It was time to go back to the source. At 69, Dany Laferrière has rebounded the course of his work – thirty-six books, he counted, since his first novel, Comment faire l’amour avec un nègre sans se tireur (VLB, 1985), that he published in Quebec nine years after leaving Haiti. “They say that the Nile, at its source, is a stream. Gérard Campfort is the stream that will become the river of ink that I produced, “he explains about the central character of his short story published this spring by Grasset, L’Enfant qui Regard. She is “80%” inspired by the life of her former high school literature teacher in Haiti. Gérard Campfort (1942-2013) was a mysterious man who for years hosted a program on Radio Haiti-Inter without ever saying his name. His articles published in the daily Le Nouvelliste were, says Dany Laferrière, “hermetic”. Just like a book by him, called Keys, which provided none. “One day someone said he had been in love. I didn’t hear the whole story, but it entered my head that he was a character in a novel. »
The ordinary life of the French Academy
The writer recounts his crossing with a big smile in a Parisian café. The establishment is nestled in the calm of a former convent converted into a residence, where he stays when he comes from this side of the Atlantic. In two days, Dany Laferrière, received at the French Academy in 2015, will meet with the other Immortels Quai Conti to work on the dictionary. The writer loves the ordinary life of the institution. He would have energy to participate in all the commissions. In fact, he seems to have rejuvenated. And we think that the best proof that “exile is worth the trip” (according to the title of one of his books published by Grasset in 2020) is that face.
More than fifty years later, Dany Laferrière therefore portrays the man who brought him a way of being in the world that he would make his own when, a young exile in Montreal, he spent the free time left to him by his precarious jobs in typing on his typewriter and reading Whitman and Dostoyevsky in his pink tub. This is where the “river of ink” begins, into which flow an American affluent (his urban novels written in Montreal on his Remington 22 and collected in American Mythologies, Grasset, 2016) and a Haitian (books on the childhood and youth, such as The Smell of Coffee, conceived in the 1990s and 2000s, when he was living in Miami, and mostly reissued in paperback by Zulma). These cycles, which the author rewrote and considered as a whole – his “American autobiography” – were joined by children’s books and films as well as drawn novels, his new passion since Autoportrait de Paris avec chat (Grasset , 2018).
At Laferrière, everything comes from childhood. He often said this when referring to his grandmother Da, present in half of his books and to whom he was sent away from Port-au-Prince, at the age of 4, for fear of reprisals from the François regime. Duvalier (who once targeted his father, pushing him into exile). If women brought tenderness in his youth, Gérard Campfort, known as Monsieur Gérard, “produced a new theme: the individual”. This brilliant man, of extreme elegance, fascinated, while remaining impervious to gossip. He has preserved a real intimacy in Port-au-Prince, a city “so talkative, almost transparent”, says Dany Laferrière.
Withdrawn from teaching, his solitary character listens to Wagner and reads Baudelaire. “Monsieur Gérard gives the impression of not being from here, he is inadmissible in the eyes of others”, notes the author of I am a Japanese writer (Grasset, 2008). “I believe that when I write later, in The Cry of Crazy Birds [Zulma, 2000], that what is subversive is to live outside the gaze of the dictator, not to meet his expectations which would like that Whether we hate him or love him, in any case whether we are obsessed with him, it’s Gérard Campfort that I will think of. He managed to extricate himself from Haitian society,” explains the author, who had to flee Port-au-Prince for Montreal in 1976, after the journalist Gasner Raymond, his friend and colleague, was assassinated by the ” tontons macoutes” by Jean-Claude Duvalier.
