Dany LaFerriére: L'Art de la Chronique
L’art de la chronique
15 June 2017
When writing stories I only use cooking images. For me, the art closest to writing is the art of cooking. Hours of cooking, fresh spices and that all too simple commandment: never take your eyes off a pot on the fire. Meals – like novels – are made up of our fears and our joys. The dinner guest only turns up when everything is ready. From the doorway he will exclaim, ‘Something smells delicious,’ and then all he has to do is sit down and eat. In a bookstore, one need only stand by the table displaying the latest arrivals to inhale the aroma of the literary novelties. The same appetite. For we spend our time writing or cooking for the benefit of someone we don’t always know. Thus, it is this unknown person that legitimizes the energy we have put into the effort. An injustice, but one which becomes sweeter as we watch him devour the book or the dish. Hunger for the alphabet is not all that different from hunger for fish soup.
I received my first lesson in writing from my grandmother. Our kitchen cupboard empty, not a cent in her pockets, she nevertheless does not hesitate to put a cauldron of water on the fire before going to sit in the market gallery, where she calmly waits for a fish to be caught on her hook. And that is just as Absalom is walking up Rue Lamarre with a bucket of fresh fish slung over his shoulder. He is just back from the sea, that bright shining turquoise sea, at the end of our street, behind the coconut palms. He offers my grandmother two fish and she sends me to drop one into the boiling cauldron and to give the other to our neighbour Thérèse who, in turn, offers me some oil, salt and flour. I come back and sit down by my grandmother until a vegetable merchant remembers the coffee that Da gives him every afternoon. So he offers us some yams, carrots, onions and eggplant, which I run back to drop into the pot. Now all we have to do is wait for the miracle, hours of cooking over a low fire. Disparate items that blend gently until each has lost its individual character, and together they create a great fish soup. That is my suggestion for today’s menu.
I. Such a Long Childhood
Now that my mother is dead, I am no longer a child. The two women who witnessed the part of my life that was filled with both sunlight and rain are no longer in this world. My grandmother in Petit-Goâve and my mother in Port-au-Prince. But rest assured, I have no intention of depicting an elaborate farewell here, since they have left the suffocating heat of everyday life, it’s true, but only to enter the universe of fiction, holding their heads high. The daughter joined her mother. Two small bright stars in the firmament of my childhood. I picture them covered in hundreds of needles, each with a drop of blood on its tip. On the page, the writer converts that blood into ink. And every day he satisfies his hunger for the alphabet. I can’t remember when I began to see my childhood in a different light. Was it in order to highlight the importance of my story-telling? The fact is that I did not spend my childhood behind my mother’s skirts, but in the middle of a magic circle of women. My grandmother, my mother and my aunts sheltered me in a pink powder cloud of tenderness to hide me from the monster who lurks outside, night and day. At the height of the bloodiest events perpetrated by the dictatorship I was aware of nothing but the carefree mood of that state of grace that is childhood. I realize that not everyone experiences the same childhood, and that’s why for me 88 Rue Lamarre is the universal address of happiness. The vision of a grandmother drinking her coffee, with her grandson, at her feet, observing the ants on the ground, may well be the most lasting of images in a lifetime spent dabbling with ink. There was a sort of division of labour: my grandmother looked after my childhood and my mother cared for me in adolescence. All the rest was decided by dictatorship, exile, travelling, writing, depending on my mood or on the mood of that little practical joker of a god who makes fun of our illusions. When the sky is low and the clouds menacing, I roam through the streets, head down and in a dark mood. Evenings, when the scent of jasmine prevails, I wander through the town in the hopes of getting lost. Nothing is sweeter than to wander aimlessly at night, through a new city, dreaming of the freshness of a new life. Adventure lies in wait at the corner of the street and may take the form of a guitar, which you can hear playing but cannot see the musician, or the radiant smile of that woman you just brushed against, walking past. I shall always remember that Chagall-like cow I came across one night in Port-au-Prince. It was a night peppered with gunshots, and the houses were filled with anxious mothers. Mine stood behind the door, eagerly awaiting the sound of my footsteps. She then opened the door quickly, as though a whole army of devils were on my heels, or the Tonton Macoutes were in hot pursuit. But never a word about her anxiety, except that I could smell the strong scent of her worry in the hall. Just imagine a young intellectual, 23 years old, living with his mother, his sister and his aunts in a house which is like an oven at midnight, since it captures in its belly all the midday heat.
