My visit was in the eighties shortly before the fall of the horrendous dictator Baby Doc (who died last October), when the radio jolted you into wakefulness with a military chant in which the words 'Vive Duvalier, président à vie' are the most memorable. In the heart of the capital the dreaded tontons macoutes policed the streets. And although the people I met openly expressed their hatred of them, I otherwise found very little evidence of open political dissent: indeed, and as Dany Laferrière notes, the people in this desperately poor country were proud of the contradictory opulence of the presidential palace.
The poverty is perhaps the first thing that I noticed on arrival in the city. Tourists have never flocked here, and a white person is a rare sight, a symbol of wealth and therefore a potential source of revenue, and I met a number beggars who approached me with highly elaborate tactics, although those offering to be my guide were more common. I saw wooden shacks that were homes for so many people, and saw a whole family bathing in muddy rain water that had collected in a hollow at the side of a street-cum-dirt track.
I also encountered hostility that was sometimes casual, sometimes malicious: the girl in a slum area in Cap-Haïtien who laughed when my foot got stuck in a gutter and said 'C'est bien fait pour toi' ('It serves you right'); and the guy way to the back of me on the empty road to Pétionville who yelled 'Branleur!' ('Wanker!) at me: I turned to look and he verified the exclamation with 'Ouais, toi!' ('Yeah, you!').
These of course are just isolated incidents, and my memory leaves me with far more positive things. The people smile brightly through their pain and their poverty. If you're lost or in difficulty they'll help you and expect nothing in return. I went on a long, gloriously noisy bus ride to Cap-Haïtien, a sleepy adolescent girl lolling her head on my shoulder, her mother next to her bouncing about with the rough ride and to the sounds of the local Tabou Combo band on the bus cassette, all the time chewing on a huge stick of sugar cane. In the hotel in Port-au-Prince a businessman from Harlem introduced me to la caille, the local name for the mancala board game: he was wearing a tee-shirt with the logo 'Why worry? Play warri' (another name for mancala), but went cold on me when I bought a far superior mahogany version near the central market for $4, whereas he was selling his boards for $10.
I don't think I need to mention the tap-taps because if anyone knows anything about Haiti at all it's the crazy form of transport there. Dany Laferrière, though, does briefly mention them in Tout bouge autour de moi (lit. 'Everything Around Me Is Moving'), his description of the earthquake in Haiti, which took place on at 16:23 on 12 January 2010: the exact time emblazoned on Haitians' minds. Estimates of deaths vary wildly, but perhaps 160,000 lives were lost.
Laferrière was born in Haiti and had left it long before my visit: he worked on the 'opposition' paper Le Petit Samedi Soir, but emigrated to Québec in 1976 following the assassination of his colleague Raymond Gasner. Tout bouge autour de moi was written from the time that Laferrière returned to Haiti for a Haitian-Canadian literary conference, and just after he'd ordered lobster at the Karibe hotel in Port-au-Prince and started on the bread the world moved and Haiti was thrown into chaos.
The book doesn't attempt to be an account of the earthquake, but simply describes the state of the capital of the country as Laferrière witnessed it at the time of the catastrophe. It is related in episodic form in over one hundred different sections which are not necessarily linear and include his return to Québec, then his return to Haiti again not long after due to his aunt Renée's death, and there's even a short piece about a woman in her sixties greeting him in Montréal after recognising him from television.
I know what Laferrière's talking about here, know both the places he mentions and easily recognise the Haiti he depicts, and I'm fascinated when he describes seeing such Haitian writers as Frankétienne and Lionel Trouillet, although I doubt that a great number of people will experience a great deal from this book, and I'm left with an impression of messiness, lack of coherence. That may be because I've read this short account over four days in between which I've been following the insane activities in Paris. Dunno, but I'm now starting to read Laferrière's Pays sans chapeau, which is a fictionalised version of an earlier return by Laferrière to Haiti. It's described as a novel, and I'm hoping to be more enthusiastic about this one.