TWO WORLDS IN ONE: Spirits and reality
When I read a book, watch a movie or listen to a piece of music that make me react and think, I often wonder if I might recommend the experience to others. In general, I know who among my friends who finds her/himself on same wavelength as I, though I am more uncertain about the taste and preferences of other acquaintances. To have a treasured experience brutally cut down as irrelevant or substandard may be rather hurtful and the prospect of such an experience sometimes makes me silent about the excitement that have affected me after reading a novel or watched a movie..
Among the variety of Latin quotes that swirl in our existence is the adage de gustibus non est disputandum. The Latin is somewhat clumsy, a literal translation would be something like “about tastes, it should not be disputed/discussed”. The maxim is often assumed to originate from Cicero, though the Latin indicates that it finds its origins sometime during the Middle Ages.
We may agree that different tastes are an indication of how different we humans think and are, even close friends may cherish entirely opposite views. I find it difficult to argue with friends and acquaintances who, for example, become enthused by bestsellers like Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, horror novels by Dean Koontz, or romances by Judith Krantz
During different stints as teacher in Swedish and English I have come to realize how difficult it is to recommend any of my favourite novels to students. This while school librarians' recommendations on excellent youth reading often stupefied me after finding how badly their judgment matched mine. When a student enthusiastically brought with her/him a much-loved novel and asked me to read it, or with great empathy paid homage to a film and I unfortunately found those works of art to be embarrassingly bad, I could not share my sincere opinions with her/him. I did not want to appear as a judiciary wiseacre and thus destroy a student's love of reading and movie watching. Instead, I tried to understand what might have been so marvellous in a book, or movie. Unfortunately, this has often been an impossible endeavour. However, I have become quite happy and surprised when a student on her/his own accord, and often by pure chance, became fascinated by an in my opinion excellent novel or film. Particularly gratifying was it when the pupil in question by others, and even by me, previously had been regarded as quite dull and unmanageable.
Such experiences make me doubt whether I can recommend books that have made me both fascinated and confused. I just finished reading Hilary Mantels Beyond Black. The reason for me picking up that novel was the exuberant reviews of her historical novels about the Tudor Age – Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. However, I assumed I had been supersaturated when it came to the Tudor dynasty; by movies, books, TV series, etc. and instead I began to read Mantel´s fairly unknown ghost story, which, according to its cover was "darkly humorous”. Not at all.
Beyond Black tells us about Colette, an effective but cynical and basically alone and alienated conference organizer. After a phone call to her emotionless mother-in-law Colette escapes from a dismal marriage. She had received a shock when her husband explained that his mother had been dead for several weeks. How could Colette's noctambulant mate be so indifferent to both his and his wife's existence that he had been unable to tell her that his own mother had died? The fact that she had had a long conversation with a deceased woman throws Colette out of her everyday existence and she contacts several spiritist mediums until she ends up with the grotesquely fat, but benevolent, Alison, who offers Colette a job as her personal assistant.
Together, the two ladies participate in public sessions with paying audiences and New Age events/markets at various hotels and meeting rooms in the suburbs of London. A world that was unknown to me, but apparently common in England, at least in the middle - and late 1990s, the time during which the novel takes place.
Alison and Colette move in together and buy a newly built house, located on a brownfield site, i.e. a place reused as a residential area after having previously served as a landfill site for hazardous substances. Colette arranges Alison's accounts and streamlines her life. We follow them during car journeys through endless highways across dreary landscapes and through gloomy suburbs, at the same time we become increasingly familiar with Alison's spirit world. She is constantly haunted by a nasty bunch of deceased men, in fact materialized memories of a bizarre, poor childhood during which Alison, as the daughter of a sluggish prostitute, was abused and humiliated by brutal men from the margins of society.
I found Mantel's Beyond Black, deeply tragic. An image of a shabby England, run down and grey in anticipation of something that will not happen. A post-industrial landscape with bleak pubs, depersonalized supermarkets and increasing poverty, where scandal-fed tabloids are devoured by alienated housewives and an unemployed pub clientele characterized by loveless sadness. A longing for imaginary "better times" and a fear of the unknown, materialized as increased immigration and globalization, probably seeds for the catastrophic Brexit vote twenty years later. Beyond Black is a historical novel overshadowed by the death of Princess Diana's and the increased class divisions and deterioration of the welfare state, generally blamed on the Tatcherism.