My mother had taken out a subscription to Le Nouvelliste, the major daily where my father published his pieces occasionally before he set up his own paper. My father had realized that a national newspaper, that needed to be cautious in order to survive, could not afford to print crude accounts of the actions of a government that was fast turning into a dictatorship. My father, in a way, agreed with the Nouvelliste’s survival strategy. I would read the articles about the cinema, theatre or literature. Strangely, there was often much more daring writing in the cultural pages than in the political sections. I avoided anything associated with the ruling power, even those pieces denouncing its actions. The extravaganzas of the Surrealist movement seemed to me far more subversive than any blatant attack on the dictatorship. A dictatorship acting in broad daylight did not need to be explained. The press could not teach us anything more than our daily humiliations could. The Haitian poet René Depestre had published a novel in Paris called Le mât de cocagne (The Maypole) which I found unhelpful. I wrote him a letter, which I could not send since the post was monitored: ‘Dear Depestre, it is not a mathematical demonstration of the dictatorship’s methods that we need from you (after all, we know them better than anyone else), but rather a fragment or two of our multitude of feelings.’ I knew what I wanted. Every day I would revise and correct the newspaper, my way, until one afternoon two people knocked on my door: ‘We won’t stay long,’ they said, speaking in unison. ‘We have heard that you correct the newspaper. Would you like to come over to us and do it there?’ The very next day I went to Le Nouvelliste’s offices and met the editor, Monsieur Lucien Montas. He was nicknamed the Sphynx since it was difficult to guess what he was thinking. I had brought with me in my briefcase a few articles on painting, which he went through while smoking his pipe. He then slid the pieces into his drawer. The following Saturday my article on the primitive painter Hector Hyppolite was laid out proudly on the front page. A month later he casually let drop that the front page was the place for me as long as my pieces stayed concise and my sentences short. That was my last lesson in writing. After which I plunged headfirst into this river of ink which is reading and writing. After Le Nouvelliste I joined the group of young people my own age who worked for the Petit Samedi Soir, a weekly with a strong political commitment – there, too, my writing was on cinema and painting. The ruling power hardened further and intimidations against journalists were the order of the day, until one day the body of the young journalist Gasner Raymond, his head smashed in, was discovered on a beach, a few kilometres out of Port-au-Prince. He was my best friend. The government was blamed. I precipitously fled the country as I was in danger, according to a colonel who was a friend of my mother’s. After my father had fled into exile our economic situation had worsened considerably for the simple reason that we had become untouchable, like victims of the plague. My mother couldn’t find a job even in the private sector. We had come down in the world and had moved from Avenue Magloire to this little road near the cemetery. My mother was terrified of falling even further down, since only one road to the south separated us now from drowning in the liquid crowd of a working-class neighbourhood. Flowers saved us from social disgrace. Money was not the only last bastion protecting us from barbarism; the aesthetics of life could still help us keep our head above water. Even when we no longer each had a room of our own, we kept up a little parlour where the furniture was protected from the sunlight by white coversheets, and a dining-room where the family would come together once a day. And especially a flowerbed that went all the way around the house. It was as though these rows of flowers protected us from the onslaught of the barbarism of chaos.
But these fragile flowers, which it was my task to water after classes, reminded me of life in Petit-Goâve where my grandfather demanded that every member of the family manage a small parcel of land to grow vegetables on. We ate what we had planted. It was the last time my hands performed any manual labour. My hand has by today already written about 30 books (a mountain of paper), but has not planted a single tree for half a century. I sometimes wonder if this does not perhaps influence my writing in a certain direction. The tips of my fingers can only make the names of flowers bloom. As the years have passed I have become increasingly distant from both flora and fauna. And yet, they played such an important role in my childhood. We lived next to a paddock, where farmers left their horses after having unloaded their vegetables at the market. And that field was our playground. My nostrils were always filled with the smell of manure. Below me, I watched as military formations of ants went busily about their business; around my head, butterflies and dragon-flies. The music of flies on the horses’ wounds. A whole world swarming with people, but warm and welcoming for those who appreciate it. We lived in near total isolation, in a small town surrounded by blue mountains. The sea in the distance. The impression of living inside one of the colourful jungles painted by Salnave Philippe-Auguste.
