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Red of His Shadow: A Novel

Overview

It is Holy Week, and the Haitian sugar cane harvesters can temporarily forget their misery and lose themselves in the fervor of Voudon. But amidst the colorful festival, a struggle for power, as well as a devastating passion, develops between Mistress Zulé, a Voudon priestess and spiritual leader, and the infamous, bloodthirsty Similá Bolosse, a rival Voudon priest backed by the tontons macoutes.

Based on true events, The Red of His Shadow evokes ferocious love, intense hatred, ...

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Overview

It is Holy Week, and the Haitian sugar cane harvesters can temporarily forget their misery and lose themselves in the fervor of Voudon. But amidst the colorful festival, a struggle for power, as well as a devastating passion, develops between Mistress Zulé, a Voudon priestess and spiritual leader, and the infamous, bloodthirsty Similá Bolosse, a rival Voudon priest backed by the tontons macoutes.

Based on true events, The Red of His Shadow evokes ferocious love, intense hatred, and the specter of death looming within life. Written in a prose remarkable for its clarity and musicality, the novel manages to be both richly symbolic and intensely physical. Behind a case that Dominican police closed as a simple crime of passion pulses the spell of a war that remains unfinished today.

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Editorial Reviews

Los Angeles Times Book Review
"A powerful and important book . . . [and] an astonishing work of the immagination."
New York Times Book Review
Transfixing ... Montero's unromantic vision and crisp pace strike a harmonious balance with the lushness of the background detail."
Boston Globe
"A work of enormous beauty, violence, and unsentimental grace…Montero writes with fire and acid."
The New Yorker
"A dazzling, original fugue on love and extinction."
New Yorker
A dazzling, original fugue on love and extinction.
Boston Globe
A work of enormous beauty, violence, and unsentimental grace...Montero writes with fire and acid.
New York Times Book Review
Transfixing ... Montero's unromantic vision and crisp pace strike a harmonious balance with the lushness of the background detail.
Los Angeles Times Book Review
A powerful and important book . . . [and] an astonishing work of the immagination.
Publishers Weekly
A major writer of the contemporary, post-Boom generation in Latin America, Cuban-born Montero (The Last Night I Spent With You; The Messenger) offers up more of the startling imagery and hypnotizing storytelling her readers have come to expect in her fourth novel to be translated into English. This time, however, the brutal tale she has to tell sags under the weight of its dark portentousness. In her retelling of the true and tragic love story of Simil Bolosse and Zul? Rev?, Montero illuminates the world of Haitian Voudon as it is practiced by the downtrodden Haitian immigrants who work in the sugar-cane fields of the Dominican Republic. At the age of 12, Zul?, the wild and willful only surviving daughter of a cursed family, is anointed mambo, or priestess, of a powerful Dominican Voudon community and undergoes a seven-year apprenticeship. The most important of the celebrations she presides over is a Holy Week procession, a Gag , which each year wends its way across the sugar-cane fields. As the novel begins, a Gag is being planned, but threats of violence threaten to derail it. Simil Bolosse, a Haitian renegade once Zul?'s lover and now her enemy, has pledged to cut her to pieces if she refuses to join forces with him. Perhaps even more dangerous is Zul?'s half-Chinese bodyguard, who pines for his mistress and is consumed by jealousy. At once a brutal, expressionistic voodoo fairy tale and an indictment of the plight of Haitian cane workers in the Dominican Republic, this demanding novel proves that Montero is capable, like Zul?, of "looking at the sun for a long time, searching with staring eyes for the temporal cause of its fury." (Aug.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The lush exoticism and sinister supernaturalism of the culture of voudou are evoked in rapturous detail in this unusual novel, the fourth in English translation from the Cuban-born Puerto Rican author (The Last Night I Spent with You, 2000, etc.). Unfortunately, it is also redundant and sluggishly paced, despite numerous dramatic foreshadowings of a confrontation between voudou priestess Zule Reve, one of thousands of Haitians who've crossed borders to work on the Dominican Republic's many sugar plantations, and her sworn enemy (and former lover) rival houngan (voudou priest) Simila Bolosse. Montero re-creates Zule's world with impressive (and obviously painstakingly researched) thoroughness (an appended glossary is really very helpful), layering in mythlike accounts of Zule's birth, her seven-year apprenticeship in a religion that blends her culture's traditional beliefs with the principles of formal Christianity, marriage to her mentor, the houngan Papa Coridon, and her bizarre relationship with his (half-Chinese) voyeuristic son Jeremie Cande, who acts as Zule's "aide and bodyguard," while passively adoring her. The story's principal organizing device is the Gaga, a religious ritual that's part carnival, part pilgrimage-which also dovetails into Zule's dangerous trek into the heartland where Simila and his murderous tonton macoutes (Haitian military police) hold sway, an Orphean journey undertaken to retrieve a wife lured away from her grieving husband. Haunting particulars effectively underscore the tale's essential strangeness: enigmatic references to "the smoking phallus of death"; "a plague of rabid mongooses"; and the menacing figure of Baron Samedi, the traditional Haitianguardian of the souls of the dead. And Montero outdoes herself in conjuring up both the "shadow" and the reality of Simila Bolosse: equal parts man, bull, and devil; reputed to possess "three balls" and practice cannibalism; who prepares himself for battle by bathing in the blood of one hundred slaughtered goats. Alas, it's all atmospherics; and the final showdown between Zule and Simila is both sketchy and anticlimactic. Overdecorated and underplotted. Not up to Montero's usual standard.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060952914
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 7/28/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 176
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Mayra Montero was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1952, but has lived in Puerto Rico since the mid 1960s. She studied journalism in Mexico and Puerto Rico and worked for many years as a correspondent in Central America and the Caribbean. She is presently a highly acclaimed journalist in Puerto Rico and writes a weekly column in El Nuevo Dia newspaper. Montero's first book was a collection of short stories, Twenty-Three and a Turtle. Her second book, a novel titled The Braid of the Beautiful Moon, was a finalist for the Herralde awards, one of Europe's most prestigious literary awards. Each of her subsequent books — The Last Night I Spent With You, The Red of His Shadow, In the Palm of Darkness, and The Messenger — has been published in the United States in translations by Edith Grossman, as well as in several European countries. Her other nonfiction work appears frequently in scholarly and literary publications throughout the world.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One



