Book review of Mayra Montero, The Red of His Shadow, Panther, 2002
Vodoun, the syncretic religion of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, comprising Haiti in the west and Dominican Republic in the east, is seldom accurately represented in fiction, subject as it has been for centuries to white mistrust of black theology, and in recent times to B-grade horror movie renderings of zombies.
Even Harvard scientist Wade Davis’ excellent 1985 book The Serpent and the Rainbow – a unique investigation into the real psycho-pharmacological bases of zombiesm, combined with a history of the rebel black republic of Haiti after its successful slave revolution of 1804, and a detailed explanation of how vodoun developed as an underground slave exaltation of West and Central African religions under the guise of their overlords’ Catholicism – was turned into a cheap Wes Craven thriller in 1988.
An unsurpassed exploration of the roots of rock ‘n roll via Haiti, where the faiths of African and Irish slaves combined to form vodoun and shape modern American culture, is the 1985 essay by Texan writer Michael Ventura, Hear That Long Snake Moan, which is available online. But Davis and Ventura offer rare English-language non-fiction insights into vodoun, so it was perhaps inevitable that an accurate depiction in fiction would be penned by a Cuban writer, in Spanish.
With a light touch, but penetrating empathy, Mayra Montero explores the mutual antagonisms, racism and interwoven cultures of pitch-black migrant Haitian “Congo” cane-cutters working for a pittance in a coffee-coloured Dominican mulatto world. Bucking traditional prejudices and a rain of curses from her family, the clairvoyant Dominican Anacaona marries the Haitian cane-cutter Jean-Claude Revé, brother to the vodoun houngan Papa Luc Revé, whose shy but willful daughter Zulé, possessed of a natural susceptibility to be ridden by the Loa, those ancient African gods, is destined from a young age to become the mambo of her own vodoun Societé.
Every year during Holy Week, Zulé’s Societé prepares itself with incantations, appeals to the Loa for protection and profit, dresses in its finest, beats its ritual drums, and, lead by its elders and queens, sets out from the batey, the worker’s barracks near the sugar mill, on a sacred procession, a Gagá, through the countryside, during which time they will exchange gifts of rum, cigars, cakes and fowl with the batey communities and Societés they encounter, while the mambos and houngans dispense advice and intercede with the spirit world.
It is usually a time of great celebration, but this year everyone is on edge because they know Zulé’s Gagá is destined to cross paths – and machetes – with the rival Gagá of the Haitian houngan Similá Bolosse, feared as a bokor, a master of the dark arts, not least for his connections to the disgraced yet still dangerous tonton macoute death-squads of ousted Haitian president Papa Doc Duvalier, and their drug shipments, the loss of one of which is blamed on Zulé.
Montero’s lush and livid prose is brought to us by the skilled translation of Edith Grossman, who has also made Latin American greats like Gabriel García Márquez accessible to English readers. Peppering her text with vodoun chants and slave songs in Haitian Creole, Montero draws us into the realities of the cane-cutter’s physical poverty and spiritual abundance.
With language as plain as cassava yet as firey as rum, she spins a tale – apparently inspired by a real crime of passion – which for all its grittiness has the lyrical, doomed beauty of many of Latin America’s great voices; definitely a talent to watch.