Culture & Conversation

An Enigma Wrapped in Poetry

A man living in exile more than half his life can either write for remembrance and comfort or go crazy. A man living in exile can only go home when the moment is right—whenever and if ever that moment occurs. Windsor loves taking baths; along with sleep, it helps him escape exile. In fact, he only feels at home in a hot bath, with a bottle of rum and a book of poems by Césaire at hand. That is, until he gets the phone call he’d unconsciously been waiting for: his father—who was also in exile, but in New York—is dead.

Windsor then hits the road and drives all over Québec, saying goodbye to his ice-covered land of exile, and heads for New York for the funeral of a father he’d only seen a handful of times as a child, yet whose power over him was undeniable. And because, he says, his father’s death won’t be real until his mother knows—his mother who is still living in Port-au-Prince, thinking of her husband every second of every minute—Windsor goes back to Haiti. He goes back to bring his father’s spirit home. He goes back to take the space finally left empty by the deceased father, his doppelganger.

The work of a mature writer, L’énigme du retour, winner of the Médicis prize in France, expertly combines poetry and prose. The shift from one genre to the other is seamless and the beauty of his words—each and every one of them chosen carefully—surrounds the reader like the warm water of a soothing bath. Describing Québec, he writes:

La glace brûle

plus profondement

que le feu

mais l’herbe se souvient

de la caresse du soleil.

Devoid of elaborate descriptions, Dany Laferrière’s haiku-like poems still manage to draw us into the different scenes he paints — because Laferrière is painting. He’s painting his beloved Haiti as it is and as he wants it to be, depicting a girl’s poverty while describing her elegance as she walks up a hill in the early hours of the morning with a plastic jug on her head to fetch water. In a paragraph that could easily be applied to his book, Laferrière writes:

J’ai toujours pensé

que c’était le livre qui franchissait

les siècles pour parvenir jusqu’à nous.

Jusqu’à ce que je comprenne

en voyant cet homme

que c’est le lecteur qui fait ce déplacement.

He doesn’t make his readers cross centuries, but an ocean. Laferrière brings us to Haiti, a moving trip in light of the January earthquake. The Haiti he dreamt of when writing the book is no longer there and the newly created absence of the subtle beauty he describes is poignant.

Dany Laferrière is the winner of the 2010 Blue Metropolis International Literary Grand Prix. A documentary on his life, followed by a discussion with him, will take place in French today, Saturday, April 24, at 4:30 p.m. For more information, visit

Mélanie Grondin is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in carte blanche, Room, Nashwaak Review and other literary magazines. Mélanie is also associate editor at the Montreal Review of Books.

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