A Taste for Young Girls
But let’s get back to the adolescent in Port-au-Prince living with his mother, his sister and his aunts in a house perched on the edge of a social ravine. Life inside was calm, gestures muted, rituals unchangeable. The windows were often closed. Under no circumstance was I to play with the neighbours’ children. We were sheltered from vulgarity by fragile flowers on long stalks. Across the street from us lived a colony of young girls, giggling, blossoming, radiant. The pink-coloured house across from us appeared not to have a door. The girls wore colourful miniskirts. At all hours of the day and night there were cars that came by, blowing their horns, and the girls would come out of the house and pile into the cars and race away at great speed. To my eyes this was the life I dreamed of, the life we saw in Hollywood movies. I don’t know why my mother disliked this so much. For her, these girls were the product of the dictator’s policies, who had ended up injecting a pleasure-seeking and carefree lifestyle into the veins of Haitian youth. Openly challenging my mother for the first time, I would spend my afternoons looking out of my first-floor bedroom window, observing the little theatre show in the house opposite. I began to be able to recognise the actresses, always well made up, aged between 18 and 20; and some of the male protagonists as well, including one who came round most often. He was a man of 50 driving a 1957 Buick. There was a younger one, too, about 35, who always looked furious. Despite their guns, the young girls had them all wrapped around their little fingers. And, as for me, I was fascinated by their beauty, their grace, their strength of character and, above all, their passion for life. At my house things were often very sad. My father’s exile darkened our lives. I dreamed of one day finding myself on the other side of the street, in the house opposite. My mother suspected the change that I was undergoing. She would often find me lying on my back (I did everything possible to make sure she never found me at the window) and staring too fixedly at the cracks in the ceiling. She would quietly close the door again, thinking that it was my father’s absence that made me so meditative. Until one day when, alerted by lots of loud honking, she rushed to the window just as the girls were leaving in their bikinis on their way to the seaside. She closed the window, gently as though she was handling something explosive, and later, at dinner, she told me that I was never to open my bedroom window again.
The Writing Lesson
So there I was, in a new city seized with excitement. The 1976 Olympic Games, with the little gymnast Nadia Comaneci, added the perfect final touch. A full vote of 10 points was so unheard of in the history of the Olympics that the electronic scoring board could not even mark it: the figure 0 was non-existent! There was rejoicing and partying in the streets. A joyfulness never experienced before ran through the city like a cobra blinded by sunlight. By evening I ended up in a little jazz joint downtown where Nina Simone and Dizzy Gillespie were performing. The owner was from Guadeloupe, a poet and chef who plunged me back into Caribbean cuisine: it was almost as though I had never left my country. From my corner of the hot little smoke-filled club I watched Nina Simone sing. She had a glass of whisky in her right hand, a lipstick smeared cigarette between her long, sophisticated fingers. She sang looking out of the window, as though she could see a world which we were forbidden to enter. I don’t know why, but my vocation as a writer was born precisely at that moment. I wanted to write like Nina Simone could sing. Obviously, in my own rougher way, but with the same grace – I hoped. I am still pursuing that ideal. There is one thing I do indeed share with her, and which comes to me from Haiti: hope, a wild hope, inseparably chained to my body. To stop a Haitian from dreaming you’ve got to kill him. Neither the factory where I slaved away for eight years, nor my days of hunger, nor the cold nights of solitude ever succeeded in stopping me from dreaming of becoming a writer one day. Not far away from my lodgings I found an old Remington 22 typewriter, going cheap: it is still on my desk, although I don’t use it any more. I placed the typewriter on the little table in the middle of my room, surrounded by the flowers and fruits that reminded me how my mother took care to make our house pretty even when we were penniless. This notion of beauty has stuck with me. I had understood that Hemingway could never have been a great writer if – as well as being that macho American literary figure – he had not sheltered inside him that little seamstress, holding back her tears as she knitted. I loved Miller because he welcomed life with such a joy that made him irresistible. I found Bukowski’s style more nuanced than appeared at first sight. I love artists who conceal their game. The lesson: the writer’s task is to make the reader cry, not cry himself. Conceal your tears. I avoided the ghettoes, those neighbourhoods that brought together people in the same social condition, since you can’t learn anything from living amongst people like yourself. Don’t interpret this in any way as social contempt, I am not referring here solely to desperate economic conditions, since I am also thinking of intellectual ghettoes. The rich barricade themselves even more than the poor. I wanted to move freely about in this new space, a virgin space for my steps and for my appetites. My days unfolded without daylight: I would take the subway to go to work before sunrise and would return in the evening after sundown. I would eat alone, some evenings thinking that loneliness was worse than hunger. When I could no longer bear these rhythms, I decided I would stop wasting my energy on the factory and embark on the craziest adventure of my life: to write a novel telling the story of my life today, my life in Montreal. The life I was living at the time of writing. The life