Monday, 1 September 2008

Zombi Attack!

As promised, I will write a brief response to The Serpent and the Rainbow. At some point I'll update the little bit in my recommended books section, but for now I'll give it its own post.

The back of the book puts it like this: "Zombis...the Walking Dead...a mystery that has long baffled, horrified, and tantalized Western imagination. In April 1982, ethnobotanist Wade Davis traveled into the Haitian countryside to research strange reports of men drugged, buried alive, and ultimately resurrected from the grave. Drawn into a netherworld of bizarre rituals and wild celebrations, he came face to face with a sorcerer-priest who introduced him to the dark secrets of voodoo potions, powders, and poisons. What began as a scientific quest ended in a spiritual confrontation--a terrifying journey of discovery across the border between life and death, between good and evil."

In his book The Serpent and the Rainbow, Wade Davis explores the culture of voodoo in Haiti, attempting to track down the origins of zombis. Over the course of his investigation, he locates the pharmacological agents behind the zombi phenomenon, but also discovers that the true origins lie not in a chemical event but the spiritual worldviews that pervade the vodoun religion of the Haitian countryside. Davis also undertakes to de-sensationalize the vodoun religion, a sentiment not shared by the publishers who wrote the comments on the back of the book, or, it seems, the reviewers quoted: "Replete with bizarre details to titillate the curious...Zombis do come back from the dead, and Wade Davis knows how" (Washington Post Book World). That respectful treatment notwithstanding, the book reads much like a movie, filled with strange and melodramatic characters, visual details and well-described settings, and some anxious situations and mystical events. Davis also grounds his sometimes incredible tale with forays into history, seeking the roots of vodoun secret societies in Haitian history, and into science, examining the potency of assorted natural toxins and drugs. Together these create an elaborate and well-rounded novel that examines the phenomenon of the resurrected dead through a vantage point that is historical, scientific, anthropological, and spiritual, all in one.

Now, I must emphasize that these are not the zombies of modern fiction (or the post title), rotting corpses staggering the course of their undeath, seeking to feast on the flesh (or brains) of their more vibrant relatives. Instead, they are zombis of the traditional sense--corpses resurrected by a voodoo sorcerer to be a slave of the sorcerer. At least, this is what American scholars thought zombies were. Davis shows this as a lie and explains the true function of zombis in vodoun society--for zombis play an institutionalized role in that society.

Don't get me wrong. This is not a dry academic read that is more based on "the facts" and not on sell-value. I think this would make an excellent movie. And most of the comments on the back of the book are true, from a certain perspective at least. I just don't think that "netherworld," "bizarre," "dark secrets," or "confrontation" are the best words to describe what happens, and these leave out the roles friendship, charity, personal hardship, and trust played in the novel. The secondary characters are real and engaging (as they should be, since they were real) and help create a living portrait of Davis' venture.

So I recommend this book to anyone, and expect that you may get any of a number of things from it: a scientific adventure story into one of the most intriguing pharmaceutical phenomena ever; an anthropologist's navigation through the secret network of Haitian spirituality and undergroung politics; a story of companionship in face of cultural divides; an analysis of a cultural mindset different from our own and an examination of that mindset's advantages; a philosophical treatise on the nature of death, and our relationship to it; a mystery tale filled with nighttime rituals, deadly poisons, and powerful secret societies.

If you read this book, you will embark on Davis' journey, after a fashion, and so I leave you with this declaration, quoted from the novel and from Dr. Lehman, who addressed Davis as his backers made their proposition to him at the beginning of his tale:

"Let me relieve you of any further suspense, Mr. Davis. ...We propose to send you to the frontier of death. If what we are about to tell you is true, as we believe it is, it means that there are men and women dwelling in the continuous present, where the past is dead and the future consists of fear and impossible desires."

Update as of 2 September: James Davis of God Online tells me that there is a movie version, indeed.

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