A Taste of Immortality: The Post-Earthquake Haitian Novel

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Quand on revient de l’enfer, chaque baiser a un goût d’immortalité.

(When you come back from hell, every kiss has a taste of immortality.)

—Yanick Lahens, Failles
(all translations by Patti Marxsen)


Since the earthquake on January 12, 2010, that killed 300,000 people and reduced much of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to rubble, an international body of work has emerged in English, French, and Kreyòl that is beginning to cohere as “Earthquake Lit.” Many of these writings take the form of chronicles, commentaries, memoir, and journalism that travel from shock and outrage to policy recommendation. These include works from long-standing Haiti experts like Paul Farmer’s Haiti After the Earthquake (Public Affairs, 2011), Amy Wilentz’s Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti (Simon and Schuster, 2013), and Madison Smartt Bell’s Soul in a Bottle (2015). They also include award-winning journalistic accounts like Jonathan M. Katz’s The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

More disturbing are books by Haitian nationals, like Haitian-American anthropologist Gina Athena Ulysse’s Why Haiti Needs New Narratives—A Post-Quake Chronicle (Wesleyan University Press, 2015) and novelist Yanick Lahens’s literary memoir, Failles (Sabine Wespieser, 2010), one of the first critiques by a Haitian living in Haiti at the time of the earthquake. Among the most widely read, Haitian-Canadian Dany Laferrière’s Tout bouge autour de moi (available in English as The World is Moving Around Me) begins with a sense of stupefaction: “Je ne savais pas que soixante seconds pouvaient durer aussi longtemps. Et qu’une nuit pouvait n’avoir plus de fin.” (“I never knew sixty seconds could last so long. And that one night could go on without end.”)

Laferrière muses about a potentiel “grand roman” of the earthquake in a conversation with his nephew:

Ce grand roman d’écriture classique qui se passe en une place [Haïti], en un temps [16h53] et qui met en scène plus de 2 millions de personnages. Il faut un Tolstoï pour tenter un tel pari.

(This great novel of classical writing that takes place in one place [Haiti] at a time [4:53 p.m.] and that brings more than 2 million characters onto the stage. It would take a Tolstoy to attempt such a thing.)

However ambitious the notion may sound, Haitian literature has had its share of Tolstoys. From Jacques Roumain’s scathing 1931 exposé of bourgeois ennui in La Proie et l’ombre to his posthumously published Gouverneurs de la rosée (1944), which revealed the complex tapestry of Haitian life in the 1930s and 1940s. Roumain’s fire was passed to Jacques Stephen Alexis, whose achievements before his 1961 assassination included Les Arbres musiciens and Compère Général Soleil, the great novel of the 1937 Parsley Massacre perpetrated by Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic. More than a generation later, Haitian-American Edwidge Danticat returned to that massacre to write her own “grand roman,” The Farming of Bones. And then there is Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s Amour, colère, et folie, a Haitian trilogy written in defiance of terror and published in Paris in 1968. One of the most courageous novels of the Duvalier era, Vieux-Chauvet’s masterpiece was translated into English in 2009. The new paperback edition of the novel includes an afterword by the first Haitian citizen to occupy a chair at the Académie Française—Dany Laferrière: “MARIE CHAUVET A BIEN ÉCRIT LE GRAND ROMAN DES ANNÉES NOIRS DE LA DICTATURE HAITÏENNE” (“Marie Chauvent has most definitively written the great novel of the black years of the Haitian dictatorship”). Each catastrophe, it seems, deserves its own novel-as-monument.

Which brings us back to Laferrière’s musings about a “grand roman” equal to the life-altering impact of the 2010 earthquake. While still early for such a definitive novel, it is not too soon to catch a glimpse of how the inevitable novel might express what can only be called collective truth. The question is, what voices will be privileged by this era’s novelists? What themes will they disentangle from the debris of neglect, poverty, and policy in the face of a disaster that was only partially natural? What stereotypes will they critique, destroy, or create? What, in other words, will the post-earthquake novel reveal about Haiti’s most recent losses, obstacles, and hopes for the future?

