ZOMBI, YOU MY LOVE: STORIES FROM HAITI. By William Orem. Woodside, CA: La Questa Press, 1999. ISBN: 0-9644348-2-2. (paper -- $12.00).
Reviewed by Bob Corbett
Tales from Haiti. I tell tales from Haiti, and otPher places and events. I've always thought of these tales as small episodes of my life, and I'm reputed by others to be a good storyteller: travel experiences, funny or unusual events; short tales. Moreover, I've always thought of them as quite distinct from stories in the sense of someone writing a short story, or the folk tales and stories I told my children and tell my grandchildren, having been told in turn when I was a child.
All these senses of tales were unclarified in my head, yet seemingly distinct. William Orem book sent me on a philosophical chase as to what is a tale. His tales are all three I mention above, the causal tale we tell each other of bits of experience, more formal tales in the short story genre with a beginning, some significant problematic and a resolution, and then the more formal tale of children's stories. And more. There is some unique sense of "tale" that belongs alone to William Orem. It both delights me and repels me, but drove me on to read the 23 "tales" of this book.
Or is it a novel? That adds to the puzzle. There are characters who appear story after story. There are vague links. There's perhaps some linear progression if one is a bit tolerant and generous.
I guess as is clear by now, I not quite sure what I just finished reading, having somehow been driven to stick with the 222 pages of this book in the middle of a frantically busy time in my life. What was it that drew me so, what is it that Orem offers?
Orem himself is a writer and academic, working to finish his dissertation on James Joyce and John Cage, a rather wild combination. He has published short stories, poetry as well as journalism.
The central character of this, this ., novel, set of tales, mystical ramblings, diatribe against Ugly Americans in Haiti, insightful anthropology of the Haitian peasant, photographs in words -- take you pick. The central character is an American photographer working in Haiti. But when? Time is another curiosity of the book. The opening tale, minus the presence of the photographer, is in 1936. We flip back and forth in the rest of the book between Papa Doc's time, the year or two immediately prior to Baby Doc's fall, and then several periods of Aristide's life, including the period of de facto government. Often I was utterly confused as to where we were and was given contradictory historical details.
At least the geography is a bit more firm. Save the very last tale, epilogue, we're are always in Haiti. Even in the epilogue the photographer has gone to a Haitian Mambo in Florida to try to get spiritual communication with a woman in Haiti. Ah yes, the journalist and the woman, they are a staple of these tales too.
Orem's attention to detail and his ability to bring it to quivering vivid life is perhaps the greatest strength of these tales. He has a sense and eye for life of the Haitian underclass. Come to think if it, I we never meet any Haitian who isn't of the underclass except perhaps a Macoute priest. Orem gets inside the peasant in several of the tales and convinces me that he sees what the peasant must have seen and felt. One of the most powerful stories is of a former schoolteacher, a cultured man who speaks and reads English and French, but has become as outcast living in a leper colony near St. Marc. A young American Mormon, in Haiti on a conversion tour, tries to befriend him. His pride and rage, his inner hurting and his longing are revealed so touchingly that I had to pause several times in the reading.
But the way he tells a tale is odd. There is often no story at all. It's a sort of random slice of life. No point. No conclusion. In fact, as I think his sensitive description of peasants is his strongest talent, his inability to end the stories is his greatest weakness. They don't end. He just puts a final period and numbers the beginning of the next tale.
Orem is at his meanest and harshest in his wildly exaggerated tales of The Ugly American. My oh my, does he despise them and write viciously about them. One tale takes place off the coast of Mole St. Nicolas when a young foreign priest and American social worker are given the job of hosting two CARE officials. One is a hugely fat man who makes the small boat sit dangerously low in the water, the other, his bitchy woman partner, gets outraged when the social worker chastises her for not having much sympathy toward the Haitian poor. All of this is going on like a scene out of Albee's WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOLFF, when they become aware of a group of "macoutes" (though it could be any one of three or four periods of Haiti history of the past 20 years, it's never clear) beats a man to death on the beach.
There are two themes, however, that dominate all others. The first, central and that which occupies more space than anything else in the book is the mysticism, mystery and magic of Voodoo. Tiny episodes. Nothing like I've every read before. Zombies who fall in love and eventually escape their physical bodies (the title story), the mambo in Miami who watches over her friends in St. Marc despite the Gulf Stream, a houngan who practices abortion on the side. What I find compelling about it is that the role of magic and mysticism is not splashy or the centerpiece, but just bits and pieces of everyday life.
The second theme has to do with foreign missionaries, mainly lay Catholic ones. The photographer is falling in love with the seasoned veteran American missionary, Ava. There is much discussion of the inter-relationship between the missionaries and the Haitians, the suspicion of each toward the other. Lots of raw nerves and prejudices are bared on both sides. Orem writes well about the theme, and the touching love story is as gentle and suggestive, as it is unsatisfying.
I come away from ZOMBI, YOU MY LOVE with very mixed feelings. I think I was cheated in stories. Most had either no ending at all or a very unsatisfactory one. Yet along the way I was given beautiful and compelling descriptions of both Haitian peasants and American missionaries. I was bullied to accept absurdly exaggerated portraits of Americans more ugly that the most silly caricature. Perhaps they were so wildly exaggerated because they were true. That's a worrisome possibility. I was treated to a rich sense of Voodoo as a world of everydayness, of magic that lives comfortably alongside the humdrum of everyday life, a Voodoo rich in transcendental connections and alive with loupgarou and zombies. I was left confused as to what time period anything was happening in and came away with the sense that Aristide was having tea with Papa Doc now and again. And throughout, anchoring this whole fantasy that is so real it could be my own experiences, the photographer is the steadfast rock. He's on a quest for the picture, and while he clicks, clicks away with film that is always rejected because it is too gruesome for his finicky editor, Orem ticks, ticks away on his computer painting those pictures with words of power and vividness, even if they don't add of to tales of Haiti, but only word portraits.
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