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The Enigma of the Return, By Dany Laferrière, trans. David Homel

A magnificent meditation on loss and political exile as a great Haitian writer returns home

After years of estrangement in a foreign land, what can a great Haitian writer expect to find on his return home? The remembered warmth and beauty of Haiti have remained with Dany Laferrière for the three decades of North American exile. Yet a hundred changes had occurred since he left his Caribbean birthplace to seek refuge in Montreal in 1976. Long brooding over the loss of his homeland might have exaggerated its charm. Should he stay "in foreign" (as they say in Jamaica) or go home?

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Such are the themes explored by Laferrière in this magnificent meditation on loss and political exile, which looks set to become one of the great poetic statements of homesickness and return. If so many Haitians had left, why should any want go back? By any standards, Haiti represents a very great concentration of misery and dashed hopes, having "undergone 32 coups" since independence in 1804. Wonderfully, Haiti was the world's first black republic; yet a succession of trumpery emperors, kings and presidents-for-life such as François "Papa Doc" Duvalier misruled the island.

Laferrière, 60 this year, was in his early twenties when he fled Duvalierist Haiti after a journalist colleague was murdered by the Tontons Macoute militia. During the "terrible 1970s" under Papa Doc's son Jean-Claude, power continued to come from the barrel of a gun. The nightmarish parody of administration without law obliged Laferrière's father, a career diplomat, to flee into exile. His son, four at the time, was left behind.

The Enigma of the Return opens in 2009; the narrator, Windsor Laferrière Jr (the author's real name), has just received news of his father's death in a Brooklyn hospital. In free verse interspersed with prose, the author chronicles his journey back to Haiti from his adopted Canada. "We're a generation of sons without fathers," Laferrière remarks. The boy had been sent to live with his grandmother in the coastal town of Petit Goâve, 40 miles west of the capital of Port-au-Prince.

Port-au-Prince, "a great stewpot", is vividly rendered, with its marchandes ferrying produce to market, the Dominican prostitutes outside the hotels, and its well-fed big shots drinking rum with police officers. "If you're not thin when you're twenty in Haiti,/ it's because you're on the side of power," writes Lafferière, unforgettably. The Martinican poet Aimé Césaire hovers like a tutelary spirit over much of The Enigma of the Return, with its images of journeying, exile and the sweet-sour emotions experienced by the returnee. I have not read such an affecting or humane book in years; it should be read by all exiles everywhere.

Ian Thomsons 'Bonjour Blanc: A Journey through Haiti' is published by Vintage

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