The Banality of Disaster
The Banality of Disaster
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter returns to Yanick Lahens’ Failles to draw out further the critique of cultural, social, and political fault lines that existed well before the earthquake. It opens by defining the idea of a “literary witness” as an ethical representation of self and other in the act of witnessing and representing the earthquake. Failles is equal parts testimony and chronicle, and these modes overlap as the writer grapples with the role of literature in making sense of the earthquake and its historical repercussions. Lahens unsettles received ideas on disaster, first by deconstructing the ideology of the “natural” and then by contextualizing its political and humanitarian manipulation of disaster in a longer history of Haiti’s place in the Americas. The second part of the chapter turns to the fictional texts that precede and come after Failles. It argues that the ordinary vulnerability of the Haitian people, or what Lahens calls “the banality of disaster,” is the central theme of the fiction. In reimagining the past, these texts offer compelling implications for critical and creative ways of reconstructing the present. As a literary witness, Lahens calls on readers to refuse the banality of disaster.
An archive may be largely about ‘the past’ but it is always ‘re-read’ in the light of the present and the future.
As an archive in the dual sense articulated above – a collection of documents and a creative process that makes sense of the present by revisiting the past – the texts examined in Part One understand history as an invisible border of fluid temporalities and ever-changing environments. Published during the transition from the late stages of the Duvalier era to the Aristide years, they attest to environmental and ecological dimensions of historical migrations of Haitians. The principle of the archival function continues to inform the historical frame of this second section. In the transition from Part One, the eco-archive lives on, reread and updated, in the works of succeeding generations. To borrow from Stuart Hall, it is a “‘living archive,’ whose construction must be seen as an on-going, never-completed project” (“Constituting An Archive,” 89). Hall is influenced by Foucault’s understanding of the discursive boundaries of the heterogeneous materials of the archive, which, as I reviewed above, are marked by the play between rupture and continuity. Hall adds a diasporic perspective, focusing in part on the question of origins and locations, to underscore the inherent incompleteness of archives. He writes:
It is impossible to describe an archive in its totality. The very idea of a ‘living archive’ contradicts this fantasy of completeness. As work is produced, one is, as it were, contributing to and extending the limits of that to which one is contributing. It cannot be complete because our present practice immediately adds to it, and our new interpretations inflect it differently. An archive may largely be about ‘the past’ but it is (p.106) always ‘re-read’ in the light of the present and the future …
Much like Jean-Claude Charles, whose protagonist in Manhattan Blues proclaimed that history always begins somewhere else, Hall draws on Walter Benjamin’s concept of jetztzeit, or the constellation of past and present of the “now-being.”1 The danger, as Benjamin forewarned and as Hall recalls here, is to imprison the past in a single idea in the name of forward progress. As Hall conceives it, archiving is to contribute to a collection within a given cultural authority but also to contest it with a view to the future. In this sense, it is “an interruption in a settled field” (92, emphasis in original).
Rachel Douglas also writes against the inertia of what Hall describes as the “museum of dead works” (“Constituting An Archive,” 89). Working in the field of Haitian literary studies, Douglas appeals to Hall to argue for the reconstructive force of the living archive in the wake of the destruction of several archival structures in the earthquake.2 She points out that the ruins of institutions and monuments, along with the deaths of scores of the population, including artists and writers, also meant the loss of material archives. It is also true that the migration of earlier generations of Haitians, not to mention the dispersal of documents related to the colonial, revolutionary, and post-Independence periods to public and private sites of multiple nations, had already weakened archival foundations.3 Yet it is undeniable that the earthquake wrought (p.107) extensive damage to national archives and libraries. Douglas’s insight is that books published in the aftermath function as archives themselves. “If we can shift from seeing archives only as inert historical collections,” she proposes, “stable repositories of material, depositories of documents … then archival work can also be seen as a process, with Haitian writers as integral parts of this archive storytelling” (“Writing the Haitian Earthquake,” 391; emphasis in original). To develop this claim, Douglas adapts genetic criticism to a materialist practice of postcolonial studies to examine various editions of texts, especially Lahens’s Failles and Frankétienne’s play, Melovivi (Le piège in French). She finds that such rewriting and reassembling are evidence of a desire to rebuild Haiti. Douglas echoes Laura Loth, who writes, “Rebuilding Haiti entails a similar model as the project of rereading and rewriting that has been taken up by Yanick Lahens in her post-earthquake narratives” (“(Re)Reading the Ruins: Yanick Lahens’s Post-Earthquake Narrative Revisions,” 138). Furthermore, when viewed through the dual history of the difficulty of publishing in the country and, until recently, a lack of support from French presses for the publication of Haitian literature, these post-earthquake texts perform like archives, Douglas continues, in their “continuous production” (“Writing the Haitian Earthquake,” 402), picking up fragments and adding new material to existing narratives. The intertextual memorialization of natural spaces of the eco-archive finds a partner in Douglas’s argument for the “emergence of a new postcolonial archival-type writing” (389). She concludes that this textual archiving is tantamount to a “creative reconstruction” of Haiti (402). Paraphrasing Hall, Douglas contends that these texts are fundamentally concerned with “rereading the past in light of the present and future” (402).
The chapter opens with an attempt to define the idea of the “literary witness” that emerges in Failles by considering intertwined questions of form and ethics. It addresses Lahens’s reflection on the space between witnessing and bearing witness, or between experience and text, as well as the ethical relationship between self and other, individual and collective. Failles is part testimony, part chronicle, and these modes overlap as the writer grapples with the effects of the earthquake on the daily activity of writing and, more broadly, on the role of the arts and literature in making sense of the historical repercussions of the event. This question is a source of personal and collective angst for both Lahens and Danticat as their texts move from individual to collective concerns, and even to global issues. For Lahens, the earthquake reinforced clichéd understandings of Haiti as the site of catastrophe. As a writer, Lahens (p.108) must confront the vexing problem of Haitian exceptionalism and its dual poles of attraction. Namely, Haiti is invoked negatively as the poorest country in the hemisphere, while, in an ostensibly more positive light, Haitians are extolled for their resilience.4 The second part of the chapter examines the textual negotiation with disaster that Lahens undertakes in Failles. It shows how she unsettles received ideas on disaster, first by deconstructing their supposed natural, or normal, appearance in Haiti, and second by contextualizing them in a longer history. Lahens’s recognition of the collision of human and planetary time in the earthquake develops into a critique of longstanding social and political differences in Haiti and, by extension, in the wider spaces in which Haitians have migrated and sought refuge.
Failles addresses a range of topics that, Lahens insists, are critical to a more comprehensive understanding of the historical dimensions of the earthquake and their implications for the present and future of Haiti. These include brief reflections on the Haitian revolution, on U.S. occupations, and on the related problems of humanitarian intervention and international aid. Published a mere six months after the earthquake, Failles is a relatively thin text that feels fragmented and open-ended. The final part of the chapter argues that the concern for the ongoing vulnerability of the Haitian people in what Lahens calls “the banality of disaster” is a central theme of the fiction writing that precedes and follows Failles. As a literary witness writing under the limitations of different forms and with the varying expectations and knowledge of her reading public, Lahens takes on the durable perception of disaster as ordinary.
Between Chronicle and Testimony: Questions of Time and Ethics
Failles is a firsthand account of the days and weeks following the earthquake, during which Lahens takes in the landscape of devastation and takes note of the living and the dead. This definition is consistent with her explanation of the kind of text that was taking shape in a letter to the jury of the PACA literary prize, for which she was a finalist. Serving as a proxy, her editor, Sabine Wespieser, read the following: (p.109) “Dès le mercredi 13 janvier 2010, j’ai commencé par tenir une chronique avec une simple comptabilité des faits et une description que je voulais la plus précise qui soit des dommages. Et bien sûr de la détresse” (Failles, 91). If these descriptions are fraught with a whirl of emotions – horror, grief, sadness, and anger, but also relief, pride, and even moments of happiness – at the scenes she witnesses, they are also burdened with questions about the possibility of writing. Throughout, Lahens asks a stream of questions about what to write and about the capacity of literature to be up to the measure of tragedy.
Lahens explains that Failles began as a chronicle. The etymology of this generic term points to a linear account of events that imposes a descriptive narration that enables Lahens to begin to put words on the page. However, as the break in the above passage implies, such accounting only gets so far, as it becomes an impossible, morbid task in the face of devastation. How does one tally suffering? This question exceeds the limited boundaries that Lahens initially sets on the form of the chronicle. An accomplished essay writer, she knows full well that the chronicle has long been a hybrid genre, capable of taking on many forms – historiographic, journalistic, anthropological, and literary – depending on the personal, cultural, and social contexts in which the author writes. Therefore, it makes sense that Lahens would start with the chronicle and then ask what other forms of writing are demanded by the earthquake.
Much critical work has been done on the chronicle and various genres related to it.5 Likewise, studies of testimonial, autobiographical, and essayistic writing abound in Haitian, Caribbean, and Latin American studies.6 My aim is to build on some key findings to frame close readings below. I have begun to demonstrate that Failles holds true to some of the (p.110) conventions of the chronicle, and it can also be read within the porous boundaries of testimonial literature. Create Dangerously fits within the requirements of each genre, if in different ways. However, I am more interested in the connections between these texts and the fictional writing that overlaps with and succeeds them, and especially in the ways that fragments of non-fiction are revised and rewritten into creative literature.
