Monday, May 2, 2011

The Voice in the Govi

by Gerard A. Besson


A magical visit to the realms of imagination of those who lived in the 19th century Caribbean


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. 


Excerpts from Voice in the Govi:
"The first lash hit in his heart, it felt like he was being pierced by an ice-pick. Antoine Paseau was just leaving his grandmother’s house on Duncan Street to go to Naza. The blow staggered him, he felt surprised and confused and forgot himself and sat down on the wooden steps just outside the bedroom door. The pain ebbed. He had sweated through his shirt and the old black jacket. He saw his hat on the ground, it seemed far away. He felt he had not the strength to reach for it. He felt cold and there was a tingling sensation in his face and the back of his head. He hugged his knees as a sense of fear began to replace the confusion. The next lash took him across his back. A sharp burning pain that drove him to his feet, he turned to run back into the house just as the bedroom door slammed shut. In a frantic effort he grabbed the edge and tried to pull, that was when the first stone crashed into the side of the house. He bawled, but there was no sound. Turning, he saw the large white stone on the step, next to his foot, it had come from the stone bleach, a pile of boulders in the form of a square that was used by the household to whiten clothes upon in the blinding light of day. Another rock, bigger, just rose from the pile and struck him on the shin. He bawled and tried to scream and run. Something struck him hard across the face, spinning him about. He stumbled, fell, rose to flee as three, four, large white stones struck him hard on the arm and chest and leg.
The bleach was stoning him. The other one caught him on the jaw. He tasted blood and gasping spat out teeth. Several more stones struck him forcefully on the head, body, and face. He fell, and still the rain of stones continued, covering him, piling up about him and the wooden steps until the entire stone bleach had transferred itself to bury him beneath it, all heaped up very neatly on the side of his grandmother’s house. Then stillness. Several tiny white butterflies danced in pairs in the bright noon light above where the stone bleach had recently been."