Diana Spencer's life and death was a drama that seized above all members of the English middle class. Here was stuff for several fascinating novels and TV series, with enticing ingredients of upper class life, difficult childhood, luxury, weekday drama, matrimonial problems, celebrity, romance and heart-warming philanthropy.
Diana, Princess of Wales, youngest daughter of Viscount John Spencer, also known as Lord Althorp and later eighth Earl of Spencer. Member of a family that included the duchies of Marlborough and Sunderland, the county of Spencer and Churchill's barony. Diana's mother was Frances Burke Roche, Lady Althorp, born on the royal estate Sunderland as daughter of Maurice Roche, fourth baron of Fermoy. After the parents' divorce in 1969, a consequence of Lady Althorp's extramarital affair with the heir to a wallpaper industry, Lord Althorp was awarded the sole custody of their joint children.
Lord Althorp later married Raine McCorquodale, only daughter of the author Barbara Cartland, whose 723 historical love novels have been translated into 40 languages and worldwide sold in over 200 million copies. To many Princess Diana's love story seemed to be taken from a Cartland story.
Dame Mary Barbara Cartland's novels generally contain the following ingredients; a young woman, with a small heart-shaped face, big eyes and small hands ("such a small hand, but big enough to encompass my entire world") fall in love with a dark-haired man (blond hair is, according to Cartland, usually associated with a sloping chin and protruding eyes), usually noble, rich or possibly exotic. i.e. an experienced adventurer with experience from the great world. The handsome, ideally masculine lover has of course an admirable character, but his past does not necessarily need to have to been free from past mishaps and unhappy love affairs. An egocentric and vengeful mistress often lurks behind the scenes, while the heroine generally lives in the shadow of some evil stepmother. The hero might even seem to be a reckless rake, but the appearance is deceiving – strapping lads can always be reformed and made to leave their inconsiderate existence while offering their heart and soul to the honourable heroine. There is of course also an evil, older viveur who beats his promises around the virtuous virgin, but that is nothing to worry about because the coveted gentleman finally saves the beautiful lady from the schemer's claws. Specific ingredients of the concoction may differ, but the structure is basically the same.
It seems like Cartland's literary output in recent years has become outdated through the appearance of new masters of the genre of historical romance, with names like Mary Balogh and Lisa Kleypas. This impression is based on what I have heard from some of my female students, who definitely do not share my literary tastes.
When Diana became engaged with Prince Charles, Cartland predicted that she "would forever rule as the Queen of Love." However, when Diana´s marriage crackled, Dame Barbara noted that after all the Princess "had never really understood men".
Cartland's daughter, Raine McCorquodale, was also known as Lady Dartmouth because before her marriage with John Spencer she had been married to Viscount Lewisham, ninth earl of Dartmouth. Like her other siblings, Diana could not stand her stepmother. She called her Acid Raine. Like all celebrities and especially those who found themselves within Princess Diana's circle, Countess Spencer was exposed to the ruthless attention of tabloids. Giving evidence at the London inquest into the death of Diana she stated that that her stepdaughter
always said: “I had no hidden agenda.” So many people, because she was so popular and so world famous, wanted something out of her. It was a very draining life.
Countess Spencer also told the judge that she and Diana shared a love for horoscopes, but the countess added that she was more sceptical of fortune telling than Diana who was a "creative" Cancer and she furthermore claimed that Diana was dissatisfied with her life, adding: ”Well, we all want the dark handsome gentleman to walk through the door.”
Diana went to several elementary schools and twice failed to pass her elementary school degree. Diana dreamed of becoming a ballerina and took ballet lessons, though she was too tall to become a professional dancer. She also took a course in haute cuisine, but never became a master chef. For a short time she worked as a youth leader, but ended that job after a ski accident. Later on she got a job as an assistant at a preschool, while she worked extra as a maid for her sister, Sarah. In the evenings, Diana occasionally worked as a party- and conference hostess.
