The Voice in the Govi
A magical visit to the realms of imagination of those who lived in the 19th century Caribbean
A Fictional Novella
A Fictional Novella
The Voice in the Govi whispers to the reader of generations of beautiful Caribbean women, scintillating the lines between life, death, and the in-between. Listen to its murmurs of adventurous voyages between islands, continents and worlds, to its sighs of love and passion, to its rumours of magic both evil and good. Hark! and your Gros Bon Ange will speak in tongues—in French, Patois or English—about a time when a beautiful new race of women was born in the plaçage of the Antilles, la femme de couleur, to whom male pa ka chanjé kon lapli (mistfortunes do not happen like rain). A time when the imagination of those who lived in these islands was inspired by folklore and religion, by petro and rada, by the ever-thinning veil between life and afterlife, when souls had to be brought back from beneath the waters, retirer d’en bas de l’eau.
The story told by Gerard Besson in the tradition of Caribbean Magical Realism follows several generations of Afro-French-Creole girls and women (and their men) throughout the 19th century, out from the times of slavery and across the Caribbean Sea, from Saint-Domingue to Trinidad. Devoted to the Orisha of Love, Erzulie, and possessed of intoxicating beauty and of innate goodness, these women inherit the powers of healing and of clairvoyance. Lifelong companions and lovers, La Sirène Rosa and Amélie Eugénie fight a battle against the main-gauche sorcerer’s tricks of the boy Naza and his evil-minded secret society of cochons sans poils, pigs without hair, whereby they have to bring back zombis from literally a fate worse than death, and ultimately fight a terrifying battle against a murderous soucouyant.
In his Antillean novella, Besson pulls his reader into a past that shimmers like a butterfly’s wing, blending together shades of magic and of history in one captivating tale that radiates the sights, sounds and scents of a time when times were changing in these islands below the wind.
by Simon Lee
(published in the Trinidad Guardian, 22 December 2012)
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.
Finally Besson’s predilection for weaving never-ending extempo tales, synthesizing 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 eighteenth 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 specialized 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, popularized 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 encyclopaedic 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’ coomon-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.’
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