Whether in Latin American, Caribbean, or European traditions, it is generally understood that the chronicle developed into a hybrid genre. The chronicler makes a record of events by keeping track in linear fashion but also adds personal observation or analysis. In their study, Corona and Jörgensen acknowledge the colonial history of Spanish American chronicles of European conquest as an important, if far removed, background to practices and theories of Mexican chronicles of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As Corona and Jörgensen demonstrate, scholars had relegated the chronicle, and non-fiction writing more broadly, to the margins of literary studies. By adopting a cultural studies approach, Corona and Jörgensen examine the social practices of chroniclers and the evolving social and political functions of a genre that crosses many discursive boundaries. Working within the practice of journalism, they find an array of documentary and testimonial modes, as well as more artistically oriented prose influenced by the French tradition of the chronique in the early to mid-twentieth century.7 Ultimately, they make the case for a “flexible, fleeting, and yet always contemporaneous genre” (The Contemporary Mexican Chronicle, 13).
The articles and chronicles edited by Corona and Jörgensen inform Anderson’s study of the mediating role of crónicas in the aftermath of the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City. Anderson opens with a succinct description of the hybridity of the genre: that is, how the journalist weaves individual experience into larger social causes. At first glance, he is arguably less interested in questions of literariness than in the strategic symbiosis between the massive output of these texts and popular organizations that sought to enact political reforms. As he asserts in a more robust definition: “The crónica’s use of documentary and testimonial modes of discourse is highly effective in legitimizing political ideology with the objectivity of shared experience, while the inclusion of subjective observation and commentary provides a space for theorizing local political phenomena” (Disaster Writing, 164). Anderson (p.111) makes a convincing case for the political role of cultural production. In the attempt to organize such a large corpus, he also highlights the literary dimensions of its content. He teases out four “thematic phases” (165), going from personal experience to collective trauma, and from the documentation of dire material circumstances of the people and simultaneous outrage at the inadequate response of the government to historical and theoretical reflections on disaster. As one would expect, Anderson contends that, with some overlap, these phases developed more or less chronologically. For Corona and Jörgensen, such a straightforward analysis is likely the result of a literary study that makes assumptions about the organic causal structure of themes and tropes. Anderson is alert to this critique, as he identifies a transition from the bundle of crónicas published in newspapers in the year and a half after the earthquake to the appearance of “more formal literary representations” closer to the 1988 presidential elections (172). In the closing stages of the chapter, Anderson performs a more sustained literary analysis of the tropes, language, vocabulary, and “collage-like structures” (178) of these later texts, which include various forms of testimonials and essays. Moving beyond the temporal limits of the crónica, they situated the earthquake in a deeper historical context and sought to create a “new grammar of Mexican nationalism and citizenship …” (179).
Anderson’s analysis of the public role of the Mexican crónica offers many insights for the study of writers elsewhere in the Caribbean who published opinion pieces in news outlets in the Americas and Europe during key historical moments prior to and after the Haitian earthquake of 2010. The movement between personal and documentary modes recalls Ollivier’s and Charles’s reporting on the fate of boat-people, and, indeed, one might arguably locate Charles’s De si jolies petites plages in a similar shift as that from journalistic to literary text that Anderson observes following the Mexican earthquake.8 Moreover, in addition to Lahens, Kettly Mars and Junot Diaz, to name but two writers, published editorials in the wake of the earthquake.9
(p.112) Munro frames the essays of several Haitian writers, including Lahens and Danticat, under the heading of “going public” in a way that gestures to the ethics of writing about the earthquake (Writing on the Fault Line, 22). He begins by underscoring the tradition of essay writing in the history of Haitian letters. Like Douglas and Popkin, he also acknowledges the different types of testimony that emerged between oral histories such as the Haiti Memory Project and the texts of established authors. Munro situates these essays between the tradition of the crónica examined by Anderson and testimony, especially the Latin American form of the testimonio that John Beverley defined in his seminal essay “The Margin at the Center.” Beverley defines it as an umbrella term for an array of non-fictional texts “told in the first-person by a narrator who is also the real protagonist or witness of the events he or she recounts, and whose unit of narration is usually a ‘life’ or significant life experience” (Testimonio, 31). Like the crónica, it is a “protean and demotic form,” Beverley continues, “not yet subject to legislation by a normative literary establishment …” (Testimonio, 31). Unlike the crónica, whose marginalization in literary studies owed more to its connection to journalism, the testimonio existed on the periphery of literary genres precisely because, Beverley contends, it “appears where the adequacy of existing literary forms and styles – even of the dominant language itself – for the representation of the subaltern has entered into crisis” (49). By the time Munro is writing, a quarter of a century later, the genre of testimonio remains fluid, yet its links to the question of subaltern agency, as well as the representation of the subaltern, have settled into multiple academic disciplines. However, the use of the term by Munro and April Shemak in the context of Haitian studies attests to the continued power of its political charge.
In Beverley’s analysis of testimonio, the intentionality of the narrator is tied to an urgent collective concern. In this sense, the narrator’s voice is more personal than that of the chronicler but has in common the representation of a community’s problems. As with the crónica, the literariness of the testimonial has also become a key aspect of its generic hybridity, often stirring heated debate about authenticity. For example, Shemak cites the differing views of Beverley and Alberto Moreiras, and especially the latter’s criticism of the “fetishizing” of testimonio (Asylum Speakers, 27).10 Munro is drawn to the question of temporality contained within (p.113) the crónica and to the testimonial’s capacity to represent witnessing as it moves from the individual to the collective. Furthermore, the political role of both forms helps in an understanding of the essays of Lahens, Danticat, and Laferrière in relation to their fictional endeavors. Munro’s overarching claim is twofold: first, both the form and the ideas developed in these essays “have a provisional quality” (70); second, in contrast to the context of the Mexico City earthquake, the weak structures of the Haitian state mitigated any real impact that these essays might have had in terms of a connection with popular political mobilization. This last point is indisputable, and it also raises the question of the intended readership of these texts. However, the argument concerning the transitory nature of these texts, the idea that they “record a specific period of time” (Writing on the Fault Line, 70), requires a closer look.
The essays of Lahens, Danticat, and Laferrière are provisional, Munro asserts, because they were updated and reprinted. This argument supports Douglas’s analysis of the materiality of these texts. Yet, in this line of reasoning, the ideas conveyed are also impermanent, such that the earthquake would have created the conditions for temporary thought. These essays, Munro elaborates, “are a means of being able to write in the temporal and creative breach that the earthquake imposed on these writers, who in most cases hesitated before returning to writing fiction” (22). The writer grapples with the extraordinary dual power of the earthquake, which ruptures a sequential order of life and brings old questions to the surface. All the above writers contemplate this duality, yet the continuity of the latter calls into question Munro’s assertion. In fact, in the context of the crónica, Anderson anticipates the argument that they are “grounded in the immediacy of the present” (169) and goes on to point out that their “thematic narratives … become useful in long-term political debates and projects” (169, emphasis added). Many of the problems unearthed by the earthquake, such as the precarity of living conditions for much of the population and the international infringement of Haitian sovereignty, are historical. In this sense, they had been archived but now demanded renewed attention. Lahens and Danticat may hesitate to return to fiction but not to writing and, in fact, the ideas that drive Failles and Create Dangerously are intertwined with fictional texts that precede and come after them. As Lahens writes regarding the intended short-term nature of tent camps, “D’ailleurs, dans cette île, tout provisoire est appelé à être permanent” (Failles, 83).
The earthquake opened a space in which time appears to stop, and the writer steps in to make sense of this rupture and to resume some (p.114) sort of routine. In this way, Lahens and Danticat must contend with the limits of the chronicle and testimony, but they do so because the subjects about which and for whom they write require the lived experience of the witness as well as the imagination of the storyteller. As Munro argues, the symbiosis of non-fiction and fiction is revealing of the political role of the artist and intellectual in the desire to call attention to the collective suffering of Haitians. To carry out this task, these texts reconnect to enduring questions and knowledge that the earthquake could not destroy.
J’écris pour tenter de savoir / Juste un peu plus.
This tentative declaration of intent – “I write to attempt to know. Just a little more” – underscores the ethical problems at stake for Lahens. How can she write about the earthquake, and to what ethical questions might she attest? Even though Lahens was present – she was a witness in the most basic sense of feeling and seeing it, of living through it – she admits to not yet having knowledge of it on some deeper level. In the immediacy of the event, she is not yet a reliable witness. In a way, she is unable to give evidence of it. Lahens makes a crucial distinction between witnessing and knowing: what does it mean to write, she asks, beyond the reporting of sensorial experience?
