Saturday, December 17, 2011

Heading South

by Dany Laferrière

I hadn't read Dany Laferrière in years.  I really enjoyed his work when I was in high school and university, but had more or less lost touch with him as a writer until I saw him being discussed on the New Yorker's website this summer (Junot Diaz, another amazing Hispaniolan writer was talking about him).  I figured it was time to track down some of his books again.

Heading South is a terrific novel. It's basically about the allure of the Haitian male to women of all ages and races.  I suppose its central character is FanFan, a seventeen year old Haitian whose mother works as a seamstress.  He has been aware of the abject power of his looks, and their effects on girls, since he was twelve, but now he has decided that it's time to test his prowess.  He decides that the woman he wants is Madame Saint-Pierre, the middle-aged French principal of his sister's school.  He seduces her in such a way that she believes herself the seducer, and their affair transforms the older woman's life.

Of course, FanFan has other girls, including the equally seductive Tanya, who is herself toying with Harry, the American consul.  FanFan's friend Charlie is playing his own games with Missie, the niece of the former Haitian ambassador to London, who employs Charlie's parents as domestics.

Interspersed with the story of these central characters, including Harry's wife and daughter, are chapters that focus on other characters.  There is a woman who comes to Haiti for a vacation with her husband and young children, and ends up falling for a farmer who lives in a hut, and decides to stay there when the rest of her family goes back home.

There is also a section of the book devoted to a group of sex tourists - women from America and Quebec who come to Haiti alone each year to indulge in their passions for the local teenage boys and young men.  This section was made into a movie, also called Heading South, which I saw years ago, and thought was excellent, if a little unsettling.

Laferrière has written before about the power of interracial sex, but this novel takes his objectification of young males to new heights.  I suppose there is something liberating and balancing about a book that treats men as many male sex tourists routinely treat women, but the degree to which Laferrière mythologizes the transformative possibilities of sex with Haitians is pretty funny.  I quite enjoyed the way in which this book flits from one group of characters to another, and how all of their stories share the same space, with characters from one place being referenced in another.  Laferrière is a writer who doesn't receive enough attention, and I'm very pleased to have rediscovered him.

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