“The Low Roar of Buildings Falling to Their Knees”

Reading between the lines.
Jan. 4 2013 11:38 PM

Shaken and Stirred

Dany Laferrière’s memoir of the Haitian earthquake.

(Continued from Page 1)

The confessional qualities of Laferrière’s memoir are muted, though he does let us know that, while riding out the initial shock on the heaving surface of his hotel courtyard, he “wondered if the earth would gape open and swallow us up. That was my childhood terror.” He speaks, in general, of “those who are deeply damaged inside but don’t know it yet. … Those people have hidden the screams inside them. One day they will implode.” More personally, he writes in the days following the quake:

I felt a good strong shock. My breath gone. Sweating already. … My legs were weak. I went back to the table once I’d gotten hold of myself. The same atmosphere as before. Nothing indicated there’d been a tremor. I can’t be the only one who felt it. People are going to mention it. I just need to wait. The conversations were as lively as ever. Finally I understood that my body had shaken, not the earth.

Author Dany Laferrière
Author Dany Laferrière

Courtesy Douglas and McIntyre.

Laferrièrre has a lucid plain-style which may remind American readers of the best of Ernest Hemingway, specifically Hemingway’s commitment to writing about the actions that produce emotion, rather than about feelings themselves. Francophone readers may be more immediately reminded of Céline. The style is well adapted to conditions of shock: “We gaze at Port-au-Prince with the stunned air of a child whose toy has just been accidentally stepped on by an adult.” In the face of overwhelming catastrophe, Laferrière’s simplicity is disarming:

She’s the first thing I see on the road to Pétionville. A mango vendor sitting with her back against a wall, a dozen mangos spread out before her. This is her livelihood. For her, there’s nothing new. It doesn’t occur to me to buy from her, though I love mangos. I hear Saint-Éloi’s voice behind me: “What a country!” These people are so used to finding life in difficult conditions that they could bring hope down to hell.

In the international press and aid-worker communities, the aftermath of the quake provoked more nattering than usual about the extraordinary and admirable resilience of the Haitian people in times of crisis, crisis being their near-constant condition, almost needless to say. Simultaneously, there was a rise of complaint about that increasingly well-laminated cliché, sometimes on the part of the same people who voiced it in the first place. Like many clichés, this one is founded on stubbornly persistent fact.

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The glimpses Laferrière records of people on the devastated streets of Port-au-Prince accrue to give a deeper substance to the idea of Haitian indomitability. These quickly captured images are somehow more powerful than the words of which they are composed. In the end he is able to grapple with the idea of Haitian resilience in the abstract far more successfully than most. “In Haiti,” he writes, “if you’re frightened one minute, you’re dancing the next. This tried-and-true method keeps people from sinking into collective depression.” And, later, he continues this notion: “Seeing their serenity, you can imagine how much they know about pain, hunger, and death, and how much violent joy lives inside them. Joy and pain are transformed in singing and in dance. … If we listen more carefully, we might be surprised to discover that the words that got us up on the dance floor are achingly sad. That’s where the secret of this country resides.”

The form of this book is both circumstantially and intentionally fragmentary at the start: The reader follows a shocked sensibility as it picks up shards from the wreckage and gradually begins to assemble them into a mosaic. This process of composition is an image of how Haiti must reconstruct itself—from the inside. The country is too often assumed to be a backward place: The First World has trouble remembering that Haitians were two centuries ahead of us in abolishing slavery and in extending full rights of citizenship to everyone, regardless of race. The former slaves who founded the first independent black state in the Western Hemisphere did it their own way, without any assistance or encouragement from surrounding international powers. It should be no real surprise that the templates for reform, progress, and democratization imported to Haiti more recently tend to fit very poorly. The apparently desultory structure of Laferrière’s memoir reflects the style in which Haitians have always got their business done.

A great many voyagers have been astonished by Haiti, and some have benefited from the experience, and some have brought benefits to the country. The explosion of interest and sympathy that followed the earthquake involved enormous amounts of genuine, sincere, and poorly informed good will. It takes patience for learning new ways for any outsider to stay the course in Haiti. Outsiders who have that patience, plus a considerable openness of mind, can do some real good in the country, but, inevitably, most of them don’t. “We got used to being the planet’s center of attention too quickly,” Laferrière writes. “Where are the cameras now? Elsewhere, for there are other nations who have been waiting to warm themselves by that artificial fire.”

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The World Is Moving Around Me by Dany Laferrière. Arsenal Pulp Press.

The World is Moving Around Me: A Memoir of the Haiti Earthquake

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Madison Smartt Bell is the author of 12 novels, most recently The Color of Night, and a biography of Toussaint Louverture. He teaches at Goucher College in Baltimore.

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