Since a few years, I have been making a few quick trips to Haiti. My visits are limited to Port-au-Prince, the capital city, but the cultural shock offered by this city reached by air in a little bit more than one hour from Miami is so fascinating that I would love to discover more of the country. I like the atmosphere of the restaurants, like the Brasserie Quartier Latin where I like sipping a rum punch while enjoying the varied and talented musical scene.
« The Comedians » by Graham Greene is the first book I was recommended and I read about Haiti. I love this writer and I greatly enjoyed this novel. Three foreign expatriates are tangled in a series of political intrigues, arm deals and extra-marital affairs during the darkest hours of the Duvalier dictatorship and the infamous Tontons Macoutes. As often with Graham Greene, who has a fondness for failed characters, it’s possible to read the novel at two levels: the thriller itself, and at a second level, the reflections that the characters make on themselves.
As much as I like Graham Greene, I also wanted to discover the country through the eyes of an Haitian author. Dany Laferrière is a Haitian-Canadian writer. He was recently elected to the Académie Française. His first novel “How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired » has a catchy title and made him famous but it takes place in Québec. Since then, he has published several stories in which he remembers his childhood and youth in Haïti. « An Aroma of Coffee (L’odeur du café) » is the first in that series. I read with a lot of pleasure this collection of very short stories or cameos which follow each other smoothly and take place in Petit-Goâve, a small town not too far from Port-au-Prince. At the age of ten, the author lived there with Da, his grand-mother, who would spend the day sitting down under the gallery outside her house and would offer a cup of coffee to the people passing by. We end up discovering the life of this coastal town, its family tales and the voodoo stories. And we follow the boy as he is growing up, attending local soccer games without paying a ticket, sneaking into his school at night to prank one of the teachers but being caught, or falling in love, for the first time, with the beautiful Vava.
In « Dining with the Dictator » (don’t ask me how and why this is the translation of the original French title « Le goût des jeunes filles »), Dany Laferrière remembers when he was fifteen and the week-end during which he took refuge in an apartment across the street from his home as he thought he was pursued by a Tonton Macoute. The flat serves as headquarters for a group of young girls a few years older than him. Pasqualine, Marie-Michèle, Miki, Choupette and the others come from all strata in the Haitian society, from the slums to the very exclusive bourgeoisie in Pétionville. While in the flat, they never stop quarrelling, but at night, they unite to tour the bars and the clubs in the city and have the men – respectable married men or young gangsters – dancing to their tune. The young boy observes with astonishment this carousel not knowing whether the girls are to be envied or pitied. Until he himself is invited to taste and enjoy the charms of one of them.