It should come as no surprise that significant texts published thus far approach the topic of catastrophic loss from a slant point of view, as if to acknowledge the shock of a wound still too painful to be confronted. That being said, a surprising calm echoes through several of the first great novels of post-earthquake Haiti in which the 2010 quake hovers more as an allusion or a shadow than as a lurid backdrop. Such is the permission granted by fiction: to dwell in ambiguity and question claims on reality. Along this fragile borderland, three highly original novelists step out of time to explore the epicenter of love and loss.

· · ·

Lyonel Trouillot’s La Belle amour humaine (“Beautiful human love”) deconstructs time as a Haitian driver guides a young European woman away from the Port-au-Prince, where no earthquake seems to have occurred, to explore her Haitian father’s hidden past. In a similarly improbable journey, Louis-Philippe Dalembert’s ingenious book-within-a-book, Ballade d’un amour inachevé (“Ballad of an incomplete love”), tells of a (presumably Haitian) earthquake survivor within another tale of a (presumably Haitian) earthquake survivor: the miraculous survivor Azaka is the same person in both books, ironically confronted with twinned catastrophes occurring twenty-five years apart on different continents. Meanwhile, Yanick Lahens’s Guillaume et Nathalie creates a pas de deux of inside/outside relations and intertextual links between her exquisite love story published in 2013 and her provocative 2010 memoir/chronicle Failles (“Fault lines”). Not unlike Dalembert’s tour de force, Lahens has written a life-affirming elegy before death while Trouillot’s novel deploys dialogue as a weapon available to the living in order to wrestle with death’s unyielding mystery.

These novels capture a compelling array of familiar themes: the quest for connection and completion, the agony of exile, yearning for love in all its forms, and Haiti’s historically tense reality of insider/outsider relations. They also ignore the public space of urban clamor and political turmoil that is so common to modern Haitian literature inhabiting, instead, a more intimate space largely concerned with individual emotion and personal ethics. It’s as if the goal is to counter the impact of destruction and depersonalized loss by privileging the lives of a few human beings: a daughter who yearns to know her father, who died when she was three; a Haitian “extracomunitario” lucky enough to have found a decent job and a measure of acceptance in Europe; unlikely lovers from different cultures. As past, present, and future form a kind of porous sediment open to exploration, Haiti’s post-quake novels venture into this territory as radical acts of witness.

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In La Belle amour humaine Anaïse, a young European woman traveling to Haiti for the first time, seeks a connection with the father she never knew, who turned his back on his coastal village of Anse-à-Fôleur and fled to Europe as a young man. After writing to an elderly artist in the village, Anaïse finds herself in a car with the artist’s nephew, Thomas, her Haitian driver and guide. Thomas narrates the long first chapter of this journey encompassing six hours of real-time and years of past time, as his voice drives toward a timeless time when fishing villages like Anse-à-Fôleur constituted the finite world of its inhabitants. This destination begins to feel like world apart, a capsule holding the secrets of the past like a message in a bottle.

In this book full of riddles Haitian studies scholar Martin Munro interprets “a new pastoralism” in the journey away from the urban context of most of Trouillot’s novels, toward a place that represents “nature and community” as opposed to pain, chaos, noise, and violence. Thomas, the savvy insider, articulates this distinction by describing a litany of chaotic urban realities in his written reply to the letter in which Anaïse had explained her desire to come to Haiti without knowing what this might mean. She confessed that in her European city far away from Haiti, “J’ai souvent le sentiment d’être perdue et incomplète.” (“I often have the feeling of being lost and incomplete.”) In Thomas’s reply, he warns her that “C’est peu probable qu’ils aient les réponses à tes questions dans ce lieudit d’Anse-à-Fôleur où nous n’arriverons qu’à la nuit tombée. Ils viendront quand même t’accueillir.” (“It’s unlikely that they might have the responses to your questions in this place called Anse-à-Fôleur where we will only arrive after nightfall. They will, however, welcome you.”)