which was saving me from the clutches of the dictatorship. That dictatorship which forces writers to spend their lives recreating those experiences, conveying the impression that they are forever caught up in the terrible web of that Spider wearing dark glasses and a black hat. I wanted to take stock of this new life unfolding in Square Saint-Louis, in Montreal’s Latin Quarter. My years under the dictatorship, the searing experience of my father’s exile, my mother’s pain, made me understand that the monster is cold and needs our passions to warm himself. What makes him holler with rage is when one of us tries to escape from his universe to create one of our own. In a word: whether you hate him or adore him, all the dictator needs to recharge his energies, like a battery torch, is to be the centre of our lives. My first decision, as I sat down in front of the typewriter, was to stop him, under one guise or another, from entering my universe. The little bedroom where I spent my days, filthy but filled with light, and the blank page on which I was writing, were about to become my new country. A country both real and a dream, a place where no policeman of this world could enter. And I hope that writing for me will become an intimate celebration. I have at times been filled with anguish, for abject poverty is no guarantee of talent.
II. In the Cauldron
I have never accepted the fact that the United States have taken over that beautiful word, America. This word belongs to all the countries on the continent. I’m not too happy about the name Antilles which is too reminiscent of colonisation, or of Caribbean which always reminds me of the Caribbean Indians whose genocide is to this day an open wound. All that’s left is this word America, where Bolivar dreamed of establishing a single country. This continent which, for Argentinian writer Borges, evokes the dawn of the world. When you wander through these vast spaces, these layers of superimposed cultures, these landscapes filled with contrast, these intertwined languages, these highly urbanised cities alternating with remote villages, you feel as though you were in a primitive painting, with faces and landscapes all on the same plane, conveying that impression of abundance that awakens the rest of the planet’s ghosts. This is how the famous American mythologies are created. But you merely have to scratch the surface for a geyser of blood to spurt out, the blood of those peoples murdered only 200 years ago or the blood of young blacks still being killed today by white policemen or the blood of blacks killed by black dictators who refused to grant universal suffrage. Despite all this, people from all over the world keep on dreaming of this America.
A great sadness in my life has been the discovery – about ten years ago – that my body no longer tolerates coffee. Swallow even a tiny drop and I start trembling. A bundle of nerves. Me, the café child, whose grandfather traded the coffee he bought from the farmers in Petit-Goâve, selling it to Italy, and whose grandmother lived in a coffee house. The impression of losing the entire olfactory universe of my childhood. Proust allergic to Madeleines and the “recherche” would have ground to a halt for lack of fuel. I changed my diet, increased the rhythm of my exercises, and reduced to a minimum my daily dose of coffee until I was able to retrieve the lost flavour of that drink so dear to writers. For coffee is the ink irrigating the writer’s brain, allowing him to become delirious while staying lucid. It’s the only drink whose flavour is not a disappointment after its aroma. It’s the only drink, I repeat, whose flavour does not disappoint you after you have enjoyed its aroma. For other drinks, such as cognac, the smell is a greater delight than the flavour. And the word café refers to a public space where people meet to discuss freely with their friends or with strangers, while drinking coffee or cognac. Public powers were quick to recognize the subversive potential of such a space where freedom of speech reigns supreme. They have tried to prohibit both the drink and the place, but the people’s passionhas always prevailed. There are people escaping loneliness who spend more time at the café than in their own homes. Difficult to picture what our society would be like without the drink and the place to drink it in.
I usually compare identity to a bicycle. When you get onto a bike you would be well advised – unless you want to fall over – to keep looking ahead. You have to forget your bicycle and remember that its purpose is to enable you to go as far as possible. Notice that self-confidence increases when you forget the mechanics. I believe that identity is not an end in itself, but rather a combination of our original or acquired distinctive features which allow us to go as far as possible, without running the risk of getting lost. Being relaxed and self-assured about our identity helps us to be amidst others without tension, rather than avoiding them for fear of ending up being converted to a different worldview. What good is a bicycle if you leave it your garage for fear of surprises along the road? Identity possesses an intrinsic dynamic that makes it wither away when left dormant. And this happens when you are always harking on about it, instead of letting it roam freely. This idea that in Rome you must do like the Romans is not always right. First of all, you need to specify which Romans you are talking about, since not all Romans are citizens above reproach. If this were the case, there would be no need for a prison in Rome. And further, if the newcomer acts exactly as Rome wishes, he will not be contributing anything new to Rome, which would be a considerable loss for Rome. The worst thing, though, is that the mere presence of a stranger is sometimes enough to suddenly transform our identity into something very clearly defined… and unchangeable. A single person causing panic in a group, even when the group is on its own territory, is a demonstration of how fragile our certainties are.
