Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Review of "The Serpent and the Rainbow" by Wade Davis

The Serpent and the Rainbow is a non-fiction book written in 1985 by Wade Davis, a Harvard ethnobotanist. It is his account of real zombies in Haiti, the poisons that create them, the Haitian secret societies and his quest for understanding Voudon. It is fascinating, creepy, beautiful and scary.

I borrowed this book from a friend's library as research material for a writing project. It is always a pleasure to pick up non-fiction that is well-written and exciting to read. Unfortunately, such styles are not "scientific-sounding", and as such seem suspect, sloppy, slipshod, and other bad things beginning with "s". From an impartial perspective, it is unfair that "interesting" and "scientific" are mutually exclusive writing styles, but what is one to do? Exhaustively listing facts is boring. To enjoy this book, you have to shut off that part of your mind that says, "Wait... give me more proof" and trust the author that he knows what he's talking about. Not being a botanist or pharmacist, I wouldn't know anyway.

If you're curious, his hypothesis about how zombies are created and maintained goes something like this: Firstly, a bokor administers a poison to a victim, the active ingredients being tetrodotoxin obtained from puffer fish mixed with venom from a toad, Bufo marinus. The poison causes the victim to enter a paralyzed, low-oxygen, yet conscious state which is often mistaken for death. After the victim is buried alive, the bokor digs up the zombie and forces them into hard labour while keeping them stoned on another poison obtained from Datura stramonium. It's a fascinating theory and apparently not all scientists agree with it, but like I said earlier, I'm not in a position to judge its merit. I can only say that it's compelling.

However, this is only part of the book. It is also an exploration of Haitian culture. Davis recounts his interactions with Voudon practitioners, peasants and the secret societies that rule outside Port-au-Prince. The creation of zombies is the ugly side of Voudon and Davis takes great pains to show the beautiful side as well. At the end of the book, the reader comes away with a wider understanding of the Voudon view of the universe, or at least as much as the Haitians allowed Davis to see.


For all its fascination, the book has a slightly unsatisfying ending. While Davis makes it clear that his book is not just about zombies, much of it is. He has a great hypothesis and all that remains is for it to be proved by first-hand evidence and testing. However, he can't go through with it. He is given offers to witness zombie ceremonies by several parties at expensive prices, but he worries that by agreeing he will initiate a ceremony that wouldn't otherwise have occurred, thus condemning some poor slob to zombiedom. Thus his hypothesis is unproven and must remain a theory. It's understandable, but boo.


So the Serpent and the Rainbow is a great read and has a pretty good theory about zombies, though sadly it cannot yet join the realms of scientific fact.
4 species of venomous puffer fish out of 5

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