Theory Of A Dead Man

By Wade Davis
Simon and Schuster, 297 pp.

In the Baptist mission at Passereine, Haiti, unwelcome in his village and shunned by his family, lives a man whose singular misfortune it is to know the date of his own death. His name is Clarvius Narcisse, and he died on May 2, 1962.

Physically, of course, he is still alive, but spiritually he is far from well. Clarvius Narcisse is a zombi – a man thought dead and buried for 18 years, until the day in 1980 that he walked up to his sister and introduced himself.

Narcisse’s is not the only recorded case of zombification, but it is by far the best documented. He was admitted to the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Deschapelles at 9:45 p.m. on April 30, 1962, spitting blood and complaining of fever. His condition worsened and two days later he was declared dead by two attending physicians.

His body was kept in cold storage for 20 hours, and then buried. Perhaps two nights later, Narcisse recounts, a bokor – a voodoo doctor – came with assistants and raised him from the grave. He was sold into slavery and for the next two years worked a sugar plantation with other zombis. He managed to escape when the zombi master died, but apparently even freedom cannot return a departed soul. To the Haitians, and perhaps even to himself, Clarvius Narcisse remains a dead man.

The Serpent and the Rainbow is the story of why Narcisse was made a zombi, and how it was done; of why he waited 16 years before returning to his village; and why, after all that time, no one was happy to see him.

It is also the story of a young Western scientist’s encounter with Haiti – a land where nothing seems rational, but nothing is as it seems. If it were only an introduction to the distinctive religion of the former French colony, a country now coming apart at the seams because of poverty and tyranny, the book would be merely riveting: a first rate example of what travel writing used to be before it became reduced to consumer advocacy for tourists.

In fact, The Serpent and the Rainbow is much more – a scientific ghost story, anthropology as film noir. The book has the feel of Raiders of the Lost Ark, remade as a documentary, scripted by Jorge Luis Borges and directed by Roman Polanski.

In spring 1982, Wade Davis – a B.C. native, former logger and park ranger – was working on his doctorate in ethnobotany at Harvard University and rapidly assembling a reputation as a researcher who enjoyed arduous and occasionally dangerous fieldwork. Ethnobotany consists, in the main, of the search for new plants with potential pharmaceutical application. The best way to find such plants is to infiltrate the folk medicine of peoples who actually use them, in those few corners of the world where urbanization and industrialization have yet to penetrate. Davis had begun building his reputation in the rain forests of Latin America.

One April night, on his mentor’s recommendation, he found himself in Manhattan, in the home of Nathan Kline. Kline was a physician who had led the American attack on Freudian psychiatry, arguing that at least some mental disorders are the result of chemical imbalances in the brain, and that only drugs – and no amount of confession on a couch – can offer hope for treatment. Also present was Heinz Lehman, former head of phychiatry and psychopharmacology at McGill University.

Kline and Lehman had contacts in Haiti and knew of Narcisse and other reputed cases of the dead returned. They believed the stories, and speculated that the Haitians had access to and mastery of two remarkable drugs: one that induced a physical paralysis so like death that the two were indistinguishable, and the other an antidote to the first.

They pointed out that Narcisse claimed to have been conscious throughout his “death”: he could hear himself being pronounced dead, the shovelfuls of earth being thrown onto his coffin. Such a drug could be of inestimable value in surgery, since it rendered the patient immobile and unfeeling, but unlike current general anesthetics did not tamper with the delicate apparatus of consciousness.

Over brandy, they offered Davis an assignment: travel to Haiti, enter the voodoo culture, retrieve samples of the drug for testing and analysis. He left with a manila envelope containing cash, a plane ticket, a list of contacts in Haiti and documentation on the known zombis.

To the reader unfamiliar with Haiti, what follows is so compelling that – in the wake of David Rorvik’s In His Image and Janet Cook’s “Jimmy’s World” – one can be forgiven for wondering whether it isn’t all an elaborate hoax. Certainly, most doctoral research is considerably less flamboyant.

But then most doctoral studies don’t take place in a country where the theology, the science and the government-of-the-night is voodoo (or, as Davis spells it, vodoun). A blanc in a society forged from modern history’s only successful slave revolt, Davis learns more than he bargained for. Yes, he finds the drug – haggling with a disfigured brothel keeper over the price for its secret – but that only provides the avenue of access into the arcane culture that makes it work.

It is a culture populated by characters as colourful as any movie producer could hope for. There is Max Beauvoir, member of the Haitian intellectual elite and vodoun authority; his daughter Rachel, educated in the West but steeped in the island’s faiths, a sexual presence throughout the book; Marcel Pierre, necromancer, con man, pimp; Herard Simon, former regional chief of the notorious Tonton Macoute, feared by all who know him.

Even the Western scientists themselves carry the patina of fictional characters: Davis, with his humorless determination to penetrate the secret societies of the Bizango where other outsiders have failed, appears as brooding and as enigmatic as any of the characters he encounters; Kline and Lehman, in their fascination over the powers and potential value of the zombi drug, are reminiscent of nothing so much as Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre.

And indeed, the cinematic and narrational possibilities have not gone unnoticed. (Followers of the cartoon strip Doonesbury have noticed the mysterious “death” of Uncle Duke at his ersatz medical school in Haiti.) The Serpent and the Rainbow has already been optioned as a motion picture, and perhaps the theatrics attendant upon it are only to be expected: it develops that the real financial backing for the venture came, not from Kline or Lehman, but from David Merrick, the Broadway producer.

Montreal Gazette February 8, 1986