Thomas and Anaïse travel toward a kind of imagined Eden where two prominent men died twenty years earlier: Anaïse’s grandfather Robert Montès—a businessman whose corruption knew no bounds—and his close friend Colonel Pierre André Pierre. Oddly, these men retired together in Anse-la-Fôleur and died on the same day in a fire when their identical houses burned to the ground. They represent powerful “outside” elites within Haitian rural society, but the true outsider is Anaïse, whose quest for truth compels her father’s story—that can only be accessed through the peculiar alliance between Montès and Pierre—to be told. But the only fact that can be confirmed during Anaïse’s visit to Anse-la-Fôleur is that her father made love to a young village woman, Solène, the night before he left. Anaïse learns this from Solène herself, when she sees that the Adam-and-Eve figures painted by Thomas’s dying uncle might provide a key to the past. In this way, Trouillot offers clues but masterfully avoids resolution. All that can be discerned is that the insulated friendship of Robert Montès and Colonel Pierre upset the villagers who refuse to talk about the unsolved mystery of the fire that caused the deaths of the two men.

These realities overturn Munro’s vision of Anse-à-Fôleur as a haven of peace and solidarity. The invasion of this community by the outside world is a turning point in this Eden interrupted, complete with echoes of the biblical Eden with its temptations, betrayals, and splitting all of human time into before and after. Montès and Pierre corrupted the untainted land with their secretive talks and “triumphant” walks on the beach. In Trouillot’s deconstruction of a closed relationship that did not originate here and belonged elsewhere, the notion of a pastoral ideal is rendered unattainable.

In other words, Anse-à-Fôleur is just another space where the new humanism—envisioned by the martyred Haitian writer Jacques Stephen Alexis as “la belle amour humaine” (“beautiful human love”)—exists only as an unrealized ideal. In the closing pages of the book, Thomas explains how he forged his uncle’s paintings according to the old man’s orders, and says, “Il disait vouloir peindre la belle amour humaine et la toile serait un oeuvre realiste. Seulement la réalité refusait de se conformer.” (“He said he wanted to paint beautiful human love and that the canvas would be realistic. Only reality refused to conform [to his ideal].”) While no natural disaster is mentioned, the secrets, lies, and contradictions buried beneath the surface of the village carry echoes of a broken world, like Dany Laferrière’s description of the earthquake as “Le moment fatal qui a coupé le temps haïtien en deux.” (“The fatal moment that cut Haitian time in two.”) In imagining a timeless quest, a journey without end, Trouillot brings the enigma of the present into dialogue with an inscrutable prelapsarian past.

With Munro’s appealing idea of a new pastoralism in mind, Trouillot’s clever turn toward nature confirms that even there—in the midst of lush, coastal beauty and abundant life—human suffering cannot be not avoided. There is no paradise after all, he seems to say, only the illusion of paradise. Yet in daring to question the ideal of “la belle amour humaine,” and in using that phrase so prominently in the novel, Trouillot also recognizes, and perhaps longs for, the hope that Alexis felt at the beginning of 1957. As Thomas observes, when describing the painting that captures the last hours of Anaïse’s father in Anse-à-Fôleur, “À ses pieds il y a un tas de mondes possibles” (“At his feet lay a vast array of possible worlds…”).

It is Thomas, the native Haitian guide, who articulates the essential questions of the novel though: “Ce qui meurt et ce qui demeure? Ce qui faut laisser à l’oubli? Ou ce que, patiemment, l’on doit reconstituer pour donner un sens à ses pas? Et qu’est-ce que la vérité ?” (“What dies and what remains? What is best left forgotten? Or what is it that we must patiently put back together in order to make sense of out steps in the world? And what is truth?”) For Anaïse, a sufficient truth might have been a sign of her father’s love, just enough to allow her to reclaim his presence as part of her own past. But she leaves without that comfort. No one, Trouillot seems to say, can answer these questions—especially after January 12, 2010, even if that infamous day is never mentioned. As Munro notes, “In ‘turning away’ from the event, such works are nevertheless inevitably influenced by it.”