"The track that led from his abode in the old La Fantaisie estate slave barracks to the estate cemetery, which was dominated by the ruined Gothic tomb of the Baron de Mallevault, was lit by the dappled sunlight of the early Corpus Christi morning.
“The boy turning out, eh, he give it to Ti-Pap good. All ah dem praying, saying chaplet, praying, to dis Orisha dat Saint. Is me who is Maît’, master, me, dey say I am malfacteur, the evildoer, the man with the powder, well dem ‘fraid powder! De boy he eh ‘fraid, he could manjé moun, eat people, kill dem dead.”
The boy, Naza, had indeed passed his first initiation into the society, Les Cochons Sans Poils; the pigs without hair. Tonight he would be a witness to another ritual of the Society, the waking of the Zombi savane, one who had been buried in the earth, having been made a zombi, is to be awakened, to be dispatched for a purpose.
The bonfire blazed up high, illuminating the huge samaans that crowded round the old slave cemetery, throwing about the grotesque shadows of the men who sat around it. Inside the tomb the boy had followed all the instructions given to him by his Maît’; he had licked and kissed the old man’s scaly crippled foot, his decrepit toes with their long black curling toenails in gratitude, with tears streaming down his face, washing those ancient feet.
He had hauled the coffin that contained the night’s main attraction into the middle of the crypt in the bowels of the tomb, there was just room for four or five of them and for him. He would perch in the now empty alcove that had previously contained a marble statue of Saint Ignacio López de Loyola to whom the Baron had been devoted.
Outside the men feasted, drank and celebrated the death of old Ti-Pap and the entering into their midsts of a new Cochon. 
“Fresh pork, eh Narcisse, the boy good too bad!” shouted the old man; “léfan té ka valé kalbas, pas li konnèt bonda-li.” Which for the benefit of the ignorant means: the elephant can swallow a calabash because it knows the size of its asshole.
“You train him, Zinga, you train him. But leh we go, we have work to do tonight, not so?” 
“Take care he bite you, eh, he is bite.”
“Yes, yes, these Cochons getting dronk on Cecil Marquis rum, they belly full a snake and lizard. Leh we go, leh we go.” 
“Help Zinga there, Zilet, before he break he neck in the tomb.”
Stumbling down the steep stair, they squeezed in as best they could; those who could not fit, and those who preferred the rum and what was left of the quenk and the macajuel stew, the iguana eggs and Congo peppers, were glad to stay outside. 
They had seen the corps cadavre come out of the box, bazodee with fright, he thought he was dead, he think this is hell, they all had stories of zombis who had dropped dead for true in fright, others who got out, got away and bolted into some white people garden party, his shroud buss up, all he big long toto outside. “You was there for that eh? You remember the night Muzumbo dead, they had the wake in San Fernando, you could remember, eh, eh?” 
The noise and excited talk was hardly audible down inside the crypt. In fact there was no excitement at all. The flambeau illuminated the scene that was dominated by the large white coffin around which the old man, Narcisse, Phillibert, Zilet and another called Ozie were closest. “This Shampwel, this society is called to order and come tonight to do the work of le Baron Samedi, lord and guardian of this graveyard,” intoned Narcisse, pouring rum on the coffin and on the ground all around. Ozie was beating a syncopated rhythm on a small drum. The old man raised himself up, there was no pain in his twisted legs, his frame, big, strong still, threw a massive shadow on the wall, partly covering the alcove in which the boy, Naza, crouched.
“Here, put this on, tie it on your face, le cadavre full of datura and dead crapaud powder.” He passed the red satin squares around, then struck a match into an old chamber pot which immediately blazed with several small explosions, filling the crypt with black smoke. “Now take this.” He passed around a rum bottle filled with a thick oily substance that smelled of asafoetida and tar. “Rub it, rub it, on you arm, now take the fire.” With that he plunged his hands into the flaming pot and passed the fire from his hands to the hands held out by the others. For a brief moment they all appeared to be ablaze as the leaping flames caught their shirts and beards. In a frenzy they slapped each other to out the fire, laughing hysterically, screaming, shouting “Vini, Samedi, vini, vini gadé, ou, serviteur!” The little drum beating, beating louder and louder. 
At a point considered appropriate, the old man with the aid of Phillibert prized open the coffin to size the corps cadavre by the shoulders, to rise him up into the night, to bring him to the prison of his new condition. For a brief second, the old man did see the staring eyes open in the coal-black face of the man who was once known as Saint Jacques. The next second, the body sat up straight, and grabbed him by the throat like a vice. 
Men screamed, Narcisse and Phillibert tried to prize open the hand, the po capsized, sending the flaming liquid to the ground, towards them, those who could make the stairs, scrambled up, others aflame, tried to, the coffin fell over, taking the old man and his killer to ground, where they fought like beast. The coffin, now on fire with the flammable liquid, burned upon them where they were. Then, they lay still, quiet, they were both dead. 
The boy, Naza, had seen it all. Singed like a chicken, his hair, eyebrows and clothes burnt and in rags, he scrambled down from his perch and out of the tomb. The others had fled, howling, laughing, into the pitch-black, wooded hillside above La Fantaisie Road. What a story."


ISBN 978-976-8054-87-6
Language: English/Patois
160 pages, softcover & hardcover
Dimensions: ca. 5 x 8"

Softcover available on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com
Hardcover available on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com


From our readers:
"The swirling beauty of this wind-driven collection of lives moving in one part of the universe tells us all, no matter what:  to be human is to be storied in narratives that sing to the tune of many unseen and as well seen forces." (Prof. John Nunley, USA)


"Love the mix of historical fact and fiction.Left me wanting to know more stories about the characters and their lives.Thanks Mr Besson looking forward to your next novel." (Dr. Adele L.C. Springer)

"This brilliant folktale recounts three generations of strong women who were part of the Afro-French Creole culture of Trinidad as it evolved in the nineteenth century.  Besson’s beautiful style of writing captures the intertwining of ethnic backgrounds, class, politics, language, religion, and magic.  The readers are taken through an intense struggle between generous goodwill and dreadful evil.  Nightmarish events contrast with portrayals of luminous personalities and romance. Besson draws from his own family’s history and reminiscences, years of scholarship, and tropical imagination to produce a fascinating narrative." (From Barbara Mauldin, Curator of Latin American Folk Art, Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA)


"Your prose is seductive and intoxicating.  It reminded me a lot of Garcia Marquez, especially in Love in the Time of Cholera. I was swept away. I also very much appreciated and loved the details you provided about Trinidad's history.  I learned so much from reading your novel.  It was also good to recognize some things I thought I had forgotten and to make connections to things I had not linked together.  Thank you very much.  Again, congratulations." (From Elizabeth Nunez, Distinguished Professor of English at Hunter College, City University of New York, and an award-winning author)


"Besson's portrait of 19th century Trinidad is that of a master painter, and the smells, sights and sounds of that bygone era are vividly brought to life." (Julien Neaves, "What Lies in the 'Govi'", Trinidad Express 27 July 2011)


