I’m in America and that’s all. My life has become so simple that it concerns only one person. Myself” (32). Floating in the womb-like enclosure, his human existence and American experience reduced to minimal forms, the narrator is free to elaborate his dreamy recollection.
In the film, the young narrator lives with his mother and four aunts in a house on an unnamed street in Port-au-Prince (although in Pays sans chapeau the narrator refers to his mother’s former residence in the capital as being located in the rue Lafleur-Duchêne ). Longingly, in the way of shy young men, from his upper-floor bedroom window he observes the comings and goings in the house across the street, occupied by a ravishing nineteen-year-old femme entretenue named Miki. Between the houses, a neutral zone, through which cars swish past (38) and late afternoon torrential rains create a temporary inundation (111–13).
Flirting with disaster in a city whose streets are ruled by Duvalier’s monstrous “tonton makout,” the narrator engages in dangerous escapades with his ugly, violent, and cruel companion Gégé. One Friday night, having narrowly escaped being shot by an enraged “makout,” he is joined by Gégé, who takes hideous revenge on his friend’s aggressor by supposedly castrating the “makout.” (Unbeknownst to the narrator, the testicles which Gégé shows to him are made of wood, and the blood is just red ink .) Thinking he is in real danger, the narrator realizes he cannot return home, and seeks refuge instead in the “paradise” (38) across the street, where he remains in hiding until Monday morning.
Miki’s friends include five young women, some older and some younger than the narrator but all close to him in age, who lead the good life in the capital and flirtatiously parade before the bewildered narrator in various states of enticing dress and undress. No strangers to the ways of men, power, violence, and desire, their companions include, ironically, two notorious “tonton makout” named Papa and Frank, from whom the narrator should by rights be trying to flee. No doubt the pinnacle of the weekend’s initiatory experience for the narrator is reached when he is luxuriantly seduced by one of the women (183–85), in what is probably his first sexual experience (Laferrière himself having declared, “At seventeen I myself had never kissed a girl” [Chartrand D2]). This scene, together with that relating his visit in a nightmare to Fort Dimanche, Duvalier’s torture chamber and death house (151–56), constitute the high points of the secondary narration in this novel, and underscore the crucial importance of Miki’s home as a place of initiation for the narrator.
By contrast, the narrator’s home across the street, linked with the simpler world of childhood, is a haven of order and serenity. He lives there with his mother and four aunts, who together make up what amounts to a quintuple maternal presence, with all the tenderness and solicitude that such an arrangement entails. In scene XXXI (157–61), [End Page 941] watching his mother from his vantage-point across the street as she tidies his own bedroom, the narrator enumerates those furnishings which fall into his field of vision: the bed, the desk, the chest of drawers given to him by Da “when [he] left Petit-Goâve to go to school in Port-au-Prince” (158). Unseen but nonetheless recalled, the table and basin of water prepared by Aunt Renée (158), and the photograph of his father. The present view of these objects, arrayed in an orderly, familiar space, in turn trigger a series of broader thoughts on the family and its past. As his gaze penetrates through the open window of his bedroom across the street, he contemplates from the den of iniquity he presently occupies scenes reflective not only of an alternative, innocent present, but also of important episodes of family history, especially those concerning his father, now living in exile just as Laferrière himself would do six short years later. In a sense, then, the narrator in Miki’s house plays out on a microcosmic scale the drama lived by Laferrière himself in North America, nostalgically viewing his own Haitian history while simultaneously engaging in an unsettling process of self-discovery in the foreign culture.
Le goût des jeunes filles, in this respect different from Laferrière’s other Haitian novels, contains scenes which take place in the narrator’s absence, in the bars and restaurants frequented by Miki’s circle of friends. These scenes serve to reveal episodes of which the narrator is of course quite unaware at the time, involving the members of Miki’s group. Readers must assume that it is the mature narrator who imagines these scenes and constructs them as fictions. Again, it is the devilish side of Port-au-Prince that is stressed in these passages. In the restaurant portrayed in scenes VII–IX (62–73), the waiter is nicknamed Doc. When it is recalled that the young women are being driven about by their “makout” friend Papa in his black, air-conditioned 1957 Buick (dating, coincidentally, from the year of Papa Doc’s rise to the presidency), the reminders of the ferocity of Duvalier’s dictatorship are striking.