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The alternating chapter titles of Ballade d’un amour inachevé, Louis-Philippe Dalembert’s deeply moving novel of mixed marriage, childhood trauma, and exile, evoke the intimacy of the body with its “cries” and “breathing” (“cri” and “respiration”). At the same time, the book reaches back through time via epigraphs drawn from earthquake literatures as wide-ranging as the Bible, Darwin, Voltaire, and Demesvar Delorme, a Haitian politician who was an eleven-year-old witness to the devastating earthquake in Cap Haitian on May 7, 1842. The notion of a child-as-witness (and victim) is particularly significant to Dalembert. His “Deuxième Cri” (“Second Cry”) opens with a question from Voltaire’s “Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne”: “Quel crime, quelle faute ont commis ces enfants / Sur le sein maternel écrasés et sanglants?” (“What crime, what fault have these children committed / Crushed and bloody on their mother’s breast?”).

The epicenter of the novel is ten year-old Azaka, trapped in the rubble of an earthquake that occurred twenty-five years earlier in a place that can only be Port-au-Prince. For three days and three nights “Il s’est retrouvé enterré sous des tonnes de béton, dans l’étroit habitacle créé sous le coup de l’effondrement, où le jour et la nuit se confondent en un même opacité.” (“He found himself buried under tons of concrete in the narrow compartment created by the blow of collapse, where night and day blend into one opaque wall.”) Dalembert incorporates Azaka’s time in the rubble as a child and his adult life in Italy with his pregnant Italian wife into his narrative. In the “Premier Cri” Azaka and Mariagrazia are making love in the old, stone house of their fictional mountain village a few kilometers from L’Aquila. It’s the capital of the Abruzzo region of Italy, where another earthquake is destined to occur, and this Village des Cipolle will soon become the site of tragedy. In Azaka’s arms, Mariagrazia first feels the earth tremble—a sensation he confuses with her orgasms until the ten-year-old child within the man relocates “un peur antique” (“an ancient fear”) within himself.

Azaka and Mariagrazia’s love story is retold through a narrative of deconstruction and reconstruction after the earthquake that left over 300 dead on April 6, 2009. The story encompasses Azaka’s years as an extracomunitario (Italian for exile, literally “outside the community”). His long journey from being wedged in a cavern of concrete, subsequent disillusion, and then immigration to Europe appears to arrive at a happy end, with his improbable success as the manager of a copy shop and marriage to the brilliant and passionate Mariagrazia. But, despite everything, Azaka’s inner life inevitably returns to the trauma that delineates his personal before and after. Readers experience this boundary through the taste, smell, and sounds of his childhood experience, when his whole existence was reduced to elemental senses and bodily needs as he waited for his father to save him:

Toute sortes de sonorités parviennent à l’oreille d’Azaka, dans un amalgame de mots, de musique distincte, d’onomatopées et échos. Certains semblent s’étouffer d’indignation, d’autres de rire. Les bruits de ferraille qui proviennent des fouilles, deux de blocs de ciment qui retombent dans un bruit sourd. Parfois ce bric-à-brac de tonalités s’éloigne tant et si bien qu’il ne distingue que les murmures ou les traces mouillées de sonorités qui finissent de flotter dans l’air. Et soudain, il n’entend plus rien, rien de rien, même pas les jappements des chiens errants qui pullulent pourtant dans la ville.

(All sorts of sounds reached Azaka’s ear in the jumble of words, distinct music, onomatopoeia, and echoes. Certain sounds seemed to suffocate the imagination, other made him laugh. The noise of iron from the searches, two blocks of cement falling with a deafening noise. Sometimes this ragbag of tones drifted into the distance so much that he could only distinguish murmurs or dampened traces of sound that ended by floating in the air. Then suddenly, he heard nothing more, nothing at all, not even the yapping of wandering dogs who proliferate, nevertheless, in the city.)

The arc of the novel develops a metaphor of entombment—or perhaps it is more accurate to say enwombment—to describe Dalembert’s artful narrative that ends with Azaka’s rebirth into an strange, new world, thanks to an international aid rescuer from Abruzzo, Italy. As suddenly as the earthquake had swallowed his body, the city’s chaos swallows his childhood. It seems natural that this child—whose father abandons the family, whose mother is loving but powerless, whose beloved brother has been killed—would find himself living as an “excom” among “excoms” in the region from which his Italian savior came. It is, perhaps, equally natural that he would always feel himself to be a stranger in Europe too, not least because he is black.