Through her family ties Prince Charles had known Diana for many years. Lord Althorp had been one of the queen's closest men and Diana's grandmother was a very good friend of the Queen Mother. In 1980, Prince Charles invited Diana for a weekend trip with his sailboat and their relationship developed. Diana was invited to the Balmoral Castle and presented to the Royal Family as Charles´s fiancée. They were engaged in February 1981.
During her lifetime, Diana was often criticized for her choice of tasks and duties, as well as her relationship with the press and her attitude of easy access, which sometimes led to careless statements. Diana allowed little involvement from the royal family – she chose the names for her boys on her own, opposed the family tradition of circumcising boys, dismissed a nanny appointed by the queen, deciding which schools her boys would go to and often drove them there. As expected, Diana committed herself to various charity initiatives, but came to develop an interest in areas which were not considered comme il faut for a member of the royal family, for example, diseases like leprosy and HIV/AIDS. In addition, Diana supported organizations that tried to improve the situation for homeless people and drug addicts.
Charles and Diana's marriage was unhappy, something both the prince and the princess revealed to friends and acquaintances who merrily revealed the intimate trust to the press. Charles resumed the relationship with his adolescence love, Camilla Shand. Diana embarked on an affair with her riding instructor and when it ended, with other men as well. Charles and Diana divorced in 1996. By that time Diana had a relationship with the heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, though that affair ended two years later when she started to share her time with Dodi Fayed, son of the owner of the luxury department store Harrods. It was together with Dodi Fayed that on 31st August 1997 Diana died in a car accident in a tunnel in Paris.
The movie The Queen from 2006, which rendered the skilled Helen Mirren an Oscar for her performance as Elisabeth II, captures the mood after Diana's death. When Diana dies, Tony Blair had just taken office as prime minister. The Queen considers him to be a self-righteous upstart and a wiseacre, while Diana by the “common people” still generally is regarded as a fairy-tale princess, although the divorce had stripped her of her royal title. While flowers pile up in front of Buckingham Palace, the royal family remains hidden in their Scottish palace, Balmoral, trying to keep Diana´s and Charles´s two boys far away from the pandemonium around their mother's death.
Blair did as a nifty politician sense in which direction the people's compassion blew. He interrupted his vacation and tried to persuade the Queen to give a speech in Diana's honour, visit places where the people had put down their flower bouquets and arrange a grand state burial. The Queen initially opposed all of these initiatives with reference to the fact that Diana after losing her princess title no longer was a member of the royal family. In the end, the Queen does however give in to Blair´s suggestions and succeed in gaining respect in the eyes of the people, while Blair could scoop in a major political victory.
The day after Diana's death, Tony Blair gave an emotional speech outside the church of his constituency, Sedgefield. It was a skilful performance, presented at the right time, five days before the queen in a restrained televised address talked to the people of Britain and the world. In Sedgefield, Blair's voice was occasionally muffled by emotion while he succeeded in emphasizing that Diana was "the princess of the people" and thus not really an integrated part of the upper class sphere where the Queen and Diana´s ex-husband dwelled. He stated, among other things:
I feel like everyone else in this country today. I am utterly devastated. We are today a nation in a state of shock, in mourning, in grief that is so deeply painful for us […] She was a wonderful and a warm human being, although her own life was often sadly touched by tragedy. She touched the lives of so many others in Britain and throughout the world with joy and with comfort. How many times shall we remember her in how many different ways – with the sick, the dying, with children, with the needy? With just a look or a gesture that spoke so much more than words, she would reveal to all of us the depth of her compassion and her humanity. […] People everywhere, not just here in Britain, kept faith with Princess Diana. They liked her, they loved her, they regarded her as one of the people. She was the People's Princess and that is how she will stay, how she will remain in our hearts and our memories for ever.
With political finesse Blair succeeded in highlighting what many had found so attractive with the privileged upper-class girl Diana. She was part of the society, of the wealthy aristocracy, but was not dominated by their codified superiority. Like so many of those who admired her, she had been far from best in class and was furthermore an unsuccessful worker. "She was as people are most" and in addition Diana used her position to show compassion to those who were much worse off than she. It was easy to forget that she lived in a sphere far removed from "ordinary people", where she found friends and lovers among the beautiful people enjoying a superficial dolce vita. The tabloids had made the entire nation familiar with her unfortunate love life and loneliness, her role as a fellow human being within a foreign world. A cat among the ermines and as such her poorer compatriots could follow her into a glamorous and unknown world.