Lahens suggests a limitation to knowledge obtained through vision that recalls Emmanuel Levinas’s skepticism regarding the face-to-face encounter between self and Other.11 In Totality and Infinity Levinas argues that the self does not inherently possess a moral character. It comes to responsibility through the “face of the Other” (50–51). “The way in which the other presents himself,” Levinas explains, “exceeding the idea of the other in me, we name here face” (50). The face-to-face encounter brings about only the “avidity of the gaze” (50). Vision alone cannot suffice as an ethical way of understanding because it is but the “neutralization of the other who becomes a theme or an (p.115) object – appearing, that is, taking its place in the light – is precisely his reduction to the same” (43). The gaze is “transformed into generosity [se muant en générosité]” only through language, through the social capacity of discourse. The edifice upon which Levinas builds his definition of ethics disregards the idea of spontaneity: “We name this calling into question of my spontaneity by the presence of the other ethics. The strangeness of the Other, his irreducibility to the I, to my thoughts and my possessions, is precisely accomplished as a calling into question of my spontaneity, as ethics” (Totality and Infinity, 43).12 As Jill Robbins observes, “The (ethical) encounter with the other interrupts the self’s habitual economy and its tendency to conceive of the world as a space of possibilities and power [pouvoir]. It interrupts the play of the Same” (“Reading Levinas’s Totality and Infinity,” 137).13 Levinas conceives of ethics in relation to language, an interpellation by an absolute alterity that is “welcomed [as] an interlocutor” (Totality and Infinity, 69).
Mindful of the abstractions of Levinas’s thought, I have taken this short detour through the philosopher’s ideas on otherness and responsibility because they help frame a central question of the ethics of Lahens’s testimony. That is, if knowledge of the earthquake falls outside of the experience of what the “I” sees, then what is to be learned through what and to whom the “I” writes? Just prior to the disclaimer of a lack of knowledge that would emanate from the “j’écris,” Lahens writes, “Failles fut le premier titre qui s’imposa à moi. Impossible d’entendre ce mot sans ressentir la point acérée d’un objet, là, dans la poitrine, à l’endroit du coeur” (Failles, 16). Because the earthquake “imposed itself,” the text is a response or, in a Levinassian sense, a responsibility that passes from the outside to the self in a way that is sharply felt but not yet understood. In other words, the task that Lahens assigns to herself through writing is a constant search for knowledge that can only be found through engagement with others.
(p.116) In fact, the first line of Failles opens not with the singular “I” but with the collective “nous,” not in the linear mode of the chronicle but in the mythic time of the fairy tale. From the beginning, Lahens positions the self in relation to community, near and far. The attempt to know is predicated on the connection between what she and her neighbors have seen and felt, and the conviction that this experience can be conveyed to her readers – indeed, that it will mean something to this disparate group of others. Throughout, the text alternates between the individual “j’écris” and the broader “nous.” If writing as a search for this combined knowledge is an extended metaphor in Failles, it is because the direct approach to witnessing Haitian history has largely failed to change the narrative of exceptionalism. Perhaps, then, where the chronicle is unable to persuade readers, the rhetorical power of a testimony conceived as a shared voice can reach them in other ways. Following the tentative affirmation cited above, she continues, “Mais je ne guérirai pas / Je ne veux pas guérir. Je n’écris pas pour guérir. J’écris pour tout miser à chaque page et conjurer la menace du silence ligne après ligne. En attendant de recommencer” (17). At best, Lahens suggests, writing is a gamble. She employs the active, transitive sense of the verb “to heal” to convey that she does not claim to help others or to propose definitive solutions. She will not return Haiti to health. At the same time, she is compelled to write about “la santé du malheur,” or the health of misfortune, as evidenced in the editorial she published in the French daily Libération a week after the earthquake, and reinserted into Failles. This is not only a central theme of the editorial but also of her fiction writing. Here, she develops it as part of the task of testimony, which is to transcribe what she witnesses. Writing is a defense against silence, a means to fill the void and thus to give form to what she sees, hears, and smells. The attempt to put everything on the page is a powerful wager because of the risks taken to open her testimony to the representation of others, in the sense of both depicting silenced voices and speaking for them. Lahens’s framing of a testimonial “I” comes closer to Beverley’s understanding of the testimonio as a form of solidarity. She does not write from a preconceived position of authority, and her presence as a witness does not guarantee truth. In effect, Lahens challenges the idea that testimony is a direct transmission of knowledge.
The task now is precisely to recognize how the sekous, the quake in the Haitian world, has rearranged not only heaven and earth but Haiti and its geopolitical neighbors in shattered slabs of international relations, how it has repositioned the faithful, Vodouisant and/or Christian, with regard to “god who is there,” how to claw the future out from the debris, all without wrongly and prejudicially consigning Haiti, its state and its history, to disaster.
The review of textual forms and their ethical implications reveals what is at stake for the writer as a witness to the earthquake. As Munro points out, several Haitian writers who continued to “go public” did so by “not writing disaster” (Writing on the Fault Line, 18). However, the decision not to write about the earthquake could still be interpreted as an ethical or political stance against the lasting clichés of “disaster” and “catastrophe” of multiple discourses that have long circumscribed Haiti, as Deborah Jenson recalls. Lahens addresses this history directly, and so one could then ask what a “creative reconstruction” of Haiti might entail as an ethico-literary process. What does it mean for the writer to “rebuild”? How does Lahens engage the diachronic, political history of disaster and catastrophe that Jenson describes? What vision for the future illuminates her texts?
While Jenson is wary about the continued use of “disaster” in relation to Haiti – in fact, she implores readers to know that “Haiti is not, in itself, disaster …” (111, emphasis in original) – Anderson and Munro delve into the growing multidisciplinary fields of “Disaster studies” to argue for its usefulness in rethinking neocolonial narratives that persist in some disciplinary schools of thought. In the fields of political science and international relations, for instance, the concept of the “failed state” still has critical purchase, as Munro notes.14 For these critics, literary texts and other artistic forms are indispensable sources for examining the ways that a given culture makes sense of “disaster.” Munro writes, “In Haiti, literature in particular has often been a prime (p.118) site in registering and memorializing natural and other disasters” (“Disaster Studies and Cultures of Disaster in Haiti,” 512). This view of literature resonates with Marie-Hélène Huet’s reading, cited above, of the ways that cultures “think through disaster.” Failles is a fragmented attempt to historicize disaster and related ideas of Haiti in the modes of apocalypse and tragedy and to seek a way out of the impasse that blocks new narratives.
Lahens frames the shifting modes of testimony and chronicle with a collective invocation of mourning. The text begins by memorializing Port-au-Prince in the imperfect temporality and nostalgic language of the fairy tale. In the timelessness of this mode – “il était une fois une ville” (Failles, 11) – Lahens depicts scenes of ordinary life, moments of happiness despite the evident misery. “Nous l’aimions à cause de son énergie qui déborde,” she continues, “de sa force qui pouvait nous manger, nous avaler” (11). The earthquake interrupts this reverie, and the text shifts to the perfect tense. At the precise time of 4:53 p.m., a monstrous god straddled a passive Port-au-Prince: “chevauchée sauvagement avant de s’écrouler cheveux hirsutes, yeux révulsés, jambes disloquées, sexe béant, exhibant ses entrailles de ferraille et de poussière, ses viscères et son sang” (12–13). The fairy tale is disrupted by this brutal violence, as the humanity of the city is torn apart, turned inside out, its symbolic female body is violated by a bloodthirsty god that pulverizes it to a hybridized being, animal and mineral (cheveux hirsutes, sexe béant, entrailles de ferraille). The fairy tale continues, but its understanding of time has been forever fractured. The fault line has gobbled up part of the soul of Port-au-Prince.
From the start, Failles conceives of the active power of disaster as otherworldly. It belongs to a space and time outside the familiar, human landscape of the city. As Loth points out, the monstrosity of the earthquake reappears in Guillaume et Nathalie, the novel published three years later, and is set in contrast to the international media’s portrayal of crowds in protest of the rising cost of food as a hungry monster. As Loth argues, the equation of disaster with monstrosity comes from an external point of view. In effect, Lahens renders disaster as unfamiliar. In this way, Loth writes, “Her emphasis on the monstrous represents all of the suffering and pain that has resulted in the destruction as aberrant, as out of the normal order” (“(Re)Reading the Ruins,” 135; emphasis in original). From Failles to Guillaume et Nathalie, disaster is depicted as supernatural and political, while Port-au-Prince is represented as a raped female and as a body constructed of iron and cement on a dusty earth. (p.119) Therefore, by imagining a place where disaster is far from ordinary, Lahens reveals the political manipulation of a supposed natural order. However, the longevity of the narrative of the natural disaster is evidence of its universal acceptance. To counter this mindset, Lahens must leave the mythic time of the fairy tale and shift to testimony and, later, journalism.
The tentative first step of each of these modes is to survey the surroundings. Lahens takes the reader on walks around the neighborhood and on drives through various quarters of the city. Her field of vision focuses with difficulty on scenes of suffering and on landscapes of devastation, all the while aftershocks continue to displace her center of gravity. In this immediate stage of witnessing, Lahens comes to terms with the imposition of the experience of the fault line. “Failles, un mot comme jamais entendu avant le 12 janvier 2010,” she writes (Failles, 16). Just to hear it causes her to stumble and almost “défaillir” (16). It is “un mot trou noir. Un mot sang. Un mot mort” (16). The feeling, she describes, is to “me retrouver au-dessus d’un grand trou béant” (16), the gaping hole that, in the fairy tale, had been ripped open by a sadistic god. Recasting the metaphor of the animated, hybrid city, Lahens wonders, “quels mots font le poids quand les entrailles d’une ville sont retournées, offertes aux mouches qui dansent dans la pestilence?” (17). Seeking to go beyond the visceral limitations of individual experience, she proceeds with a series of searing ethical questions.
