Second Thoughts / Single skulls contest: Ian Thomson on the bizarre voodoo cult that inspired Bonjour Blanc (Penguin, 6.99 pounds )

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The Independent Culture
I FIND there are simply too many cigarettes in Bonjour Blanc, now that I no longer smoke. Everyone seems to be lighting up - especially the author. But the hurdy-gurdy clamour of Haiti, the bomb-torn darkness of the place did tend to fray the nerves. Dogs, in particular, had me fumbling for a smoke.

Haiti is a vast slum floating a few hundred miles off Florida; J G Ballard believes it must represent 'the greatest concentration of misery, cruelty and dashed hopes anywhere on our planet'. This was not always so: Haiti was the world's first black republic, founded a good 60 years before the slaves of America were liberated by the Civil War. Bonjour Blanc, a travel book and adventure story, is also the history of a nation which could have been a cradle of liberty for the African race. I have no regrets that my book should be a hybrid: travel writing can be little more than purple effusions and Kodachrome sunsets - a bore.

The morning star of a new era for Haiti was Toussaint L'Ouverture. I spent months in French and English archives gathering material on this fabulous Haitian revolutionary. Architect of the only successful slave revolt in history, Toussaint was later betrayed and done to death by Napoleon. Since then there has been only fractious anarchy in Haiti. Bonjour Blanc would have been condemned to a very short shelf-life if I had written at length about the Haitian president when I was there (General Avril, not that anyone remembers now). His successor, Father Aristide, was overthrown after only eight months in office. The last I heard, he was holed up in Caracas, a broken man.

Several critics remarked on the recklessness with which I experienced the most daunting adventures in Bonjour Blanc. I was younger then, and hungry for colour, but writing now 3,500 miles away from Haiti, I can see that I must have been bewitched. Haiti is a country of incredible intensity and extremes - one of the most astonishing places on earth - and I would probably be as foolhardy today.

Nevertheless, I am at a loss to explain how I ever got myself initiated into a sinister Voodoo cult called Bizango (it involved a hangman's noose and human skull). During the initiation I took an oath inviting extreme penalties if I disclosed the secrets of Bizango, only to reveal quite a few of them in Bonjour Blanc. So far, there has been no malevolent repercussion for this small betrayal, and I now wish I had been more generous (or courageous) with my information. Sadly, my wife is deeply superstitious and won't let me.

I don't know that I shall ever return to Haiti. For the last year I have been in Turin, researching the life of Primo Levi; Bizango seems light years away. But one never knows what spirits might be abroad, out there on the damp night wind.

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