At the close of the novel, the dangers are neutralized: Gégé’s ghastly subterfuge is revealed, and the son is once again safe in his mother’s arms. And again, the house across the street becomes the object of the narrator’s longing gaze: “I’m leaning against my bedroom window. I’m looking across to Miki’s. I imagine myself over there. A shadow behind Miki’s window. I was actually there, hardly an hour ago” (207). Leaping further back into the past, he adds: “I was here, three days ago, just before joining Gégé in hell. Last Friday.” Thus, briefly reiterated, the chronology of recent events is coupled with a contrasting evocation of the three paramount spaces of the novel (“here,” “there,” “hell”). With an almost classical respect for the unities of time and place, Laferrière tells of a watershed experience of his late adolescence. The coincident paths to maturity and exile open wide before him.
Spatial relations in Pays sans chapeau are considerably more complex than in the two Petit-Goâve novels or even in Le goût des jeunes filles, with space in Pays sans chapeau presenting an exaggerated multidimensionality that is typical of none of the three other books. Already wealthy and famous, the narrator returns in triumph to Port-au-Prince in 1996 to visit his mother and Aunt Renée (who greet his arrival with precisely the same words, “Glory be to God eternal!” , as those saluting his apparent resurrection at the end of Le goût des jeunes filles [204–5]). In the second Port-au-Prince novel, however, the narrator emphasizes quite a different face of the city. [End Page 942]
It is worth noting that during his wanderings in the capital this time, displacements along a vertical axis are of far greater importance. Met by his mother and aunt at the airport, he travels with them by taxi to his mother’s present home situated high up on the Nelhio mountain (20). The climb is laborious and long, perhaps reflective of the difficulty of any return to a native land. Later he travels to the wealthy hillside quarter of Pétionville, where he dines with his accountant friend Philippe and the latter’s wife Elsie (166–74), reaching up this time into the rarefied atmosphere of the very rich. Conversely, descents along the vertical axis are also numerous: down into the city to visit the art museum (150) or other sites, and especially down to Carrefour, the slum in the city’s south-west end: “Here’s Carrefour. It’s been a long time since I last saw Carrefour. It’s dirty, it stinks, it’s noisy, badly built, polluted. My friend Manu lives here. The most brilliant boy of our generation” (182). The paradoxical contrast between misery and genius moves the narrator deeply as he relates the visit he and Philippe pay to Manu (182–202), a venturing not only into the slums, but also into a shared pre-exile past. These movements along a vertical axis thus emphasize the emotional discoveries and rediscoveries of life in the capital, where even the familiar elements of bygone days are seen in a new light imposed by intervening experience.
Spatial/temporal adventures such as these are decidedly of secondary importance, however, in this novel in fact bearing the name of the land of the dead. Laferrière explains in the first of the book’s epigraphs: “The land without a hat: that’s what we call the beyond in Haiti because no one has ever been buried wearing a hat” (7). According to Vodou belief, the “gwo-bon-anj,” or life spirit of the individual, together with his or her guardian angel (“mèt-tèt”), passes at death to Ginen, the land of ancestral sprits and Vodou gods or “lwa.” 2 Indeed, probings of the land beyond, of a misty realm lying outside of real experience, are in this text equally as important as exploration of immediate reality. Structurally, the novel presents a balance between chapters bearing the subtitles “Pays réel” (“Real country”), on the one hand, and “Pays rêvé” (“Dreamed country”) on the other, subtitles reminiscent of Édouard Glissant’s poem Pays rêvé pays réel. 3 These two alternating subtitles reinforce the all-pervading image of the polarized space which the narrator discovers on returning to Haiti, and whose mysteries he attempts to unravel in the novel.
Before the alternation begins, however, an introductory chapter subtitled “Prologue” evokes the narrator as he sits composing the novel in his mother’s garden in Port-au-Prince during the visit. We witness the “primitive writer” (15) who, in an act of pure creative spontaneity, banishes all obstacles between simple, unmediated experience and the words he writes to describe it: “Look, a bird crosses my field of vision. I write: bird. A mango falls. I write: mango. Children are playing football in the street among the cars. I write: children, football, cars. You might say a primitive painter. That’s it, I’ve got it. I’m a primitive writer” (15). Laferrière’s descriptive quest begins with an affirmation of the transparency of his method: he writes what he sees and experiences, not what he imagines. Despite the unusual nature of some of his material in these pages, we are encouraged to agree to suspend our disbelief and take the plunge with him.
The narrator’s story properly begins in the following chapter, the first to bear the title “Pays réel,” devoted to his arrival in Port-au-Prince and reunion with his mother [End Page 943] and aunt. In fact, the linking with things past goes further than that, and revealing passages stress the unusual nature of his discoveries. As they walk into the house, the narrator is struck by a sensation of exhilarating familiarity: “First of all the aroma. The aroma of coffee from Les Palmes. The best coffee in the world, according to my grandmother. . . . I bring the steaming cup up to my nostrils. My whole childhood surges up into my head. I throw three drops of coffee onto the ground to greet Da” (22). At the outset, the familiar provincial world of L’odeur du café, composed five years before (and also of Le charme des après-midi sans fin, yet to be written) is symbolically called to be present at this beginning of the narration of Pays sans chapeau.
Of the remaining twenty-four chapters of the book, the first twenty-two are equally distributed between the two categories “pays réel” and “pays rêvé,” this being the order of the alternation in chapters 2 to 11. Then, from chapters 12 to 23, the order of the alternation is reversed (chapters 11 and 12 are both entitled “Pays rêvé”). Throughout these chapters, those entitled “Pays réel” are in general devoted to the description of events portrayed as more immediately real and present; the point of view is that of the returning son to his motherland, marked by the objectivity inherent in his acquired North American culture.
The long years of exile have indeed indelibly marked the narrator and twisted his perceptions: “That’s what happens when you’ve spent almost twenty years out of your own country. You no longer understand the most elementary things” (102). The “Pays rêvé” chapters thus touch upon the progressive rediscovery of matters mystical and ethereal that cannot be understood within an objective occidental framework. Even though the disturbing question of the ambiguous distinction between real and dream worlds is initially posed in a “Pays réel” chapter (“The beyond. Is it here and now or over there? Here and now, isn’t it already over there?” ), it is in the “Pays rêvé” chapters that the living narrator’s most revealing explorations of the land of the dead take place. He consults Haitian specialists likely to have knowledge of such matters, notably the ethnologist Jean-Baptiste Romain (66) and the psychiatrist Legrand Bijou (83), characters based, incidentally, on real people (Prophète 310). Further, he receives an offer of assistance in his quest from an extraordinary man named Lucrèce, friend of the family, god-father to Aunt Renée, and coincidentally a coffee producer from Les Palmes (115–20)! The latter is in fact a “ferryman” (“un passeur” ), a facilitator and transporter who in effect prepares the narrator for the fanciful plunge into the other world that is described in the comparatively long second-last chapter of the book, appropriately entitled “The Land Without a Hat” (203–21).
This chapter relates the narrator’s visit in a dream to the land of Vodou gods and goddesses, in fact the mythical city of Vilokan in Ginen where the “lwa” dwell (Desmangles 99). Guided by the firm hand of Lucrèce (Pays 204), the narrator approaches the gate which opens into “the other world” (205). The guide himself turns out to be Legba (205), the god who mediates between the living and the dead, “the first god you meet when you enter the other world” (206) and also the first “lwa” to be invoked by Vodou devotees during religious ceremonies (Desmangles 99). Subsequently, the narrator meets Ogou Feray, god of fire and war (Pays 214), the sensual goddess Ezili (211), and Azaka, the god of agriculture, “the peasants’ god” (213). [End Page 944]
Accompanied yet by Lucrèce-Legba, the narrator then returns to his mother’s home and, in the dream at least, passes back into the real world (215). A bowl of soup, a gossipy neighbor (215–16) temporarily lull readers into believing that they are back in the “pays réel,” but a final visit from Professor Romain reaffirms the dream-like quality of the chapter. He stresses the superiority of Vodou over Christianity and reminds the narrator with a laugh that Haitian Catholicism is just Vodou in disguise: “The Catholic priests, seeing us in their churches, thought we had abandoned our faith, while all the time we were glorifying [Vodou gods] in our own way . . . All these gods had insidiously taken the form and the appearance of Catholic saints. We were at home in their own house . . . Ha! ha!” (219). As he departs, the professor exhibits an undulating, serpentine gait that reveals to the narrator his true identity: he is the great god Danbala, who is represented by a snake in Vodou symbolism (221). The narrator’s dream comes to an end, and his task is clear: “to write a book on this strange country where no one wears a hat” (221).