When the Queen finally spoke to her people, it was primarily to emphasize the shared, deep and nationwide grief Diana's death had created:
I for one believe that there are lessons to be drawn from her life and from the extraordinary and moving reaction to her death. I share in your determination to cherish her memory.
Diana's death shook up the British nation and became a shared memory, a touchstone that could be used to determine whether you really were a true patriot, a believer in British values based on loyalty, perseverance and compassion.
Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black describes how both public and personal memories create our own consciousness, our personality and our faith. Within her protagonist, the overweight, spiritist medium Aliso, there is a world without boundaries, with no clear distinction between everyday life and the spirit world. The souls haunting her are her own highly personal ghosts, remnants from a difficult childhood, to put it mildly, and those created out of a collective memory – for example the deceased Princess Diana. Mantel explained in an interview:
Diana´s passing brought about an emotional convulsion in our national life; it gave rise to a huge, primitive heartfelt cry of mourning. No one concerned with collective sensibilities could ignore its importance. If you want to write about “the state of the nation”, you have to study dreams and nightmares, as well as returns from the opinion polls. You cannot omit the emotional and the irrational.
Mantel's novel describes a gloomy everyday life, existing door to door to it there is a disturbing, irrational sphere. What impressed me was Mantel´s ability to make this existence believable, with its constant shifts and transgressions. A "reality" composed of memories, illusions, hallucinations and twisted ideas. Visions and voices break into the story's logic structure. External and internal monologues and dialogues are mixed up. Living people are given voice, specific tastes, behaviour and appearance, while spirits are also provided with specific characteristics. Imagination and reality interact in a manner that brings the story both backwards and forwards.
A magic reality characterised by an uninterrupted communication between the spirit world and what most of us assume is “the real world”. Most people cannot perceive any constant presence of deceased people, for them it remains doubtful if anyone can “survive” her/his death, though mediums are convinced of their specific “gift” of being able to perceive messages from “the other side”. They see, hear and talk to the souls of dead people. Some of these mediums are obvious charlatans, while others find themselves in a twilight zone completely unknown to most of us. Mantle does not judge whether or not Alison's reality is a chimera, if it in fact is the result of mental illness, self-deception, repression of unbearable childhood memories, or simply proof of the existence of a spirit world. Her narrative method makes it quite possible for a reader to identify with the overweight, lonely, seriously wounded and confused Alison. We understand that it is her unique existence Mantel describes.
Perhaps I appreciated the novel because I several years ago, while studying popular religion, visited several vodun ceremonies and brujas, witches, as mediums are called in the Dominican Republic. For example, I remember visiting Doña Inéz, a relatively young lady who lived in one of Santo Domingo's poorer neighbourhoods. She kept her vodun altar in her bedroom within a traditional, blue painted wooden house, decorated with dove statuettes, perfumes, rosaries, rum, soft drink bottles, crosses and of course the usual oleographs the Madonnas of Altagracia and Mercedes, Santiago de los Caballeros and many other saints. In Vodun's pantheon, every madonna and saint has her/his equivalent. San Miguel who tramples on the devil while holding his balance of justice in his left hand is at the same time the war god Belie Belcán, who drinks rum, fights evil and overcomes demons. Santa Martha is also called Santa Marta la Dominadora, an Indian snake charmer who drinks coffee and soft drinks, known as dominator of men. Santiago de los Caballeros who under the hooves of his white horse is trampling down Muslims is also Ogún Balenyó, leader of the powers of righteousness, the Madonna la Mercedes is Metre Sili, who loves jewellery and perfume, she bestows wealth and beauty upon her believers, and so on …
A medium like Doña Inéz does like Mantel's Alison live in two worlds and sometimes it may seem to her that the sphere of the spirits/lwas are more real than the one in which most of us spend their lives. Like Alison, Doña Inéz does for payment, “it is for buying candles and sweats for the spirits”, assist her customers to get in touch with spirits and listen to their advice and insights, but unlike Alison and according to her beliefs, Doña Inéz turns into a lwa, by becoming posessed by it.