Press reviews:

Gerard Besson’s Govi
by MARION O'CALLAGHAN  
(published in "Trinidad and Tobago Newsday", August 15, 2011)


It is difficult to classify Gérard Besson’s The Voice in the Govi. The author presents it as fiction. It turns out to be also the story of his “ancestors”, as told to him and as imagined by him. The Govi is fiction. The real story is sealed in a clay pot from Africa. This pot is placed within an elaborate outer jar from Europe. The underlying theme of the book is the mixing of Africa and France in the Caribbean. The voices of African ancestors are within the clay pot. “… it was symbolic of past existences”, writes Besson, “… the accumulated history of her own life – her mother’s, her grandmother’s, even her great grandmother’s, as well as intimations of her people’s experiences through times long past.” But this is not African. It is myth and oral history which transmits the “people’s experiences through time.”
Africa or Europe 
Ancestors reward, punish and sometimes warn family and clan. There is not the idea of “essence” nor of some unconscious national “memory”. Besson’s “…intimations of her people’s experiences through times long past” come from Europe and particularly Europe of the 1920’s and 1930’s. It was adopted by the Austrian psychoanalyst Jung and was the basis for his Nazi sympathies. It is associated with Wagner’s culture “Masters” of Germany linked to Bayreuth. It accounts for Hitler’s love of Wagner’s music. Further in the book Besson speaks of the Orishas. These are largely New Age interpretations of African religion. They would not have existed at the time of which Gérard Besson writes. Nor would “poisoning” be part of, say, Congolese witchcraft. Poisoning penetrates Central Africa from West Africa probably with the trade in slaves.
Is this all, or is the book itself better seen as the Trinidad and Tobago “branch” of the new vogue in the neo-romantic strand of vampire books? In this new vogue the Bennett sisters of Jane Austen become the killers of zombies. “Have zombies therefore replaced vampires?” asks Alain Beuve-Méry in Le Monde of October 2009. Well, they are the “undead” in Besson.

Neo-Romanticism 
The elaborate jar may also be integrated into the neo-romanticism of the 18th and 19th century idea of Europe and particularly of its aristocracy. “Louis Rémy wore pastel-coloured silk shirts… carried a rapier with a ruby set into a golden shell on its hilt, sported the going-out-of-style plus fours of dark green velvet with cream hose, black patent leather shoes with silver buckles…” This is neo-romanticism in the tradition of Watteau and Marie-Antoinette frolicking as a Shepherdess.
The elaborate jar is decorated with a picture of Our Lady as Queen. Was this meant to underline the relationship of French Monarchists to the Catholic Church? For part of Gérard Besson’s imagination is that slave revolt in Santo Domingue (Haiti) from which French monarchists and slave owners fled to Port-of-Spain, then under Spanish rule. “…The uprising, the murder, the destruction, the commencement of the ancestress of all Caribbean Revolutions.” It was the ancestress of Fédon’s revolt in Grenada with “…the madness of the slaves, the aristocrats begging for their lives…The body of bloody men surging by, a blonde baby spiked through, waving before them as a banner for the damned…”

Bread and Wine 
It is this “reality” which spawns one of Besson’s most remarkable stories. It is the “profane and blasphemous ceremony” held four times a year when the Grand Judge of a secret society of Blacks holds out bread and wine. He declares that “…the bread you are eating is the white man’s flesh; the wine you are drinking is the white man’s blood.” The congregation of Blacks reply: “Remember Santo Domingo.” This is easily traced. It is from the anti-Jewish blood stories of the 13th and 14th centuries. Jewish feasts were rumoured to be a blasphemous Eucharist and to often include the sacrificial death of a Christian child. The rumours were usually the forerunner of anti-Jewish pogroms. In general, these stories did not cross the Atlantic to Trinidad. The nearest to them, the Good Friday Bobolee, is beaten as a fool with none of the racist trimmings of Europe.
If it is true that the story of a bread and wine affair circulated, this would indicate that, at the time, Blacks were assimilated to Jews and Free Masons, the enemies of the Middle Ages. With the Santo Domingo revolution there is the problem of dates. In 1789 there was the French revolution.
The Santo Domingo revolution led to by Toussaint L’Ouverture is a continuation of this. In February 1794 the French Revolutionary Council declared the abolition of slavery. It is Napoleon’s attempt to re-establish slavery in 1802 which led to a fierce resistance, to the Republic of Haiti and its loss to France.
It is, however, in the “plaçage” relationship that the stereotypes of race and of class change the nature of the novel. But that for next week.

