“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.”
No heat like plantation heat; it wrings sweat from its slaves, sparks the double wick of love and hate. In Edith Grossman’s translation of Mayra Montero’s The Red of His Shadow, this split sun manifests as the real-life tragedy of ill-fated lovers: the intrepid Voudon priestess Mistress Zulé, and her bloodthirsty rival, Similá Bolosse.
Like thousands of Haitians drawn to the Dominican Republic’s sugar industry, Zulé Reve and her father emigrate from Haiti for a life of misery in a Dominican batey. Under working conditions tantamount to slavery, the cane cutters find sustenance in their Haitian deities, or loas. When Zulé’s father takes her to witness the preparations of the area’s most notable Gagá—one of many carnivalesque bands that make Eastertime pilgrimages across the sugar fields in worship of the loas—Zulé’s unusual spiritual gifts are discovered by its lead priest, Papa Coridón. Under his mentorship, Zulé blossoms into the well-respected priestess Mistress Zulé.
Gagás from different bateys can cross each other in violent or peaceful encounters, depending on the loas‘ whims. Enter Similá Bolosse: a triple-balled, yellow-eyed force of a man. A drug trafficker, a member of the Ton Ton Macoutes, and a Voudon priest who also works with evil, Similá flees to the Dominican Republic after the dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier is ousted from Haiti. Found near dead, Similá is healed by a smitten Mistress Zulé, and their coupling creates the raging flames memorable novels are made of. Mistress Zulé, however, challenges Similá’s subsequent demands that she surrender her Gagá to his schemes, and the stage is set for the inevitable clash of titans.
In this fierce tale, Montero mines the viscera of Voudon’s secret society with the deftness of a journalist and arresting images reminiscent of Alejo Carpentier. Through Mistress Zulé, Montero offers us a glimpse into the powerful underworld of the loas, whose mysteries leave us with “the bulging eyes of one who has seen the smoking phallus of death.” Warning: Structured like a braid that weaves past and present toward a final showdown, The Red of His Shadow puts a hypnotic amarre on its reader.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 21, 2001