There was a time, in the eighties and nineties, when every few years, another Dany Laferrière novel would appear in one of David Homel's sturdy translations, and English-Canadian readers would get a good dose of this wry, protean, mischievous author. But the translation well seemed to dry up after 1997, and it has been 13 years since he's appeared in our solitude.
Laferrière is the author of 14 novels, and if I'm counting correctly, this is his 12th, followed by La fête des morts and L'enigme du retour, both of which were published in 2009. L'enigme de retour, which tells the story of Laferrière's return to his native Haiti after his father's death, was an international smash, but it is still unavailable in English.
I Am a Japanese Writer is a novel in short chapters about a book that the author has not yet written. In fact, the book in the reader's hand exists solely as a title in the book itself, a title Laferrière's publisher liked enough to pay him 10,000 euros to write. It's a wonderful, existential conceit: the book we're reading is being written as we read it.
The brief sections of this novel, 67 in all, are best described as pensées, since their relationships to each other are more associative than narrative. A plot of sorts ties the novel together when the author's investigations of Japanese authenticity brings him into the inner circle of a famous Japanese singer named Midori. But Laferrière is just playing at cliché with Midori. She's the Hello Kitty side of this novel, the flip side of which is Basho and Mishima, the book's true presiding spirits. The meaning of the book's title becomes clear to us when Laferrière writes:
"I don't understand all the attention paid to a writer's origins. Because, for me, Mishima was my neighbour. Very naturally, I repatriated all the writers I read all the time. … they all lived in my village. Otherwise, what were they doing in my room? Years later, when I became a writer and people asked me, 'Are you a Haitian writer, a Caribbean writer or a French-language writer?' I answered without hesitation: I take on my reader's nationality. Which means that when a Japanese person reads me, I immediately become a Japanese writer."
This profound reading of reading doesn't mean Laferrière is always fastidious about his cultural insights. He plays fast and loose with stereotypes, making hay with camera-laden Japanese and torturously polite bureaucrats. The only thing the book is missing is a panty vending machine. Laferrière has become notorious in the past for his identity politics (he took his critics to task in his collection of 1993, Why Must a Black Writer Write About Sex?), but here he's not really talking about the Japanese. He's talking about the difference between high and low culture, and, more important, about the origins of art.
Still, those who have had problems with Laferrière's politics in the past - sexual as well as racial - won't find any "improvements" in this book. The author who writes (and then publishes) the line "the Japanese vagina is diagonal" doesn't give a fig what his critics think. The saving grace, however is that he's as capable of turning himself into a cardboard cutout as he is anyone else. (He portrays himself as a writer who doesn't want to be famous.) He knows the very notion of "identity" substitutes for specificity and depth. He writes "the problem with being a foreigner is that you're not allowed to play anything but folklore," acknowledging that the simple act of making categories invites simplification. Later in the novel, when he's done trotting out the comic clichés, this brilliantly cogent vision of Japanese culture appears:
"Their warriors wore colourful costumes and applied violent makeup. After the Americans defeated them, they became American. … A double culture: their own and that of the conqueror. … [They wanted]to secretly penetrate the heart of American desire to change it into desire for Japan. Americans will never become Americans again because they don't realize they're already Japanese."
But is this a thought about Japan or about culture itself? This suggestion blossoms into flower about 50 pages later: "The fake overtakes the real on the international market. Authenticity is for hicks."
Does literature's transformative power originate in the writer? The reader? Is it rooted in places? In language? The author reads Basho on the subway and his own travels beneath Montreal shadow those of the ancient poet overland across Japan. The fundamental mysteries of existence - birth, death, our capacity for love, the pull toward goodness or evil, the quest for order and meaning - are coded in all art, and the act or creating it or consuming it is a familial gesture. It is connecting. So while I read this novel, Laferrière was a white Jewish anglophone from Toronto and I was a black Haitian Quebecker, and we both suffered as Basho did. Authentic experience crosses time, space, and culture. I Am a Japanese Writer is marvellous cabinet of curiosities. Let's hope Homel and Douglas & MacIntyre catch up on the backlist, soon.
Michael Redhill is a currently a writer of unknown origin. He's working on a new novel.
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