David Homel says that he has translated Dany Laferrière’s work so often now that he knows how he ticks, knows his schtick, knows his voice so well that he has avoided translating anyone else for awhile.
Perhaps that’s why The Return reads so comfortably that it’s easy to forget that it is a work in translation.
The Return is described as an autobiographical novel: fact and fiction intersect.
This is the story of Dany Laferrière’s return to Haiti following the news of his father’s death. He had been living in Montreal.
“I grew aware of my individuality in Montreal. At minus thirty, I quickly developed a physical sense of myself. The cold lowers the mind’s temperature.”
As readers would guess, life in Haiti had been fundamentally different.
“In the heat of Port-au-Prince the imagination is so easily enflamed. The dictator threw me out the door of my own country. To return, I had to slip in through the window of the novel.”
But the Haiti-left-behind is viewed through another set of eyes, in a body that lives in exile.
“What’s for sure is that
I wouldn’t have written this way had I stayed behind.
Maybe I wouldn’t have written at all.
Far from our country, do we write to console ourselves?
I have doubts about the vocation of the writer in exile.”
It’s a country understood and experienced on different terms now. Which means it is, as often as not, about not understanding.
“How can anyone think of other people when they haven’t eaten for two days and their son is at the General Hospital which doesn’t even have enough bandages? But that’s exactly what that woman did when she brought me a cool glass of water. Where does she find such selflessness?”
So even though one of the strongest sensations that comes through the lines of this work is a sense of hunger (literal and metaphorical), there are moments like that, of selflessness, that force a reconsideration.
On one hand:
“All those houses with neither roof nor door rented in large needy families by usurers representing the rich who live in the luxury villas set high up the mountain. We’re really living in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.”
“People die faster than elsewhere,
but life is more intense.
Each person carries the same amount
of energy to burn
except the flame is brighter
when the time it has to burn
(You’ll notice that one of those hands is written in prose and the other in poetry; don’t give it a thought — except to marvel at it, perhaps — because The Return is a compelling read. Even if you haven’t read a poem since Robert Frost in school, you can read this without a thought to the form.)
The language is accessible and the simplicity of it is perfect for the incredibly complex themes of mortality, identity, art and the places at which these intersect.
Don’t worry if you are an outsider, thinking you’ll find nothing familiar in Haiti. Dany Laferrière is, in some ways, an outsider as well. He will be your tour guide.
(David Homel, too, travelled to Haiti, but in January 1973: long before he translated this 2009 Prix Medicis winning novel — L’énigme du retour — France.)
The author says that “People read in search of themselves and not to discover someone else” but even if readers only identify one familiar element in The Return, it is a powerful one, that of the reader.
The reader’s bent neck as he stands at the back.
His left profile.
He’s about to change centuries.
Right before my eyes.
Without a sound.
I always thought
that books crossed
the centuries to reach us.
Then I understood
seeing that man
the reader does the traveling.”
The universal experiences which underscore this text make it far more likely that the reader will recognize countless instances speaking to life’s bizarre and sad and satisfying experiences.
Travelling through it will reach you in unexpectedly affecting ways.
*said in an interview with Wayne Grady at the IFOA October 2011, Toronto (indicating an exception being a translation that he undertook to work on in an advisory role with his son recently)
With the exception of some footnotes in Barney’s Version (some of the most hilarious parts of the novel, incidentally, but then I like footnotes), the winning books don’t get much fancier than shifting across years and locations. But — and it’s a bit but — there’s 2010’s The Sentimentalists to consider.
The combination of prose and verse is perfect for a reader who doesn’t read much/any poetry. The verse seems to highlight intense emotional experiences in a way which can reach a wide number of readers; the prose is more detailed, more heavily sensory, drawing the reader in differently.
Simple. Everyday. Undomesticated (Haitian words are allowed to stand). Uncluttered. Unpretentious.
“I’d just as soon spend the rest of my time here / chatting about everything and nothing / with people who have never / opened a book in their lives.”
Here and there.
There and here.
Haiti and Montreal.
If the first twenty pages haven’t pulled you in, you’ll only bob on the surface of the book. But if you take a deep breath (and hold it, if necessary, until you believe that you can read poetry: I’m not comfortable reading poetry anymore either, but this is different somehow) you might lose track of the others you take and fall into the story.
You are bookish. “I am surrounded by books.” You like chickens (alive) and mangoes (picked). “Why do we keep books we’ll never read?” You’ve felt like you’ve belonged somewhere more when you weren’t there than you did when you were there. “Today I realize that a good half of my library remains unread.”
The Oxford Book of Exile John Andrew Simpson (Ed.) (1995)
James Alan McPherson’s Crabcakes: A Memoir (1998)
Eliza Clark’s Miss You Like Crazy (1993)