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On Safari with a Boy Named Ford
Voodoo Fire in Haiti by Richard A. Loederer
© 2013 James LaFond
In early May I was browsing downtown book stalls at an open air antique market when I came across a rare find. This was a first edition Literary Guild release from 1935. The original had been published in Germany in 1932 and this was the English translation. On the interior front was a bookseller’s note from 1965. That note really put things in perspective, so I bought it for $5, and it was well worth it.
Voodoo Fire in Haiti
Richard A. Loederer
Translated by Ivo Vesey
Illustrated by the author
1935 [1932], The Literary Guild, NY, 274 pages
This book is many things in one: awkward, alluring, childish, intriguing and troubling. The author, as revealed through the text and illustrations—particularly the cartoonish map—was an eccentric Austrian artist, and would have been about forty at the time of his adventure. With some European connections in New York and Haiti he embarked on a poorly planned excursion into the underside of the known. Haiti, the only place on earth where slaves had revolted against and wiped out their masters to form an independent state, was a frightening destination for whites.
Armed with his art supplies, banjo, hat, pistol and notebook, the very Bohemian Loederer went on an excursion that would indulge his many curiosities. As this man was a painter, sketch artist and etcher his writing is at once better than one would expect, and as vibrant and descriptive as one could hope for. As his art was done in black—which suited his primary subject matter, being women of African extraction—his odd memoir takes note of every shade and hue of the then exotic land he had traveled to.
Early on he falls in with a sailing ship of gay pirate-type merchant mariners. Soon after landing he cobbles together a safari up the malarial Massacre River with five local youths, one of whom was named Ford, based on the fact that he had recently been hit by a car out of Detroit. The characters he encountered and travelled with are very sympathetically and openly described. The fact that Loederer hailed from a deeply racist society, and seemed to believe in the superiority of whites over other peoples, serves as the unseen upwelling backdrop of this offbeat tale. On the other hand, the author genuinely liked the people of Haiti. One might even say he was obsessed with their physical beauty. It is a book of deep color-filled contradictions.
It seems that Richard succumbed to the charms of the local ladies on four occasions, with the courtship graphically described in the case of a daughter of a crazed jungle host, and a lady of the evening named Aurora. In both instances he artfully cuts the narrative just as they are about to touch.
If I were a person of African origins, particularly a Haitian, I would most likely resent many of the passages. In some instances, as a read a certain passage, I would close the book and just chuckle, knowing that this could not be published today. Loederer put forth and did not dispute the racist worldview of his time. On the other hand, he clearly stated many instances which he thought illustrated the superiority of this exotic tropical culture over the one he represented. I suspect that, in his time, Loederer’s views would have been just as reviled among his fellow whites as they would be now by blacks.
In the most telling passage in the book, a young servant he has hired declared that he would like to accompany the author to his homeland, to which the author stated that he would be travelling first through America. The boy was aghast and blurted, “What! ...where they burn negroes!”
All the European tourist had to do to deter his would be sidekick was to mention a trip to the U.S. [which nation’s Marine Corp was currently occupying the island] to strike horrific fear into his heart, and make him happy to remain on the ‘Island of Winds’. There is also, throughout this vivid travel journal, a good dozen deep authentic voices out of the past, whose commentary on life in Haiti, and life in general, was recorded vividly by the author.
This is a priceless and insightful look into a past world—two past worlds—both lost to us now. The memoir sometimes seems like Don Quixote as an American landscape artist, and that is part of its charm. Voodoo Fire in Haiti did not give me all of the historical tidbits I was looking for, but, as a book, it grew on me, as did its oddball author. By the end, I had grown to like Richard so much that I was crossing my fingers that he would find happiness, or at least that which he seemed to be yearning for, which he never clearly defined.
I liked this strange book and its curious author.
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