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 Kleagles who were at liberty to hunt and lynch Negroes, while the average American citizen could always identify himself with a benevolent bearded Uncle Sam, who rights wrongs in an old-fashioned tall hat. It is partly the fascination of these unusual stories themselves but also, I think, partly their universal application that has made such apparently very regional productions so surprisingly successful in English. The second of the Marcelins’ novels, La Bête de Musseau (The Beast of the Haitian Hills), 1946, had a sale of over 80,000 in the Reading Program of Time magazine; and there was some question of turning the third, Le Crayon de Dieu (The Pencil of God), 1951, into an American musical show.
But the brothers, who had always worked together, were now to be condemned to an enforced separation. M. Philippe Thoby-Marcelin came to work in the Pan American Union in Washington and married an American wife, while his brother remained in Haiti. Eventually the two collaborators effected a partial rapprochement. Pierre arranges to spend his summers in the United States with Philippe, and they have now written another novel, which seems to me, to date, their masterpiece. It is in some ways rather different from its predecessors. It covers a good deal more ground, involving a greater variety of social types, and its tone is somewhat different. The earlier novels of the Marcelins had something of the fresh excitement of the relatively recent discovery by sophisticated city-dwellers, brought up in the Catholic religion and the tradition of French culture, of the more or less fantastic life in a kind of visionary world of the African denizens of the hinterland.
Their new novel, Tous les hommes sont fous (All Men Are Mad), is drier and more objective. It is based on, though it does not follow literally, a real episode in Haitian history. In 1942, there was a special effort on the part of the Catholic Church to redeem the vodou worshippers for Christianity. These Catholic priests had long acquiesced in a conveniently stabilized form of what is known theologically as syncretism—that is, the less advanced Haitians practiced a double cult, and for the figures in the Christian hierarchy set up altars which included, also, a hierarchy of vodou opposite numbers. Thus, reigning with the Virgin Mary, stood the by no means virgin goddess of love called Erzilie; the warrior Ogou Ferraille, who figures in the present novel, was identified with St. James; Papa Legba, who presides over journeys, was paired with St. Anthony; and St. Patrick, with his foot on a snake, was paired with Dumballa, the snake deity. I was once in Haiti near Christmas and found that the Christmas cards, along with “Joyeux Noël,” were sometimes decorated with a snake that represented the last of these loas.
But now, contrary to recent custom, the Church made an attempt to abolish all this. It obtained from the President of Haiti a circular letter to the local prefects directing them to cooperate in the campaign against vodou. The Marcelins have dramatized this campaign as conducted, in the town of Bois-chandelle, by a newly arrived young French priest, Père le Bellec. He has mobilized to assist him a band of young Catholic zealots who call themselves the Soldiers of St. Michael. This results in a disastrous mess. A clever and sly old “doctor” has been trying to play it both ways, to pass as supporting both papa Bon Dieu and the vodou loas or mystères, but many of the backwoods natives of the “commune” where the story takes place are contemptuous of the petit mon-père reformer and turn out against the Soldiers of St. Michael, who have been burning the images of the loas, and in the confusion a vodou temple is also burnt. Both sides make a ludicrous showing, and the Catholics accomplish nothing lasting. A young boy, brought up in vodou, believes himself to be possessed by the formidable Ogou Ferraille, the loa of war and fire, and he stands at the head of the resistance. He is arrested and put in prison, still defying the civil authorities, and he dies as the result of a beating, in consequence of his inability to resign his supernatural authority.
This episode is one of the climaxes of the story, but it is embedded in a narrative much more complicated than those of the other books of the Marcelins. One new element that here appears is the world of provincial officialdom, with its pretentious and grotesque jargon, in which the petty political intrigues and the rather sordid fornications are discussed in a stilted formal language, studded with Latin tags. (It is to be hoped that the opening conversation between the Judge, the Lieutenant, and the Mayor, which constitutes an exposition of the fundamental situation, will not discourage the reader from following the later developments of the issues here partly veiled.) We have also the younger generation, delinquent and sometimes criminal, and the life of the taverns and brothels to which the officials resort.
All this is presented by the Marcelins in a style of unemphasized irony that belongs to the French tradition of Maupassant and Anatole France. There is almost no overt comment; the criticism is all implied. And though what happens, if viewed in an ironic light, is often extremely funny, what is suggested is also pathetic. It is sad that human beings should be living with such delusions and in such limitations; should be talking such inflated nonsense, suffering helplessly from such wretched diseases, be intimidated and dominated by such outlandish superstitions. The vodouists and the Roman Catholics are equally inept and mistaken. Here again the special plight of the Haitians is made to extend a perspective to the miseries and the futilities of the whole human race, to our bitter “ideological” conflicts and our apparently pointless ambitions. All Men Are Mad is a very entertaining but also a troubling book, and it is a most distinguished work of literature.
March 26, 1970