A freestyle literary feast

The Enigma of Return
Dany Laferriere (translated by David Homel)
MacLehose, £12.99Kindle: £8.51

In 1947, Martiniquan poet and politician Aimé Césaire’s epic surrealist work, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, considered the cultural identity of black Africans in a colonial setting.

Thirty years later, Trinidad’s Nobel Prize-winning author, VS Naipaul, penned a masterful book, part-novel, part-autobiography, entitled, The Enigma of Arrival, musing on the shift in perception and slow-growing familiarity for the place of an exile’s landing as well as how our new surround influences and changes us.

Both of these works cast strong shadows across Dany Laferrière’s latest novel. Césaire is frequently referenced throughout the book; Naipaul passes without mention but his influence would seem a justifiable assumption, even beyond the appropriated and cleverly inverted title.

The plot here is a simple one: For more than 30 years, the novel’s narrator, Windsor Laferrière (which happens to be the author’s birth name) has lived in Montreal, having fled Haiti to escape the brutal regime of Baby Doc Duvalier. Now, while suffering from writer’s block, he receives a phone call informing him that his father, who’d long been absent from his life, has died in a hospital in New York. He attends the funeral service, then travels to his homeland in order to break the sad news to his mother. The reconnections happen slowly: with place, with people that he has known, and finally, with family. It is a voyage of discovery.

The story is heavily autobiographical, mimicking the author’s own life, but you read this book less for its plot than for the peculiarly alluring style, which flits between free verse and slabs of prose, and for the breathtaking quality of its observations. The magic is in the language, the unfurling of memory delivered in some 60 titled line-broken prose/poem pieces, the enlightenment and compassion afforded by exile’s distance and its scars. Slowly, evocatively, Haiti is brought to life in all its beauty and horror. History looms large for eyes still attuned to old expectations. Everything changes, and nothing does.

Born in Port-au-Prince in 1953, Dany Laferrière moved to Canada in the mid ’70s. Writing in French, he had, within a decade, penned his sensational debut, How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired.

Since then, he has enjoyed a prolific and highly acclaimed career as both a novelist and poet. The Enigma of Return, his 11th novel, is the eighth of his books to enjoy an English translation and is likely to be the one that breaks him to a larger audience. Already lauded with the Prix Medicis, one of France’s most esteemed honours, it is a thoughtful piece of work from an idiosyncratic and audacious writer.

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