By Louis-Philippe Dalembert
Paris: Stock, 1996.
Reviewed in Le Monde Diplomatique by Abdourahman A. Waberi
This review was translated by Max Blanchet. However, please note the book itself is untranslated and available only in French.
"Le crayon du bon Dieu n'a pas de gomme" "God's pencil does not have an eraser"
Here we have one of the more beautiful titles of the year. The Caribbean island of Salbounda under consideration is no other than Haiti, the homeland of Louis-Philippe Dalembert, born in 1962 in Port-au-Prince or Port-aux-Crasses, as he liked to say in his first book of short stories. Haiti is, as we all know, very poor at least by the standards of the IMF and the world Bank. What is less known is that the country is very rich in human and artistic terms. "How does one explain that a country that suffers in its blood, flesh, breath, land and even genealogical tree can be creative with so much ease and impetuosity" exclaims the Haitian novelist and poet Jean Metellus.
Here, the novel starts with breakneck speed. "Vroooum! Tut-tuuut"! Such is the title of the first chapter. Ensconced in the shell of an old tan Peugeot 304, a young boy contemplates the shady fauna that lands on the verandah of Mrs. Pont-d'Avignon, his beloved grandmother, always faithfully at work at her Singer sewing machine. Faustin the Yaguanais, a.k.a. Faustin Ist, stands out in this tattered crowd. There is also Lord Harris, with his abundant spit, "as drunk as a sexton" like his unfortunate friends Tikita-fou-doux, Merlet, and Ti-Blanc. Granny Vénus is also present, busily taking care of her rooster. Dessalines a.k.a. "The man from Africa" and Christopher Columbus chat facing the sea.
In his rocking chair, Master Jacques lectures this crowd on the pre-Columbian saga of the Ciboneys, Arawaks, Caribs and other Tainos "who pushed the boundaries of horizon" in the old days, well before the cataclysm brought by the conquistadors. There is also Marie who makes every sacrifice to feed her jobless husband Faustin Ist, "Negro from Yaguana" and bad-luck prince because of his rebellious attitude in the eyes of successive employers. He will end up in the streets, become a shoe-shiner to buy his booze, good enough to delouse animals and clean wounds. The young boy observes, educates himself, amuses himself and in the process escapes "far from his youth."
To look at the world in the rear-view mirror of an antique Peugeot 304 is a strange occupation for a boy at an age when one would prefer to run after a ball made of a stocking stuffed with rags. His world collapses when his grandmother informs him that they must leave the neighborhood of the piers to move to a new one. With tears in his eyes, "he goes into exile from his prime youth, this other country of his own." He swears to himself that once he grows up he will go looking for that country and write the story of Faustin and his accomplices. To grow up is to go into exile, to go into wandering: "that phase of life in which humanity has for a country the time it inhabits." These are the last words of the story. God's pencil not having an eraser, to go back is impossible. What thus remains? One must attempt to live short of becoming a poet and "sift through one's sentences," in imitation of Louis-Philippe Dalembert.
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