Dany Laferrière: A Special Section
I had completely forgotten the exhibit of Jacques Gabriel’s latest paintings in that stylish art gallery in Pétionville. Carl Henri is the friend who, for some time, has been hounding me about his Jacques Gabriel. Jacques this, Jacques that. Jacques Gabriel is some sort of demigod for him: talented, modern, iconoclastic, a free spirit. He has special antennas that let him pick up the most subtle political vibrations, a talent that helps him survive (since he lives so dangerously) in the strange universe of Duvalier. He has a worldwide network of friends that keep him informed of the latest cultural styles (although he still swears by Max Ernst’s glacial surrealism). And then, according to Carl Henri, he is the only man in this country who is able to traverse effortlessly all barriers between the social classes. He seems to be as relaxed with the wife of the French ambassador as with the young prostitute from the Macaya Bar who runs around with him everywhere. He talks to the prostitute the same way he does to the ambassador’s wife. And both women seem to be delighted with this new method.
As I arrive, the official reception is over, but a more limited group of the painter’s personal friends and admirers are lingering on the sidewalk in front of the gallery.
Carl Henri welcomes me with a knowing smile and introduces me to Jacques Gabriel. With his height, shaved head, and insolent mouth, the man is intimidating at first. Then he gives me a warm, reassuring glance, but speaks with unceremonious finality.
“The reception is over.”
“I didn’t come to see the exhibit.”
Carl Henri pales.
“Fine!” returns Jacques Gabriel, caught short.
“I’m kind of old school . . .”
“What does that mean?” he asks in a harsher tone.
“I like to meet the man before I see his work.”
Taken aback for a second, Gabriel smiles.
“I’m that way, too. If I don’t like the man, his work doesn’t interest me, even if he’s brilliant. Glad to meet a young man who thinks for himself.”
“Now you’re playing the old fool.”
Carl Henri turns pale again. I feel sorry for his poor heart.
“Jacques,” says a woman, “it looks as if you’ve met your match.” [End Page 903]
“The hell you say!” barks Jacques Gabriel. “You think with your cunt. Whatever he may be doesn’t interest you in the least. You’re simply wondering whether you’ll be able to drag him home with you afterward.”
“Oh, Jacques!” she answers in a sweet, plaintive voice.
Everybody laughs (even the accused woman). The iconoclastic painter has just used his proven technique of insulting the upper class to win the cynics to his side.
“There’s more to him than that,” whispers Carl Henri.
“I suppose so.”
“OK, let’s go,” says Jacques Gabriel. “Do you want to come with us? We’re headed for Croix-des-Bouquets,” he asks me almost respectfully—a different tone from the one he uses with the others (even with Carl Henri).
“I’ll come along.”
“Good, let’s go. Everybody in the car! Carl Henri, you,” he says to me with that irresistible smile, “Fifine [the little prostitute], Mariela Righini [a journalist from the Nouvel Observateur]—you come in my car. The others can follow if they’re able,” he says laughing.
Jacques Gabriel drives without the least concern for the law. Fortunately, we’re making it through Port-au-Prince without incident, other than the little duel between the beautiful, but snobbish journalist and the painter! The second car is right on our coattails.
“What’s your attitude toward power?” she fires at him.
“I’m only interested in general questions.”
“I’m talking about the way you use power.”
There is a brief pause.
“Be more specific, Madame.”
“Alright,” she takes a deep breath. “With that young woman, just now . . .”
“What happened to her?”
The journalist is a bit astonished at such outright dishonesty.
“Why you insulted her.”
“I simply told her the truth—what was in her head.”
“Do you really believe women have nothing else to think about?”
The car swerved toward the side of the road.
“Don’t ever use generalization with me! This is the last time I’ll say that.”
We’re speeding through total darkness. From time to time we meet a taptap loaded with passengers. Jacques Gabriel’s game is apparently quite simple: he speeds up and heads right for the oncoming truck, forcing him to yield the right-of-way. At first, I thought he didn’t know how to drive or that he was drunk, until I understood that he knows exactly what he’s doing. The truck drivers invented the little game and he intends to give them a dose of their own medicine. I think we’ve completely lost the other car.
