Pierre Marcelin and Philippe Thoby Marcelin
Reviewed by a student in my Haitian history course, Fall, 1991
"It's the rich who enable the poor to live... Heed my advice. If you don't want life to treat you badly, behave well towards the rich..." These lines represent one of the underlying themes of the book, THE BEAST OF THE HAITIAN HILLS. Authors, Pierre and Philippe Thoby Marcelin, bring this theme and other themes to life by creating a handful of distinct characters who are in the midst of multiple conflicts. The grandiosity of these conflicts, coupled with the eccentricity of the characters, makes for an almost humorous story.
Morin Dutilleul is for all practical purposes, the main character of THE BEAST OF THE HAITIAN HILLS. He is the quintessential Haitian upperclassman. Morin is an educated, city-born mulatto who shuns the Voodoo religion and calls its practitioners "ignorant and superstitious."
When we first meet Morin he is working as a grocer in the city, but he spends most of his time hidden in the back room of his store pursuing extramarital activities. When Morin is not busy seducing women in his store, he is fantasizing about moving to the countryside.
Morin's wishes are granted when his wife suddenly dies. He abandons city life and moves to the countryside. He buys his own land and attempts to settle down to a new existence.
But life in the countryside is not what Morin had expected. The peasants, he finds, are "dirty" and "ignorant," and they are "disrespectful" to a man of his stature. Furthermore, they follow spirits that Morin does not believe exist.
So Morin, who has been suffering insurmountable guilt over his wife's death and great disappointment in the failure of his countryside dream, becomes a raging alcoholic. He verbally assaults all of the peasants in the area and builds a wire fence around his land, prohibiting anyone from entering his property.
The main body of water, and the only one for miles, happens to be on Morin's property. Thus, due to Morin's prohibition on trespassing, the neighboring peasants are forced to walk great distances in order to acquire water.
Morin's actions and words enrage his neighboring peasants -- especially his most proximate neighbor, Bossuet Metelus.
Bossuet is respected and feared by all who live in the town of Musseau. He is notorious in Musseau for practicing voodoo with his "left hand" -- meaning that he deals in black magic. There are no limits to Bossuet's wickedness. Even his family has suffered from his curses: Bossuet is said to have caused the death of his own brother.
Morin's overnight usurpation of power comes as a direct blow to Bossuet's pride and a threat to his social standing.
The last straw comes when Morin chops down a sacred Voodoo tree. The town goes into hysterics because their revered god, Papa Legba, has been wronged by this chopping of the tree.
Bossuet "takes to the hills" with a vengeance. He summons the forces of Petro Voodoo (black magic) and sends a "Cigouave" (an evil Voodoo spirit) to raise a ruckus in Musseau. Here the story branches off into various subplots -- all more or less revolving around Bossuet's wrath and the Cigouave:
Each of these conflicts (and many more) revolves around Voodoo and magic. The reality of these beliefs finally becomes so intense that Morin can no longer ignore it or shake it off as petty superstition.
After witnessing the "possession" of his maid; seeing the Cigouave out his window; and finding that his only recourse against the illegal slaughter of his pig is to consult a houngan, Morin concludes that he must leave Musseau and his new country life.
So Morin returns to the city and continues grieving over his dead wife.
With Morin's departure, Bossuet reappears from the hills and the Cigouave retreats.
But the Marcelins couldn't leave well enough alone, and in the very end, Morin is transplanted back in Musseau where he meets up with the Cigouave one last time.
It is mentioned in the "Editor's Preface" to THE BEAST OF THE HAITIANS HILLS, that there is some ambiguity concerning the extent of the Marcelin's involvement with Voodoo. After reading this book, I suspect that the Marcelins might not have been sincere practitioners of Voodoo. They give a sensationalized account of Voodoo. This book is chock-full of outrageous conflicts, plots, and subplots that it would take a calculator to keep count of them all. And the conflicts that are presented are so ridiculously contrived that they begin to resemble a soap opera. Then, by directly connecting these conflicts to Voodoo, the Marcelins seem to be perpetuating the popular myth that Voodoo is fatalistic. BOTHH flits from one disturbing event to another and it treats each tragedy so lightly that I came to wonder if it is actually a farce. Everywhere there are Voodoo curses, deaths, resentments, and fights. The tumult builds to mid-story, where it finally borders on the absurd.
Satirical or not, this book seems to almost do a disservice to Voodoo and the Haitian peasant. For a more informed reader, THE BEAST OF THE HAITIAN HILLS might be an engaging, playful story that pokes fun at the ever-feared Petro Voodoo. But for those of us who are not practitioners of Voodoo, or those who believe that its main focus is witchcraft, this book seems to encourage that stereotype.
Philippe Thoby and Pierre Marcelin provide many negative examples of Voodoo:
There is little reference to the positive role that Voodoo plays in peoples' lives. For instance, Papa Legba, one of the Rada, or "sweet loa", is given only mere mention. And when he is mentioned it is because he is vexed. So we again have an angry loa. Nothing is said of Papa Legba's benevolence. The only vision the reader is given of this loa is one of anger. The same holds true for Baron Samedi (Papa Ghede) and ougoun Badagris. Both of these spirits are angry with, and cause much grief to their followers, Sinette and Desilius. The passage where Sinette is possessed by her loa (Baron Samedi) is portrayed as a negative occurrence. The language describing this event does nothing to discourage the sentiment that possession is a scary thing. One would never know that being possessed can be considered a joyous experience. It is said to be flattering when one who follows the loa is possessed by his or her spirit. It is said to be an honor that followers of the loa desire.
But the Marcelins seem accurate in demonstrating the significance that the Voodoo religion is said to have in Haitians' daily lives. Haitian people are said to breathe, eat and sleep for their loa. But it is not a negative worship as this book has suggested. Rather, it is reverence, love and commitment.
The Beast of the Haitian Hills depicts life for a Haitian peasant as an exhausting, subservient existence where one must constantly answer to and beware of spells and angry loa. Perhaps this is why so many people believe that the Haitians are superstitious -? If one thinks that Voodoo is simply one horrible curse after another, wrapped within a world of hateful spirits, and the practitioners of Voodoo unquestioningly follow evil -- perhaps this would encourage one to conclude that Haitians are superstitious. Philippe and Pierre Marcelin do nothing to dispel this image of the peasants. They write of a world where Voodoo is the root of all problems. Even the domestic squabbles portrayed in the story cannot be left as simple family relations. Instead, they are turned into religious scandals caused by witchcraft.
If the Marcelins were merely trying to give an entertaining account of the Haitian peasant and Voodoo, then they seem to do an excellent job of this. But I think that if the Marcelins were concerned with being sympathetic to the Haitian peasant and his or her religious beliefs, then they might not have portrayed this type of existence so negatively. They create conflict after conflict - all in the name of Voodoo. This leaves the reader thinking that the Voodoo religion is the cause of much strife and that the practitioners of Voodoo lead lives similar to those seen on a television soap-opera.
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