Books

Yanick Lahens: In the Belly of Port-au-Prince

After Moonbath, prefaced by American writer Russell Banks, the Haitian author’s novel Sweet Undoings was recently published in English in the United States. This choral novel tense with urgency offers a portrait of youth dancing among the ruins.
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© Peter Jülich

Judge Berthier’s death was no surprise. In a country plagued by corruption and violence, this honest, exemplary man’s days were always numbered. In a prophetic letter, Raymond Berthier said goodbye to his wife, Thérèse, the mother of his daughter Brune, and apologized for the void he was going to leave behind. While the judge’s murder is not portrayed, it fuels Yanick Lahens’s novel and weighs on each character in different ways. Brune, a singer with an “extraordinary [vocal] range,” is as unpredictable as an avalanche. Pierre, Raymond’s brother, is gay and a keen admirer of James Baldwin. He lives shut away in his house in Port-au-Prince and tries to solve the crime. The Korosol, the bar and restaurant where Brune sings, is frequented by Cyprien, an ambitious young man from the countryside, Francis, a French journalist, Ezéchiel, an aspiring poet, and Jojo, a thug who always carries a nine-millimeter pistol.

“People die often and quickly in this city,” writes Yanick Lahens about Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, a bubbling cauldron of a city whose history, myths, and bitter beauty are constantly questioned by the author. “Statistics, justice, and the press can’t keep up with the deaths. And each death is erased by the next soccer match.” Shifting between the first and third person, the novelist brings together multiple perspectives and intertwines voices to draw a complex portrait of a devastated, resilient country, a highly hierarchical society in which each shade of skin color is of the utmost importance.

“What is true and inescapable for Lahens’s characters is true and inescapable for all of us,” wrote Russell Banks in the introduction of the U.S. edition of Moonbath. Born in Port-au-Prince, the author grew up under the dictatorship of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, then moved to France to continue her studies at the age of 15. After graduating from the Sorbonne, she returned to Haiti, where she taught at the university and worked for the ministry of culture. As a guest professor at the Collège de France in 2019, she named her inaugural class “Urgence(s) d’écrire, rêve(s) d’habiter.” Urgency and dreams are at the very heart of Sweet Undoings and its portrayal of youth reaching towards the future, on an island “endlessly screwed-over but never quite finished-off.”

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Sweet Undoings by Yanick Lahens, translated from French by Kaiama L. Glover, Deep Vellum, 2023. 228 pages, 16.95 dollars.


Article published in the January 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.

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