Dany Laferrière and the Autobiography of Disorderly Past Times
Dany Laferrière: A Special Section
After Comment faire l’amour avec un Nègre sans se fatiguer and Éroshima, two extensive undertakings in irony and the denunciation of ethnic and social stereotypes, Dany Laferrière has sniffed L’odeur du café, which rises and spreads with all the tenderness and ingenuity of boyhood memory. An esthetic that might be Proustian recreates for us the taste of coffee by evoking the bucolic atmosphere of a coastal Haitian village, with its unpretentious landscape, its useful ruins, its medieval infrastructures, its dusty streets, its mischievous boys and girls, its unctuous, starched city fathers, its folkloric characters, its customs, its austere virtues and hidden vices, its shudders, its myths, and its mysteries. Everything is put in order in a certain number of brief, concise paragraphs, each bearing a title like so many little prose poems. In an autobiographical narrative, this book retraces the ten year-old’s impressions, caught in their most intense instants by the enhanced memory and sensitivity of the forty year-old child. This retrospective glance of the adult was presented, in L’odeur du café, as a pious and grateful homage to the author’s grandmother and to all those good souls who witnessed the important jokes of his childhood. In the same way, Le goût des jeunes filles recapitulates the initiation of the adolescent to the mysteries of poetry and women. And, once more, Pays sans chapeau, taken as a fine homage to his mother and Aunt Renée, follows the wandering and interrupted experiences of the young adult who has gone into the battle of life in Haiti. “I recall that at the moment of leaving Haiti, twenty years ago, I was perfectly happy to escape from the hullabaloo. Silence exists in Port-au-Prince only between the hours of one and three in the morning” (13). 1
But Pays sans chapeau is much more than an autobiographical narrative. Of course, it is a book written more or less in the same vein as L’odeur du café, keeping the same structures, the same sweep of poems in their organic sequence and linkage. But it is also the adult memory that has rediscovered, after a twenty-year absence, the concrete and sentimental framework of an entire period of his existence, the age when he was trying to assume a social importance and get into the great battle of life. It is the testimony of the spirit seeking time past. It is the shy disappointment of the exiled diasporian, a disappointment resulting from the shock of the return, the shock of disorderly past time, of time congealed in habit, fear, the mother’s tenderness, time that has deteriorated, rotted as much in the physical aspect of the country as in the topography of political and social mores.
Through a sort of regular give and take between the imagined and real countries, [End Page 947] the symmetrical alternation between the humble hope for a better past and disappointment in the face of a futureless present, Dany Laferrière specifically assumes not only the “I” of the narrator but also openly reveals the identity of places and persons: “For two days I’ve been trying to reach Dr. Legrand Bijoux, the well-known psychiatrist. Whom should I say is calling? Laferrière. Oh, you’re the writer? Of course! I saw you on television last night. Professor J.B. Romain spoke to me about you” (Pays 84). There you are—persons taken from reality who have become fictional characters in this work that the author is proposing to the public as a novel. The imaginary element is there in full bloom, subtle, imperceptible, converted into a fine lyrical prevarication and transformed into that particularly subjective and sincere truth of the autobiographical novel to which Dany Laferrière’s writing has been devoted from L’odeur du café, presented as a narrative, to Le goût des jeunes filles and Pays sans chapeau, two works that have been aggressively classified by the author in the category of “novel.” The rules of the genre are of no importance, if they ever have any validity these days: Laferrière never worries at all about symbols, allusions or insinuations. He simply calls things by their right name. And yet, when confronted by this representation of reality, the reader still remains embroiled in a universe where the claims and the sensation of the imagination creep in noticeably, persistently through the lines and in between lines, in each chapter “The Country of Reality or Dream,” in the proverbs placed as epigraphs, and even in the title of the novel and the sub-titles of the little poetic stories placed under the heading of “Real Country,” as well as in the humor and the tender irony that smile throughout the 226 pages of testimony: from the “primitive writer” to the “primitive painter.”
This is a testimony that does not for a minute hide the courteous disappointments of the returnee, of the adapted person from the diaspora and especially those of the humanist astonished at rediscovering past time, in poor condition, badly kept up. “‘You know, Vieux Os, this country has changed.’ ‘I’ve seen that, Mama’” (Pays 45). He doesn’t work by allusion. He dips his quill into reality and speaks directly. In the following passage, he denounces the zenglendo (armed thugs): “Yes, at night, there are the bizango (secret society members). In the daytime, there are the zenglendo. You close your doors at noon” (45). At another moment, he regrets the fall of the exchange rate for the gourde (the basic unit of currency in Haiti): “Mama finally accepted the young man’s offer of 265 Haitian dollars for 100 American dollars) (107). On that same page, he evokes the familiar places where such transactions take place: Téléco, Radio Métropole, the Séjourné Pharmacy. It is left to an untutored person, but a person of deep wisdom recalling the well-known Dérilus of Maurice Sixto, the bootblack that he attributes the role of expressing disappointment at the deplorable state of the country just rediscovered: the physical, administrative, political, social country, along with the foreign occupation and the guardianship: “Have your return date changed and leave as quickly as possible tomorrow morning. Why? I am in my own country. The bootblack shakes his head. ‘The country has changed, my friend. Not all the people you see are human beings. Hmmm. . . . I’ve been dead for a long time, for example. This country has become the biggest cemetery in the world. If we were truly human,’ he continues, ‘do you think that we could survive famine and all the piles of garbage that are heaped at every street corner? And then, don’t you see all the other nations that [End Page 948] are in this country?’ (He is referring to the UN troops occupying the streets of Port-au-Prince)” (51–52). How can one keep from reliving the tragic comedy of recent events, hardly fleeting symptoms of Haitian “marvelous realism”: “Ah, I remember the army of zombies that the former president had threatened to send against the Americans if they dared set one foot on Haitian soil. I was in Miami at the time and the Miami Herald reported the words of the former president.” In fact, a note by the editor underscores the fact that “Dany Laferrière invented nothing: that was history.”
In addition to the imagination, talent, and particularly the freedom that the author assumes in applying the term “novel” to his work—Pays sans chapeau is nonetheless a lyrical documentary informed by an ingenious narrative skeleton. If there is nothing missing in the reconstitution of real impressions and the shock provoked by a return to Haiti after twenty years away, it is because the least little detail helps understand a state of mind made of lassitude, surrender, and withdrawal. “As for the real country, sir, I do not need to dream it up” (226). In addition, like so many others, Dany Laferrière, at once open and alert to the generosity of a borderless humanism and the cheerful victim of a phenomenon of acculturation experienced during those twenty years of being rootless, has managed to depict in three dimensions a culture and a mentality of which the depth, the impact, and a certain sense of the human condition make of the individual, private, and familial a sort of springboard to that which is universal. Laferrière not only brings the past to life, he offers a general metaphor of time and politics in a consciously mastered construction.
Jean L. Prophète, author of Les Para-Personnages dans les tragedies de Racine, was an associate professor of French at Hunter College (1979–1995).
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.
1. Page references are to the French texts; translations of quotes are by the translator of this article.