“So, how do you use power?” Jacques Gabriel asks suddenly.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” says the journalist in a strained voice. [End Page 904]
“I saw you at the gallery while ago.”
“What did you see? I didn’t do anything.”
“Precisely!” says Jacques Gabriel with a little burst of laughter. “You didn’t do anything!”
“So?” asks the journalist with increasing uneasiness.
“Ma chérie, you know damned well that you don’t have to do anything. The fawning bourgeoisie of Pétionville is ready to crawl at your feet. Those fools think of nothing more than being recognized by Paris. Speaking with a journalist from the Nouvel Observateur means getting to talk to Paris, finally. But I can tell you, Mariela Righini from the Nouvel Observateur, the rest of the country is quite different. We are neither the French of America nor Africans in exile—we are Haitians, understand? No, you can’t understand that. Well, you’ll see. . . .”
As the red-faced Mariela Righini leans toward the painter to answer his accusation that she is a colonialist (the worst insult for a Parisian leftist journalist), the car strikes something with a muffled thud.
“Vièj Mari!” yells the little prostitute.
“It must have been a wild kid crossing the road,” says Carl Henri.
Jacques Gabriel stops the car by the side of the road. He gets out and does, in fact, pick up a bloodied kid. There’s the odor of warm blood. Instead of returning to the car, however, Gabriel disappears into the sugarcane field with the goat in his arms.
“What’s he doing?” asks the journalist.
“Lal fè sa li gen poul fè,” snaps the prostitute.
The journalist turns toward Carl Henri.
“What did she say?”
“She says that Jacques is doing what he has to do.”
A slightly scornful pout crosses the lips of the journalist.
“You don’t believe in invisible spirits?” I ask her.
“Sorry, but I’m not superstitious.”
“It’s not necessarily superstition,” says Carl Henri.
“As far as I’m concerned, a car simply hit a kid.”
“Se sa ou pense,” says the little prostitute, who understands a bit of French without being able to speak it.
The journalist gives a start, as if she has just felt an electric shock.
Without understanding what the prostitute said in Kreyòl, Mariela Righini has the impression that it was directed at herself and that there is an element of bitterness in it, all the more since Carl Henri has not translated what she said. But the young woman didn’t say anything too spiteful (just “that’s what you think!”), but the journalist might have reason to be concerned—no doubt the little prostitute would have no hesitation about slitting her throat. Why? This young woman from Gonaïves has always had an instinct for recognizing her enemies. Just to check, Mariela Righini (the woman, not the journalist) turns around to look behind her at the prostitute, but she can’t stand the pure fire of hatred in her eyes for very long.
Jacques Gabriel finally comes back with the kid on his shoulders. He hurls it unceremoniously into the trunk. [End Page 905]
“That man is strange,” says the journalist. “A few minutes ago, he held the kid in his arms as if the car had struck a child instead of an animal and now he simply drops it in the trunk.
“It’s only meat now,” says Carl Henri.
“What happened in the meanwhile?” asks the journalist.
“You’ll have to ask Jacques that.”
Jacques Gabriel slips into the driver’s seat. The journalist chooses not to ask the question. We continue another ten minutes before turning left onto a yellow ocher road that climbs steeply to a thatched-roof hut.
“Get out,” says Jacques Gabriel. “This is the home of my friend, Prophète. Wait here for me—I’ll go in first.
They wait ten minutes before he comes out with a huge, serious-faced man.
“This is my friend, Prophète. He’s a great painter—the chosen one of the lwa. He dwells deep in the country where the spirits speak directly to men.”
Prophète smiles—a smile that is infinitely sad.
“I knew you were coming,” he says simply and goes back in the house.
Jacques Gabriel goes after the kid to give to the young man who just appeared in front of us.
“Prophète is working on a picture to mark our visit. He will join us later.”