Mais comment écrire ce malheur sans qu’à l’issue de la confrontation il n’en sorte doublement victorieux et la littérature méconnaissable? Comment écrire pour que le malheur ne menace pas l’existence même des mots? … Comment écrire en évitant d’exotiser le malheur, sans en faire une occasion de racolage, un fonds de commerce, un article d’exhibition de foire? Comment être à la hauteur de ce malheur?
Lahens is at pains to avoid rendering the kind of cliché that would continue to degrade Haiti and the act of writing, reduced to a literature of circumstance or even to an ideological textual commodity. Above all, this great malheur must not be seen simply as a Haitian disaster. “Écrire pour rapatrier ce malheur à sa vraie place,” she asserts, “Au centre. Parce que ce qui nous a frappés le 12 janvier n’est point un malheur de périphérie, un malheur de ‘quart-monde.’ C’est le malheur du premier monde comme de tous les autres” (18). In the call to do away with the neocolonial division of the globe, Lahens seeks a reckoning with the disaster that “repatriates” it not to one country but to a place of collective responsibility.
Readers familiar with Lahens’ texts will not be surprised by the effort to historicize the earthquake. Some concerns of Failles had been taken up in L’Exil: entre l’ancrage et la fuite, l’écrivain haïtien, an earlier essay on exilic conditions known to the Haitian writer. As she takes in the scope of the devastation, Lahens finds her footing in the desire to recall Haiti’s central role in narratives of revolution at the turn of the nineteenth century. As Jenson points out, by overthrowing the colonial master and then the French imperial army, the ex-slaves and their allies achieved a political feat that was compared to a geological event, like the earth-shattering force that struck Port-au-Prince in the late eighteenth century. A second quake left Cap-Haïtien in ruins some seventy years later, not long after the north and south had been reunited under President Boyer. Lahens realizes that many Haitians had been in denial of looming geological disruption, despite being forewarned only a year prior. “Le déni est tellement plus commode,” she admits (Failles, 32). The remembrance of historical fault lines now burdens the present with the consequences of such neglect.
The establishment of universal freedom in Haiti shocked the political foundations of the Americas and Europe. Despite Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s signature revision of the silencing of this history and a subsequent wave of like-minded scholarship, Haiti remains isolated in a “modernity disavowed,” or Sibylle Fischer’s thesis of a Eurocentric history of the West that denies its roots in an Age of Slavery at the same time that it creates stories and myths that reproduce similar racial, social, and economic inequalities.15 Like her peers, Lahens sheds light on the role of Western democracies in the effacement of this revolutionary narrative, an injustice that is exacerbated by the gradual naturalization of poverty and disaster as Haitian problems. A major historical figure guiding Lahens is Camus, who reported in the underground paper Combat. A week after the earthquake, Lahens published “Haïti ou la santé du malheur” in Libération, an editorial reprinted in Failles. The title refers to a poem by the poet (and close friend of Camus) René Char. Writing during the Occupation of France, Char insisted on the need to work [oeuvrer] for beauty in the midst of combat: “il est temps de nous composer une santé du (p.121) malheur.”16 Resurrecting this idea, Lahens cites another phrase that Camus penned during the war: “Nous avons maintenant la familiarité du pire. Cela nous aide à lutter encore” (Failles, 69). Born just before the Great War, witnesses to the concentration camp and the atomic bomb, Camus’s generation had lived through several disasters. As Camus observed in his Nobel Speech in Stockholm in 1957, “ils ont dû se forger un art de vivre par temps de catastrophe.”17 This eloquent passage encapsulates the literary ethics that united Camus and Char and that Lahens redeploys in present-day Haiti: the relentless search for justice despite the familiarity of the “age of catastrophe.”
The references to Camus and Char compose a paratextual frame that takes Failles back to the Second World War. In epigraph, Lahens quotes a line from Combat on December 26, 1944: “Notre monde n’a pas besoin d’âmes tièdes. Il a besoin de coeurs brûlants qui sachent faire à la modération sa juste place” (Essais, 284).18 Camus celebrated the Christmas vow of Pope Pius XII, who had just disavowed the Spanish dictator, Franco, yet he decried the appeal to moderation, which, he argued, had allowed for continued injustice, most devastatingly during the Holocaust. In Combat Camus wrote about deeper problems that called into question the prevailing spirit of liberation. It is possible that the turn to Camus betrays Lahens’s desire to connect with the progressive French-speaking readers of Libération. And yet, it is worth pointing out that the French left had long ago abandoned Camus owing to his stance during the Algerian war for independence. Camus remains a controversial figure today, yet many of the questions that he and his peers faced resonate deeply with Lahens and Danticat.19 The editorials (p.122) in Combat addressed the purge [épuration], the trials of Vichy collaborators, a time when France was in the process of reconstruction. How to rebuild after disaster? Do violence and division give way to justice, or do they exact a heavy toll? When justice concedes to violence, what are the consequences for the reformed nation?
In drawing inspiration from Camus, Lahens elides the transformation that he underwent during the épuration. In the immediate aftermath of the war Camus was on the side of retributive justice: “Nous ne sommes pas des hommes de haine,” he wrote on August 22, 1944, “Mais il faut bien que nous soyons des hommes de justice” (OC II, 519). This idea of justice is about restoring the grandeur of the nation, and it becomes clear in a series of editorials that justice begins with the public removal of the Vichy traitors from the French body politic: “La France porte en elle, comme un corps étranger, une minorité d’hommes qui ont fait hier son malheur et qui continueront de le faire. Ce sont les hommes de trahison et de l’injustice” (OC II, 558). In a crescendo of editorials from late summer throughout the fall and winter of 1944, Camus engaged in a public debate with François Mauriac, fellow writer and columnist at Le Figaro, who argued that the execution of collaborators would be a stain upon the future of France. Camus’s denunciation of papal moderation must be understood, then, within the context of the fiery time when he still held firm to his belief in the necessity of the death penalty. And yet, he would soon change course during the infamous case of Robert Brasillach, another well-known writer, editor of the right-wing journal Je suis partout, and collaborator with the Germans. Scarcely two weeks after preaching against moderation, Camus signed a petition for clemency for Brasillach that Mauriac had circulated. De Gaulle rejected the petition and Brasillach was executed by firing squad. Camus defers a volte-face, yet by the following summer, eight months after the editorial cited by Lahens, he writes, “Le mot d’épuration était déjà assez pénible en lui-même. La chose est devenue odieuse” (Combat, August 30, 1945, in OC II, 1316).20 For Camus, the nation whose idea (p.123) of revolutionary justice proceeds by way of the death penalty is on the road to future destruction.
For Lahens, the connection Camus and Char make between resistance and reconstruction empowered them not to give in to a fatalistic view of humankind. Some sixty-five years later, their writings help her to mediate the debris of the present by reflecting on the revolutionary idea of Haiti. She writes:
Notre révolution est venue indiquer aux deux autres qui l’avaient précédée, l’américaine et la française, leurs contradictions et leurs limites, qui sont celles de cette modernité dont elles ont dessiné les contours, la difficulté à humaniser le Noir et à faire de leurs terres des territoires à part entière.
The principled justice of Haiti was to abolish the institution of slavery. From the start, however, the nascent republic suffered through political strife and continued violence. “Nous n’avons su user de la constance et de la mesure,” Lahens continues in a collective voice, “ … qui aurait dû mettre les hommes et les femmes de cette terre à l’abri de conditions infra-humaines de la vie” (70–71). She goes on to argue that, instead of building a citizenry, Haitians have used a celebrated past as an alibi for the present. Thinking with Césaire, who staged the fatal flaw of national excess in the La tragédie du roi Christophe, Lahens observes, “Parce que la démesure a ses limites, la glorification stérile du passé comme refuge, aussi” (71).
Lahens also turns a critical eye on the contemporary problem of humanitarian intervention and its implications for the long-term health of Haitian sovereignty. Non-governmental organizations have done much to help, Lahens acknowledges, but they operate without sufficient regulation and raise the cost of living in Port-au-Prince. Most alarming, however, is the fact that nearly all aid monies flow through these organizations before reaching the people they are ostensibly intended to help. Lahens scrutinizes the structural inequalities upon which international aid depends and that keeps Haiti, she writes, like a patient in intensive care. As she imagines it, aid is an illness that infects the sick and the caregiver alike, both of whom succumb to the same “morbidity” (Failles, 102). In his documentary film Assistance mortelle, Raoul Peck goes one (p.124) step further by arguing that the policies and programs of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC) were also catastrophic.21 In a series of interviews, some aid workers associated with the IHRC come to the shameful realization that they are part of a system that does more harm than good.22 The film’s damning conclusion is delivered by Peck in voiceover: “The dictatorship of aid is violent, arbitrary, blind, full of itself; a paternalistic monster that sweeps away anything in its path. It pretends to resolve problems that it tries its hardest to keep alive.” Like Lahens, Peck witnesses a monster not of Haitian origins.
