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L'énigme du retour

enigme-du-retour-09.jpgIn the third week of our 10 Essential Books series, Thomas Hellman chose L'énigme du retour by Dany Laferrière. 

It is a book that traces a man's return to Haiti after his father's death. 
Listen to Thomas explain why he thinks everyone should read this book: 

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Dany Laferrière was born in Port au Prince, Haiti in 1953.

He left for Montreal when he was 23 years old and has become a well-known figure in Quebec as a writer, journalist, radio and television commentator and even for a while as a weatherman.

One of the most important themes in his writing is exile.

Laferrière gained international recognition and popular success with the publication of L'énigme du retour in 2009. It was awarded the "Prix Medicis" in France  and the "grand prix du livre de Montréal". It was translated into English as The Return and nominated for the Giller Prize.

The book tells the story of a man who, upon hearing of his father's death, travels back to his homeland of Haiti after more than thirty years in exile. The text is written in a mixture of prose and short poems resembling haikus.

In a previous novel, Je suis un écrivain japonais, Laferrière expressed his love for Japanese literature and especially the work of the great 17th century haiku master, Bashô. Laferrière has created a unique writing style by employing a poetry tradition from Japan to express the inner and outer explorations of a Québécois-Haitian writer, making his way between two diametrically opposed worlds. This mix of world realities is central to Laferrière's exploration of the meaning of exile and the search for identity in a globalized world.

This is not an action novel. Central are the author's observations, his descriptions of colours, smells and sounds. What seem to be mundane scenes from every day life are described in such a way that they express universal truths: human despair, longing, pettiness and nobility. The book is very much based on oppositions: north and south, rich and poor, fed and hungry, cold and hot, ice and sea...

This book talks about Haiti, exile and the search for identity, but it is also very much about the modern sense of self, the relationship to language, childhood, the past and the present. In this sense it is very interesting to compare it with the two previous books I presented in this series.

The first book which I chose to talk about, Le Survenant, described a very insular community, hard working, close to the land. The people's sense of identity was given by the community, the church, the seasons, the language and the narrow horizons that shaped this little rural world.

The second book I chose to talk about, La charette, was written twenty years after Le Survenant  and was revolutionary in its desire to break down the very form of traditional story-telling and go deeper in the expression of human complexity, exploring other realities, psychological, political and spiritual.

L'enigme du retour expresses the reality of human beings in a vast world of cultural mixes, exploded communities, and knowledge of the world that stretches across vast spaces and time.

Building a sense of identity is much like trying to build a story even though we know no story will ever be able to really capture the complexity of a single moment. Identity is not something fixed, given by a community, a family, a language. It is a fluid "work in progress".

The very structure and style of Laferrière's book expresses this: the small texts and haikus are like snapshots of reality, flashes from the past, faces of people met along the way, conversations, emotions, the fragments from which the modern human being builds his or her own story. The search for identity is a search for meaning.