In the rather intimate atmosphere of her bedroom, Doña Inéz asked me to sit down on a chair opposite her and placed in front of the altar. She leaned forward and wondered "barajas o espíritus,” cards or spirits? Of course, I replied "spirits". Doña Inéz then tied Belie Belcán's red, scarf around her head, tied her hands over her head, stomped the floor, while she repeatedly hissed "Sssccch, ssssccchhh," Her whole body shock violently. "Shacchhaa, Shaaccha." Her had swung vigorously back and forth, spasms run through her limbs in an apparently painful manner. "Shacchhaa, Shaaccha!!!" She repeated the strange hiss, and every time it sounded nastier and nastier as it became louder and coarser.
Suddenly Doña Inéz lifted her head. Her features had become distorted into a threatening mask, with wrinkled forehead and exposed teeth. "What do you want from me?" She wondered with a rough voice, quite different from the voice with which she had greeted me. While waiting for my answer, Doña Inéz, or rather Belie Belcán, whom she now had been turned into, grabbed a bottle of rum from the altar, screwed off the lid and took a couple of deep sips before s/he wiped his/her mouth with the back of his/her hand. The movements and the speech of Belie Belcán/Doña Inéz were now definitely masculine. I became somewhat worried when s/he looked me straight into the eyes and with her/his dull, humming voice stated:
– You dare not answer, but I will help you.
From the altar Doña Inéz/Belie Belcán grabbed the half of a dried coconut shell, took a candle, dripped stearin into the shell so s/he could attach the burning candle, then Doña Inéz/Belie Belcán stared into the flame. After a minute's silence, s/he mumbled, as if in trance: "I see land" and shortly thereafter asked with a stronger voice:
– Does your father have land?
I smiled. This was certainly a standard question s/he used to figure out what s/he would say next. The Dominican Republic is still largely peasant country and I assumed most of Doña Inéz clients had an agriculturist as father.
– No, he has no land at all.
Doña Inéz's/ Belie Belcán´s eyes darkened. S/he was visibly annoyed:
– Why do I then see land here?
– I don´t know. My father is a journalist.
Inéz/Belie bellowed. Her/his anger frightened me:
– I see land. You're lying!
Somewhat frightened by the changed attitude I answered uncertainly:
– What do you really see?
A slightly calmed Inéz/ Belie stared into the candle flame and told me:
– Your father has land. He's going to sell it. There will come a letter and you have to answer it.
– When will that letter arrive?
– It's on its way.
Confused while on my way home I asked myself how it came that Inéz/Belie so confidently could claim such a thing. I could easily find out if a letter was on its way and if it would appear. If there was no letter then Doña Inéz could claim that it had disappeared in the mail, or that my father had forgotten to post it. But, nevertheless ...
One week after my visit to Doña Inéz, a letter from my father turned up in which he wondered if it was OK if he sold the family's summer cottage to one of my sisters and if it was OK if she gave me half of the purchase price. Until that moment it had not crossed my mind that my father really owned land. And how could Doña Inéz have been so convinced about what would happen? For me, that meeting remains a mystery, especially as the event was quite meaningless and far from being decisive for me, or any other.
In her novel, Hilary Mantel describes how her, basically good-hearted but at the same time confused and tormented spirit medium, Alison, on several occasions makes equally amazing and unexpected predictions like Doña Inéz. Although she is well aware and convinced of her knowledge and her remarkable "gift", Alison is sometimes surprised when her predictions become true, while not being particularly upset when it turns out her insights and predictions were wrong. For her, "the spiritual reality" is just as gloomy and incomprehensible as our everyday life. It does not consist of any miraculous existence radiated by a divine presence. The inhabitants of her spiritual sphere maintain their human shortcomings, their confusion about existence, even though they apparently receive some "instruction" and undergo changes that seem to suggest they are being "cleansed" for new tasks, but just as on earth, the future is uncertain and to some degree unpredictable. The devil, called Nick, seems to be as influential as God.