“‘The child who watches’ is a bonsai novel”
So much for the story. But why choose the short form, when Laferrière usually flourishes in works of two or three hundred pages? “I’ve always written in a burst style, even in my larger books,” he replies. My long fragmented texts… I feel like it’s a collection of scattered texts that end up being a novel. The Child who watches, contrary to popular belief, is not a short story, but a bonsai novel. It may be my “japanism” that is showing up. I had to face the same problems as for a novel. I’ve worn it for as long as I wear a novel. The news fuses, while this book bristles with spikes. »
This fifty-page text is therefore not news. We know the author’s admiration for Magritte, which goes hand in hand with his refusal of rules and his desire to live according to his “vision of things”. Dany Laferrière confesses that he actually knows nothing about the personality of Monsieur Gérard. “That’s why I wrote this book,” he explains. His character’s “heightened sensitivity” is in many ways reminiscent of that of Stefan Zweig. The Austrian writer (1881-1942), author, above all, of short stories, shared with his protagonist a form of “despair in the face of a terrifying world”. “In fact, continues the writer, it is a tribute to one of my aunts, Aunt Renée, who loved to read Zweig. I never thought of writing like him, but I certainly dreamed of a reader like Aunt Renée. I would sit in front of her and watch her read, her face lit up by Zweig’s prose,” recalls Dany Laferrière. Everything comes from childhood.
Everything brings it back too. Thus, while he felt “a great fatigue” following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and then at his official reception at the French Academy in 2015, “opposing events (one luminous, the other du side of darkness)”, he begins to think of doing something new for him: “Write and draw at the same time. It seemed to me that these are the two legs that my art needed to walk. The frenzy and the travels engendered by his Médicis Prize for The Enigma of the Return (Grasset, 2009) weighed on his exhaustion. Just like the death of his mother, in 2017. He discovers that drawing calm. “Every time I need to say something in a new way, I feel like I have to die first,” he continues. I was barely an Immortal when I thought about dying. To die is the honor of the living. I am talking about the writer who had just written L’Enigme du retour and not about the human being that I am. How to be reborn? By making a book in complete freedom: it’s Autoportrait de Paris avec chat. Even today I still cannot fully understand the many reasons that led to these painted books. »
The fifth of its kind, Dans la splendeur de la nuit, which has just been published (Points, “Poésie”, 144 p., €10.90), is a poetic crossing of Port-au-Prince in which the narrator meets the figures that haunt and inspire him – “those worlds hidden under my eyelids”. Dany Laferrière beams when he talks about the big notebooks he bought in Montreal and the hours of drawing in his bed in his pajamas. Like the first day.
1953 Windsor Klébert Laferrière is born in Port-au-Prince (Haiti).
1976 He goes into exile in Montreal.
1985 How to make love with a nigger without getting tired (VLB, Quebec; Belfond, 1989).
2009 Prix Médicis for The Enigma of the Return (Grasset).
2013 He is elected to the French Academy.
2018 Self-portrait of Paris with cat (Grasset).
Live only for art
Monsieur Gérard “is not from here”, we read in L’Enfant qui Regards, by Dany Laferrière. However, the former teacher lives in the heart of a market in Port-au-Prince, capital of his country of origin, which he has never left. The splendid isolation of this admirer of Wagner and Baudelaire irritates or fascinates women as well as men, and especially the young narrator of the story. The latter has the privilege of coming to Mr. Gérard for private lessons until his intrusive questions earn him his dismissal.
Are we in Haiti? Not as much as in The Smell of Coffee or Country Without a Hat (Zulma, 2016 and 2018). This short text talks about the birth of the desire to read and write; to live only for that and of that. A way of being dear to the academician, on which he returned in many books such as Journal of a writer in pajamas (Grasset, 2013) or I write as I live (La Passe du vent, 2000).
But Monsieur Gérard is not only the model of the man that the child dreams of becoming later: he teaches him to see the world as a dense novel populated by characters to be deciphered. Observing his gestures, immersing himself in his universe, the hero imagines the causes of his mother’s silence and the absence of his father, who has evaporated to escape the dictator’s militia. Trying to unravel the riddle Monsieur Gérard shows the narrator the power of fiction. Port-au-Prince becomes the setting for a tragic end…which he may have invented, like everything else.
Read an extract on the Grasset editions website.