The young man comes back with several straw chairs and places them in a semi-circle on the little porch. In the meanwhile, I see an enormous woman go by followed by a dozen girls dressed in white and wearing white scarves around their heads.
“Prophète is an oungan, to begin with,” explains Jacques Gabriel. “He began by painting his altar in order to welcome the spirits. One day, a certain Dewitt Peters came by. He spent the entire day contemplating the portraits of the lwa that Prophète had painted on the walls of his hut and finally concluded that this man was the most authentic artist he had ever met.”
“What distinguishes him from you?” asks the journalist, suddenly recalling that she has to do an article on Jacques Gabriel.
“Prophète isn’t his real name. They gave him that name when he was nine years old. He lived with his mother and a younger sister at Dondon then, close to Saint-Raphaël. His father had left to cut sugarcane in the Dominican Republic. Up to that age, he didn’t even know how to talk. When he wanted to say something, he painted it.”
“Interesting, but not terribly original,” answered the journalist.
“He has another gift. He can draw the future.”
“How’s that?” I ask.
Jacques Gabriel smiles.
“One day he came back from school. His mother prepared a meal for him, but he refused to touch the food. He took out his pocketknife and drew a headless man on the big mahogany table. His mother was amazed. ‘That’s my father,’ said the boy. An hour later, a messenger came with the news of his father’s death. ‘How did he die?’ asked the wife. The messenger told her that he had gotten into a violent argument with another worker in the sugarcane field near San Pedro de Marcoris and that the fellow had cut off his head with a single blow from the machete. A week later, the boy drew [End Page 906] a house on fire. That very evening, the neighboring house was destroyed by a fire. Another time, he drew his cousin with one leg. The cousin lived in Saint-Raphaël. The next morning, the man’s leg got caught in a mill and they had to cut it off in order to keep his entire body from being pulled in. The mother told her son not to draw any more. One morning, before going to sell her vegetables at the market, she asked him, ‘How come you don’t draw any more?’ ‘Mama, you told me I couldn’t.’ ‘So I did! I completely forgot about that. Make me a picture.’ The boy went inside to do the drawing. When he came out to give it to his mother, she had already left. It showed a woman lying in a coffin. After the death of his mother, the citizens of Dondon nicknamed him ‘Prophète’. He traveled some, almost everywhere in the country, before coming to live at Croix-des-Bouquets. He serves the spirits, lives with his women, and is disinterested in fame. People take note of his painting all over the world. That’s Prophète, the only truly free man that I know.”
“How is that?” asks Carl Henri, almost fearfully.
“Well, every time he takes up a brush, he knows that he may paint the scene of his own death. In spite of that, his hand never trembles.”
The painter comes back with a great white basin on his head. The girls are following him in single file. The stout woman brings up the rear of the column. He places the basin, filled with food (roast lamb, fried plantains, white rice, yams, carrots, beets, eggplants, and chayote squash in sauce).
“No dishes,” says Jacques Gabriel unabashedly. “We eat with our hands, the good old hands . . .”
There is a brief silence.
“Isn’t it too hot?” asks the journalist hesitantly.
“It’s alright,” answers Jacques Gabriel dipping his hand to the bottom of the basin.
This is the signal. Everybody seems to be really hungry.
I don’t know. . . . Maybe it’s because of everything that has been going on and the strange atmosphere (starless night, light breeze, persistent drumming in the distance), the tender flesh of the kid (animal . . . or something else?), the delicate aroma of the yam, the taste of the malanga, that I thought I didn’t like any more. . . . All of those impressions together give me the definite sense that this has been the best meal I ever ate in my life. Once I saw a recurring scene on television of a family of lions devouring a young antelope. After a while, there was nothing left but the bones, without a trace of flesh still on them.
In the wink of an eye, you can see to the bottom of the basin. At the same instant, a chant splits the air. I see the throat of a young man growing alternately bigger and smaller. An eerie sensation seizes me. I feel as if I were in another world—or, in any case, far from Pétionville and its mundanities. The young man leans against the pole to sing the story of the young woman from the Artibonite whose husband Solèy is seriously ill. The chorus of girls accompanies the woman in distress. The man is hovering between life and death, between day and night. But the woman is courageous and she struggles to save her man. The young man continues with some other secular songs that tell of the peasants’ misery.