Besson, history and folklore
by MARION O'CALLAGHAN 
(published in Trinidad Newsday, Monday, August 22 2011)
If you wish to read some of our “Patois” sayings, read Gérard A Besson’s The Voice in the Govi. “When a person has known another in the daytime, he does not need a candle to recognise him at night.” Or, “What business has a rose in Jacques’ bundle of weed?”
The patois sayings introduce chapters and hint at the nature of characters. Patois is also within the text, reminding us that Patois, or “Creole”, continued to be spoken in some rural areas long after French had disappeared.
Or, reminding us that the first calypsos were in Patois. Unfortunately conversations in Patois introduce another source of complexity within The Voice of the Govi. This adds to the difficulty of following a story already fragmented between the living, the dead and the undead or, between myth and reality, fiction and biography.

Those Cedulas 
Gerard Besson makes no secret of what and who constitutes Trinidad for him. It is the “Cedulas” arriving with the 1783 decision of Charles II of Spain to accept St Laurent’s scheme. This granted land and encouraged free Catholic immigrants into Trinidad. Besson wipes off as non-existent, Trini history before the Cedulas. This is a pity. It was the history of the failed Dutch attempt in 1610 to introduce slaves and the catastrophe of most of the 18th century which accounts for the position of French settlers in the economy of the country. In 1699 was the Amerindian revolt, the Arena massacre and the tragedy of Toco.
The collective Toco suicide is mentioned, but as part of folklore, Soucouyants and ghost stories. In 1723 there is the first major failure of cocoa. It is followed by the granting of a trade monopoly to a Caracas company, further ruining Trini Spanish settlers. It is in this vacuum that the Cedulas arrive.
For Besson, Trini history is the continuation of French history and of French settler history in Santo Domingo (Haiti), Martinique and Guadeloupe. This is not totally false. The fear which some French writers have noted underlies “race” conflict in Guadeloupe and Martinique, is diluted in Trinidad but not totally absent. Rather, it is displaced, to become a fear of African and sometimes Indian religions as prompted by the Devil.
Unfortunately, Besson sometimes mixes up his history. Victor Hugues, whom Besson calls “a republican terrorist”, arrested, massacred and seized the property of those he considered Royalist in Guadeloupe.
It was not in Martinique. French in Martinique joined with the British forces to maintain slaves and plantations. It is this sense of the British as “protectors” which possibly accounts for the relative ease with which British colonialism proceeded in Trinidad. Conflict was over what was seen as undermining Catholic rights.
These Catholic rights included rights of women to keep their property after marriage and the right of illegitimate children to inherit from their father. They could be called “plaçage” rights. It is these which introduce a shade ranking rather than the Black and White of the USA. None of this emerges in The Voice in the Govi.

Male and Female 
Besson insists that African religion was maintained. However, African religion disconnected from the structure of power within a community, reads like superstition.
In Besson’s The Voice in the Govi, it is obeah, spirit possession, zombies and the undead which emerge as African. We know, however, that the incidence of obeah or witchcraft is linked to social crises that seem politically unmanageable.
Those seen as “witches” are not anyone; they are strangers, the elderly, or those at the margins of society. Spirit possession may be used in order to legitimise a new “tribal” unity (South Sudan), as a method of legal enquiry (Nigeria), or as a call to revolt (Zimbabwe), among other uses.
Folklore (and stereotype) is reflected in the presentation of men and of women. In The Voice in the Govi, Eugenie has a “beautiful Black woman’s backside”. At seventeen and arrived in Martinique, she quickly becomes the plaything of a retired Spanish admiral. As he lay dying, he hands her over to his young protégé, Baron de Montalembert.
White women rarely enter the story. Black men do. There was Naza “with powers”.
“He was perceived … as the inheritor of an antique and long enduring evil that harked back in time to slavery days, perhaps before.” It is Naza who inflicts poisons, false deaths and zombies.
Yes, there is the Soucouyant, who is linked to an “old white woman”, but this is at the end of the story.
These stereotypes of race are not Besson’s. They have existed and continue to structure our society. They introduce fixed attributes of race, of evil and of sex. Behind this is the area of race and its use in the symbolic construction of good and evil.


Resurrecting the Soucouyant 
by Simon Lee
(published in the Trinidad Guardian, 22 December 2012)

Jerry 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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