Canape-Vert was written eighty years ago by two up-and-coming Haitian writers and chosen for a special prize by – among others – John Dos Passos. It is a novel about old Haiti written by Haitians; about the island peasantry and their beliefs and the difficult life of Haitians on the land. It is not an easy book – like most books about poverty and violence. Haiti has had a tough time of it, for a time due to the enslavement of the people by the French but for the last two-hundred years mostly self inflicted.
This book was like a looking glass back into a dark time from which Haiti has not fully recovered. A time of spiritism and occult beliefs, dominated by the Vodun religion with all of its dark rituals and macabre nighttime practices. I once had a friend in grad school, a liberal white chick from Tulsa (or somewhere in the Midwest) who had spent time in Haiti, who told me “Oh, voodoo – it’s what has helped the Haitian people through such difficult times; it’s the glue and the foundation that hold their society together! A force for healing.”
Um, say what? She needs to read Canape-Vert; the brutality and blood and the superstitions that rob the actors of personal responsibility (‘Oh, she was possessed.’ and ‘Oh, he was just a zombie.’) Zombie, that bizarre undead idea of motion without soul which comes from Haitian voodoo.
Superstition and animism are always the enemy of prosperity. They provide a scapegoat for those who do not want to change and lend inevitability to the suffering. I’ve seen it often, even in my own travels. My time in Uganda, Nigeria, Mali and Congo were full of the tales of the poor and their ‘spirit companions’ whose job it was to keep them so (read my own novel of Uganda, “I, Charles, From the Camps” for a taste of the challenges of living deep in the heart of Africa).
Canape Vert is haunting, and sad. Haiti, sort of a little piece of West Africa nestled into the Caribbean blue; cursed for a tragic history and nowadays because its only an hour’s flight from the doogooder army of the west – people like my grad school colleague only too keen to perpetuate their own prejudices in a land close enough to go back to Miami on the weekend.