Azaka and Mariagrazia’s wedding underscores the doubling effect that ripples throughout this twinned narrative. Azaka the adult experiences a bizarre déja vu, in which things feel familiar but nothing looks the same. Despite the evolution of Azaka and Mariagrazia’s love, the reader is well aware of all that lies within Azaka’s wounded soul and how far he has come to reach the brink of a real future. The detailed narrative of the colorful wedding not only foreshadows an equally opulent Catholic funeral, it fills the pages with food, fashion, wine, flowers, joy, and extravagance of life just as the boy Azaka’s entrapment filled earlier pages with dust, death, pain, and uncertainty. As in La Belle amour humaine, there is an intimate suspense to Dalembert’s Ballade. Even though the love between Azaka and Mariagrazia is as solid as a rock, gentle rumbles within the earth continue from time to time like unconscious reminders of another place where no solid foundations exist.

A strong series of tremors drives everyone out of their homes in the evening on April 5, 2009, to gather in the Place Umberto I in the old quarter of the village. There, Azaka’s eyes fix from time to time on the hands of the clock of the church of Santa Maria Assunta. As the hours pass, Azaka and Mariagrazia sit alone together on a wall near a stream. Azaka’s arms encircle his wife’s body. The baby rolls and rumbles like the earth itself. They are a world unto themselves, holding the promise of the future. Azaka then sees his wife to bed and returns to the Place Umberto I for a glass of tea with his friends. There, as his eyes travel from the clock on the church to the shadow of the mountains, he recalls lines from Psalm 121: 1–2: “Je lève les yeux vers les montagnes. / D’où me viendra le secours? / Le secours me vient de l’Éternel, /Qui a fait les cieux et la terre.” (“I lift up my eyes to the mountains. / Where does my help come from? / My help comes from the Lord, / Maker of Heaven and Earth.”) It is three-thirty—“Trois heures trente-deux pour être précis. Il était temps de rentrer.” (“Three thirty-two, to be precise. It was time to go leave.”)

When the earthquake strikes a moment later, it is the first to hit the Abruzzo region in nearly three centuries. Mariagrazia, who was sleeping, becomes trapped in the rubble. Azaka claws his way toward her, calls for help, and talks to his wife from the small airspace keeping her alive beneath the earth. The novel closes with Mariagrazia’s song of farewell for Azaka—her “ballade d’un amour inachevé” (“song of an incomplete love”):

Andare via lontano
A cercare un altro mondo
Dire addio al cortile
Andarsene sognando.

(Go far away
To look for another world
Say goodbye to the courtyard walls
Go on dreaming.)

· · ·

Born in the weeks following the 2010 earthquake, Yanick Lahens’s love story Guillaume et Nathalie turns on the strength of a self-possessed woman who, like Dalembert’s Mariagrazia, is willing to expose herself to a fragile love. In Failles, Lahen’s non-fiction reflection on the earthquake that preceded Guillaume et Nathalie, the author locates the source of this story, a radio broadcast from the refugee camp on Port-au-Prince’s Champ-de-Mars on Valentine’s Day 2010:

Cette nuit-là, j’ai sorti Nathalie et Guillaume, cet home et cette femme dans les hauteurs de Pacot, cet homme et cette femmes aux ombres à peine esquissés sur des feuilles jaunes, de mes décombres intérieurs, presque comme des êtres de chair. Avec les spectres désespérés qui les habitaient déjà, la même patience pétrie de rêves en marche et toujours cette quête de l’étreinte miraculeuse. Toujours. Toujours.

Ils m’ont accompagné jusqu’à l’aube et ne m’ont plus jamais lâchée.

(That night I brought Nathalie et Guillaume out of my internal debris, almost alive in the flesh, this man and this woman in the heights of Pacot, the man and this woman in the shadows barely traced on yellow leaves. They came forward with the desperate ghosts already living within me by then, with the same petrified patience of dreams in motion and always with this quest for the miraculous embrace. Always. Always.

They stayed with me until dawn and have never left me.)