As if the sun had split in two above the countryside, a few husks of light scatter over the world and boiling cane juice spills unimpeded onto the batey. Never had so intense a fire burned on a Holy Thursday. Never. Not even in the Year of the Deaths, when rabid mongooses climbed into the cradles of the newborn and no spell or protection could chase them away.

Mistress Zulé has been looking at the sun for a long time, searching with staring eyes for the temporal cause of its fury. She is soon joined by Jérémie Candé, her most cherished bodyguard, and he squats down beside her, trying to look where she is looking.

"It's hot," says Zulé.

The dogs and children have run off to hiding places where they won't be tortured by the sun. But the men of the Gagá, those who display the untouchable dignity of elders, have remained outside in defiance of the heat, tying perfumed rows of handkerchiefs around their sweaty bodies, large colored handkerchiefs, all the handkerchiefs they can, while those women who are queens by right finish trimming the bows of their crowns and fan themselves in silence. Everything is ready, everything arranged. Later, when the heat moderates, the mistress will go with those closest to her to free the beings who live in the Palm, offer them their food, light for them the flame of proclamation, then carry it secretly back to the batey. Tonight they will celebrate and tomorrow they will leave without having slept, and the aroma of the food they will offer to those who make the promise, to those who singloudly, to every person who endures too fierce a trance, is already floating in the air.

"You'll burn your eyes," says Jérémie, who cannot bear to see the way she looks at the oily sky, at the air confounded by light.

She does not tremble when she asks what she must:

"Have you heard anything about Similá Bolosse?"

Jérémie Cané is her oldest servant, her oldest initiate. He is still very young, almost as young as she is, but since the time of her coronation he has followed her as submissively as if a holy amarre had been put on him.

"We know he made the vow again," he replies. "He swore he'd kill you and yesterday he was bathing in blood."

