‘The Traveller’s Tree: A Journey Through the Caribbean Islands’

The Traveller's Tree: A Journey Through the Caribbean IslandsThe Traveller’s Tree: A Journey Through the Caribbean Islands by Patrick Leigh Fermor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Part travelogue and part ethnographic study, which climaxes in a weekslong, torch-lighted trance of voodoo drums and dancing.

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I am not making up the part about voodoo drums.

“Traveller’s Tree” (1950) is in its DNA an erudite traveler’s diary, but it reaches an emotional peak — a feverish dream may be more apt — in the dusty fringes of Port-au-Prince. Fermor and his companions apparently spent most of their time in Haiti waiting for the nocturnal thumping that signaled a voodoo convocation. They would slip quietly into the background of these spectacles like the late arrivers at a movie theater, their white faces conspicuous in the firelight.

Not for nothing, Fermor devotes several pages to a disquisition on voodoo and related mystical practices. He is earnest in an attempt to assess these artifacts as part of Haiti’s culture, hearing out an exasperated priest before indulging in his nightly field trips. He conjures an interpretation, heavily tinged with (medieval European religious) history, of zombielike possessions. He observes a host of rituals, including not the first chickens in the islands he has seen dismembered. But he fails to satisfy himself; voodoo is “impatient of explanation,” he writes.

A small section of one of the author’s already-groaning bookshelves.

This is Fermor’s first book, and it makes the last of his eight real books that I have read. An odd reading plan, perhaps. But, interestingly, “Traveller’s Tree” contains the seedlings of his next few titles, notably the eruptive plot device that convulses his only novel, “The Violins of Saint-Jacques” (1953); the admiration for monks and monastic life that colors “A Time to Keep Silence” (1957); and the unquenchable curiosity that branches “Mani” (1958) and “Roumeli” (1966) into so many welcomed tangents.

I do not consider it his best. In my view, that is “A Time of Gifts” (1977), the first volume of his famous-but-never-finished memoir of a trip (mostly by foot) across Europe in 1933-34. Fermor is never better as a writer, if you ask me (which I know you didn’t), than in the first half of “Gifts.” It fairly bursts with a romantic longing for the Europe before World War II, as Fermor recalls tramping through the snow, teaching himself German with a paperback edition of “Hamlet,” and describing, chillingly in retrospect, an embrasure stacked with Nazi military caps.

Neither do I consider this a good place to start. The novice should check out the anthology “Words of Mercury” (2003).

But it is heartily recommended.

English: scenes from a Voodoo seen in Port au ...

Voodoo, in Port au Prince (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What interested me most of all about “Traveller’s Tree” was its ethnic studies, if only because these seem so fusty — perhaps understandably so — with the passage of time. Travelling in places populated mostly by black people (and by scant few tourists), Fermor takes great pains to describe what was unusual to him. Naturally, this was most things, and in many cases — as in his description of the distinctive, old Harlem dress of Trinidad’s Saga Boys — passages remain vital and engrossing. But in others, the tone of his opinions and his continual description of skin color can be jarring.

I don’t mean to suggest Fermor is a racist. But I am not the first reader to make such observations.

The book’s introduction, for one, casts some of Fermor’s racial views as “hopelessly naiive.” Last year, in The Boston Globe, Katherine A. Powers wrote that Fermor’s obsession with “the various kinds and degrees of black and white mixtures is unseemly.” (To be fair, he applies the same queer interest in racial and ethnic provenance to the peasants of the Balkans and the shopkeepers of England.) In 2004, James Ferguson, in a magazine called Caribbean Beat, noted in Fermor’s words a “tone of slight snobbishness.”

Moss and Leigh Fermor pictured in German unifo...

Patrick Fermor, right, on Crete in German uniform. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For his part, at frequent points in his book, Fermor acknowledges the difficulty of being who he was (white, Anglo-Irish) and trying to write about race in a place like the Caribbean. Still, he forges ahead. His vagabond sojourn in the years before World War II, as recounted in “Gifts” and “From the Woods to the Water,” and his experiences during the war, as a leader of the resistance on Crete, probably impregnated him with a sense of being a citizen of the world. Fermor, as he lolled about in a sequence of island paradises, wistfully yearning to have been witness to the past — whether it be Carib raiding parties or aristocratic French soirees — was certainly not blind to some of the racial injustices of the time. But he was perhaps not fully equipped to write about them.

To be sure, his well-attested curiosity and experience — sharing “wisdom weed” with angry Rastafarians, to name but one from the book — are persuasive of an enlightened, catholic outlook, even if it is slightly raffish and wrapped in worn English wool. As Powers wrote, Fermor found in “the varieties of race and racial mixtures” an “exhilarating vividness and dash.”

Nevertheless, a modern reader will first have to tune the ear to monotonous discussions of skin color and a liberal use of words like negress.

Consider this a mild warning.

On the Ground in Haiti

I want to tell them they are pathetic. I want to tell them that you shouldn’t tell someone to go fuck themselves one day then come groveling to them the next asking for a job or money or food or a house. I want to tell them they are the problem with this fucked up country. I want to, but I don’t, because I know, despite the anger, that while they are ignorant, and they do deserve to get called on their shit, they don’t deserve to be shamed for their condition.

via These New Boots: Day 326: Questions & (No) Answers (The Aid Bitchslap).

Two Kinds of Haitian Zombies

But more probable is that most cases are mistaken identification of wandering mentally ill or neurologically impaired strangers by bereaved relatives.They noted “People with a chronic schizophrenic illness, brain damage, or learning disability are not uncommonly met with wandering in Haiti, and they would be particularly likely to be identified as lacking volition and memory which are characteristics of a zombi.”

via A medical study of the Haitian zombie « Mind Hacks.

Despite, but sometimes thanks to, the absence of a functioning government, rich Haitians have prospered mainly in the import-export business. One percent of all Haitians control 50 percent of the countrys economy, and its top 500 taxpayers generate 80 percent of its tax revenues. They are also active in the textile industry, where they subcontract for American multinationals, as well as in construction and agriculture.

via Haitis 1 Percent | Foreign Policy.