The seed of the story of Guillaume and Nathalie can also be found at the end of the opening chapter of Failles, entitled “Il était une fois une ville” (“Once upon a time there was a city”)—a chapter title that opposes fairy tale optimism to the factual suffering that Failles lays bare. In this first italicized mention of Guillaume and Nathalie, and in keeping with the voice of a storyteller stepping out of time, Lahens moves seamlessly from the memory of her city to the promise of love:

Il était une fois une ville où un homme et une femme avançaient dans le feu dévorant d’une rencontre

à Pacot. Sur les hauteurs d’où l’on peut voir Port-au-Prince dans les feux du crépuscule.

C’est l’heure où on assiste à la montée du silence qui tamise le grand charivari des journées et retournées…

Il était une fois une ville.

(Once upon a time there was a city where a man and a woman moved forward toward the devouring flames of an encounter

… in Pacot. On the heights from where you can see Port-au-Prince in the glow of twilight.

It is the hour of awaiting the ascent of silence that filters the great tumult of the days that turn and return…

Once upon a time there was a city.)

It is no accident that these italicized lines from Failles return like a refrain in the opening pages of Guillaume et Nathalie, published two years later, after Lahens has already asked and answered the essential question: How can one write in the face of an enormous catastrophe that is both a “natural disaster” and a political revelation? “Lire c’est ouvrir les portes de silence, y pénétrer à pas feutré, le cœur battant, et miser gross sur l’inconnu.” (“To read is to open the doors of silence, to enter with muffled steps, the heart beating, and assuming the presence of the unknown.”)

For Lahens, the Haitian writer’s post-earthquake task is that of penetrating the ever-present silence of the unbalanced world in which the earthquake occurred, a world navigated by Failles, which echoes in the silence of Guillaume et Nathalie. In order to achieve this, Lahens’s daring juxtaposition of passionate love and indifferent disaster catapults her novel into a new dimension of time. In linking love with the catastrophe, each aspect heightens the reader’s awareness of the present and, in a sense, obliterates the past—or, at least, renders it irrelevant.

Only later, “after the fact,” does chronological time hold meaning. Only then is it necessary to report and reconstruct events, to revisit and reorder the moments that came before and then after, to construct history out of what was—so suddenly—a turning point. Dalembert does this as he narrates the evolution of Azaka and Mariagrazia’s relationship after their life-affirming passion has been expressed and her fate known. In the emerging “Earthquake Lit,” it’s clear that these turning points establish a framework of before and after, which is the essential structure of these narratives.

In her artful entwining of love, memory, and disaster, Lahens returns to her memory of soundlessness when the earthquake struck to create an enveloping silence around Guillaume and Nathalie, even before their first hours of intimacy. Their intimacy is, in fact, announced with a silent echo from Failles: “Un couple franchit le portail d’un immeuble à Pacot, sur les hauteurs d’où l’on voit Port-au-Prince dans les feu du crepuscule. … C’est l’heure où on assiste à la montrée du silence qui tamise le grand charivari des journées tournées et retournées.” (“A couple walks through the doorway of a building in Pacot, on the heights from where one can see Port-au-Prince in the glow of twilight. … It is the hour when one attends the ascent of silence that filters the great tumult of the days that turn and return.”)

Because this story occurs before the earthquake, but is being told after its life-altering destruction, another elegiac silence also resonates, one described in Failles: “Je n’oublierai jamais le silence dans Port-au-Prince ce jour-là.” (“I will never forget the silence in Port-au-Prince on that day.”) Layers of silence amass like fallen rocks, but one memory finds another kind of silence in Guillaume’s mind. Feeling the first twinges of desire for Nathalie, he thinks, “‘J’ai envie d’attraper votre rire avec ma bouche,’ il choisit silence.” (‘“I feel like capturing your laughter with my mouth,’ he chooses silence.”) The narrator’s voice struggles to adequately capture the depth of these silences. She describes “des plages de silence. Des longues plages étendues de silence.” (“beaches of silence. Long beaches spread out in silence.”)