The question of aid is at the core of Lahens’s rethinking of disaster. She argues that many aid groups, secular and religious, do not take the time to learn the “syntaxe and lexique” (Failles, 105) of the Haitian people. In lieu of attempting to make sense of cultural and socio-economic relationships in refugee camps, external organizations perceive disorder, Lahens writes. In the absence of deeper knowledge, the idea of resilience takes hold. Lahens has grown tired of this cliché and the aura of the exotic that clings to it: “La résilience est devenue le terme commode, hâtif, souvent teinté d’exotisme, pour en parler, presque comme d’une essence. Le racisme n’est pas loin non plus” (105). Praising the hardiness of the people does little to help them integrate into a larger national project from which they have long been excluded. Their familiar malheur is to be exploited by a class of elites – homo politicus and homo economicus haïtiens, the terms of classical economic and political liberalism that Lahens adapts here – whose pursuit of money and power is a contemporary form of colonial plundering. Lahens argues,
Parce que l’homo economicus, cette autre face de Janus, est loin d’être en reste. Ayant, tout comme homo politicus, intégré le dicton de la terre qui glisse, il perpétue dans son mode d’être dans ce pays la tradition de la flibuste et de la rapine du temps de la colonie, qui consiste à faire de l’argent vite et très vite. (121–122)
The theoretical origins of homo economicus as a rational being who acts in self-interest mutated in the colonial Caribbean, Lahens suggests, to (p.125) become the rapacious alter ego to the more ideological homo politicus. In Failles, these figures become less abstract as Lahens traces their itineraries (from province to Port-au-Prince, from Haiti to Miami) and shows how their wealth and power accumulate in a symbiotic dependency.
Failles is ultimately a reflection on the vulnerability of the Haitian people. The only way to a viable and just reconstruction, Lahens contends, is through “le long travail de réparation du tissu social en lambeaux” (106–107). Walking through the tent camps gives her little hope for a large-scale social project, yet it does motivate her to reclaim fundamental questions from the archive and recast them in the present. “Comment vivre à hauteur d’homme donc?” (79), she asks. This question is straight out of Camus’s L’homme révolté, which Lahens continues to cite: “L’homme n’est pas seulement esclave contre maître, mais aussi homme contre le monde du maître et de l’esclave” (Failles, 79).23 The overpopulated camps and hastily constructed provisional living quarters are a visible reminder of injustice. The revolt of the slave, Camus asserted, was about the freedom to break the “la muette hostilité qui sépare l’oppresseur de l’opprimé” (OC III, 304). From Camus to Lahens, to be “up to the measure of man” is to have a dialogue about liberty and justice that breaks this silence.
The turn to critical journalism means that Failles will not lead to the “crisis of witnessing” that Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub famously proposed in the context of the Holocaust.24 This critical model would appear to be useful, but only if one were to pursue a psychoanalytical reading in order to work through the silence of earthquake victims. Lahens is not a traumatized witness in the sense that she is unable to give testimony in the face of unspeakable horror. On the contrary, she raises her voice to confront historical clichés that reverberated in multiple media outlets in the aftermath of the earthquake. The violated body of Port-au-Prince was not in itself obscene, Lahens asserts, it was its “mise à nu forcée” (13), offered to the world in immediate broadcasts that did little to contextualize the images that the media trafficked. What was and remains obscene, she continues, “c’est le scandale de sa pauvreté” (13). Later, she adds a crucial point: “Une pauvreté qui a ses (p.126) causes et une histoire dans le monde tel qu’il va” (62). In this blistering critique, Lahens makes the case for the continued inability, or just plain refusal, of “Western” governments to speak of this past. Ironically, it is the former colonial and imperial powers that are beset with a “crisis of witnessing.”
In Testimony Felman argues that the unspeakable finds expression in “cryptic forms of modern narrative and modern art” (201). In an earlier essay on Camus’s La chute, Felman had argued that, where the traumatized witness is unable to respond to the Holocaust, the writer can transform this silence into a legible figure. She concludes, “Camus succeeds in giving to the very silence of a generation, and to the very voicelessness of history – the power of a call: the possibility, the chance, of our response-ability.”25 Felman’s interpretation of the narrative and rhetorical power of literature to give voice to history can be redirected to the numerous passages in Failles when testimonial and journalistic modes shift to the witnessing of history through literature.
The Literary Witness
Il y a des désastres tranquilles.
Sitting in her living room, among the books that the earthquake has toppled to the floor, Lahens pauses over titles and leafs through historical expressions of solidarity and revolt, from Camus and Marguerite Duras to Aimé Césaire and Ahmadou Kourouma. These writers represent a legacy of varied geopolitical backgrounds and literary histories, and are all key figures of the imperial twentieth century. They symbolize the four corners of the old French Empire (North Africa, Indochina, the Antilles, and West Africa). Lahens invokes their texts not so much to seek to align herself with the political debates that roiled a previous generation, nor does she delve into the historical circumstances under which any of these (p.127) writers lived and wrote. But, in alluding to the complicated imperial histories, she brings together a group who arguably wrote against the grain, and whose texts have endured generational readings.
The archival function of Failles can be seen in the material phrases and ideas it collects from these writers and others, who enable Lahens to read history into the earthquake. In this short text, she enriches the process of archiving by also drawing from her fictional stores. She has acknowledged that Failles sits unexpectedly between two novels, La couleur de l’aube, published in 2008, and Guillaume et Nathalie, which appeared in 2013.26 Bain de lune, published in 2014, traces the historical conflict between an extended family of peasants and the line of the Tertulien, homo economicus, in a story of epic proportions. By extending the reflections of Failles and an earlier short story, this most recent novel continues the archival work of contextualizing social fault lines laid bare by the earthquake in stories of disasters past.27 Thus, like Danticat, Lahens often crafts her novels from short stories, weaving bits and pieces, drawing out characters, and reflecting on the passage of time. In an interview in Boutures with Rodney Saint-Éloi, she remarks broadly on the history of these genres in relation to poetry and theater; on their modernity compared with the lyric orality of these older forms; and on differences between the short story and the novel in terms of their aesthetic relation to space and time.28 In this manner, Lahens adds layers to a central theme of her writing: namely, how disaster is embedded as ordinary in Haiti.
In the opening chapter of De si jolies petites plages, Jean-Claude Charles wonders how to call attention to the exodus of Haitians. In contrast to the onslaught of reporters and fundraising telethons in the aftermath of the earthquake, the boat-people of previous generations received scant attention in the press. Their journeys were “quiet disasters,” Charles lamented, “un dispositif d’oppression à bas bruit, ça ne s’entend pas” (22). Charles’s struggle to shed light on this “réel haïtien” (p.128) (22) can also be read in Lahens’s various depictions of what she calls the “banality of disaster.” At first glance, one reads an allusion to Hannah Arendt’s (in)famous judgment on the “banality of evil” embodied by Adolf Eichmann, the high-ranking Nazi official.29 Arendt argued that the evil of Eichmann derived from his role as a functionary – he was nothing more than an unthinking bureaucrat. In Lahens’s use, banality refers to political oppression that is systematic and therefore routine. During both the Duvalier and post-Duvalier eras, scores of people were either sacrificed or were willing to sacrifice themselves as a means of escape. A recurring phrase in Lahens’s fiction, it captures the sense of a cyclical history, one that appears to go nowhere, like the intransitive migrations that Charles tracked in his reporting. It first appears as the title of the short story “Le désastre banal” in the collection La petite corruption. Set in 1986, the story portrays Mirna, a young Haitian woman who seeks a way out of poverty. Resigned to the presence of U.S. soldiers, she has an affair with a serviceman:
Mirna se demandait ce que pouvait désormais un peuple dont les chefs avaient été à ce point humiliés si ce n’est que d’entrer lui aussi dans la banalité du désastre. Mirna changea de position, glissa jusqu’à s’asseoir sur le bord du lit, les pieds posés à plat sur le sol et se mit du vernis sur les ongles des mains. (17)
For Mirna, and by extension a generation of young people, to enter into banality is to give oneself over to those with power, in her case Officer William Butler. Rather than resist the occupying force, Mirna enlists her body to the “puissance étrange et ambiguë du vainqueur” (20). Barely out of adolescence, she wants to leave the pettiness of life in Haiti, even if it means replacing one form of suffering with another. As Marie-José N’Zengou-Tayo argues, “Lahens exposes women’s strategies of survival. She shows how young women from impoverished areas are fighting by all means necessary to escape squalid conditions” (“The Haitian Short Story,” 47). At the end of the story, in a seaside hotel with William, Mirna is less a fighter than a victim. Even when she would rather “se (p.129) noyer,” she puts on a good face, “ce masque qui devait remplacer son visage le reste de sa vie” (20).
Mirna’s surrender is made as part of a desperate quest for an elsewhere. In the very language used (se noyer) to describe Mirna’s state of mind, the narrator allows the reader to imagine another young girl, embarking on a small boat, like the one crafted by Ollivier’s villagers, willing to risk death in the hopes of a better life. Nine years after La petite corruption, Lahens publishes La couleur de l’aube, a novel set during the violent throes of the Aristide presidency. In the story of the Meracin family, Lahens depicts the tragic consequences of being trapped in the “banalité quotidienne du désastre” (81–82). The novel’s second line – “Comment ne pas prier Dieu dans cette île où le diable a la part belle et doit se frotter les mains” (11) – suggests a helplessness in the face of what Camus called the “familiarité du pire.” However, the struggle to survive continues. Staying with the predicament of women, Lahens reimagines the plight of Mirna in the tale of two sisters, Angélique and Joyeuse. As their names suggest, the former keeps a religious distance from the “joies terrestres” in which the latter delights, with “une foi inébranlable dans son rouge à lèvres, ses seins et ses fesses” (La couleur de l’aube, 20, 27). Both, however, are unable to find a way out of the surrounding misery and violence that take the life of their brother, Fignolé.
