Venance Lafrance Is Not Dead
Credit: Photograph by Ben Lowy
The National Palace had been a source of considerable pride. I was standing in front of its vast, very white edifice when a young man approached and asked me if it was true that the National Palace, before its collapse, had been the most beautiful building in the world, as he had learned in school.

"It was very beautiful," I said, looking for a diplomatic answer.

The conversation attracted, as often happens in Haiti, a crowd of kibitzers, all wanting to throw in their own two cents. Two Haitians can converse, but three is an argument. Some maintained that the Presidential Palace was the most beautiful building in the world; others that it was the most beautiful presidential palace in the world. The argument was not about aesthetics but about the precise recollection of a fact that had been memorized in a schoolbook. The conversation got quite heated, and in the end one man had to be taken away before he slugged somebody.

In a city of remarkable piles of rubble, the presidential-palace rubble was particularly spectacular. In its collapse it looked as if it had been constructed originally with Legos, then smashed by the hand of a very large child. It was somewhere between fracturé and krazé – it all depended on whether one looked to the wings, which were almost intact, or to the center. Certain portions of the rubble expanse could even be described as penché.

A large tent city had cropped up directly in front of the gates of the palace, and then metastasized to the palace's flanks. Each of Port-au-Prince's tent cities had its own character, as any small town will, and here the mood was surlier and more aggressive than in other refugee camps. I asked somebody why the mood in this particular camp was so rough, and was told that it was due to the presence of the many escapees from the National Penitentiary, which was just a few blocks from here – although I found this explanation unlikely. Surely if anyone had cause to rejoice these days, it was the escapees.

Just three days before the world came to an end, Venance Lafrance slunk back into Port-au-Prince like a beaten dog. His return to Jérémie had been disastrous. His mother had gotten sick. His brother had gotten sick. And then he'd gotten sick too. He had almost died. All the capital he had accrued in the chicken game sweating over a hot barbecue, he had lost. He'd gone home to Jérémie to show off what a big man he'd become. But now, just to get back to Port-au-Prince, Venance had visited a local politician and agreed to sell her his vote in the upcoming parliamentary elections in exchange for a place on the big Trois Rivieres, the weekly ferry to the capital.

The next morning, Venance made his way on foot (not even a gourde to take a bus) up to Cousin Maxo's little concrete house in Bel Air.

"Venance, I didn't know you were coming!" Cousin Maxo said, happy to see him.

Cousin Maxo wasn't just happy to see Venance on account of Venance being Venance, but also because Cousin Maxo needed Venance Lafrance. Madame Cousin Maxo gave Venance some bread and coffee, and then Cousin Maxo told Venance the bad thing that had happened in his absence. It was just a couple days back. Madame Maxo had been out grilling on the Champ de Mars when the police had come round. She wasn't fast enough. The police had seized the family barbecue and all the chicken on the grill, too. She had gotten away with just a bowl of raw bird.

Cousin Maxo sent Venance out to buy some water for the house. Venance came back with five five-gallon buckets. After he had bathed, Venance lay down on the floor of the house and went to sleep for the rest of the morning.

Venance was finally home. Venance was finally needed.