It’s December, 2007, a disastrous hurricane season has finally ended and the autobiographical narrator of Dany Laferrière’s Prix Médicis-winning novel The Return ( L’énigme du retour) is chatting with the owner of the bookstore in Pétionville, one of the most affluent suburbs of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, when his attention is drawn to a girl paging through one of his novels. He comments: “I am fascinated by the back of her neck (the nape speaks volumes about a woman reading).”
This may or may not be true of every woman reading any old book in a public place, but it is true of every young woman I’ve ever observed travelling eastward toward Dawson, Concordia, McGill or UQAM with an open copy of Laferrière’s Comment faire l’amour avec un nègre sans se fatigue ( How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired) over the past 35 years.
The publication of Comment faire l’amour avec un nègre sans se fatigue in 1985 was as transformative a moment in Canadian literature as the appearance a year earlier of Josef Škovrecký’s The Engineer of Human Souls or the publication of Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz in 1957 or Rawi Hage’s Cockroach in 2008. In each case, an unlikely, unhappy protagonist’s seemingly unreasonable demands on “older Canadians” to accommodate his “newness” forces readers to explore poverty, class, religion, culture, displacement, identity and lust from uncomfortable angles.
In Dany Laferrière’s case, that longing for belonging on one’s own terms is deeply embedded in his native Haiti’s repeated failures to democratically elevate its own population: “If you’re not thin when you’re twenty in Haiti, it’s because you’re on the side of power. Not just because of malnutrition. More like the constant fear that eats away at you from inside.”
The narrator has been “eating fat for three decades in Montreal while everyone has gone on eating lean in Port-au-Prince” when a telephone call informs him of his father’s death in New York. Journalists and political activists, he and his father before him were forced to flee their homeland under the regimes of another father and son, the ruthless Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier, who did everything in their power to destroy a functioning middle class through corruption, intimidation, execution or exile between 1957 and 1986.
After travelling to New York for his father’s funeral, the narrator continues on to Haiti, bearing with him his father’s spirit, which he returns to native ground, the ancestral village of Barradères. But first he reconnects with his mother, his sister, his nephew, his father’s old comrades and his own, who have found several different ways of living among the ruined hopes of their youth.
The Return is, as its French title explicitly states, enigmatic, a powerful, wrenching book that is not easily explained or understood. There are foreshadowings in Laferrière’s earlier works for all the physical contrasts (cold and heat, fat and thin, life and death, North and South, First and Fourth Worlds) and the psychological ambiguities and ambivalences they generate, as well as seemingly effortless swings between blank verse and prose, history and storytelling.
But, as Chantal Guy noted in her La Presse review, “they have never been as well put together, maybe because they were missing the angle of father and son, which casts everything in a new light.” The Return is, as she concludes, “a book to savour … that demands more than one reading.”
For more than 50 years, the French have annually awarded the Prix Médicis to authors whose “fame does not yet match their talent.” We could use one of these in Canada, couldn’t we?
Contributing reviewer T.F. Rigelhof’s most recent book is Hooked on Canadian Books: The Good, the Better and the Best Canadian Novels Since 1984.