Ian Thomson: Hooked on Haiti

Kathryn Topham meets Ian Thomson, the author of a new full-length book on one of the Caribbean's most intriguing countries - Haiti

–Author Ian ThompsonQuicker by bus? Port-au-Prince. Photograph by C. Pillitz / NetworkThe legendary Oloffson Hotel in Port-au-Prince. Photograph by Jenny Matthews/ Network

Ian Thomson arrived for an interview on a wet November Sunday, with a knapsack on his back. His book on Haiti, Bonjour Blanc, had recently been published; the jacket told me he was born in 1961 and specialised in Italian literature. It did not tell me why he had turned to Haiti or how he had produced such an engrossing book about that complex and long-suffering country.

It turned out that the great novelist Graham Greene was the trigger. For many readers, Haiti’s image is coloured by Greene’s 1966 novel The Comedians, with its unflinching portrait of the Duvalier dictatorship and the menacing Tontons Macoute, and by the legendary Oloffson Hotel in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince where Greene stayed along with other celebrities in the fifties and sixties.

Euan Cameron, Thomson’s publisher, had once been Greene’s press officer at the publishing house Jonathan Cape, and had showed him a document issued by François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, the Haitian dictator, which denounced Greene as “a habitué of lazar houses . . . a conceited scribbler . . . a chimerical radicalist”. Thomson’s interest was aroused; C.L.R. James’s classic, The Black Jacobins, introduced him to Haitian history; a Haitian psychiatrist exiled in London brought him books and articles on Haiti’s traditional voodoo and a list of people he could contact there.

When Cameron suggested he should write a book on Haiti, Thomson could not refuse. There had been no substantial guide or novel since Greene’s, to lead the traveller through the western hemisphere’s poorest nation and to unravel the many myths and distortions which had grown up around it. Little had been written on the country by Haitians themselves; the best-known living Haitian novelist, René Depéstre, is exiled, and most Haitians cannot read or write.

Yet so much had happened since The Comedians: the Duvalier dictatorship had crumbled in 1986, to be followed by a series of elections, coups and counter-coups which had done nothing to break the power of the Haitian army. Thomson admits that he arrived in Haiti carrying “a great baggage of prejudice and fear: AIDS, voodoo, black magic, papa Doc’s death squads.”

Haiti’s richest and least understood tradition is its Africa-derived folk religion known as voodoo. African religious forms exist throughout the Caribbean islands, often interwoven with Christian forms, but Haiti’s version is the most famous, the most sensationalised and powerful. Inevitably, given its extraordinary history.

Haiti’s great slave revolt began in 1791, quickly coming under the leadership of Toussaint L’Ouverture, and slavery was abolished two years later. When Toussaint declared Haiti’s autonomy in 1801, other Caribbean islands were still firmly locked into the slave system. Napoleon got rid of Toussaint for fouling up the most profitable slave colony the world had known, and it was left to a second leader, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, to declare independence, after expelling the French, in 1804.

During slavery, ancestral religious beliefs and practices had been a way of escaping the misery of poverty and oppression, of communicating information and maintaining solidarity; they remained so through the turbulent decades that followed, and they remain so today. To be possessed by the spirits or loas is to be transported back to the legendary African homeland of Guinée where the souls of the dead return.

Possession is a mystic state little different from yoga, the Dionysiac mysteries of ancient Greece or the Turkish dervishes. Thomson witnessed voodoo ceremonies and took part in one himself, a rare privilege for a white; he describes the experience with great sensitivity in his book. And he explains clearly the scientific as well as the emotional reasons for the spasm-ridden bodies and the rolling eyes that accompany the voodoo drums. “Possession appears to be a neurological phenomenon – a violent change in metabolism – whose symptoms closely conform to the clinical observations of hysteria: the spasmodic convulsions, the muscular contortions, the fits of fainting and swooning where orgasms and syncopes, or failures of the heart, are not infrequent…”

Thomson shows clearly that Haiti’s voodoo is a religion of ordinary people, not some satanic black magic. And it is the root of Haiti’s famous art. Among the striking characters Thomson visited was André Pierre, one of Haiti’s greatest living artists, who lives just outside Port-au-Prince and is also a voodoo priest or houngan. Pierre’s paintings depict loas whose counterparts are Catholic saints. For in Haiti the Catholic church and voodoo blend: “It is said that Haitians are 80 percent Catholic and 100 percent voodooist.” In the past, white missionaries and some Haitian Catholics strongly disapproved of this religious mixing, but according to Thomson today’s younger priests are far more open-minded and recognise the importance and validity of voodoo.