Like Mirna, Joyeuse attaches herself to a blanc, John, a journalist from the United States who, Angélique informs the reader, arrived ten years earlier with the contingent of occupying soldiers. The daily banality lived by Joyeuse has something in common with the experience of Mirna. In fact, Lahens rewrites the same phrase, cited above, from “Le désastre banal.” The key distinction in the novel lies in the way that Lahens shifts the perspective on the ordinary disaster from the Meracin family to the American journalist. John reimagines the narrative of their struggle for his readers back home. In language that predicts the international media coverage of the earthquake, Angélique observes:
Nos vies se résumaient à des lettres griffonnées à la hâte qui feraient la une très loin pour des gens gavés de mots et d’images … John nous imagina plus pauvres que nous l’étions et moi encore plus dévouée que je ne l’étais en réalité. C’était cela le beau film que John et beaucoup de ceux qui lui ressemblent, nés sous des cieux cléments, et dans des beaux quartiers, se jouent dans leur tête. (84–85)
Throughout, the sisters’ narratives are filled with the kind of self-reflection and familial and social commentary that can be read in the above (p.130) passage. In this sense, the text is not unlike the blend of testimony and chronicle of Failles. Moving between the two modes, the novel offers two competing narratives on poverty: the personal experience of Angélique and the sensational “film” produced in John’s reporting. Lahens demonstrates that both narratives dramatize disaster according to the normative expectations (cultural, religious) of a given society.
Failles experiments with different narrative ways of having knowledge of the earthquake and with deconstructing ideological notions of disaster that frame it. In fact, because the earthquake interrupted the project of Guillaume et Nathalie, Lahens disperses notes on the novel in the text of Failles. One month later, she returns to a passage drafted earlier. “Cette nuit-là,” she notes, “j’ai sorti Nathalie and Guillaume, cet homme et cette femme dans les hauteurs de Pacot, cet homme et cette femme aux ombres à peine esquissées sur des feuilles jaunes, de mes décombres intérieurs, presque comme des êtres de chair” (Failles, 20). The fictional meeting between the two characters was supposed to take place in an apartment building on a hilltop in Pacot. In the days that followed, Lahens discovers that the building slid down the ravine. Initially, she imagines that Nathalie and Guillaume are buried with the rest of the real inhabitants, all of whom perished, she is told by passersby. In this scene, testimony threatens to put an end to fiction. She hesitates: “Et puis, silence. / Plus rien … / Vraiment plus rien? / Je ne peux pas m’y résoudre et je ne sens pas non plus la force d’aller plus loin” (Failles, 54–55). As the specter of death fills her field of vision, Lahens needs time before her characters can take shape.
While Nathalie and Guillaume wait, Lahens turns to other, equally intimate spaces of conversation with family and friends. She draws strength from a close-knit circle of artists, activists, and academics – as she calls them, “les amis du samedi matin / du dimanche matin soir” – who participate in a kind of weekly salon (Failles, 80, 130). In Haiti, Lahens explains, “nous maintenons une tradition de la parole, la lodyans, qui remonte à longtemps et qui se pratique encore dans quelques villes de province et sur des galeries à Port-au-Prince” (81). According to Georges Anglade, a specialist on the genre who died in the earthquake, “tirer des lodyans c’est raconter des histoires lorsqu’une assistance s’y prête et qu’un conteur se lance … mais c’est surtout le soir que des voix tout en inflexions animent des galeries faiblement éclairées …” (Les blancs de mémoire, 7). In Failles, lodyans is the vocal counterpart to the quieter practice of reading. If the conversation amongst friends serves as a mise en éclairage of political and social (p.131) fault lines, the sketches of Nathalie and Guillaume fulfill another source of ethical dialogue.
The brief passages of the novel that appear in the text are essential to the idea of the literary witness as archivist. They become part of the novel, Guillaume et Nathalie, a love story between a sociologist, Guillaume Jean-François, and an architect, Nathalie Dubois. To understand how the story develops in the novel, the reader would do well to reread the notes and characters sketched in Failles. The earthquake did not kill the project for the new novel, but it left Lahens unsure about the fate of its protagonists. Set in December 2009, Guillaume et Nathalie begins with the two lovers entering the apartment building in Pacot, before returning to the scene of their first encounter, at a meeting in an international agency that had funded the construction of a community center in Léogâne, a project for which the agency hired Nathalie, as well as Guillaume, who works for an NGO. Because it is set before the earthquake, the novel makes for a disorienting read. At the end of Failles, Lahens admits she does not know what will happen to her protagonists; by the last page of the novel, neither does the reader. As Munro and Douglas underscore, the reverse chronology of the two texts is evidence of sustained reflection on the recurrence of the past.
A chilling moment occurs as Guillaume returns to his apartment one evening in Delmas. After the narrator has recalled the historical rise of the black middle class in the neighborhood, Guillaume turns on the radio to listen to the news. On this day, it so happens, a geologist issues a warning about an imminent earthquake. Guillaume finds the scientific explanation plausible, yet even so, “une terreur sourde le traversa en un éclair. Si fort que Guillaume en fut secoué” (Guillaume et Nathalie, 44). He had, of course, lived through hurricanes and floods, but an earthquake, “c’est quand même autre chose … Absolument autre chose …” (45). Such presentiment calls for a rereading of Failles, in which, the reader recalls, Lahens had written “failles, un mot comme jamais entendu avant le 12 janvier 2010” (Failles, 16). In the novel, however, Guillaume listens to the reporting of shifting tectonic plates, yet is still unable to imagine them. What is the reader to make of this narrative memory and of the novel’s mise-en-scène of the construction of a community center in Léogâne, near the epicenter of the earthquake? What is more, the pairing of an architect and a sociologist, two individuals with troubled pasts who are also called upon to fulfill social roles, allows Lahens to reimagine the critique of humanitarian discourse in Failles. Nathalie’s boss, Pierre Marvois, embodies the French experts who “s’abattent sur l’île depuis (p.132) quelques années pour raconter des contes de fees. Pour faire avaler des potions magiques” (Guillaume et Nathalie, 25).
The process of rewriting allows Lahens to think about the evolution of the ordinary. After the sacrifice of vulnerable women at the end of the Duvalier regime, the novel portrays the political opportunism of Eddy, an old friend of Guillaume, who has recently been promoted to director of public service with the return of Aristide. A vocal dissident under Jean-Claude Duvalier, Eddy was once a firebrand, someone who would change the system. Yet shifting political winds would bring him to “cogn[er] fort aux portes du royaume” (Guillaume et Nathalie, 109). Having breached the “apartheid tranquille” of Pétionville, Eddy sacrifices the conviction of youth for wealth and power. This transformation is made possible by the neoliberal restructuring of Haiti’s economy as mandated by the international powers that brought Aristide back. As Guillaume explains, “le retour du prophète-président, la queue basse sous le bruit des bottes onusiennes, et l’enrichissement du Parti des démunis achevèrent d’affadir le rêve et firent tout basculer dans la banalité du désastre” (113–114). In this context, the corruption that smothers the promise of the political youth is a disaster, as is Guillaume’s resignation to such a state of affairs. Unlike Mirna, who understood the affair with William would mean a loss of self, in the case of Eddy, “masque et visage s’étaient complètement confondus” (110).
As with Mirna and the Meracin sisters, Guillaume discovers that there is no place to seek refuge when poverty and death become ordinary. In these texts, Lahens studies the ways that power and hypocrisy have infiltrated multiple layers of Haitian society from the beginnings of the Duvalier era up to the earthquake. The short story offers a glimpse of Mirna’s predicament and leaves the reader in suspense. The fleeting temporality of this aesthetic form means that the reader must imagine her future. The novel allows for the time to listen to Angélique and Joyeuse from dusk to dawn and thus to come to terms with Fignolé’s death from their differing perspectives. Likewise, Guillaume et Nathalie takes the reader through digressions of time and space in backstories that give depth to its protagonists, as individuals and as a couple, in Haiti and the international community. Lahens recasts the central questions and themes that animate the above texts and that she bears witness to in Failles in the epic drama of Bain de lune. Among the many questions brought to the surface by the earthquake, the historical fault line between landowners and peasants becomes the foundation of this (p.133) cross-generational saga. If there is an origin to the banality of disaster, Lahens suggests, it lies in this longstanding conflict.
In Failles, Lahens contemplates the fate of the historical poor, urban and rural, ignored by Haitian governments since the beginning of the republic:
Cela fait deux siècles qu’ils ont pris le pli d’avancer seuls dans l’histoire … . Cela fait deux siècles qu’ils esquivent tous les gouvernements … . Aujourd’hui, plus aucun gouvernement, plus aucune instance internationale, plus aucune ONG ne peut les rattraper. Ils sont réfractaires à toute prise. Ce flair est bien plus qu’une posture, mieux qu’une stratégie, c’est un savoir. (43)
Bain de lune is an attempt to give voice to this knowledge. The novel weaves a story of two ways of living on the land and with the sea. On one side are the Lafleur, who trace their lineage back to Dieunor, an ancestor born in Africa. The knowledge of this extended family spreads out in the communal lakou, in the coastal village of Anse Bleue, and draws strength from the invisible yet ever-present pantheon of vodou spirits. Lahens imbues the novel with the syncretic belief system of the peasants, who inhabit a world in between the human and the divine, “livré à nous-mêmes, des hommes et des femmes qui en savent assez sur l’humaine condition pour parler seuls aux Esprits, aux Mystères et aux Invisibles” (60). On the other side of the mountains are the Mésidor, the landowners who have exploited the Lafleur since the time of the first U.S. invasion, when Anastase Mésidor managed to buy land from Bonal Lafleur in a disastrous bargain for the latter and his family. The Americans had recently opened up Haitian lands to foreign ownership, and Anastase was eager to turn a profit off these creole gardens. Lahens depicts a dialectic of possession and dispossession, as the rapacious greed of homo economicus leads to the loss of ancestral doko, or places of refuge going all the way back to the maroons of colonial Saint-Domingue. Forty years after his father stripped the Lafleur of their land, Tertulien covets Olmène, the granddaughter of Bonal. At the dawn of the Duvalier era, their union produces a new lineage that brings the families together at the same time as it creates rifts in the greater social fabric of Anse Bleue. Tertulien must adapt to the reach of Duvalier into the countryside, reinventing his role among new hierarchies of power. In the ensuing violence, Olmène flees to the Dominican Republic, leaving her newborn, Dieudonné, in the care of her parents, Orvil and Ermancia. Her brother Fénélon takes some control by becoming a macoute, while (p.134) another, Léosthène, departs, first for the “grande bouche dévoreuse de Port-au-Prince” (115), followed by a harrowing clandestine journey in the hold of a cargo ship to Miami.
The arc of the novel spans roughly eighty years, from the first occupation to the second, during the turmoil of the Aristide years. By tracing the intersections of political and economic migrations within Haiti and around the greater Caribbean in the context of external and internal pressures, the novel is an homage to canonical texts of literary ancestors. Moreover, like Roumain, Alexis, and Chauvet, Lahens interrogates the material impact of larger economic and political forces on rural and coastal ecologies, and especially the deterioration of natural resources on which communities such as Anse Bleue depend. In fact, reading Bain de lune in an intertextual dialogue with Roumain’s Gouverneurs de la rosée makes for a compelling comparison not only of the political climates depicted in both texts but also of the different representations of the inexorable transformation of their entours. Both writers pay close attention to the botanical and mineral composition of Haitian lands, yet their characterizations of this natural world diverge in significant ways. In particular, their textual landscapes represent two strikingly different imaginaries with respect to gendered and political views of the land. Roumain’s narration is saturated with a masculine point of view that renders hills like breasts and the hands of male laborers rough like bark. Consider, for example, one of the most iconic scenes in Gouverneurs de la rosée, when Manuel, still the étranger, steps off the truck that has led him back to Fonds-Rouge. The narrator describes the homecoming in the following terms:
Si l’on est d’un pays, si l’on y est né, comme qui dirait: natif-natal, eh bien, on l’a dans les yeux, la peau, les mains, avec la chevelure de ses arbres, la chair de sa terre, les os de des pierres, le sang de ses rivières, son ciel, sa saveur, ses hommes et ses femmes: c’est une présence, dans le coeur, ineffaçable, comme une fille qu’on aime: on connaît la source de son regard, le fruit de sa bouche, les collines de ses seins, ses mains qui se défendent et se rendent, ses genoux sans mystères, sa force et sa faiblesse, sa voix et son silence. (30)
This well-known passage of a “paysage retrouvé” (29) conflates natural spaces with human features and circumscribes characters in gendered hierarchies. By contrast, Lahens’s land- and seascapes do not traffic in such tropes, as the reader discovers in another, less dramatic scene of a homecoming in Bain de lune:
(p.135) Elles reprirent la route. A chaque montée succédait une descente qui ne conduisait pas à une plaine mais juste à une bande de terre qui préparait une nouvelle montée vers un étroit sentier bordant un dangereux abîme … . Olmène et Ermancia aperçurent enfin Anse Bleue. Derrière elles, les perroquets venus des montagnes lointaines criaillaient, annonçant l’imminence de pluies. A l’horizon, le globe rouge du soleil déclinait dans les piaillements d’oiseaux aquatiques. Le vent brisait la crête des vagues en giclées d’écume qui venaient mourir sur le sable. Anse Bleue somnolait déjà. (59–60)
A picture of a daily journey blends into a long, undulating strip of land that leads to a destination. The two women become part of the background, as the use of onomatopeia animates the scene with squawking birds around the red globe of the sun. In this Haitian pastoral, Lahens presents a coastal region in decline, populated by tired peasants who are simply relieved to return to family after a hard day’s work and a long walk home.
Another key difference between the two novels is evident in the political implications of their representations of land and sea. In Gouverneurs de la rosée, Manuel’s return holds much promise for the future of his native land, even if it means his ultimate sacrifice. In Bain de lune, Léosthène, like Manuel, returns after fifteen years to witness the degradation of a skeletal land: “Il n’en croyait pas ses yeux: toute la campagne semblait avoir souffert d’une longue maladie dévastatrice” (173). Yet where Manuel was determined to find the source of water with which to irrigate the parched lands of Fonds-Rouge, Léosthène is resolute in his desire to end “sa lutte contre la terre, les eaux et le soleil” (114). Aside from renewing contact with his family, Léosthène finds no reason to attempt to nurture the land back to health, and so his stay is temporary. Unlike Roumain, Lahens looks back on a period of despair, when the organization of the disenfranchised into a political party of consequence is still in the future. At the time that Roumain wrote, faith in Marxism was strong in the Caribbean. Inspired by the ideology of collective labor that would achieve reconciliation between rival communities and revive the land, Manuel is portrayed as a savior. Even in death, he remains a spiritual guide.
If Lahens has faith in the world inhabited by her characters, it is because their human condition is inseparable from lands and seas that are imbued with the Mystères and Invisibles. When the natural world is personified in the novel, it is not with a view to human mastery over the environment or to some essence of human nature, but rather as part (p.136) of the worldview of vodou and the connections between all life and the spiritual realm. The description of the sea by Cétoute, granddaughter of Olmène and daughter of Dieudonné, is exemplary:
J’aime la mer, son mystère. A tant examiner la mer, j’ai toujours cru que je finirais un jour par faire surgir au-dessus de l’écume toute la cohorte de ceux et celles qui dorment au creux de son ventre sur des lits d’algues et de coraux. Ceux et celles dans les chemins d’eau, leur route océane vers la lointaine Guinée avec Agwé, Simbi et Lasirenn qui les escortent. (226)
Cétoute speaks of ancestors lost in the Middle Passage who “sleep in the deep belly of the sea.” They are granted peace in the afterlife by the lwa anba dlo, beneath the water, who bring them back to Africa. The mystery of the sea is that it transforms a space of brutal history into one of divine protection. It is a space where the gods remain in proximity. Indeed, even when Léosthène leaves Haiti in the hold of a boat bound for Florida, the gods do not abandon him. “Et puis tu as peur de mourir dans ce linceul quand le vent fait se cabrer et plonger le bateau …” he tells his audience, “ … Alors tu appelles Agwé, Damballa, Ogou. Tu les appelles tous” (180). Léosthène is one of the lucky few, to be sure, but in narrating his experience as a boat person, “dans les ténèbres profondes” (179), he gives voice to an instance of a Haitian crossing that ends not in the ordinary disaster but with a real sense of empowerment. He closes the story on a positive note: “Une fois cette épreuve traversée, tu ressens une forme de pouvoir. À cause de cette connaissance des choses que d’autres n’ont pas et n’auront jamais. Oui, c’est bien cela, du pouvoir” (180). Ironically, however, for the villagers, Léosthène’s triumph owes to the fact that he returns to Anse Bleue by plane. In the end, for all the power Léosthène feels from having survived the passage from below, he finds only temporary refuge in Haiti. Sensing the contempt in the air from his brother, Fénelon, and his fellow militiamen, Léosthène realizes that it is time to leave. Yet, before setting off again, he honors the Lafleur ancestors with a ceremony. He calls upon the spirits to protect his family and the tired land on which they remain.
Although the novel renders the land and sea in a state of perpetual decline, it also treats them with some reverence as spaces of refuge. In fact, the title, Bain de lune, is meant to evoke the sense of freedom that the first-person narrator enjoys while going for a swim, away from the endless work around the house and in the fields. These “moonbaths” allow the narrator to “gouter la sauvage beauté, le violent mystère de la nuit” (209). For much of the novel, the identity and fate of this narrator (p.137) is the other great mystery. The book opens with a narrator in the first person, and the reader knows little save that it is a woman who has just died, washed up on the shore after three days in the sea. We learn only near the end that it is Cétoute, who slowly pieces together memories that unravel the secret of her drowning. An omniscient narrator in the third person, a Lafleur, alternates with Cétoute’s voice to weave together the epic story of the entanglement of the Lafleur and Mésidor families. Cétoute’s life spans the final years of Jean-Claude Duvalier to approximately the end of the Aristide government, and her downfall can be understood in the context of this turbulent political environment. Jimmy Mésidor, the youngest grandson of Tertulien, returns to Haiti from the United States with a vision to take back family property lost during the Duvalier era. On a summit overlooking Anse Bleue, Jimmy sees nothing but disorder: “[C]’était son élément, sa respiration, son eau et son ciel. Il se frotta les mains, un large sourire sur les lèvres” (244). After consulting with Tertulien, this homo economicus, at home among the villagers, is prepared to impose order: “il lui fallait faire vite, très vite” (245). Jimmy is irresistible to Cétoute, and she becomes involved with him despite her mother’s warning. If her mother senses imminent danger, it is because of her intimate knowledge of the dangerous relationship between the two families. For the Lafleur, the return of political power under the U.S. occupation meant the end of a false sense of peace. “Nous n’avions plus de dokos où se réfugier,” the narrator continues, “Même les dokos dans nos têtes avaient reculé. Nous étions plus nus que notre ancêtre Bonal. Gran Bwa Îlé semblait impuissant à guider nos pas. Le désastre devint banal” (231, emphasis added). The death of a young woman is all too familiar. From the moment of Cétoute’s first death, which opens the novel, she is a refugee, carried back to Anse Bleue for the ceremony that will give her the refuge of her second and true death. Her body washed and mourned by her family, Cétoute finds safe passage with the ancestors, and the story can end on the note of this quiet disaster.
