more underground men in montreal: dany laferrière’s famous first novel

The narrator of How to Make Love To A Negro (Without Getting Tired), a young Haitian man, rents a seedy apartment in the Montreal slums. His shut-in roommate, a Muslim named Bouba, is an obsessive jazz fan. The two men spend their days listening to jazz classics, drinking wine, reading, discussing Kant and Freud, the Koran and Allah, or else busy themselves pursuing sex with young Canadian women they nickname Miz Literature, Miz Sophisticated, Miz Piggy, etc. The narrator wanders through Montreal and works on his novel—a bildungsroman he hopes will bring him fame—and a degree of fortune—while exposing the absurdity of the ideas and behaviour of those around him.

How to Make Love to a Negro without Getting Tired

By Dany Laferrière

Coach House Press, 1987

(trans. David Homel)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Nigger Narcissus

I CAN’T believe it, this is the fifth time Bouba’s played that Charlie Parker record. He’s crazy about jazz, and this must be his Parker period. Last week I had Coltrane for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Now it’s Parker’s turn.

There’s only one good thing about this place: you can play Parker or Miles Davis or even a noisier cat like Archie Shepp at three o’clock in the morning (with walls as thin as onionskin paper) Without some idiot telling you to turn it down.

We’re suffocating in the summer heat, jammed in between the Fontaine de Johannie (a roach-ridden restaurant frequented by small-time hoods) and a minuscule topless bar, at 3670 rue St-Denis, right across from Cherrier. An abject one-and-a-half that the landlord palmed off on poor Bouba as a two-and-a-half for $120 a mouth. We’re up on the third floor. A narrow room cut lengthwise by a horrible Japanese screen decorated with enormous stylized birds. A fridge in a constant state of palpitation, as if we were holed up above some railroad station. Playboy bunnies thumbtacked to the wall that we had to take down when we got here to avoid the suicidal tenden-cies those things inevitably cause. A stove with elements as cold as a witch’s tit at forty below. And, extra added attraction, the Cross of Mount Royal framed in the window.

I sleep on a filthy bed and Bouba made himself a nest Oil the plucked couch Cull Of mountains and valleys. Bouba inhabits it fully. He drinks, reads, eats, meditates and fucks on it. He has married the hills and dales of this cotton-stuffed whore.

When we came into possession of this meager pigsty, Bouba settled on the couch with the collected works of Freud, an old dictionary with the letters A through D and part of E missing, and a torn and tattered copy of the Koran.

Superficially, Bouba spends all day doing nothing. In reality, lie is purifying the universe.

Sleep cures us of all physical impurities, mental illness and moral perversion. Between pages of the Koran. Bouba engages in sleep cures that can last up to three days. The Koran, in its infinite wisdom, states: “Every soul shall taste death. You shall receive your rewards only on the Day of Resurrection. Whoever is spared the fire of Hell and is admitted to Paradise shall surely gain his end; for the life of this world is nothing but a fleeting vanity.” (Sura III, 182.) The world can blow itself up if it wants to; Bouba is sleeping.

Sometimes his sleep is a, strident as Miles Davis’s trumpet, Bouba becomes closed upon himself, his face impenetrable, his knees folded under his chin. Other times I find him on his back, his arms forming a cross, his mouth opening onto a black hole, his toes pointed towards the ceiling. The Koran in all its magnanimity says: “You cause the night to pass into the clay, and the day into the night; YOU bring forth the living from the dead and the dead from the living. You give without stint to Whom You Will.” (Sura II, 26.) And so Bouba is aiming for a place at the right hand of Allah (may his holy name be praised).

CHARLIE PARKER tears through the night. A heavy, humid, Tristes Tropiques kind of night. jazz always makes me think of New Orleans, and that makes a Negro nostalgic.

Bouba is crashed out on the couch ill his usual position (lying on his left side, facing Mecca), sipping Shanghai lea and perusing a volume of Freud. Since Bouba is totally jazz-crazy, and since he recognizes only one guru (Allah is great and Freud is his prophet), it did not take him long to concoct a complex and sophisticated theory the long and short of which is that Sigmund Freud invented jazz.

“In what volume, Bouba?”

Totem and Taboo, man,”

Man. He actually calls me man.

“If Freud played jazz, for Christ’s sake, we would have known about it,” Bouba breathes in a mighty lungful of air. Which is what he does every time he deals with a non-believer, a Cartesian, a rationalist, a head-shrinker. The Koran says: “Wait, then, as they themselves are waiting.”

“You know,” Bouba finally intones, “you know that SF lived in New York.”

“Of course he did.”

“He Could have learned to play trumpet from any tubercular musician in Harlem.”

It’s possible.”

“Do you know what jazz is at least?”

“I can’t describe it, but I’d know what it is if I heard it.”

“Good.” Bouba says after a lengthy period of meditation, “listen to this then.”

Then I’m sucked in and swallowed, absorbed, osmosed, drunk, digested and chewed up by a flow of wild words, fantastic hallucinations with paranoid pronunciation, jolted by jazz impulses to the rhythm of Sura incantations—then I realize that Bouba is performing a syncopated, staccato reading of the unsuspecting pages 68 and 69 of Totem and Taboo.

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