André Pierre’s work is sold through a gallery in Port-au-Prince behind the Oloffson Hotel by a Haitian-Syrian who knew Graham Greene well. He scoffs at the Eurocentric idea that Haitian art was “discovered” in the mid-forties by Americans. Art had long been central to Haitian life; it just didn’t get sold and flown abroad for big money by middlemen. Haitians never saw their art as anything but a means of explaining their dreams or reaching the loas. The artist was not a separate, idolised figure as he can be in Europe and North America.

Quite separate from voodoo but often confused with it is the more sinister figure of the bokor or medicine-man. One of his most extraordinary powers is turning someone into a zombi. Thomson’s chapter “A Brush with Zombis” cites examples of living zombis who are virtually vegetables, “no longer able to distinguish between hallucination and reality,” stripped of character and will, mere puppets in the hands of the bokor.

Why should anyone want to turn their neighbour into a zombi? It may arise from disputes over land or property, or marital upset. The bokor may be consulted by the offended party. For a hefty fee, he will make the necessary arrangements.

It is probably best not to say too much on zombification, because it darkens the image of Haiti and puts people off visiting. But, at its simplest, the zombi is the victim of tetrodotoxin poisoning: the poison (TTX) is a nerve agent with brutal powers. The bokor’s powder produces a state of catalepsy. The victim is buried alive or left for dead. After three days or so, the bokor brings the body back to life with another powder. But the poor victim is now helpless, no more than a slave.

Thomson travelled Haiti for five months, staying with Haitians of all sorts, and was met with hospitality and kindness everywhere, even among the poorest. In addition to the major hotels, there are small guest houses and hotels dotted around the country; not all squeaky clean perhaps, but for the observant traveller prepared to rough it a bit, Haiti repays the discomfort and hassle. And if you need a beach to recuperate on, the best are around Jérémie and Les Cayes (particularly Ile-à-Vache). White sand and palms, no tourist facilities: not many beaches remain so pristine in the rest of the region.

One thing no visitor should miss is the eighth wonder of the world, in northern Haiti: the massive Citadel, started by Dessalines in 1805, continued by King Henri Christophe and completed in 1816. It was Christophe’s burial place, and is not easy to reach, as Thomson discovered. It stands on a mountain, 3,000 feet above a village called Milot, south of Cap-Haitïen, on the northern coast.

“At a bend in the trail loomed the Citadel,” Thomson writes. “It appeared to me as a mass of titanic stone and loneliness; the sheer vastness of the thing was bewildering. Seemingly welded to the landscape itself, a dream of empire wrought in rock, the fortress was both tremendous and appalling: it … must have been a task to stagger the ambition of a Pharaoh, for it towers above the timberline on the Pic de la Ferrière, one of the highest mountains in Haiti … ”

Henri Christophe had ruled the north of Haiti from 1807. After crowning himself king in 1811 he set about creating a kingdom with hospitals, schools, a judicial system, a printing press, a navy – and a Citadel to keep the white intruders out. Christophe’s Citadel has long been left to the elements; ISPAN, Haiti’s equivalent of a National Trust, is trying to raise funds to restore it.

Thomson also sought out several humbler and lesser-known homes. A now decrepit plantation house, L’Habitation Madère, in Haiti’s southern peninsula, was the birthplace of the father of Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers. He found the house hidden among jungle foliage with the help of local people who knew the history of the Dumas family. He also found the home of one of the world’s greatest ornithologists, James Audubon, who was born in Haiti.

Ian Thomson told me that of all the places he has visited, including India and Mexico, nowhere had he seen poverty like Haiti’s. Perhaps that is why his book is so striking: it does not dispel the poverty, but it uncovers the real culture behind it, neither romanticising nor condemning. If you never get closer to Haiti than flying over it, pick up Bonjour Blanc: Haiti will never seem so remote again.