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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
- A Time of Gifts (shelflove.wordpress.com)