Sometime in 1944, when I was regularly reviewing books for the New Yorker, there fell into my hands a translation of a novel called Canapé Vert, by two brothers, Philippe Tho-by-Marcelin and Pierre Marcelin, which had just won a prize, as the candidate from Haiti, in a Latin American fiction contest. This book seemed to me very strange, quite unlike any other piece of fiction that I had ever seen, and it piqued my curiosity. It was so evident that the translation was unreliable that I applied to the publisher for the original French, and this partly cleared up the mystery, for the translator had actually tampered with the text, and his French was so inadequate that he had sometimes mistaken the meanings of common enough words and phrases.
But the story was still queer and confusing. I knew nothing about vodou then and did not know that one of its principal features was the possession of its worshippers by the vodou deities. These deities, though they vary in different localities, sometimes retain their personalities through many generations, and the possessed who impersonate them display the same characteristics. The possessed man or woman assumes the name and takes over the voice and the nature and habits of the loa by whom he is “mounted.” He has to be deferred to by others, and his inclinations have to be indulged as if he were actually this deity. The sinister Baron Samedi, who, though sensual and ribald, presides over cemeteries, likes to wear a top hat and dark glasses, and always speaks in a nasal voice. When, in the Marcelins’ La Bête de Musseau, he has “mounted” an oppressed servant girl, he is found at his ease in the kitchen, smoking the cigars and drinking the rum which are his personal perquisites. In their latest novel, the ogress Marinette Braschèche can terrify her cunning husband, even though he is supposed to be an adept at sorcery, when she has gained possession of his wife.
This strange situation itself provides many materials for drama, once the reader has grasped the fact that the characters have double roles—that, on the one hand, they are real people with the normal kind of personal relations with others while, on the other, they are living in an imaginary world of vodou mythology and magic. But the two brothers who write these books are well-educated and highly intelligent natives of Port-au-Prince, with a training in French culture behind their vodou lore, who have known how to present their characters in an anthropological perspective that extends beyond the special customs of Haiti, and who are aware of the power of mythologies in all the doings of the human race, even in countries which are supposed to be more or less enlightened.
The Soviet secret police used to think of themselves as embodying the Sword of the Proletariat; the members of the Ku Klux Klan, when they put on white hoods and robes, could play the parts of Wizards and…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.