The language in Bain de lune jumps off the page for readers of Failles. The novel collects the fragments of the chronicle and develops them in its historical sweep, so that the reader grasps the complexity of the disasters that it depicts, from the dispossession of land and forced labor that occurred during the U.S. occupation all the way to the (p.138) continued impoverishment of villagers under the neoliberal management of the Haitian economy by the international stakeholders that facilitated Aristide’s return. While her characters seek refuge, so does Lahens, as she struggles with the historical and theoretical blockage that keeps Haiti in a sick bed, to return to a key metaphor in Failles. In this text and in her fiction, Lahens attempts to find a way out of this impasse. She writes to rebuild the house for Haitians real and fictive. For, if the reader is permitted a bit of optimism, perhaps Nathalie and Guillaume also survived. Lahens transforms a variety of Haitian settings within the pages of her accounts and stories. Her vantage points are as real as they are imagined, and they lead to a reconstruction of the past with compelling implications for critical and creative ways of understanding the present and of looking forward to an alternate future. The role of the literary witness is to bring the reader to refuse the banality of disaster by thinking deeply about Haiti in the history and future of the Caribbean and Atlantic world.
(2) Douglas has written elsewhere of the formal process of rewriting in the Spiralist literature of Frankétienne, Philoctète, and Jean-Claude Fignolé. See Rachel Douglas, Frankétienne and Rewriting: A Work in Progress (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2009).
(3) In their fascinating work on ties between King Henry Christophe’s court (1811–1820) and several European governments (notably England and Germany), Tabitha McIntosh and Grégory Pierrot discuss a range of artwork, official papers, and other memorabilia that have long been scattered on both sides of the Atlantic after Christophe’s demise. As they put it, there is a veritable “black market for black history.” See Tabitha McIntosh and Grégory Pierrot, “In the Court of the Mohrenkönig: Germans in Henry’s Kingdom of Haiti.” Unpublished paper, Annual Conference of the Haitian Studies Association, November 3, 2017 (New Orleans: Xavier University). See also Tabitha McIntosh and Grégory Pierrot, “Capturing the Likeness of Henry I of Haiti (1805–1822).” Atlantic Studies 14.2 (2017): 127–151.
(4) On the two poles of idealization and degradation in representations of Haiti, see Nadège Clitandre, “Haitian Exceptionalism in the Caribbean and the Project of Rebuilding Haiti.” Journal of Haitian Studies 17.2 (2011): 146–153.
(5) See Ignacio Corona and Beth E. Jörgensen, eds, The Contemporary Mexican Chronicle: Theoretical Perspectives on the Liminal Genre (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002); see also Anderson, Disaster Writing.
(6) See John Beverley, Testimonio: On the Politics of Truth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004); Georg M. Gugelberger, ed., The Real Thing: Testimonial Discourse and Latin America (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996); A. James Arnold, ed., with Julio Rodriguez-Luis and J. Michael Dash, A History of Literature in the Caribbean, Volume 1: Hispanic and Francophone Regions (Amsterdam and Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1994); Paquet, Caribbean Autobiography; Larrier, Autofiction and Advocacy; Raphael Dalleo, Caribbean Literature and the Public Sphere: From the Plantation to the Postcolonial (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011); and Shemak, Asylum Speakers.
(7) See Albert Camus’s journalistic articles collected in Actuelles III: Chroniques algériennes 1939–1958 (Paris: Gallimard, 1958).
(8) One could also include Gary Victor’s Collier de débris (Montreal: Mémoire d’Encrier, 2013), a fictional chronicle of a woman who loses her husband and son in the earthquake but rebuilds her life as she works with a crew to remove debris from various neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince.
(10) Shemak cites Alberto Moreiras, “The Aura of Testimonio,” in Gugelberger, The Real Thing, 198.
(11) Emmanuel Levinas, Totalité et infini: Essai sur l’Extériorité (La Haye: Nijhoff, 1961); Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1969).
(12) Levinas is in dialogue with Paul Ricoeur. In Soi-même comme un autre (Paris: Seuil, 1990), Ricoeur makes an ethical claim that hypothesizes the spontaneous benevolence [sollicitude] of the self in relation to the other. He states, “Appelons ‘visée éthique,’ la visée de la ‘bonne vie’ avec et pour autrui dans des institutions justes” (202). Ricoeur’s central objection is that Levinas turns the self into a passive subject in the face of otherness. For Levinas, however, Ricoeur’s model of ethics is a form of moral optimism.
(13) As Robbins explains, Levinas also calls these kinds of self-serving interests, “economy of the Same,” or that “fails to do justice to the other” (137).
(14) See Martin Munro, “Disaster Studies and Cultures of Disaster in Haiti.” French Studies: A Quarterly Review 69.4 (October 2015): 509–518.
(16) René Char, Recherche de la base et du sommet. Œuvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1983), 748.
(17) Albert Camus, “Discours du 10 décembre 1957,” in Oeuvres complètes IV (1957–1959), ed. Raymond Gay-Crosier (Paris: Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 2008), 241. Hereafter cited in text as OC IV. Laferrière borrowed the phrase for the title of his Henry Kreisel lecture. See Dany Laferrière, Un art de vivre par temps de catastrophe (Alberta: The University of Alberta Press, 2010).
(18) The updated OC II elides this editorial. It can be found in Essais, the 1965 Pléiade edition of Roger Quilliot.
(19) Camus’s deep attachment to colonial French Algeria arguably gets a pass in Failles. For the postcolonial critiques of Camus, see Edward W. Said, “Camus and the French Imperial Experience,” in Culture and Imperialism (New York: Knopf, 1993); Conor Cruise O’Brien, Albert Camus: Of Europe and Africa (New York: The Viking Press, 1970); and Emily Apter, “Out of Character: Camus’s French Algerian Subjects.” Modern Language Notes 112.4 (1997): 499–516. However, in Camus the Algerian: Colonialism, Terrorism, Justice (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), David Carroll attempts to rehabilitate Camus’s legacy. For a recent take on this ongoing debate, see Jason Herbeck, “Le Lâche des Carnets d’Albert Camus.” Présence d’Albert Camus: Société des Études Camusiennes 8 (2016): 81–99.
(20) On Camus’s transformation, see Tony Judt, The Burden of Responsibility: Blum, Camus, Aron, and the French Twentieth Century (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 107–112; see also Robert Zaretsky, Albert Camus, Elements of a Life (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010).
(21) See Raoul Peck, Assistance mortelle, narr. Raoul Peck and Céline Sallette (Arte France/Velvet Films, 2013). See John Patrick Walsh, “Haiti mon amour,” in Raoul Peck: Power, Politics, and the Cinematic Imagination, ed. Toni Pressley-Sanon and Sophie Saint-Just (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015), 195–216.
(22) This basic thesis informs research carried out in the anthropological wing of Disaster Studies. See Mark Schuller, Killing with Kindness: Haiti, International Aid, and NGOs (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012).
(23) Camus writes, “Il [le révolté] n’est pas seulement esclave contre maître, mais aussi homme contre le monde du maître et de l’esclave” (OC III, 305).
(24) See Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (London: Routledge, 1992).
(25) Felman’s analysis of readers “called” to La chute resonates with Levinas and the responsibility to the Other. See Shoshana Felman, “Crisis of Witnessing: Albert Camus’ Postwar Writings.” Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature 3.2 (Autumn 1991): 239; emphasis in original. Felman cites Maurice Blanchot’s famous sentence, “At whatever date it might have been written, each narrative henceforth will be from Auschwitz.” See Après-Coup (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1983), 96.
(26) During a panel at the 2013 annual conference of the Haitian Studies Association, in Port-au-Prince, Lahens spoke of the unexpected place of Failles in her body of work.
(27) In her essay on La Couleur de l’aube, Marie-Agnès Sourieau points out that Haitian literature has long evoked the “déchirures du tissu social, culturel, et intellectuel Haïtiens …” (“La Couleur de l’aube de Yanick Lahens: Cette horrible béance obscure.” Journal of Haitian Studies 18.2 : 51).
(29) Drawing on ancient Greek thought, Arendt’s chief criticism of “the rubbish of educated philistinism” (Between Past and Future: Six Exercises in Political Thought [New York: Viking Press, 1961], 204) is the inability to think. In a different context, this became the controversial argument on the “banality of evil” in her reports on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1963 before being published as the book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking Press, 1963).