Last year, Dany Laferrière won the prestigious Prix Médicis for his 14th novel, L’énigme du retour. This year sees the English-language publication of his 13th, the playful, perplexingly self-referential I Am a Japanese Writer.
The nameless narrator of Laferrière’s novel lives a modest, solitary existence, keeping human contact to a minimum so that he can devote his time to prodigious bouts of reading in the bathtub. Like Laferrière himself, the narrator is a writer and Haitian émigré who lives in Montreal and conceives of a novel entitled I Am a Japanese Writer. The title of the narrator’s novel, which he adopts as a personal descriptor, is based on little more than a perusal of Japanese cultural clichés in women’s magazines, and an obsessive interest in the works of 17th-century Japanese poet Basho. Despite these tenuous credentials, and the fact that the novel has not been written, the narrator is catapulted to international fame when he publicly declares that he is a Japanese writer, achieving cult status in Japan and spawning several imitators, including a Japanese officer who states, “I am a Korean soldier.”
I Am a Japanese Writer’s narrative self-awareness is its greatest strength and its ultimate undoing. Literary, cultural, and political references abound. The narrator’s focus shifts numerous times within the span of a few sentences, showcasing Laferrière’s virtuosic ability to draw connections between seemingly disparate phenomena with intelligence and wit. His penchant for pithy, wide-ranging cultural commentary is entertaining, particularly in the novel’s early sections.
However, the book relies on the cleverness of tangential associations at the expense of plot and character. Everything in the novel is constructed around a postmodern conceit that, as the novel’s blocked narrator attests, does not make for an engaging story. Despite Laferrière’s considerable gifts, this lack of narrative drive will leave many readers dissatisfied.