Zulé closes her eyes and seems to see the villain's face. How many goats, she wonders, and how many guinea hens had their heads cut off so that the bokor's huge body could be submerged in the tide of blood? Similá knows all too well that only in this way will his vow take on flesh; only in this way will he avoid having to resort to an ambush. Because he wants to kill her face-to-face; he wants to drown her, with his own hands, in the turbulent shallows of the river they call the Brujuelas.

"He can make all the vows he wants," she says. "We'll see who's stronger."

Sweet, soft sounds begin to be heard all around the batey. The queens are testing the echoes of their conch shells. ZuIé listens and smiles, and then tilts back her black, burning head.

"It's hot," she repeats. "Go tell the men to test the bamboos."

No one in the batey can understand why the mistress has chosen to leave her house and sit outside on the ground in the middle of the day, at the mercy of the brutally hot scrub. Some speculate that she is thinking about the battle and perhaps at the last minute will take the advice of her elders and decide to travel along another route to avoid the fight. But Zulé is the mistress and no mistress ever listens to the advice of the men who are considered her counselors.

"The tatúas have to be tested too," she says quietly. "Everything has to be tested."

He didn't sleep the night before. How could he sleep knowing that Similá was splashing in an enormous dark lake of congealing blood; deep black blood that would fill him with enough strength to cut to pieces the woman in command. In the morning he learned that Zulé had not slept either. No one told him. No one spied on her. But everyone saw in her face the reddened marks of the flame, the cut lips, the wild eyes she had when a mystery mounted her for a long time, many times, and with a good deal of rancor.

"Do you want some rum?"

She refuses, shaking her head slowly, and he begins to walk toward the shacks. In a little while Zulé's Gagá is going to wake to the sweet sound of the tamboras. The children will abandon their shaded holes, the dogs will approach with dark tongues lolling, and the president of the Societé will give the order for the queens and elders to go to their huts and adorn themselves in peace. At the same time, but far away, in the Colonia Tumba batey, the terrible tentacles of Similá's Gagá will begin to stir, summoned by the vibrant sound of the fututos. They will alert the members who have moved away without permission, and still it will be necessary to plead for a little order before the machete of the Grand Bois is raised, gleaming for war.

"What did she say to you?"

Somebody stops Jérémie Candé, taking hold of his arm. It is Papa Luc, and he is trembling, but it's no secret to anyone there that his fear is not for himself, his own life. His fear is for the light that still glimmers in the terrible blankness...