Silence and desire are woven together and powerfully expressed in Guillaume. As Lahens writes in the earlier book, Failles, Guillaume “cultivait le silence et s’en servait pour apaiser cette part de lui-même qui le pousser déjà à vouloir glisser ses mains sous ses vêtements et à poser ses lèvres sur sa peau.” (“cultivated silence and made use of it to appease that part of himself that was already pushing toward wanting to slide his hands under her clothes and press his lips against her skin.”) In this post-earthquake pas de deux between Failles and Guillaume et Nathalie, Lahens protects their emerging love in a space beyond language: “Un silence comme un voile suspendu entre ciel et terre. Un silence de chambre close pour abriter les soliloques affolés de la chair. Émois, palpitations, fébrilité.” (“A silence like a veil suspended between earth and sky. A silence of a room closed to shelter the wild soliloquies of the flesh. Emotions, palpitations, feverish excitement.”)

Throughout Guillaume et Nathalie, Guillaume speaks of Port-au-Prince as a kind of mysterious dream with its “open wounds” and “naked force,” a “mirage in the twilight.” The story unfolds in a landscape of small fires and city lights built on centuries of improbable events, events that that now include Guillaume’s love for Nathalie. This vast, textured, tragi-comic opera of a city will soon crumble, though it still stands at the end of the novel. Lahens, with her Janus-like vision, rewinds the clock in the final pages to suspend her gaze once more across a city she can now visit only in memory as the city she has known for years, as if the pain of Failles has somehow been healed by the quiet intensity of Guillaume et Nathalie’s passion.

“Je ne suis pas encore morte. Je ne suis pas encore morte,” Nathalie says, looking into the cityscape of Port-au-Prince. “Vous n’avez pas réussi à me tuer.” (“I am not dead yet. I am not dead yet,” she says. “You have not succeeded in killing me.”) These could be the last lines of Failles or Guillaume et Nathalie—or both, as two parts of one book. Is Nathalie (or perhaps Lahens) speaking to a collective history, as well as to herself? Is she speaking to the mystery of love? Or is this merely Lahens’s last allusion to the coming disaster? The intimate, enigmatic ending makes clear that Nathalie has found peace and possibility where others have been crushed. She is blissfully unaware of her own impending death. With surprising serenity, Guillaume et Nathalie is an elegy written before death, from the aftermath of loss.

· · ·

Addressing themes common to Haitian literature—exile, power relations, impending destruction, love—each of these novels explores questions doomed to incompleteness. Trouillot creates a search that ends in greater mystery. Dalembert’s love story unveils a promise unfulfilled, a “half-promise” embedded in Azaka’s survival of twinned tragedies and symbolized by the uncertain fate of his unborn child. Even Lahens, who offers Nathalie “a taste of immortality,” seems to marry hope and nihilism as Nathalie rests her eyes on a glittering city that will soon crumble.

Attempting to weave these threads into a theory, to propose a definition of the new novel of post-quake Haiti, would deny the resistance found in these three powerful texts—resistance to easy answers, to sentimentality, to endings that resolve events, and to time itself as the great regulator. Indeed, these novels refuse ending in any traditional sense. Lives stop or wait or carry on without closure in a kind of open-ended dialectic.

This leaves a little room for hope to survive within a landscape of ambiguity, as if avoiding resolution might, at least, keep the possibility of life itself alive. But primarily, the post-quake novels written in these first years since the Haitian earthquake refuse to be bound by time, which collapsed with much of Port-au-Prince on January 12, 2010. Trouillot, Dalembert, and Lahens each find unique ways to chase, trap, and stop time by stepping out of it, by folding it over, by recycling it. “I never knew sixty seconds could last so long,” writes Dany Laferrière. “And that one night could go on without end.” Perhaps the true contribution of these early grand romans has been to embrace this new sense of time, to breathe life into the only moment we can count on. Now.

About Patti Marxsen

Patti Marxsen’s essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in numerous publications in the U.S. and Europe, including Asymptote, Fourth Genre, The Women’s Review of Books, and The Journal of Haitian Studies. Her books include Island Journeys: Exploring the Legacy of France, Tales from the Heart of Haiti, and a biography of the little-known wife of Albert Schweitzer, Helene Schweitzer: A Life of Her Own. She is currently working on a biography of Haitian writer and public intellectual Jacques Roumain (1907–1944).