By Dany Laferriere
Translated by David Homel from the French: L'odeur du cafe.
ISBN # 0-88910-439-5. Paper. $11.95 (US $)
Coach House Press, Toronto, 1993. Pp. 172.
By Dany Larerriere.
Translated by David Homel from the French: Le gout des jeunes filles. ISBN # 0-88910-480-8. Paper. $11.95 (US $).
Coach House Press, Toronto, 1994. Pp. 207.
A review by Bob Corbett
A small sickly boy sits on the porch of his house with his grandmother and carefully studies the ants who share this porch with him. It's 1960 Petit-Goave, and the ants are images of the town in which he lives. They go about their business with little or no concern, other than silence, about the larger world around them. Author Laferriere uses the youth of his narrator to paint a vivid and detailed picture of life in this small village, in which two cars can't co-exist since there's no room for both on the one lane roads of town.
Is this an autobiographical memory of a childhood in provincial Haiti? One comes to believe so in the text, and then has this view confirmed in the second volume under review -- the follow up of the first. Is it poetry with its vivid descriptions of the most minute details of everyday life? Almost certainly. Is Laferriere a cultural anthropologist detailing images of life in a Haitian village. That too, and certainly much more successful in this role when dealing with the Petit Goave of his youth that the last days of Papa Doc's Port-au-Prince in the second volume. And is AN AROMA OF COFFEE a captivating and delightful read -- ah, most certainly.
The narrator follows the events of daily life. There's really no story here, it's sort of a journal of the life of a dozen or so folks, carrying on their normal routines. School kids flirting and getting into mischief, village gossips, deciding every person's business and motives. The key figure is Da, the boy's grandmother, sitting on her porch always ready to pour a cup of coffee for each passer-by, in exchange for the news of the day.
Laferriere paints a delightful, colorful, vivid picture of this everydayness that rings as true of Haiti today as of the Haiti of some 35 years ago that it celebrates.
One of the most fascinating episodes in the book is the village response to two events. Big Simon has won the state lottery and finally is able to purchase the cameon he has always wanted. But, Big Simon's daughter has died a day or two later. What is the meaning of this coincidence, or was it really coincidence? Laferriere treats this village mystery by having many characters relate their own version. Virtually none of the claimed "facts" of the case are inconsistent with each other, but the interpretations are totally different. Did Big Simon sacrifice his daughter to the powers of darkness to win the money? Was this just a coincidence of events? The town doesn't really know, but everyone has an inside track on the contradictory truth.
The center of this account of life in Petit-Goave is Da, the little boy's grandmother, and she is a consummate storyteller. There are dozens of folk tales related which she uses to illustrate moral lessons, or simply to pass the time with her ailing grandson. Da lives in a world opulated by much more than the physical world we normally countenance. Her world is rich in spirits who are completely as active in our lives as the people around her.
"Da told me the story of Prince. His name was Prince, but he was ugly and poor. He lived near the bridge, by the big cemetery. Prince lived in a hovel, but people said that the most beautiful women in the town would visit him at night. He had stolen their angels [souls]. He could do whatever he wanted with them, they, the most beautiful women. Da said that people called him Prince because, despite his ugliness and poverty, he lived like a prince."
AN AROMA OF COFFEE is a rich insight into the tiny details of everyday life in Haiti. It brings back memories if you once knew and forgot the details, it astonishes you with the richness of Haitian life if you never knew it before.
DINING WITH THE DICTATOR opens with some strong evidence of the autobiographical nature of these two books. Dany Laferriere is in discussion with his aunt in Florida, and she is chastising him for the earlier novel (Aroma). He has let too many family secrets out of the bag, and is especially guilty for an unflattering portrait of his grandfather, whom his aunt adores.
Then all of a sudden we drop the current time without a word (never to return) and flash back to 1971, the last few days of Papa Doc's life. Dany is now 15, living in Port-au-Prince, going to school and falling in love with the poetry of Saint-Aude, who pervades both novels. The first hundred pages of the novel point to something bigger than we get. There are two stories flitting back and forth like a ping pong ball in a fast match. The first appears to be the story of several elite and arrogant young women. The other is the story of two poor boys, Dany and his fried, Gege, getting into trouble in the slums of Port-au-Prince. Midway through the novel the two stories merge, and, while an interesting tale, the story sort of peters out, being the repetitive account of the six young women we met earlier.
They turn out not to be of the elite, but highly paid teenage prostitutes of wealthy and powerful men. These are women, girls only in age, who've taken on a hardness and arrogance in the cut throat world in which they live and operate. Choupette articulates their view of men:
"I take it all: money, presents, fancy restaurants, hotel swimming pools, dresses, jewelry. I take it all, even things that don't belong to me. I don't give a shit about men. I plunder them, and that's it. I plunder the handsome one's, they're the easiest marks, the ugly ones drive a harder bargain, life hasn't been kind to them, but I plunder them in the end, too. I plunder the big ones and the little ones, the rich and the poor, the handicapped and the nice guys and the torturers. I ask only one thing of them, and that's to be man. They can never hate me as much as I hate them. I am a plunderess!"
Perhaps in her equal opportunity plundering Choupette is a symbol of the Haiti in which she lives. Certainly the six women who live together plunder each other, always at one another's throats while professing to be each other's best friends.
Dany has come to live among them because Miki, the best hearted of them, has taken him in to protect him. He'd gotten caught up in a wild escapade, been shot at by a Tonton Macoute, and since has been on the run because his friend Gege snuck up on the drunken Macoute and castrated him.
Dany is terrified, giving to the sharks (as the Macoutes are called in this novel), the all-knowingness that the bad guys typically have in espionage novels. Dany frozen and immobilized in his fear, knows that every shark in Haiti is looking for him for his role in the mutilation of one of them. At any second he will be found, tortured and killed. His fear may be exaggerated, but it gives a strong and believable sense to the nature of fear in Haiti in 1971.
But the last half of this novel gets old. It too many pages of six callous young prostitutes screaming at each other, hurting each other at every turn. The richness of the first novel is gone and, rather than seeing a kaleidoscope of life in Papa Doc's Haiti, were are hammered with the repetitiveness of one dark corner, albeit a corner I had known little about.
Laferriere writes well about this sad and macabre world, and the one vivid sex scene when young Dany loses his virginity, is as powerful a piece of erotic literature as one will read, and ironic too. It is not Dany the male who perpetrates this sex act, but Marie-Michele, the slight 14 year old prostitute who mounts him, transporting them both into raptures of eroticism, not allowing him to be anything except the passive receptor of her sexuality.
The book's ending is a startling surprise worthy of O Henry! But neither of these books ends as much as the author just breaks off his narrative.
The writing in both novels is strong, the images vivid and detailed, the portraits in the strict realism of a Haiti that once was and isn't much different from the Haiti which still exists today. Both books are worth a read, though I came away from AN AROMA OF COFFEE with the sense of having been in the hands of a more accomplished novelist than I did with DINING WITH THE DICTATOR.
I was disappointed with the translated title DINING WITH THE DICTATOR. The original French title frames the story much more fairly: Le gout des jeunes filles: A taste of the young women. Perhaps the translator wanted to force us to concentrate more on the young women as an image of the plundering nature of the whole Haitian society of that time and was afraid we'd miss it. I don't know. But Dany Laferriere's original title would, for me, have worked much better.
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