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Reading Group Guide

They come out of the barracks one by one, wrapped in their white sheets, as voracious and frightening as angry gods. They are the elders of the Colonia Engracia Gagá, their steps hesitant in feigned terror of the resurrection, their gestures hallucinatory with the high emotion of disturbing the hidden sleep of the next life. Zulé Revé, dressed completely in black in honor of Guedé Nibó, attentively searches out the eyes of her father, who marches at the head of the procession, and he immediately responds with a single lucid, virile glance that concedes all the triumph to her. Jérémie Candé smiles in spite of everything. Then he brings his lips close to Zulé's warm ear and whispers sweetly:
     "You see, Mama, nobody will fail you."
     The batey is in darkness, but in the cleared space the lady and mistress of the dawn, the sacred fire that inflames all the mysteries, is still burning.
IntroductionIn the author's note to her novel, The Red of His Shadow, Mayra Montero describes the life of Haitian sugar cane cutters in the Dominican Republic as one of "untold privation and misery in working conditions patterned after the cruelest slave regimes." It is a life few of us will ever witness firsthand, but one that we gain searing access to in this unforgettable story. Hunger, death, and terror are daily realities for the "Congos," who constantly are reminded of their powerlessness against nature's brutality and the unpredictable whims of the field owners. Voudon, the religion they brought over from theirnative Haiti, offers them a way of coping with their plight. The haunting music and chants, the numerous and varied gods, or "loas," their elaborate ceremonies, and the fits and trances that signal possession by these loas are fascinating aspects of Voudon that are often characterized as sinister in literature and film. But this hypnotic novel, which takes place over the festivals of Voudon's Holy Week, personalizes the religion, reveals its mysteries and beauty, and brings into sharp focus the extraordinary courage and faith its practitioners depend on every day just to survive. Zulé, the novel's young and strong-willed heroine, is an Afro-Caribbean queen disguised as the rag-clad daughter of a cane cutter. Zulé's endurance, her stubbornness, her clairvoyance and self-confidence make her a strong spiritual leader. But she is still a girl, and suffers a girl's passions and uncertainties. When she is forced to choose between confronting Similá, a murderous, rival Voudon priest who is also her ex-lover, or giving in to his cruel dominance, she wavers in her heart, but never in her resolve to do the right thing. Similá's ferocity, corruption and hatred reflect the many repressive forces at work in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, but they are no match for Zulé's dignity and conviction. What finally conquers her is not the power of her enemy, but the jealous love of one of her own people.Montero's tale is as epic and moving as a Greek tragedy, but it is a story that could only be told amid the poverty and ruin of the Haitian people. By compelling us to look closely at this mysterious religion, by immersing us completely within its culture -- its potent smells, sounds, and surroundings -- Montero leads us toward an understanding of how truly remarkable it is that these people have retained such spiritual strength. Of how an impoverished society manages to treat its leaders as kings and queens, transform its shacks into temples, and find dignity, beauty, and love within the most desperate of conditions. Questions for Discussion
  • Zulé's father, Papa Luc, has an uncanny nose for news: he seems to get information before anyone else, and senses the truths that no one will tell him. "Each day in the batey Papa Luc learned something different. And that night he had learned that great secrets did not exist in the lives of men, only small snares waiting at each step, the bait lying right there on the ground." What is the difference between a secret and a snare? How does this comment on destiny prophesize what would become Zulé's fate? Why do you think Zulé repeatedly utters the line, "What have you heard about Similá Bolosse?"
  • "Coridón had taught her that Gagá wars can be very good. Good when you make an alliance and the Societé fattens like a maja snake in the shade and the men are barely bruised by an unlucky stone. But who ever heard of firearms in Gagá battles? It needed Similá Bolosse with his evil tonton macoute ways for things in the Dominican Republic to stop being what they had been." What does this passage tell you about how modern-day realities of drugs and weapons have affected the Voudon religion? Without the impact of these factors, how might Zulé's life -- and the lives of her Societé -- been different?
  • In her author's note, Montero points out that the novel is based on true events that the Dominican police dismissed as "a simple 'crime of passion.'" What does this fact lend to the story?
  • On one level, The Red of His Shadow is a classic battle of wills between two powerful leaders intent on dominating each other. How does Montero "tweak" this archetypal plot to make it her own? Is Zulé a heroine? A martyr? A scorned lover? Do you think she should have heeded the advice of her elders and taken a different route from Similá's Gagá? What impact does the fact that Similá and Zulé used to be lovers have on the story?
  • Without the religious details -- the ceremonies, songs and spells -- Zulé's story is about a young woman protecting her family from outside forces. How does Voudon transform this story into something more epochal and mysterious? How did this novel educate you about the Voudon religion? About the Author: Mayra Montero was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1952, but has lived in Puerto Rico since the mid 1960s. She studied journalism in Mexico and Puerto Rico and worked for many years as a correspondent in Central America and the Caribbean. She is presently a highly acclaimed journalist in Puerto Rico and writes a weekly column in El Nuevo Dia newspaper. Montero's first book was a collection of short stories, Twenty-Three and a Turtle. Her second book, a novel titled The Braid of the Beautiful Moon, was a finalist for the Herralde awards, one of Europe's most prestigious literary awards. Each of her subsequent books -- The Last Night I Spent With You, The Red of His Shadow, In the Palm of Darkness, and The Messenger -- has been published in the United States in translations by Edith Grossman, as well as in several European countries. Her other nonfiction work appears frequently in scholarly and literary publications throughout the world.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 6, 2002

    Different

    She is so original! I could not stop reading the book with it's insight into the voodoo culture.

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