By Mayra Montero.
New York: The Ecco Press, 2001.
160 pages
Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman.

Comments by Bob Corbett
January 2002

Zule Reve is a woman of exceptional spiritual gifts, a Voodoo mambo and leader of a gaga, a Voodoo community in the Dominican Republic. These gagas are located on the sugar batays of the Dominican Republic where Haitian cutters live in slave like conditions, often having been sold into this work by more power folks in Haiti.

It is Easter time, a sacred period for these various gagas, and the groups will go on religious pilgrimages during this festival. However, these festivals are often at the same time tests of strength among the various groups and the religious pilgrimages frequently turn violent.

Zule's gaga is being threatened by the notorious and frightful bokor, Similia Bolosse. She is resolved her people will not back down from Similia even though his gaga is reputed not only to be loaded with former tonton macoutes, but armed with pistols as well. Zule's people will march against them only armed with machetes.

However, in Montero's often confusing narration, we are taken back into earlier times and it is revealed that Zule and Similia have had a torrid and passionate sexual relationship, one could not in anyway call it a love affair. We are not told what happened to estrange them and bring to their current stand off.

The novel really has little plot. From the earliest pages we learn of the coming Easter celebration, the traditional pilgrimages and the coming battle with Similia, and the entire book builds toward the denouement of the battle, which of course, I will not reveal the outcome.

While I didn't find this novel nearly as interesting as her earlier novel on Haiti, IN THE PALM OF DARKNESS, Montero does vividly picture what the spiritual life of the people in the batay is like and it is one of the most exotic forms of Voodoo that I have ever read about and quite different from the more standard accounts of the religion in Haiti. What is especially fascinating about this is the relationship between the violent form of Voodoo practiced where the violence is between competing gagas of simple cane cutters, and their ordinary everyday lives of powerlessness. It is clear that in this tiny universe in which they live, this fight is some sort of escape from the powerlessness of their lives of near slavery in the batay, where, even if only for one weekend a year, their lives take on a much larger significance and they become warriors for that particular truth and meaning system. When put into that context the plot of the novel makes more sense and is more believable.

Nonetheless I wasn't as much grabbed by either the story or the writing of this novel as I was by her earlier one.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett