By David Madsen
William Morrow and Co., Inc., NY, 1994
A review by Bob Corbett
I am fascinated by novels about Haiti written by foreigners. They fall into several classes, but the most extreme two are:
Then there is the opposite extreme of novels which use some Haitian theme, most usually Voodoo, or situate a novel in a place called Haiti, though it often bears little relationship to the Haiti we know. There were a spate of such novels in the 1920s and 30s, a few come to mind: George Agnew Chamberlain's THE SILVER CORD, or H. Bedford Jones' DRUMS OF DUMBALA are among the most notorious and laughable.
David Madsen's VODOUN is a curious mix of the two. On the one had there is the picture of Voodoo. A wild version of astral zombieism, a version that appears in no literature I've ever heard of is the central a driving focus of the entire novel. Were things to go no further I would have dismissed the book with a laugh and ignored it.
But, there is the rest of the novel. Madsen takes Haiti quite serious, knows it extremely well, both current Haiti and historical Haiti, and writes with a clarity and purpose that suggests inside knowledge and understanding.
The central plot concerns an American journalist, whose life becomes controlled by a bokor bent on taking over Haiti. There are some fascinating characters: on the one hand, President Isidor is close enough to Aristide to be a news report, but on the other different enough to be quite interesting. There is a character modeled after Immanuel Constant, but is a woman and has feature of Madam Max as well. And so it goes with characters from the diplomatic community, the Haiti elite, even the daily activities of journalists at the Oloffson (which is one of the few places in Haiti which retains it's actual name.)
Madsen goes even further in demonstrating a detailed knowledge of Haiti in a secondary device which has flash backs to the Haitian revolution. Here again, he reveals himself as a person who know a good deal of Haitian history and has an understanding that goes beneath the simple details.
Ultimately this is a sort of international spy thriller, bordering on horror at times. The treatment of Voodoo is outlandish and so central to the novel that it may well bother some -- it not only bothered me, it frightened me! On the other hand, it is an excellent story, thrilling and well crafted, extremely hard to put down, and, as a bonus, one gets to check out one's knowledge of Haiti against that of the author. This comes especially in recognizing his fictional characters as real people and appreciating the fiction opposing the reality.
I enjoyed the story very much, though it absolutely terrified me at times. I was especially hopeful of catching the author is "mistakes" about Haiti. But, other than his use of Voodoo, (which is absolutely central to the whole plot), I found only one other item. At one point he is picked up at the Oloffson Hotel by his lawyer-lover-Haitian-friend who wants to take him to a small "nearby" hotel where they can talk. The next thing we know they are stopped by police on the road to Carrfour on their way to Petionville! However, the details of the roads and so forth were so accurate that I didn't read it as an author's "mistake" about Haiti, but a novelist's license to fit the roads taken to the needs of the drama of the story.
VODOUN is a delightful story to read by day. It may well to too terrifying to read by dark or alone. But, if you can get past the central use of a wild version of astral zombies, then you will find this a rewarding political thriller.
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