Jan J. Dominique. Mémoire errante. Montreal: Les éditions du Remue-ménage, 2008. 168 pp. CND 19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-2-89091-268-7.
Reviewed by Laura Wagner (Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University)
Published on H-Haiti (March, 2017)
Commissioned by Grégory Pierrot
A thread of loss runs through Jan J. (J. J.) Dominique's Mémoire errante—the loss of Jean Dominique, the journalist; the loss of Jean Dominique, the man, the father; the loss of two pregnancies; the loss of home and of one's place in the world. The narrative is fragmented and nonlinear, shifting through space and time, and so these losses are experienced over and over as they are remembered, recalled, and relived. In Mémoire errante, memory is slippery and straying, for this is "mémoire" in both senses of the word—a wandering memoir and a wandering memory about grief and loss, about a country's hopeful, halting, and violent transition to democracy, and about the relationship between father and daughter that continues not only to ache but also to evolve. The first and third sections of the book are a nonlinear autobiographical account that is less concerned with presenting facts than with conveying emotional weight; the second explores major events of late twentieth century history through a series of fictionalized, interlinking vignettes.
Early in the morning of April 3, 2000, Jean Léopold Dominique—charismatic journalist, outspoken advocate of democracy and human rights, director of Radio Haïti-Inter—was assassinated, struck down in Radio Haïti's own courtyard alongside station employee Jean-Claude Louissaint. For nearly thirty years, Jean Dominique had been Haiti's fearless truth-teller, and Radio Haïti—the first station to broadcast news, investigative reporting, and political analysis in Haitian Creole—enjoyed unparalleled popularity and credibility among the Haitian public. His murder and the long and fruitless search for justice that followed reverberated throughout Haiti and beyond. More than fifteen thousand people attended Jean Dominique's funeral at Sylvio Cator stadium in downtown Port-au-Prince. A week later, after a wake attended by more than five thousand peasant farmers, his ashes were scattered in the Artibonite River, so that he might continue to nourish every grain of rice the river reached. In the months and years that followed, Jean Dominique's assassination became a cause célèbre for human rights organizations in Haiti and abroad: Reporters without Borders and Amnesty International launched campaigns for justice, and Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme released The Agronomist, the documentary about Radio Haïti and the life of Jean Dominique. He was a public figure in Haiti, beloved by many, reviled by some. Thus martyred, he became all the more public: a national hero, a national symbol—to many people, more myth than man.
Yet for all his charisma and larger-than-life radio persona, Jean Dominique was a private man, at times enigmatic even to those closest to him. In Mémoire errante, Jean Dominique's eldest daughter J. J.—novelist, journalist and, for several years, the station manager of Radio Haïti—tells the story of her father's death and its aftermath, and of her own wandering, haunted and accompanied by the memory of l'Absent. Mémoire errante gives the reader a rare and intimate glimpse into the personal life of a public figure, and into a daughter's private sorrow for a complicated man mourned by millions.
Mémoire errante's three sections are each filled with nonlinear vignettes; true to the title, the text's structure itself roams. The first section, "Les noms des villes" (The names of cities), is J. J. Dominique's first-person account of the closure of Radio Haïti in early 2003 and the period of disconsolate itinerancy that followed. Though each scene is named for a city (Miami, Manhattan, Port-au-Prince, Orléans, Montréal, Gonaïves, Venice ...) this is not a linear travelogue but a ricochet—a meditation on the mutability of time and place. The dynamic of the text is the structure of memory itself, in which the past continually and powerfully asserts itself in the present. The names of cities are less about the physical places than about the lost things, causes, and people that the cities evoke, the condition of sheer movement through a world where grief has no boundaries.
