Either You Invite Us Inside, or We Invite Ourselves: On Lyonel Trouillot’s “Antoine of Gommiers”

Adolf Alzuphar reviews “Antoine of Gommiers” by Haitian author Lyonel Trouillot.

By Adolf AlzupharDecember 13, 2023

Either You Invite Us Inside, or We Invite Ourselves: On Lyonel Trouillot’s “Antoine of Gommiers”

Antoine of Gommiers by Lyonel Trouillot. Schaffner Press. 164 pages.

HOW DID Haiti, a country of abundant promise, become a failed state? Lyonel Trouillot, a foremost Haitian intellectual, goes after this question in Antoine of Gommiers, his new novel about the crisis of belonging.

Antoine Nan Gommiers is known to most Haitians as a national hero, a famous 20th-century vodou priest. “It is from beneath this soursop tree, in the freshness of the afternoon air, with his hat perched on his chest during his nap that the most precious divinations come to him,” writes Trouillot. Politicians sought his favor.

In Trouillot’s novel, translated into English by Nathan H. Dize, the memory of the titular figure looms large for two brothers, Franky and Ti Tony, who live in Port-au-Prince among such eccentrics as Maitre Cantave, who teaches rhetoric, eats rotten food, and wears the same suit for 20 years, and Danilo, police cadet, gang lieutenant, lottery announcer, used car salesman, and apprentice pastor.

But it is through their relationship with Antoinette, a supposed descendant of the famous vodou priest, that they know the legend of Antoine of Gommiers by heart. Franky, who Ti Tony considers gullible, visits Gommiers and comes back with “his backpack weighed down by mangoes, sapodillas, and large manilla envelopes packed with legends and information.”

When Antoinette dies tragically, it is now up to those who remain to perpetuate the legend of Gommiers: Franky, who “spends his days with old books, pencils, and notebooks,” and Ti Tony, who is yelled at “as a matter of principle” by his boss Moise, who is deep down a “really gentle man that listens to chamber music.” Franky composes a manuscript called “Antoine of Gommiers, A Memoir.” Ti Tony and two other friends take Franky’s manuscript to the president of a historical society, who has a Sunday morning radio show. The president does not react well, calling the stories “myths and legends” rather than history.

But is a novel not a myth or legend rooted in fact? Trouillot captures the raw emotions of subaltern Port-au-Prince when his characters face the verdict of the historical society’s president. “Either you invite us inside, or we invite ourselves,” Ti Tony and the bunch tell the president when he answers his door. Despite this, the president does not mince his words about their manuscript.

Yet Trouillot also captures the fearlessness of well-to-do Haitians, who feel deeply about building strong institutions, despite the violence they navigate. He once wrote a poem called “Pouki,” or “Why,” which contains the line, “Why does the sun kick around dirt in a cemetery?” In other words, why is potential so misused in Haiti? Why does Antoinette’s memory mean nothing? Why can’t Franky’s work get published?

This latest work further prompts the question, “What is a Haitian novel?” The answer is tradition. The first sentence telegraphs that this novel is in dialogue with the “revolutionary laughter” tradition of the Haitian novel, unknown by most in the United States: “Antoine of Gommiers, the ougan and seer. He never raised his voice, he ate and drank little, only entertained sexual relations with his wife and mistresses on Thursdays in the even months, and on every other Wednesday in the odd months.”

Other sentences reflect the tradition of René Philoctète’s prose, as when Trouillot writes of Antoinette’s death: “The day when Antoinette collapsed in the street, her merchandise spilling out in every direction, the great Antoine had already seen everything, understood everything, foretold everything.”

With Antoine of Gommiers, Trouillot proposes a dialectic that explains the crisis not only in Haiti but also in the modern world. We have two nonintersecting realities: the experience of the working poor and the institutions of the privileged. How can we expect any society not to descend into violence?

Trouillot asks us to learn to merge our dreams in order to live harmoniously, in a place where, as Philoctète wrote, “children play with big green balloons, their happy heads full of popular melodies.”

LARB Contributor

Adolf Alzuphar is a Haitian human rights activist. He contributes to The Brooklyn Rail and the Los Angeles Review of Books.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!