It has become increasingly difficult to dream properly, now that big cities no longer have a real nighttime. Street lights are too bright, cafés are packed, and inside people’s homes the telly is on till the first snores begin. I rediscovered nighttime during one of my trips to Haiti. I was in a little village with electricity, where the houses were lit by lamps and the streets were dark. Above our heads, a round moon shone. I spent almost an hour staring at it. It had been a long time since I had really seen it. I remember my childhood adoration for the moon, a friend who followed me wherever I went; and then, of course, the stars. As a child, my grandmother would show me the constellations; I think that was the lesson that cured me for good of any kind of nationalism. My grandmother and I, we felt that belonging solely to planet Earth was suffocating and I was champing at the bit with impatience, longing to travel to Mars, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn and our other neighbours. Besides these numerous memories, what amazed me was the fact that people moved about so easily, in the ink-black night. It took me a moment to make out the shadows and understand what was swarming around me. I am so accustomed to the idea of being able to see everything clearly that I had forgotten the sweetness of living in darkness. I have promised myself that I shall come back to see the night, that time domain that electricity has expelled from our lives.
My mother never let me into her kitchen and that is why I was always so intrigued by that little hut in the courtyard where the women would hold their secret ceremony together. I would only find out what took place in that kitchen many years later, in Montreal. There I was, all alone, in a tiny overheated studio apartment, trying to write my first novel. I was totally fed up with eating hamburgers, when one evening I decided to try and cook, seized as I was by a deep nostalgia for the smells of my family’s kitchen. After a couple of botched attempts, one evening I succeeded in putting together a meal, as I was writing my first novel: I immediately noticed the similarity between cooking and writing. Throwing unrelated items together into a cauldron of boiling water, with a little oil to bind them, and then waiting for them to get cooked. In writing, the binding element is the narrator: the writer’s style is like the taste you create by choosing your spices. In my progress towards independence it was important to become capable of obtaining proper nourishment, since I have always felt a deep bond between my body and my writing. Into my writing cauldron, I throw a rhythm, some music and some emotions. But that is not enough to achieve a good result. It takes a warm hand, like having a green thumb when you set about growing flowers. Why can two people use the same ingredients and not achieve the same results? That’s the only unknown of this equation.
III. In Praise of the Alphabet
I’m not talking about literature here, but simply of being able to express personal feelings playing around with those twenty-six little fireflies that light up the (occasionally) thankless page. We have no idea of the power of these letters; they appear so fragile and so discreet that we hardly concern ourselves with their existence, once we have made the effort to learn them. They can offer consolation for the unhappiness in the world, sometimes mitigating our nightmare-causing despair: when you wake up in the middle night, bathed in sweat, it’s enough to scribble a list of things to do in the morning to feel relieved and reassured. You just need to think that for thousands of years these letters of the alphabet – whose number and shape varies in the different regions of the world – have been telling the story of our emotions, translating our thoughts, enabling us to communicate feelings that we would never dare to speak out openly in the presence of the other. Better still: these letters impose a refreshing silence in this world which is often so noisy. You only need to imagine the deafening din that would result if, at this very moment, there were not a good number of people engaged in reading or writing. Two operations which call for a fertile or productive silence. Letters are useful in our daily life; we can oblige them to perform degrading tasks, writing broken off words and meaningless sentences. And yet, they will always be there, lively and fresh, like morning flowers. Even when there are mistakes in every word in a sentence, the letters of the alphabet are unaffected. These little letters are timeless classics, they will never go out of fashion, even more so than an elegant dinner gown. The first time I saw them other than on the page of a book, or on the blackboard in my first year in school, was on my grandmother’s wrinkled face. I enjoyed deciphering them, as I came closer. Those little wrinkles, intersecting, formed finely chiselled little letters. Some were capitals, like A or E, others were either capital or lower case, like V, X or T. The letter W was rare, but I found it on the back of her neck. Never had a face been read so carefully. As I spend my life reading and writing, it sometimes happens that my grandmother’s kind face appears on a page which makes me handle the letters gently. And that brings the aroma of coffee to my nostrils, the coffee that she drank while I was engrossed in one of my miraculous alphabet hunting efforts. I was never capable of disassociating reading from writing, nor travelling from either. We read in order to