Then, all of a sudden, there is a hymn, “Papa Legba ouvri baryè pou mwen” (“Open the gate for me, Papa Legba”). I sense a new fervor going through the chorus. The [End Page 907] voices of the girls become higher and higher. As if they were announcing the arrival of some eminent personage. In fact, Prophète appears in the doorway at that instant (Prophète or Legba) in ceremonial dress. His expression is more serious than it was when we arrived. The voices reach a peak and then recede to silence.
“The painting is finished,” Prophète announces without emotion, gesturing for the young man to go get it.
The stout woman begins to dance, without music. You can only hear the dull sound of her heels on the ocher ground. Her body is possessed by the music. She is already in a sweat and her skin is glistening. Suddenly, she intones a sacred chant. It is a war chant, but I cannot get the words. Most of the words seem to be of African origin. Her entire body is undulating. She stamps on the ground. Her face has taken on an ominous look. Prophète watches her, vaguely uneasy. A terrible spirit knocks at the door. He cannot penetrate the circle. Suddenly, the exhausted woman goes to sit in a corner. She moves like a disjointed puppet. The entire crowd breathes in sharply. Ogou, the terrible spirit of fire has not been able to spoil the feast. The young man hands the painting over to Prophète. It is covered with a mauve fabric. One of the girls comes over to take off the cover. There is the awesome, frightening picture in front of us. Everything is mauve. It is Prophète’s color. The figures and the scene are all painted in mauve. We are all in the painting—the young man, the girls in white, the stout woman, Carl Henri, and myself. There are three figures in the center: Prophète with Jacques Gabriel on his left and the journalist on his right. She is wearing the white gown of a bride, with a mauve veil over her face. The girl who just uncovered the painting goes over to the journalist and covers her face with the mauve veil. The Parisian journalist’s face has blanched.
“You have witnessed the mystical marriage of Prophète Pierre, residing in Croix-des-Bouquets with Mariela Righini, resident of Paris. This marriage has been celebrated according to the will of the spirits, some of whom are here present,” says Jacques Gabriel in a serious and authoritative voice.
The girls scream hysterically.
A while later.
“Nobody asked my opinion!” exclaims the journalist, still in shock.
“The spirits of Vodou are not democratic,” replies Jacques Gabriel, tit for tat.
“It’s a scandal, anyway!”
“But, if you don’t believe in it, it’s all just a bit of fantasy.”
“Of course I don’t believe in it, but. . . .”
“Listen,” says Gabriel cutting her off, “you’re going to return to Paris and forget this entire night.”
“I want to go back to my hotel.”
And she goes to get in the car.
“Was this simply entertainment?” I ask Jacques Gabriel, half guessing the answer. [End Page 908]
“It was for real. More real than weddings that take place in the church. No matter where she may go, she will be taking the spirits with her. She is one of our own now.”
“It’s makes me uneasy, just the same,” I suggest.
“No reason it should! She is untouchable now. Nobody with the least intention of harming her can get close to the circle surrounding her. She is under great protection now—the wife of a powerful spirit of the Vodou pantheon.”
“Ah! So she didn’t marry Prophète, then?”
“No,” answers Jacques Gabriel as he heads for the car. “It really wasn’t Prophète: in fact, it was Legba, the all-powerful keeper of the gate to the invisible world.”
Mariela Righini did not say a word during the entire return trip.
Dany Laferrière, a native of Haiti, has published eight novels and one volume of short stories. He lives in Miami.
Carrol F. Coates, an associate editor of Callaloo, is Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the State University of New York in Binghamton. He has translated a number of Haitian works from French to English: Rene Depestre’s The Festival of the Greasy Pole, Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Dignity, and Jacques Stephen Alexis’ General Sun, My Brother.
* From La Chair du Maître (Montréal: Lanctôt, 1997). Reprinted by permission of the author.