Author protests Haiti’s latest labels

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August 25, 2013

The World Is Moving Around Me: A Memoir of the Haiti Earthquake
By Dany Laferriere (pictured left)
Translated by David Homel
Arsenal Pulp Press, 183 pages

Reviewed by Arno Kopecky

“The minute” began at 4:53 in the afternoon of January 12, 2010, just as Dany Laferriere was biting into a piece of bread. The Haitian-born, Montreal-dwelling author of How To Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired (and 19 other novels) happened to be in one of the few concrete buildings in Port-au-Prince that didn’t implode—the Hotel Karibe—when the 7.3 magnitude quake struck. Some 300,000 others didn’t have the same luck.

“Very rare were those who got a good start,” he writes, recalling his own belated rush to the roofless safety of the hotel’s courtyard. “Even the quickest wasted three or four precious seconds before they understood what was happening.”

We all know what came next, and yet Laferriere’s account of the subsequent hours, days and weeks is anything but predictable. This is thanks largely to the astonishing lyricism of his writing.  The World Is Moving Around Me reads more like an extended prose poem than a memoir, broken into titled sections that range in length from a single paragraph to three pages. One of them, The Revolution, reads as follows:

“The radio announced that the Presidential Palace has been destroyed. The taxation and pension office, destroyed. The courthouse, destroyed. Stores, crumbled. The communication network, destroyed. Prisoners on the streets. For one night, the revolution had come.”

And yet, the mass looting that the international press half-hoped would ensue, never did. Order prevailed. The instincts of the collective trumped those of the individual, yielding miracles great and small. The day after the minute, Laferriere walked past a mango lady sitting in front of her small pile of fruit, calling out her sales pitch just like any other day. “These people are so used to finding life in difficult conditions that they could bring hope to hell,” he concludes.

Laferriere started his career as a journalist, fleeing Haiti in 1978 after a colleague with whom he’d been working on a story was murdered by the regime. His reportage merges seamlessly with a novelist’s grasp of the zeitgeist. But the thing that impressed me most about this book was the way he captured the disaster-sensation of being dazed and hyper-lucid all at once. A dream-like quality pervades his prose that no camera could capture, suspending the reader between tears and laughter. We hear, for instance, about the woman who sat outside the building her family was buried alive in. She talked to them through the night. “First her husband stopped responding. Then one of their three three children. Later, another . . . More than a dozen hours later, people were finally able to rescue the baby, who had been crying the whole time. When he got out, he broke into a wide smile.”

Laferriere has done the work of sorting through the rubble for us, piling up impressions until some sort of sense emerges from the senselessness. In the process, he duplicates the city’s “stunned air of a child whose toy has just been accidentally stepped on by an adult.”

In documenting this tragedy and his country’s response to it, Laferriere vehemently protests the latest label heaped on Haiti: “All some commentator has to do is say the word “curse” on the airwaves and spreads like cancer,” he laments. “Before they can move on to voodoo, wild men, cannibalism and a nation of blood-drinkers, they’ll see that I have enough energy to fight them.”

Arno Kopecky’s next book, The Oil Man and the Sea, is in its final stages.

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