leave the place we are in, and the same goes for writing. The new place we go to is one of those rare places in the world which does not require that you possess a passport or a visa. It’s a universal place which belongs only to writers and readers, to those who are capable of pursuing an idea, of setting out without worrying about the weather or the final destination. Those who don’t know how to read, but love dreaming, find their nourishment in oral storytelling, a form of narrative often more powerful than written texts, for the stories have been finely polished by the voices that have carried them down to us. In any case, those nighttime stories are not really that different from the novels you can pick up in bookstores. To write this lecture I tried to swim upstream, like a salmon, to find the original source, the first flavours of writing. It started with love letters. It takes two things to write: an urgency and a secret. Love, the strongest of feelings, is also the most forbidden, in many parts of the world. And the expression of love does not tolerate nuances. You need to go for the purest words, the bare words. The more beautiful the letter, the less it carries with it, since all the person wants to hear is I love you. If one could write a book with such fire at its core, one would be a poet. This is so true that our first love letters are often letters copied from the work of poets. I can’t even remember having looked away from the face of my loved one to admire the landscape around me. All those people standing around – and who I had not even noticed, for my obsession with Vava was total. Aunts, cousins, neighbours, and even strangers, were no more than an indistinct background fog. I saw them eventually and I merely wanted to eat them alive. So many different characters. What a profusion for the young painter from Alphabetville! And to this day, the same elements are on the scales: on one side your loved one’s face and on the other the rest of the world. Which of the two weighs more? Only the tiny letters of the alphabet know how the story ends. They keep on flittering about, trying to form words, phrases, pages and books, and we pretend we are the ones doing the writing.
In Praise of Reading
As far back as I can go in my memory I can always see myself with a book, in all manner of possible situations. First of all I can picture my mother leaning over me, reading Puss in Boots, my favourite character. And every time I open a book, I secretly hope that it will take me back to that absolute happiness. All I have left is my mother’s scent. Later on, I would hide under my bed, amid the cotton dust, to follow D’Artagnan’s adventures. I can remember the day when, as I was reading André Maurois’s The Climates of Love, my hand fell on a bottle containing a cocktail drink (a mixture of cherries, alcohol and sugar). Difficult to distinguish between the two types of drunkenness. And then there was the period of reading on trees, until I fell off a branch because I was too deeply engrossed in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. I loved adventure stories, as later in my life I came to love psychological novels which introduced me to women’s feelings and emotions. Literature has taught me – among other things – that our sensitivities change, adapting to even the slightest variation. And that the landscape around us influences our state of mind. But since then I have never gone out without a book. Wherever I am in the world, no matter the circumstances, all I have to do is open my book for the world to open up to me, reminding me straightaway of my mother’s luminous face. And especially of her scent.
Borges is a Book
I always have a book by Borges on my bedside table. When I have read it enough I replace it with another book by Borges. I do occasionally read other authors (Baldwin, Bulgakov, Tanizaki, Basho or Diderot) but I always come back to Borges. Why is that? Because for me he is the most intelligent and most courteous man I have ever known. I am fascinated by his curiosity, so insatiable that it comes close to candour. If someone asks him, ‘Who are you, Jorge Luis Borges?’ he will reply: ‘What do you expect me to tell you about me? I know nothing about myself. I don’t even know the date of my own death.’ It’s a rare occurrence, when death is the object of curiosity. For Borges it’s not just a witty remark, as it was not for Villon who took care to warn us (‘Men, it’s no joke that here I tell’) of the seriousness of the matter. So I see clearly the old Argentinian poet calmly awaiting death, his cane between his legs. And that’s why this man has had a permanent place in my mind for over thirty-two years. And even more so: this blind old man wanders freely amid all cultures as though he were in his own room in Buenos Aires. He’s equally at home in Icelandic literature and in Shakespeare’s theatre. He’s at his ease in Stevenson’s novels and in the poetry of Lugones, and he appears to feel even more at home in Greek antiquity than in that twentieth century where he appears to have ended up by mistake. But the reason I read him so much is that, despite his marvellous erudition, he is still a child who is afraid of the dark. If he feigns indifference about his blindness it’s only because he wants to convince his mother that he is not suffering because of it. Courage and elegance are the two best words to describe Borges. I don’t read a book by Borges, I read Borges. When you pick up Fictions or The Aleph, do it gently for Borges is looking at us from behind those pages.