That some people like Doña Inéz and Alison imagine themselves to be living in a world where boundaries between spirits and the living are non-existant seems to be the case of widely different cultures. It is uncertain whether this is a mental handicap or a special "gift". While studying religious notions along the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic I met several people who, like Alison, constantly moved between "different worlds". I could hardly characterize them as suffering from mental illness. Many of them even impressed me by their insights and unusually nuanced views of life.
The anthropologist and philosopher Vincent Capranzano does not acknowledge barriers between academic disciplines. He considers social anthropology to be a kind of philosophy, a history of ideas that might deliver us from ethnocentrism and xenophobic fallacies. For Capranzano, anthropology is a manner of approaching the individual behind religious and political beliefs. He is engaged in field research which means that he lives with and discusses human existence and specific notions with people from divergent cultural spheres. He has for example been living with Navajos in southwestern United States, with white South Africans or with poor labourers in Morocco. Furthermore, apart from his field studies Capranzano studies literature, philosophy and eyewitness accounts from various parts of the world.
In Tuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan, Capranzano tells us about his meetings with a poor Moroccan brick burner. Tuhami can neither read, nor write, but is an able narrator of strange tales, living within a highly personal, magical sphere. Every night, alone in his miserable, windowless hut next to his brick oven, Tuhami suffers how demons and saints visit him. Experiences reminiscent of Alison's existence in her comfortable house in the English Collingwood. Like Alison, who occasionally struggles to liberate herself from a nasty, vulgar and sadistic "spirtitual guide" named Morris, Tuhami strives with a similar indecisive effort to get rid off Á'isha Qaundisha, a female demon with camel feet.
With compassionate acumen Carpranzano tries to understand and explain Tuhami's perception of the world, which he considers to be a result of the personal experiences of the brick burner, the cultural context he is part of, its codes and symbolic language, and ultimately –the manner Tuhami chooses for describing his life and experiences.
I came to think of Capranzano when, after reading Mantel's Beyond Black, I came across a collection short stories by the Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mafouz. In his The Seventh Heaven, he describes a spirit world we all come to after our death. In the Seventh Heaven we are judged according to what we have done and not done during our lifetime, either we are reincarnated or we are appointed to be a kind of invisible, spiritual companions to people who have survived us and whom we knew and influenced during our lifetime. We may become either good or bad spiritual guides, all depending on our character.
Unlike Mantel, Mafouz depicts the “reality” from the perspective of the spirits, while Mantel portrays them from the perspective of a spiritist medium. But, as Mantel does in her novel, Mafouz makes both famous and unknown spirits haunt, or be reborn within, the world of the living. For example, Stalin is reborn as a wretched labourer in an Indian salt mine, while Hitler becomes a tyrannical butcher and gangster in Cairo. Like Mantel, who makes her Alison tormented by revolting men who harassed and raped her during her mildly speaking terrible childhood, Mafouz lets a murderer be approached by his deceased victim, who has been appointed to be his spiritual companion. Like Alison, who is haunted by the vile, little (he had been a jockey) gangster Morris, who knew and tormented her during her childhood, Anous's spirit follows his devious friend and murderer, Raouf, all through his mortal life.
The Dominican author Marcio Veloz Maggiolo has also written a remarkable story that mixes the world of the living with the one of deities and deceased spirits. In his La biografia difusa de Sombra Castañeda, The Diffuse Biography of Sombra Castañeda, Veloz Maggiolo narrates how Esculapio Ramírez is awaiting his own death. It is 1961, the Dominican Republic's omnipotent dictator, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, has just been murdered and suspended between life and death, Ramírez listens how Joaquín Balaguer over the radio, in a speech praises his former, spiteful boss. Balaguer would eventually become Trujillo's successor.
Ramírez, who has been a politician and fervent opponent of El Benefactor, had been imprisoned and tortured, though managed to escape while he was taken to an agave field to be executed. Since then, Ramírez has fallen deeper and deeper into alcoholism and despair. On his death bed Ramírez suffer a terrible delirium tremens distorting Balaguer's speech into a surrealistic cacophony in which voices of different spirits intrude. It is vodun lwas, who, together with deceased Dominicans and Haitians, are living within a phantom town called El Barrero, The Potter, which like any town here on earth has its mayor and municipal administration.
