I Am a Japanese Writer: Dany Laferrière's Gaijin calypso
Born in Port-au-Prince in 1953, Dany Laferrière worked as a journalist in Haiti until the late 1970s, when a colleague was killed by the Duvalier regime. Laferrière fled the country to settle in Montreal, where he now writes, in French, naturally, and also works in films, TV and radio. Though not especially well known outside Quebec, he has written 14 novels of great humour and insight, beginning with his 1985 debut, How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired, which was made into a film. One of his more recent works, L'énigma du retour won the 2009 Prix Médicis, a prestigious French literary award given to those "whose fame does not match their talent". An English language version of the book, entitled The Return, will be published later this year.
Laferrière's latest novel translated into English brings to mind a quip from Marshall McLuhan: "Art is anything you can get away with." It's narrated by an unnamed Haitian writer who lives in Montreal, a persona easily confused with Laferrière himself. The tale begins as his publisher is telling him off for delaying delivery on his latest novel. During their office meeting, as the author grasps for an idea with which to appease his paymaster, he tosses out the title I Am a Japanese Writer and is instantly rewarded with a book contract and sizable advance. Thus, right from the novel's outset, Laferrière begins his gentle mockery of how quick publishers are to use an author's nationality to sell "world literature" in our so-called globalised cultural market.
The writer leaves the office chuckling to himself that the joke is really on the publisher because "I really do consider myself a Japanese writer." This offhand statement poses the question - how can a Haitian writer living in Montreal claim to be Japanese? And these queries join the book's central themes, forming a small frame and tight canvas for a little fiction and a lot of thoughts about nationality's place in the novelist's art. The result is a funny yet sharp and experimental novel that meanders with purpose, intercut with memories from the narrator's early life in Haiti, and a small series of homages to the influence of Basho, Borges and Baudrillard.
Laferrière dedicates the book to "everyone who would like to be someone else", and there isn't much in the way of a plot, other than the fact that the audacious title the author threw out to his publisher eventually snowballs into a minor international farce of little consequence to the narrator. Laferrière is more interested in delivering an older form of novel, a conversation about ideas and experience, such as Henry Miller's Quiet Days in Clichy, or, more recently, 03, by the French author Jean-Cristophe Valtat. "I am a flâneur," declares the narrator, possibly joking, but perhaps not, as he explains his writing method further: "I'm never in a hurry to get to the heart of the matter. In my head, I run through the images I'd like to see in the book. It's important to get them to enter your flesh, to mix with your blood, so that you can practically write with your feet - in other words, without thinking."
The action develops parallel to the narrator's description of his writing process, and books he's loved during his lifetime. "When you've got the book title, most of the job is done," he explains. "Still, you do have to write the book." To do some research, he seeks out a friend who he hopes can help him have some sort of "a Japanese experience". His friend sends him downtown to look for a Japanese starlet named Midori at the Café Sarajevo. "A place and a name," Laferrière writes: "You don't need anything else to start a novel."
Except that he does need to try to explain why he can't stand being labelled a certain kind of writer merely because of where he is from. Behind the mask of his narrative persona, reflecting on his career, Laferrière writes: "Born in the Caribbean, I automatically became a Caribbean writer. The bookstore, the library and the university rushed to pin that title on me. Being a writer and a Caribbean doesn't necessarily make me a Caribbean writer ... Actually, I don't feel any more Caribbean than Proust, who spent his life in bed. I spent my childhood running. That fluid sense of time still lives in me." With many books to his credit, well into a prolific career, he sees this issue in clear terms: "Years later, when I became a writer and people asked me, 'Are you a Haitian writer, a Caribbean writer, or a French language writer?' I answered without hesitation: 'I take on my reader's nationality. Which means that when a Japanese person reads me, I immediately become a Japanese writer'."
This statement leads to memories from his early reading life, during a time when as a boy he read Yukio Mishima's The Sailor Who Fell from Grace With the Sea. "I did not seek refuge in Mishima," he says, but the experience did lead to his belief that our memories of reading certain books can create a connection that exists outside time. "We encountered each other elsewhere, in a space that wasn't either of our houses, a space that belonged to imagination and desire ... If time is circular, if the Earth revolves around the sun, I'll just stay right here and wait and the Mishima years will pass before my eyes." This thought circles back to his annoyance with the theme of nationality: "I don't understand all the attention paid to people's origins. Because for me, Mishima was my neighbor."
Writing like this keeps us reading, even if the plot is so incidental as to be an afterthought. Laferrière favours dozens of short chapters in his work, and his writing is often elegantly random.
A scan of first lines from four early chapters of I Am a Japanese Writer yields these sentences: "I have a special way of cooking salmon." "I don't know anyone from Asia." "It's a fight to the finish between time and space." "I take the subway with Basho, The Narrow Road to the Interior." As we're shown the writer's thoughts and actions - including worries that he can't write the book that he promised - he eventually goes to Café Sarajevo and finds Midori and her entourage of women and a male photographer.
His research leads him virtually nowhere in his quest to have a so-called Japanese experience, yielding only the "clichés of Japan", having to do with sex, suicide, sushi and technology. He spends time with the would-be pop star Midori and her girlfriends and witnesses a kiss between two of the women, during which one passes the other a piece of poisoned sushi to induce a brief catatonia. Nights later, one of the girls seduces him at home and, as the book swings towards intellectual pulp fiction and noir, she commits suicide by leaping from the window of his apartment. He dodges questions from racist cops, only to find that word has gotten around about his strange book title. Japanese tourists have flocked to the city to visit him, a black Japanese writer, and the consulate is very worried that he might affect the nation's literary reputation "if people don't like your book".
"If I understood correctly, the whole thing started with a cultural programme I was featured on, then the TV got involved, and pretty soon it hit the streets. Even the army got into the act: on the nightly news, in front of his whole family, an officer declared, 'I am a Korean soldier'. A Japanese officer said that! Of course he was thrown into the brig, but then the student press went wild."
The book ends with the narrator slinking away from all the hubbub, and a line that stings, given recent events in Japan: "I feel the surrender of sleep overtake me. I shiver: a cloud has passed by. Everything will disappear (what we lived and what we dreamed). A radioactive future awaits us."
Matthew Jakubowski is a writer and critic who serves on the fiction panel for the Best Translated Book Award.