In Miami, extravagance is harshly juxtaposed with deprivation. It is there that Dominique attends the premiere of The Agronomist in a gilded rococo theatre; there that she encounters the ostentation of South Beach, "une Caraïbe déformée par le luxe et la climatisation" (p. 24); there that the relative privilege of her own exile is thrown into relief by a visit to Krome detention facility: "L'autre visage d'El Dorado, sa face hideuse exposée sous le soleil de la Floride" (p. 29). At Krome, she finds the same injustice that Radio Haïti had documented and combated for decades: the oppression of peasant farmers at the hands of wealthy landowners, the human rights abuses and economic exploitation that had forced wave after wave of Haitian migrants to take to the sea. Et in Arcadia ego. In New York, public acclaim and exposure give rise to personal alienation. J. J. Dominique sees "les affiches de L'Agronome sur les murs [de Times Square], à côté d'autres affiches de films. J'ai un choc. Durant les trois ans de notre combat pour la justice, nous avons accroché des banderoles, nous avons collé des centaines d'affiches sur les murs. C'étaient nos armes, pour ce combat dont nous ne connaissions pas les règles... Devant les murs de Times Square, j'ai le sentiment qu'il ne m'appartient plus, qu'il ne nous appartient plus, qu'il n'appartient même plus au pays où il existe encore des gens qui se souviennent de lui et qui l'aiment.... Jean est un personnage de cinéma, un objet de promotion comme un autre. Une affiche comme une autre. Tom Hanks d'un côté, Jean Léopold Dominique de l'autre, sur le même mur" (p. 52). Her father, who was never only hers alone, is now no longer even Haiti's.
"Les noms des villes" is the most distant of the three sections, not detached but guarded, as though the constant movement it references might be not only an act of searching but also an act of evasion. It opens on the eve of Dominique's final exile, after mounting threats to the journalists of Radio Haïti (including the Christmas Day attempt on Michèle Montas's life in which her bodyguard Maxime Seïde was killed) make it impossible to carry on: "Demain je pars. Ces mots tournaient dans ma tête. Je n'arrivais pas à dormir et j'ai pris une feuille de papier pour écrire. Non, pas pour écrire! Je n'écris pas, je n'écris plus depuis trois ans" (p. 9). The writer, grieving and benumbed, does not yet possess the strength to describe the events, but this is also a paradox: she begins her story by telling the reader that she cannot write it—until she does.
The second section, "Les cahiers de l'éphémère" (Notebooks of the ephemeral), consists of a series of short, third-person vignettes, many of them focusing on key moments of hope and despair in Haiti's struggle for democracy: the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier; the Fort Dimanche massacre of April 26, 1986; the 1986 dumping of toxic waste by the ship Khian Sea; the massacre of voters at Ruelle Vaillant on November 29, 1987; the 1991 Roger Lafontant coup d'état attempt; the 1991 Raoul Cédras coup d'état. A handful of protagonists appear and reappear throughout these stories, including Carole, a journalist at one "Radio Lakay" (a barely veiled version of Radio Haïti-Inter), but while the storylines intersect at times, each scene is a stand-alone episode. Some are tragicomic, filled with the kind of humor, so common in Haiti, that derives from absurdity. A meek liberation theology priest is embarrassed when a young woman describes getting pregnant during the coup years—"Quand on n'a ni électricité pour lire, écouter la radio ou regarder la télévision, ni carburant pour quitter la ville et travailler en province sur les projets, que voulez-vous qu'on fasse?" (p. 111)—then horrified when she announces that she wishes to name the baby "Panzou" (a slang term for the coup d'état). He masks his alarm, declaring ineffectually: "Le créole est une langue tellement imagée!" (p. 111). One of the loveliest and most elegant of the vignettes, "Le chany et la coquette" (The shoeshine and the coquette) reads like a parable. Written with a spare and subtle hand, it shows how everyday intimate patterns of patronage and intersect with macro forces of political repression. What begins as a story about a little boy shining shoes on the street and the young woman who gives him a coin and a kind word transforms suddenly into a harrowing account of the Ruelle Vaillant massacre—before circling back again to the fragility and irreplaceability of human connection.