Most prominent among the spirits who haunt Ramírez is Sombra Castañeda. His name can be translated as Chestnut Shadow and thus becomes multifaceted. Most Dominicans are dark-skinned, in a shade reminiscent of the chestnut, many also live overshadowed by a corrupt political elite, and/or wealthy people who have gathered their wealth in a dishonest manner, and has been doing so for centuries.
When Sombra Castañeda tells us his life story, it becomes a confusing picaresque while the novel is gradually evolving into something that may be likened to a baroque opera. Like the island of Hispaniola, shared between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, La biografia difusa de Sombra Castañeda seems to be steeped in music, and as in vodun we meet talking drums and singing spirits. Sombra Castañeda turns into a kind of lead singer, with a fund of voices behind him. Like the dancers in a vodun ceremony or in a gagá procession, spirits and lwas appear, one after another until they merge in dreamlike, complicated choir: Carbamgó, Selemin Mabó, Don Pedro (lwas with roots in Africa and Haiti), the Indian Miguel (representing the extinct Taino Indians and the mestizos originating from them), Antonio Bacá (bacá is a spirit creature made by a witch intending to enrich herself with its help), Remigio, heading a gagá society (gagá is a popular religious cult practiced in the Dominican Republic and Haiti) and at the same time mayor of El Barrero, Remigio's assistants, Andrés Píé and Mimilo, as well as the Haitian refugee Serapio Rendón.
Together, these divinities and ghosts constitute a magical mirror image of the Dominican Republic, with its exotic mix of people from all corners of the world, its music, distinctive culture and dramatic history. As in a vodun ceremony, where the participants become posessed by different spirits and behave in a manner according to their distinctive characters, Veloz Maggiolo's novel makes different characters appear, having strange stories to tell. In this way, La biografia difusa de Sombra Castañeda turns into a tale of a history that does not begin with Colombus's arrival to the island five hundred years ago, it brings us further back in time, into the Taino's worlds existing long before the arrival of the Spaniards, subsequently he allows these buried roots give birth to the Dominican Republic and Haiti, which historical development intertwines and transmutes until Trujillo's tyranny casts its lugubrious shadow across the entire island.
The novel becomes particularily poetical when it retells the Haitian Serapio Rendón's surrealistic dreams of dead corpses, maggots and decay, which, through its lush absurdity, turns into the breeding ground of hopes of something new, of renewal and change, like the Dominican earth giving birth to tropical abundance, not only in crops but also through a resilient culture, which has received its strongest expression in music and popular religiosity.
Music and politics are the leit motifs of Veloz Maggiolo´s fresco of Dominican existence. Just as I find it difficult to recommend Hillary Mantel's novel about the medium Alison and her twisted world, I don't know how anyone would perceive La biografia difusa de Sombra Castañeda. Both novels coincide with my personal experiences of England and the Dominican Republic, with my interest in the spiritual worlds where some people spend their lives. Another reader might find Beyond Black far too dull and strange, and La biografia difusa de Sombra Castañeda messy and confusing.
Another reason to why I found both Mantel´s and Veloz Maggiolo´s novels interesting is the fact that they allow politics to break into their narratives. How princess Diana's death and afterlife is mirrored in Mantel's novel and becomes mixed up with New Age notions about life after death. This reminds me of what I have read about Tony Blair's and his wife's Cherie´s contacts with religious charlatans and the question of whether these acquaintances may have affected Blair's politics.
During Tony Blair's time as prime minister, a certain Carole Caplin and her mother Sylvia acted as life style advisers and fitness trainers for Cherie Blair, spending a lot of time with the Prime Minister couple. They often had joint dinners and occasionally vacationed together. Furthermore, Sylvia Caplin acted as an occasional nanny for Blair's four children.
As Prime Minister, Tony Blair avoided talking about religion, because, according to his own statement, he did not want to be taken for a "nutter", but it was well known that he, like his wife, was a deeply religious person and after he resigned as Prime Minister Blair converted to Catholicism. As a politician Blair stressed the importance of listening to religious opinions about social, political, and economic issues, and allow people to justify their views on religious grounds.
