Heading South

Heading South

Published on October 1, 2009

Heading South
Dany Laferrière

Douglas & McIntyre

It’s 3 p.m. sharp when Dany Laferrière walks into La Bohême on St-Denis, the precise hour we’d agreed to meet and discuss his novel Heading South, just translated by Wayne Grady. Consistently prolific, he is keeping a tight schedule these days as he prepares to fly to Paris to launch yet another novel, L’énigme du retour. Yet, as glasses of red wine are poured, toasts are made, and conversation begins to flow, the contours of time soften, turn fluid and spill into Heading South’s major themes: power, sex, and travel.

Borrowing from La Chair du maître, Laferrière’s novel reworks and adds to this earlier collection of short stories. Once again, we witness a variety of heroines heading south, either permanently or for vacation, to Haiti, a place where time unfurls more casually than in the north: “Life in the fast lane, what could she say! At first she missed it all. Not so much, now,” says Christina, a New York intellectual who follows her husband to Port-au-Prince.

“Work is North America’s new God,” says Laferrière as we discuss northerners’ relationship with time. “We spend the best part of the day at work; when we leave it’s already dark…At least in the summer,” he continues, “(people) have the impression that there is sun after 5 p.m., and that they have regained some control over their personal time, procuring a sense of serenity.”

“Time is terrifying,” he adds. “When the silk workers in Lyon rebelled, they shot at the clock in the cathedral. They understood that it was the clock that was controlling their lives.”

In Heading South, travel acts as a lubricant, permitting characters to slip past the usual boundaries of time, race, and social class. Many chapters unfold at a beachfront 1970s hotel in Port-au-Prince, where “free” love rubs up against the very costly Duvalier regime. Well-to-do women, who by northern standards are considered past their prime, extend the span of their sex lives through erotic affairs with teenage Haitians more than willing to provide companionship in exchange for money and gifts. Brenda, for instance, whose husband hadn’t “touched her more than a grand total of eight times” in 25 years, desperately thirsts for sensuality. She finds bittersweet relief through Legba, a teenager bearing the name of a Voodoo god who guards the border between the visible and invisible worlds. “Moved by a wave of gratitude, I threw myself on him, kissed him everywhere and cried like a baby,” she relates tragically. “It was my first orgasm. I was fifty-five years old.”

Despite the complex power dynamics caused by money, these scenes are far from impersonal. “I wanted to explore the idea of whether a feeling can be purchased,” says Laferrière, who then quotes Françoise Sagan: “Love is such a magnificent feeling, that when I’m old, I will pay to have some.”

“I tried to get beyond the clichés that dictate that the exchange of money automatically signifies prostitution,” he continues. “These women weren’t seeking anything vulgar; they came because they wanted to feel something. The only trouble is that it takes two…But I didn’t judge them at all. What interests me is to describe situations which would normally seem cynical and to show that feelings can pierce through – situations in which power dynamics are inevitable.”

Laferrière is careful to distinguish between love and desire, claiming that the former is a feeling, which, for reasons of guardedness and practicality, one rarely experiences beyond childhood. “From what I’ve seen in Haiti, love is something that happens between the ages of six and 13. Beyond that, things are settled on more economic terms.” In North America and Europe, where we enjoy greater economic ease, courtly love, according to Laferrière, can last much longer, “even up until the age of 20.” Due to the influence of poets and songwriters, however, “there is a sort of rêverie that people want to recapture…Yet love can’t work without total insouciance, a lack of self-control in which time ceases to exist.” Once these criteria dissolve, says the author, “it’s desire that follows, which can be confounded with love.”

Laferrière doesn’t necessarily see this as a negative thing. Heading South is replete with savvy young Haitians who use sex to empower themselves. Seventeen-year-old FanFan, for instance, uses his exceptional physical attributes to seduce the wealthy daughter of his parents’ employers, thus improving his family’s situation. “I already know that whoever controls time wins,” he says, in a scene where he seduces a much older woman for his own gratification. “I sit down calmly, across from her. I have all the time in the world.” His target, a school principal, experiences the erotic charge of forbidden love as a sort of delirious resurrection. “You have no idea, Christina, I think I’m going crazy,” confides Madame Saint-Pierre. “It’s just that you’ve finally woken up, my dear,” replies her friend. “Before you were asleep.”

According to Laferrière, “Sex is an energy, a manifestation of life” that allows people to get beyond themselves as well as the boundaries imposed by social class. “Most people dream of being destabilized. It’s the tale of Sleeping Beauty. People want for someone to come and wake them up,” he says, alluding to the soporific effects of work and habit. “Because, in order to be rich, not necessarily with money but with all the things we accumulate, one must proceed in such a routine manner. You must work almost with your eyes closed. Work, work, work – one enters into his night of work. Eventually, you are asleep and you don’t even realize it.”

Since this form of destabilization “is such an intimate act, so violent and private,” the only way that most people will allow themselves to experience it, says the author, is through travel, a transit in which time and social class cease to exist. In this privileged state of flux, one can “suddenly meet someone who isn’t caught in the same tunnel. And to find someone who listens to you, whom you don’t get the impression is just waiting for the right moment to discuss his personal ambitions…is much rarer than one might imagine.”

Film scenes of hotel rooms, Laferrière points out, often seem beyond time, and there is a sense of timelessness that characterizes many settings in director Laurent Cantet’s movie version of Heading South. A decidedly lighter tone distinguishes the book, however – a style the author claims is not deliberate. “That’s how I see the world. I find that dark, pessimistic things told with a smile are more interesting than things which are optimistic yet simple-minded,” he explains, underlining his appreciation of paradox: “It’s us. We know that we are going to die and yet we are full of life…we are paradoxical beings.”

Listening to Laferrière’s closing elaborations on desire, one senses that time is the greatest paradox of all, a tenuous, yet seductive journey – a passport bridge spiraling through the ever-shifting shores of life and death.

“Death excites me,” he muses, recalling that since the Middle Ages the term for orgasm has been la petite mort (the little death). “It’s the extinction of the senses. And to extinguish the senses, all the elements have to be turned on…we dream of that great orgasm.” mRb

Kimberly Bourgeois  is a Montreal-based writer/singer-songwriter. Visit her at kimberlybourgeois.com for news about her music and writing projects.



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