In a review of Pays sans chapeau published soon after the novel, Gilles Marcotte professes bewilderment at the presence in the text, alongside more easily understood and objectively described observations and reminiscences, of “another story, a supernatural one” (Marcotte 79). In so doing, he emphasizes the alienation he feels as an inhabitant of another, distinct cultural zone: “It’s about the dead. The dead who are not really dead. About the living who are already dead. Don’t ask me to go into details; I would get lost; I’m not used to these things; I’m a rational white Montrealer” (79). However tongue-in-cheek this profession of unfamiliarity may be, Marcotte does suspect that in describing “the land without a hat,” Laferrière intends to portray more than just a representation of Haiti’s “bottomless poverty” (79). He invites readers to seek their own understanding of the mysteries involved (79).
Marcotte’s invitation is indeed a suggestive one, since Laferrière’s depictions of poverty and injustice in Haiti are rather personal than polemic. In tune with his much larger autobiographical project, the exploration of “the land without a hat,” itself a spatial metaphor for a whole system of belief and concomitant psychological outlook, is in fact an exploration of occult layers of his own psyche. It is not the novelist’s intention to write himself into allegories. Rather, the Vodou world-view, spirituality, sociology, and esthetics, depicted here and also present elsewhere in Laferrière’s writing, are an integral part of his inalienable cultural baggage. To seek to comprehend the “pays rêvé” of this novel is to attempt to transcend the hybridity to which the Haitian exile writer is inevitably condemned.
A study of the depictions of space and the uses of chronology in Laferrière’s four Haitian novels leads us to conclude that what is probably the most important single event of the first twenty-three years of his life was not the forced departure from his native land, but rather an exile of another sort. In the last, one-page chapter of Le [End Page 945] charme des après-midi sans fin, the most recent novel so far published in the Haitian sequence, the narrator turns resolutely towards Da and Petit-Goâve as the most attractive pole of his existence. And of course this novel, along with L’odeur du café, the first in the series, lead up to the tragic scene of the young narrator’s departure from the town for his new life in Port-au-Prince.
The description of that long and dangerous journey, however memorable it may have been, is of course absent from Laferrière’s fiction. And his actual return to the lost paradise of Petit-Goâve was, as has been noted, delayed until 1997, thirty-three years later, when the mature novelist was able literally to turn back the clock in the only way open to him: by writing the past into the present. The chronological end point of the primary narration of the Haitian novels, that of recollection and writing, thus falls, as we have seen, at the mid-point of the secondary narration, which is that of the past remembered. Similarly, in a spatial sense, with Les Palmes behind him, the narrator looks literally down the road from Petit-Goâve, irrefutably at the center of his existence, towards Port-au-Prince, with exile from Haiti lying beyond as the eventual consequence of the first, intermediate exile from Da’s town.
It is important to note that just as Laferrière’s major works of autobiographical fiction can be divided into North American and Haitian groupings, in a similar way his writing career itself can be divided chronologically into North American and Haitian periods. The North American novels of the former sequence were actually written during the years 1985–1986 and 1993–1994, with the Haitian works being produced in 1991–1992 and 1996–1997. Like concentric circles, then, Laferrière’s two major explorative preoccupations expand outwards alternately, but always, in the way of literature, with the autobiographical narrator at the center. The goals of the expansions, in both time and space, are the exploration of a personality, the elaboration of a history, and ultimately the appropriation of a universe.
Dennis F. Essar teaches French and Francophone literatures at Brock University in Canada.
1. Sources I have designated in parenthetical references are described fully in the Laferrière bibliography published elsewhere in this issue. All translations of texts published in French are my own. Abbreviated titles of works by Dany Laferrière are given in brackets at the end of the respective bibliographical entries.
2. Leslie G. Desmangles, The Faces of the Gods: Vodou and Roman Catholicism in Haiti (Chapel Hill, London: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 69.
3. Édouard Glissant, Pays rêvé pays réel: poème (Paris: Seuil, 1985).