Twenty years ago, in 1991, I was shown round the National Palace in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. A government official led me through long rococo halls crammed with oriental rugs, gilded boule clocks and vases of deep pink roses. Little had changed since Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier had fled Haiti in 1986. The Hall of Busts was lined with bronze heads of other Haitian presidents up to Elie Lescot in 1946. However, the bust of Jean-Claude’s dictator father ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier had been removed to the ‘Dépot de Débris’, where it lay covered in dust.
On 12 January 2010, the National Palace was turned to dust in an earthquake. The convulsions lasted just 60 seconds, but a more graphic image of municipal chaos would be hard to imagine: the heart of Haiti’s national and civic life had been pulverised. An estimated 200,000 people died that day in Port-au-Prince alone. Rich and poor alike were reduced to a state of homelessness and despair, says Claudel Casseus.
Imajine, an eye-witness account of the Haitian earthquake, was commissioned by the Scottish-born record producer, writer and artist Bill Drummond. Drummond had met Casseus the previous year in Haiti. Following news of the earthquake, he offered to pay Casseus $100 US for 5,000 words on all he had seen and heard that awful day in January. By Haitian standards, $100 US is a lot of money: Casseus, a young artist, began to send Drummond instalments from an Internet café in Port-au-Prince.
The result is an unsparing evocation of horror but, also, of human forbearance. ‘We know what life is about, how sweet it can be, how good it can be, but we don’t know about death’, Casseus writes movingly, adding: ‘The one thing we know about it is that it is contrary to life.’ The streets of Port-au-Prince are strewn with dead bodies; there is no electricity; water supplies are contaminated. The city seems to have lost all sense of being a capital. Only once does Casseus confess to a failure of language before the incredibility of what has happened: ‘It is such a sad thing that I have no words to express it.’
One night, dreadfully, he mistakes corpses on the ground for sleeping homeless people. ‘What I saw and what I understood were two separate things’, he comments, deadpan. Though free from consciously lettered prose, Imajine is a work of quiet power and dignity. Through it all, Casseus clings to the hope of going to university one day. Even in this stricken place, the dream of self-improvement has not died yet.
By any standards, Haiti represents a very great concentration of misery and dashed hopes. Since independence in 1804, emperors, kings and presidents-for-life like ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier have misruled the island through violence and a theft of public funds. And now this earthquake. Only a thousand copies of Imajine have been published; yet even with the sale of a thousand, says Bill Drummond, the author stands to make at least £1,000 from royalties. I would urge you to buy a copy.