I Live Where I Write
I don’t know why but when I got to Montreal I felt right away that this city was going to allow me to take the leap. I was 23 and I had just left the harrowing universe of the Duvaliers’ dictatorship, the Port-au-Prince where the night air was often filled with gunfire and yellow-dogs. I had been a journalist in Haiti and I wrote my pieces while always looking over my shoulder. Then, all of a sudden, here I was, in a city where one could move about without worries. I rented a little room, filthy but filled with sunlight, in Rue Saint-Denis, right in the middle of the Latin Quarter, next to a small park where Bukowski-style beer-drinkers sat next to young girls, students at McGill University. Across the street, the poet Gérald Godin was carrying on a passionate love affair with singer Pauline Julien. The poet Emile Nelligan, famous for having used the word ‘snow’ twice in the same very short line (Ah, comme la neige a neigé), enjoyed walking in the park before ending his life locked up in a psychiatric hospital. I felt that it was an excellent location to try and become a writer. I roamed the city like an animal wanting to mark out his territory. And in the evenings I would go to a café in Rue Saint-Denis, sit in a corner to observe the local fauna. I had no idea of what kind of book I wanted to write, nor of what kind of writer I wanted to become. The only thing I was sure of was that there can be no literature without this bond between living and writing. I needed to know the place I lived in. This notion spared me from writing that nostalgia-drenched first novel, the trap that the majority of writers in exile fall into. It was important for me that the book be set in Montreal and in the present. I then would get the feeling that I was snatching back my life from the dictator’s clutches, describing a place that he does not know, at a time that belongs only to me. And further, this room I was living in, with its narrow bed, refrigerator, little table and a sofa, was in my eyes the place I had always dreamt of in which to write the novel that I felt budding inside me. In Haiti I was always hanging around with a little group of journalists: together we roamed the country in order to describe the people’s difficult daily life with accuracy. Since I am now alone here, I have the time to read, and to write. For time was a precious thing that I missed in that overpopulated and overexcited Port-au-Prince. Once I arrived in Montreal, I developed the habit of sitting in the middle of the room and waiting for nightfall. Loneliness can devour you from within, just as it can open up dazzling future perspectives. One evening I realized what it was that I was still missing in order to finally establish my personality as a writer: a typewriter. I picked up an old Remington 22, in good shape, from a second-hand shop on Avenue du Parc. I bought it with the intention of putting it on the wobbly table I would occasionally eat a meal on – but only when I felt I could put up with the loneliness. Most of the time I would swallow a hamburger in a smoky little joint on the corner. I love sitting at the counter to eat and read my newspaper, feeling like Miller. Hemingway used to say that in order to write you need to have a glass of beer and a sandwich by your typewriter. But I did not yet feel ready for this plunge with no safety net. I knew no one in this city. I wandered throughout the town and one evening chanced upon Julie. We were on Rue Sherbrooke where she had dragged me to see a Van Dongen at the Dominion Gallery, when I had the idea to write a short story called Summer’s Name Is Julie. It was not a particularly good title but it did express clearly my state of mind. It was summer and I wanted to spend it with Julie. It seemed quite simple, but my entire writing project was concentrated in those four words. We spent the evening drinking bad wine and exchanging ideas about our literary heroes. Mine was Holden Caulfield, the character in J.D.Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. She had always thought of herself as the reincarnation of Holly Golightly, the eccentric young woman in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She disappeared like Holly. To keep on talking with her I made her the main character in my first novel: Miz Littérature. And Montreal the place where the action unfolds. But actually this city is for me much more than a place. A state of mind.
They often ask me: Why such a passion for writing short articles? One day I met a young man who came out with the same remark I had first heard from Lucien Montas, the Sphynx at Le Nouvelliste: ‘Sir,’ he said to me, ‘I must confess: I only read short texts written in short sentences.’ I thought he probably hoped that many and even very different subjects would eventually blend into one harmonious whole, like a skilfully spiced fish soup. I had found my field to plough, a little like Borges, who never left the library.