Dany Laferriere is one of those “mean-to” authors for me, in the sense that I’ve been “meaning to” get to one of his books for a number of years. Born in Haiti in 1953, Laferriere has been part of the Haitian writing community in Montreal since he emigrated there in 1976. He writes originally in French — as best I can tell ten of his 14 novels have been translated (David Homel seems to be a regular partner). How To Make Love To A Negro Without Getting Tired (1987), Down Among The Dead Men (1997) and I Am A Japanese Writer (2010) are probably the best known in English. As the publication dates indicate, he has been at this for a while. The Giller jury having finally moved me to action, I’ll say that The Return was impressive enough that I will definitely be exploring his back catalogue.
This “novel” has already won a slew of recognition in its French-language version: the Prix Medicis, the Grand Prix de Livre de Montreal and short-listed for a number of other prizes including Canada’s Governor-General’s award for French-language fiction. I put “novel” in quotes because it seems to be a useful catch-all label to describe The Return, a book which is part memoir and part free verse, with conventional fictional elements in the form of short narrative sections added in, almost as a binder to bring the rest together.
The book opens in 2009 with a phone call from New York to Montreal. The Dany Laferriere of the book has been in the “never-ending winter” of Montreal since 1976; his father, Windsor, had fled Haiti to New York in the 1960s and the two have not talked since. Here’s the opening of the book, a representative sample of what I am calling the “free verse” of the book:
The news cuts the night in two.
The inevitable phone call
that every middle-aged man
one day will receive.
My father has died.
I got on the road early this morning.
The way my life will be from now on.
The estrangement between father and son has not just been for the last 30+ years in North America — it started in Haiti when Dany was four, his rebel father headed into the countryside to evade Papa Doc and his killers and the young Laferriere sent to live with his grandmother. This opening section is entitled “Slow Preparations For Departure”, an aptly ambiguous label that captures the author’s confusion both as he gets ready to go to New York and his brief stay there.
That section also firmly establishes why Laferriere chose the mixed narrative forms of verse and conventional prose to tell his story. The free verse parts are not so much poetry as they are representative of those fleeting thoughts that come into our minds when we are faced with a new set of circumstances — part memory, part uncertainty, part the forming of resolutions about what the future might hold and they all get mixed up as we think them.
In an early chapter titled “Exile”, the grieving narrator pulls out “the photo my mother slipped/into my pocket just as I/closed the low green gate” to depart Haiti 33 years ago when he was 23. The photo brings a flood of memories:
If I didn’t know then that
I was going to leave
and never return,
my mother, so careworn
must have felt it
in the most secret part of her body.
We’re stuck in a bad novel
ruled by a tropical dictator
who keeps ordering
the beheading of his subjects.
We scarcely have time
to escape between the lines
toward the margin that borders the Caribbean Sea.
Here I am years later
in a snow-covered city
walking and thinking of nothing.
I am guided only
by the movements of frigid air
and that fragile neck ahead of me.
I hope those two quotes illustrate the nature of Laferriere’s “verse”: it comes not as poetry but disjointed, interrupted narrative, the pauses marked by each line representing the kind of mental pauses our brain takes when it is in a contemplative mode. The conventional narrative parts, by contrast, are straight-forward, outward-looking and tightly-phrased. When he gets to New York, Dany discovers that his father had left a suitcase in a safety deposit box:
We want to retrieve the suitcase my father deposited at the Chase Manhattan Bank. Since I have the same first name, the employee gives me the key to his safety deposit box and asks me to follow him into the bank’s vault. I step inside quietly with my uncles. That quality of silence exists nowhere but in a bank, a church or a library. Men fall silent only before Money, God and Knowledge — the great wheel that crushes them. All around us, small individual safety deposit boxes filled with personal belongings of New York, city of high finances and great misery. The employee leaves us alone. I open my father’s box and discover an attache case inside.
Dany does not have the code that would enable him to open the attache case. And he can’t risk being caught in an attempt to sign it out. So it goes back, unopened, into the safety deposit box. We already know that his father’s death has caused him to resolve to return to Haiti; the experience in the bank vault means that he will carry with him the baggage of unknown memories of a man with whom he had no contact for more than half a century.
The opening section takes up about one-quarter of the book; the remainder takes place in Haiti. While both father and son were forced into exile by the excesses of the Duvalier regime, this part is anything but polemical, rather it is a study in the tactics of survival. The present time is 2009 and Duvalier is long gone — but for those trying to live a life, not much has changed. Laferriere effectively captures a braided triple stream of memory and discovery: what kind of life did his father live before he went into exile? what are his own memories of his 23 years in Haiti? and a 23-year-old nephew, a present day version of the young Dany, supplies the platform to explore how the current generation is getting along.
The author so firmly establishes his own character and uncertainty in that opening section that this voyage of self-discovery is one which the reader has no trouble joining. As Dany embarks on his own set of explorations and experiences in a devastated country he left 33 years ago (and which this reader has never visited), it is an honor to be asked along. It is the kind of reward that every fiction lover (or poetry reader) welcomes as the sign of great writing.
The Giller jury deserves fulsome praise for including this book on its longlist, even if it did mean stretching the definition of “novel” just a little bit. This is exactly the kind of work that literary prizes are meant to draw to the attention of serious readers. If you click on the book cover at the top of the review, it will take you to Laferriere’s page at his English language publisher, Douglas & McIntyre, and you can check out not just this book but three others that they have published in translation. He as an author that I am glad has finally moved from my “mean to” category to “started on” — I will be returning for more, I assure you.