The Blair's spiritual adviser, Carole Caplin, owned together with her mother a company, Holistix, which continue to market a variety of fitness programmes, as well as health and beauty products. The business is probably linked to, but certainly influenced by, Caplin's previous participation in the so-called Exegesis Programme, which through a number of activities aims at making its participants undergo a process of "rebirth", involving a "personal transformation" said to heal and cleans up ”yours and others lives”.
During Caplin's time with the Blairs, her Holistix training programme featured a host of peculiar components with names such as kinesiology, colonic hydrotherapy and radionics, while she provided the Prime Minister with magic pendulums and bioelectric shields. During a vacation in Mexico, the Blairs participated in a rebirth ceremony, which included a steam bath in which they rubbed themselves with fruit and clay. Carole Caplin's mother has pointed out that:
Crystals are wonderful. They have healing properties and they are a conduit for energy. I might place crystals around because they're nice to have when you're healing somebody, but there's no satanic ceremony. […] I found I could see in quite a short time intuitively what was wrong with a person. It's channelling - whether that means it comes from a higher power or your mind just picks up on how to understand people. Intuition comes from honesty with the purest intent, and some of us trust it more than others and can therefore access it more easily.
Obviously, Sylvia's daughter Carole also lived in such a world and apparently she conveyed her insights to Tony Blair and his wife. However, her honest intentions were tainted by financial interests and not least the fact that during her time with the Blairs she lived with Peter Clarence Foster, who described himself as an international man of mischief. At the time Foster lived together Carol Caplin he had already served several prison sentences in Australia, England, the United States and Vanuatu accused of fraud, money laundering and court contempt. Several of Foster's scams were related to the marketing of alleged weight loss products and questionable health programmes. He also succeeded in engaging Cherie Blair in questionable real estate transactions in Bristol.
Carol Caplin's relationship with the Blairs seems to illustrate the delicate balance between beliefs in influences of a spirit world and outright deceptions for personal gain. Perhaps it also provides an insight to how assumed spirit worlds in reality find their origin within our interior; our quest for a meaning with life, highly personal experiences and memories, a desire to belong to something, to feel the presence of a higher leadership and not the least how external events affecting all these desires and illusions. In Tony Blair's case, his religious education and political decisions probably contributed to his beliefs and politics.
Authors such like Mantel, Mafouz and Veloz Maggiolo are well acquainted with popular, religious thinking and when they write about spiritualism, they understand that this is a world where the personal is mixed with the public, where politics are intertwined with faith and idealism with fraud. They realize that history and politics are not only created and influenced by external processes, but also by the inner worlds that each of us carry with us, all through life. In their writing they make use of these insights and while depicting other people's lives, real or imagined, they draw inspiration from their own interior, just as a spirit medium transforms her/his highly personal, mental states, their experiences and memories feed into a contrived world they perceive as separate from themselves.
When I have read novels written by people who have been able to conjure narratives that speak directly to me, it is obviously not easy to recommend such experiences to people who find themselves at mental wavelengths that are completely different from mine.
Blair, Tony (1997) BBC: Blair Pays Tribute to Diana, 1 September 1997. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/special/politics97/diana/blairreact.html Bone, Victoria (2007) “Diana´s stepmother captivates inquest,” BBC News, 13 December 2007. https://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk/7141205.stm Capranzano, Vincent (1980) Tuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Deive, Carlos Esteban (1979) Vodú y magia en Santo Domingo. Santo Domingo: Museo del Hombre Dominicano. Honan, Corinna (2003) “Cherie is the most delightful, caring person, and so is Tony” in The Telegraph, 28 March. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/3591975/Cherie-is-the-most-delightful-caring-person-and-so-is-Tony.html Mafouz, Naguib (2005) The Seventh Heaven: Stories of the Supernatural. Cairo: The American University of Cairo Press. Mantel, Hilary (2005) Beyond Black. London: Harper Perennial. Morton, Andrew (1997). Diana Her True Story. United States: Simon & Schuster. Veloz Maggiolo, Marcio (1980) La biografia difusa da Sombra Castañeda. Santo Domingo: Editora Taller. Windsor, Elizabeth II (1997) Queen Broadcasts Live to Nation. 6 September 1997. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/special/politics97/diana/queen.html