Saturday, October 23, 2010

Book 29, Haiti: “Heading South” by Dany Laferrière

Whoo! Another chance to clear out my stash of not-yet-read books!

I received Heading South from Laferrière last year, when we were both guests at the Ubud Writers and Readers’ Festival - he arrived late and jetlagged at a party in a white raja's mansion where no-one recognised him, including me, but I was feeling lonely and was eager to practise my bad French with someone else who wasn't fitting into the whole partay groove. (As I recall, Fatima Bhutto, Marco Calvani and Hari Kunzru were really cuttin' a rug on the dance floor.)

Hélas, mon ami Jean-François, this book doesn't have as provocative a title as Comment faire amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer. But not to worry: it's just as pornographic.

It's another one of those lovely short story collections that add up to a novel: all these disperse characters living their own lives around Port-au-Prince who end up intersecting, often sexually. You see, one of the big themes of the book is the strange powers of attraction that (usually younger) black Haitian men have on (usually older) white women from France or the United States or Canada, married WASPs and intellectual Jewish harridans who end up having their worlds turned upside-down when they enter the sultry climes of Hispaniola and discover the core of their womanhood, erupting in desire at the sight of a beautiful black lad of seventeen.

Oh yes, it's ridiculous, and probably misogynist and reversely racist, definitely perversely so, shades of Mustafa wanting to colonise Europe with his penis in Tayeb Salih's Season of Migration to the North. But it's bloody good reading; thrilling erotica; strangely affirming in the light of all our knowledge of restavek child slavery and post-earthquake anarchy; and to think all these expatriate ladies in the country for sex tourism or to live with their one true ebony loves are there during the '70s, during the regime of the murderous Papa Doc Duvalier: there are throwaway lines by the young men noting how they're not scared of the tyrant's tonton-macoute squads, amidst all the miscegenous revels at the Bellevue Circle and the jazz clubs and the bedroom.

It's not just black boys and white women, though. It's black girls with older white men, including the American consul; and black girls doing it with black boys, and black girls doing it with each other. Laferrière does not run out of imagination when it comes to the libido. (And it's harder than you'd think to write a sex scene without feeling clichéd. Try it!)

Really, this book went by in a flash. A joy to read. Not sure if you'd enjoy it as much if you were a white man or a black woman, though.

View Around the World in 80 Books in a larger map

Representative quote: Charlie dips his tongue into the juiciest bit of fruit in Port-au-Prince. Missie never tires of this exotic but exquisitely executed caress. Especially towards the end of the afternoon. She is always the one who insists on it. Missie's sweet, pulpy body.. Her sex exhales an odour of ripened fruit. She may be European on the outside, but inside she is pure Caribbean. Her slit smells of guava; her stomach tightens and lifts at the same time, inviting Charlie's tongue to resume its exploratory probe.

Next book: How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Álvarez, from the Dominican Republic.

No comments: