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The Return

by Dany Laferrière; David Homel, trans.

Don’t tell Dany Laferrière you can’t go home again; he won’t believe you. Instead, he’ll prove that going home isn’t just a state of mind or a literal journey, but a fierce and discombobulating act of artistic expression. With his new book, Laferrière leads us into the abyss of his native Haiti, a land as complex and dysfunctional as this complex and dysfunctional novel.   

The Return takes narrative modulation to a whole new level, moving effortlessly from poetry to prose, from the outright autobiographical to the downright surreal. Laferrière, who has lived in Montreal since the 1970s and written some 19 books, is prompted to return to Haiti after 30-odd years following the death of his father in New York. What unravels – through poems, vignettes, and longer narrative sections – is an exploration of place, history, geopolitics, existential angst, and the very personal choices that have shaped one man’s life.

Laferrière juxtaposes a number of things in this book: the oppression of Montreal’s winter and the oppression of the successive Duvalier regimes in Haiti; the poverty and isolation of a writer’s life and the profoundly more impoverished and isolated life of the average Haitian; the solipsism of the artist and the role of the writer in the broader world.

Not all of it works. While Laferrière is capable of acute insights and memorable aphorisms, many of the poems in The Return are thin gruel. Cliché and lazy writing abound (“Images from deep in childhood / wash over me like a wave”; “Everything full to the brim …”) and the text is often undone by bargain-basement insights into the immigrant/exile experience.

Still, The Return cannot be discounted. Laferrière plumbs the depths of his experience and his heart as best he can, even if what comes back up isn’t always brilliant.