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Haiti’s poet Lyonel Trouillot’s latest novel unlocks a local legend

By Anne Bocandé
Posted on Wednesday, 24 February 2021 10:47

Has Haitian poet, novelist and professor of French and Creole literature Lyonel Trouillot ever written a book that falls short of the brand of storytelling we’ve come to expect from him, that is to say spinning a captivating tale set in Haiti where disconcerting realism meets a poetry of endless possibilities? If he has, 'Antoine des Gommiers' is definitely not one such book.

Poet and novelist Lyonel Trouillot’s latest work weaves the tale of two brothers who try to piece together the legend of a Haitian soothsayer.

The writer’s latest effort goes in search of the story behind the soothsayer and houngan [a voodoo priest] Antoine Pinto, also known as Antoine des Gommiers, who inspired a popular Haitian idiom, though few specifics are known about his actual existence.

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His gift for fortune-telling has been immortalised in the prophecy, “If you persist in your error, something will happen to you that even Antoine des Gommiers could not have predicted.”

Plunged into a singular world

What is known about the expression is that before World War II, “to prevent people from endlessly wandering down the wrong path, Des Gommiers is called to help”. Though the man is long dead, his legend pervades the day-to-day life of his great-grandniece, Antoinette, a “hopeless dreamer”. She tells the story over and over to her two sons, Francky and Ty Tony, the narrator.

In keeping with his trademark style, Trouillot uses the first-person narrative in a way that plunges the reader into the narrator’s voice and vantage point. And, as is also his habit, the world he creates is relatively restricted, almost claustrophobic. Ty Tony, a character with an unabashed, cheeky sense of humour, is all about action. According to his own wisdom, “in a world where survival depends on how good you are at getting by […] we learned to be the children of an agonising present. To be concerned with doing. Taking a stand. Coping. Making do. Doing without, too”.

Ty Tony and his buddy Danilo, Francky, the beautiful Doriane, the poor man’s banker Moïse, the schoolteacher Cantave and the rest of the cast of characters live in the same neighbourhood, called the “corridor”. This “country” unto itself is located on a dead-end road in Port-au-Prince where a shanty town has taken root perpendicular to Dessalines Boulevard, a place where “even illegal dealings can’t put food on the table”.

Legend

In this environment where every day is a fight to push the limits of survival, Ty Tony and Francky have their own coping strategies, far removed from the world of the Métromachin newspaper columnists who conflate poverty and identity. Francky, who is on the verge of being wheelchair-bound, uses words and history to travel. He takes after his mother, as the legend of Antoine is very dear to him.

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Ty Tony, on the other hand, sees his mom and brother’s overactive imagination and excess interest in the past as something that simply “prevents them from asking too many questions”. But what could be more valuable than a dream that helps keep a person going? Since every individual “is nothing but a little slice of time”, Ty Tony puts his resourcefulness to work by helping his brother piece together the legend, with the novel alternating between the life of Des Gommiers and the story of the two brothers.

Trouillot excels at weaving these separate tales in his newest release, one that both examines the art of storytelling and reminds us why stories are so important. “Because in life, when you can’t invent it for real, you end up inventing it in your dreams, in blue, you create a sea, a sky, love that is not a prison, grape mangoes, sapodillas galore, birds whose wings protect you, paths that lead to lakous [courtyards] where everybody gets along, kids climb trees and adults tell them stories.”

A few days ago, the Port-au-Prince-based poet issued a call for solidarity: “Our lives are at risk and a dictatorship is trying to take root in Haiti.” Trouillot referred to the acts of violence committed by a “crazy and illegal regime” which has been holding onto power even though the extension of President Jovenel Moïse’s term of office was ruled unconstitutional. Suddenly Antoine’s prophecy comes to mind: “If you persist in your error …”

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