The Voice of the Govi: Resurrecting the Soucouyant

Gerry Besson has worn many hats in an extensive career straddling media, advertising, local and Caribbean history. I suspect that the man who lives in a house called Tall Stories in the Cascade hills, will be more than a little pleased with his latest venture, a novella The Voice in the Govi, which, better late than never, places him in the ranks of fiction writers, writes Simon Lee in this review in Trinidad’s Guardian.

Finally Besson’s predilection for weaving never-ending extempo tales, synthesising his store of oral histories, family anecdotage and gems of recondite local history, has found its way onto the page.

The result is a combination of a “ripping good yarn” (in its literal sense, as several unfortunate characters in the book lose their skins to a ferocious soucouyant), one of the best tales of the supernatural produced in the Anglophone Caribbean since Mittelholzer’s My Bones and My Flute and a sepia-tinted narrative crammed with historical personages, exuberant baroque detail and irreverent humour.

In terms of historicity Besson must be congratulated for highlighting the links between Trinidad and Haiti, which only Bridget Brereton has paid any attention to previously.

A long-time student and aficionado of Afro- French Creole culture, Besson not only provides well-researched biographical detail on figures like the Counts de Lopinot and Montalambert, but more significantly for his supernatural purposes, some new insights and suggestions on the connections between Haitian Vodou and Trinidadian Shango and Orisha worship.

The ripping yarn gets off to a suitably spine tingling start with the best account of zombification since Rene Depestre’s Hadriana en toutes mes reves. There is definitely an element of tongue-in-cheek scarification and “tief head” involved here. Besson suggests that it’s possible that among the Haitian slaves who relocated here with their masters at the end of the 18th century, there may well have been a few experts in the techniques of producing “the living dead.”

We know that poisoning was a strategy of resistance employed by slaves in Saint Domingue and Trinidad, and that zombification requires the same kind of specialised knowledge; so it’s eminently possible that even in postmodern Trinidad, zombis may be plying their melancholy trade!

The Voice of the Govi belongs to the genre of oraliture or orality, popularised by the Martiniquan Creolist writers Patrick Chamoiseau and Rafael Confiant, both of whose work can be viewed as a project to record a rapidly disappearing oral tradition. Besson chooses as his narrator his mother, who tells the story from the perspective of a young girl, fascinated by the tales of an elderly aunt, who occupies a room in her Belmont family home.

The whole story is really an elaboration on the metaphor of the govi itself: a receptacle of ancestral spirits represented by a multi-generational collection of ritual objects which contained in symbolic manner, the accumulated history of her own life and her ancestors…a careful cultivation to ensure nothing from life’s experience became lost…it was the method by which her people retrieved and incorporated the best of past lessons and experiences into the present and as such kept the past as progress made (14-15)

In writing his Creole tale of mystery, horror and suspense, Besson has drawn deep from his own govi and many years of injecting creativity into corporate advertising campaigns. Sex, subliminally or right in your face, has and will always be a major seller, closely followed by violence and humour.

Like an alchemist or a quimboisseur he mixes all these three vital ingredients into his text, along with several of his own concerns—the French gentry whose younger sons came to the Antilles seeking their fortunes and who gave birth to the gens de couleur; the meeting of mediaeval European witchcraft and African magic; the Creole revolutions in Haiti, Guadeloupe, St Lucia and Grenada which were ignited by Enlightenment ideas, Jacobin bloodbaths and refusal to accept enslavement.

While one of Besson’s alter egos may well be a benevolent minor French aristocrat with encyclopedic interests, this one cannot override his delight in subverting these pretensions or even offending notions of Euro respectability, when juxtaposed with supposed Creole sensuality and sexuality.

The main protagonist La Sirene Rosa enjoys a long lesbian relationship with her schoolfriend Eugenie Amelie, herself a product of the practice of placage, or those “left hand” common-law marriages “in which European men of substance and women of colour entered into long term relationships which would over time produce a beautiful race.” (p 14)

One of La Rosa’s French ancestors, the Count de Mole, becomes the willing serviteur of his enslaved Vodou mistress, an embodiment of the powerful loa Erzulie Freda, goddess of love: “He held her feet as she sat enthroned in his lap; she placed upon him the iron chains of slavery, and in so doing enslaved her master.” (p 28)

Without giving away any of the details of the gripping pore and hair raising finale to this ripping yarn, suffice it to say that Besson has added to his already impressive re-assembling of Creole oral and documented history in typical rhizomic fashion.

He records and invents not only from the bottom up, but sideways too, presenting us with a govi of Afro-French Creole culture, in the process preserving for future generations “cultural memory…lost through emigration and immigration, as well as being increasingly eclipsed by other realities.”

For the original report go to http://www.guardian.co.tt/lifestyle/2011/12/22/resurrecting-soucouyant

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