Un first novel is a challenge, a desire to be read and appreciated, sometimes a fear of not being understood in this process of fictional production. Philomé Robert has just published Ephemeral wanderings, a one hundred and seventy-two-page novel that is a masterstroke from my point of view, because we enter it with a bang to discover a world where the search for truth is undoubtedly the keystone of the plot. The various characters appear through Gabriel, who turns out to be central in the story which unfolds with an endearing intensity all the more so as the plot revolves around him, leading the reader into the universe and the world of a nomad discovering life.
Gabriel is an architect and, apart from a few references to his profession and his culture of architectural masterpieces from the great capitals visited, he recounts his loves, his desires, his anxieties, his fears, his dreams, his escapes, his untimely departures towards the other and towards elsewhere, his returns, his traumas, his resiliences. The geographies of the Caribbean, Europe and Africa are present, underlining his desire to always go elsewhere, while establishing bridges between his multiple lives and his attachments of heart.
Haiti at the heart of the story… but not only
Philomé Robert is from Haiti, a land loved and hated, endearing and ungrateful, an island with a thousand stories, admired and rejected for good and bad reasons. All this shines through the pages with sensitivity and courage. The character of Gabriel confides his story and his tumultuous wanderings with immense intensity, as they are linked to three strong and passionate women with a direct and specific connection to him. His relationship with his mother, his romantic relationships reveal a Gabriel who spares neither his memory, nor his energy, nor his desire to put his wanderings around the world into words.
Gabriel’s life and memory in this story revolve around three women who formed his mind, his strength, who revealed his weaknesses, his shortcomings. From page to page, these three women form the vital axis of Gabriel in terms of feelings and intimate sensations, they are called Héloïse, Meredith and Consuelo. Danissa also haunts her memory. Each corresponds to a geographical space-time of Gabriel’s life. The foundations of Gabriel’s personality rest on his mother Héloïse who dies prematurely after being hit by an official car which was passing at high speed, like all the cars of members of the government of Haiti who do not stop, as it was the case for his mother. The force of denunciation is present from the first pages and then by touches.
The story in the background
A criticism of the Haitian dictatorships is expressed without concession in the story as shown in this extract: “The presidential driver had left. Quiet, arrogant, as state murderers are. The memories of his family and the words of gold and wisdom of his mother Héloïse are scattered throughout Gabriel’s psychological wanderings like the lessons he assimilated, “refusal of compromise, clarity of positions, rejection of all form of ambiguity. Gabriel was nine years old, and the trauma of the loss affects his mind, especially since his life was full of psychological fractures. Her encounters parade in snatches in connection with her feelings, her sexual desires, her desires, her excesses, her resentments. Gabriel is eager for freedom despite the experiences that would have discouraged the most stubborn. An introspection is deployed with finesse to tell the loves, the flashes, the encounters on a station platform, the falling out of love, the attraction and the antics, the unbridled love scenes not without tenderness with Consuelo, the Dakar artist whose stilettos, stilettos, fascinate Gabriel.
As for Meredith, the mystery woman, she comes from Cuba, Brazil or Caribbean countries, countries where human relations remain essential, despite the surrounding miseries. The strength of Philomé Robert is to happily intertwine the periods, the times, the beings that matter, following the recollections of events that took place in Haiti, with his mother Héloïse, his silent father, and at the turn of one sentence, the text takes the reader back to Paris with “Consuelo who had heard everything. My nocturnal talks, my nightmares that I thought I had mastered”, those of childhood. The text mixes poetry, singing words, right terms, evocative verbs. Meredith is the absent/present, the bad conscience, the one who smokes hallucinogenic herbs, but who committed suicide, without explanation, and the scene opens the story. Gabriel’s quest is undoubtedly that of the truth, of the “why and the how”, provoking a colorful style and metaphors that illuminate the text and where the analogy is evocative: “Architecture is for me a dead planet . I have other constructions in perspective”, human, certainly.
A promising first novel
Philomé Robert’s style is part of the register of magic realism which has its source in Latin America. Beyond the intrigue around the trio Gabriel-Meredith-Consuelo, it is the world of the XXIe century which is staged with a criticism, by touches, of the dictators who leave on the side of the road the impoverished young people of the countries of the South. Gabriel’s story implicitly values these young people who want to live their lives in success and freedom, who want to cross borders to escape confinement and misery. Successful people like Gabriel quickly learned the keys to reading the Western world. At the same time, Gabriel knows how to express the heritage of southern cultures, such as voodoo, to intertwine it with the culture of the world. Multiple literary, musical and cultural references flood his memories. Gabriel demonstrates with finesse that he now has a rich universal culture, since he is at ease in Paris, Dakar or Colorado, while remaining firmly critical of the failings of politicians. His shortcomings during childhood in Haiti led him to excesses, to “ephemeral wanderings”, a novel that is read with pleasure. Philomé Robert knew how to combine the intimate and the social, the personal and the political, by offering the benefits of being at ease in the “all world”, according to the formula of Édouard Glissant. A very promising first novel!
* Benaouda Lebdai is a university professor in colonial and postcolonial African literature.