In the third section, "Traverser la frontière" (Crossing the border), Dominique returns to first-person narrative and at last faces directly the single event around which the story orbits: the assassination of Jean Dominique. It is not only about that extraordinary and conspicuous loss, but others too, more ordinary but no less traumatic: two debilitating miscarriages, the fading and death by old age of her cherished petite mère (Dominique's aunt, the writer Madeleine Paillère). It evokes the heavy, repeating calendar of repression, violence, massacres, and assassinations (April 26, September 11, September 30, November 28 ...) that have shaped the narrator and the society to which she belongs. If the first section of the novel is comparatively controlled and cerebral, the third section of Mémoire errante is visceral. It is an encounter with pain, the stabbing pain in the belly of the woman who loses a longed-for child. It is the sensation of the soft withered skin and smell of an old woman as she fades, and the bruised forehead and motionless chest of a father recently dead. The final vignette is called "Du fond de la douleur" (From the depths of pain). It traces in unsparing, unflinching detail the events of April 3, 2000, before ending not with comfort but with longing, not with an answer but with an imploration: "Pour combien de temps encore cette douleur innommable parce que je ne supporte pas qu'il soit mort seul, sans moi?" (p. 177).
Just as in "Le chany et la coquette," the most poignant scenes are those in which everyday life brushes up against the public narrative. Overcome with emotion after seeing The Agronomist, in which her relationship with her father—her eagerness to please him, her thirst for his love—was laid bare upon the big screen, Dominique wonders, "Comme j'aime mon père! Lui, mon père, avait-il la certitude d'être aimé? Lui arrivait-il de douter mon amour?" (p. 61). And then, in the midst of that public event, she suddenly recalls a charming and seemingly trivial moment: when she had a suspicious mole removed, and reassured her quietly worried father by telling him that she was only concerned that she would lose all her "elements of seduction," as they turned out to be physical abnormalities. By the time she learned the mole was benign, her father would be dead.
I am the archivist processing the archive of Radio Haïti, which is now held at Duke University. Embedded as I am in both the history of the station itself and in the political and social history of late twentieth-century Haiti, I am likely more familiar with the context of the story than are many readers. In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that I know the writer. While my professional and personal engagements inform my reading of Mémoire errante, one does not have to know the intricacies of Radio Haïti's history in order to appreciate this account (and viewing The Agronomist would help fill in some of the gaps for the uninitiated). Mémoire errante is a work of literature, not a political history—a story of Haiti in the final decades of the twentieth century, told through lived experience. Against that backdrop of hope, sacrifice, and disappointment, Mémoire errante remains the tale of a daughter adrift, continuing to seek her father in a world very unlike the one of which he had dreamed.
. "A Caribbean deformed by luxury and air conditioning"; "The other side of El Dorado, its hideous face exposed under the Florida sun."
. "The posters for The Agronomist on the walls [of Times Square], alongside other film posters. I was shocked. During the three years of our fight for justice, we pasted enormous signs through the streets of Port-au-Prince, we hung banners, we stuck hundreds of posters upon the walls. Those were our weapons in a fight for which we did not really know the rules.... Standing before the walls of Times Square, I felt that he no longer belonged to me, that he no longer belonged to us, that he no longer even belonged to the country where people still remember and love him.... Jean is a character in a film, promoted like any other. A poster like any other. Tom Hanks on one side, Jean Léopold Dominique on the other, on the same wall."
. "Tomorrow I leave. These words turned in my head. I could not get to sleep and I took a piece of paper to write. No, not to write! I do not write, I have not written in three years."
. "When one has neither electricity by which to read, listen to the radio, or watch television, nor gas to leave town and work in the countryside, what would you like them to do?"
. "Creole is such a vivid language!"
. "How much longer must I endure this unnameable pain, because I cannot bear that he died alone, without me?"
. "How I love my father! Was my father certain that he was loved? Had he ever doubted my love?"
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-haiti.
Laura Wagner. Review of Dominique, Jan J., Mémoire errante.
H-Haiti, H-Net Reviews.
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