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Excerpt: 'Graham Greene: A Life In Letters'

Dec 12, 2008

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To Catherine Walston
Will you keep this letter in case I need it to refresh my mind?

El Rancho Hotel, Port-Au-Prince, Haiti

Sunday, Aug. 30 [1954]

Dearest Cafryn,

I wonder if this will follow you to Ireland? Last night we were at a Voodoo ceremony until 3 in the morning. One reads about such things but to see them is incredible & terrifying. The first two hours were spent in a kind of parody of Catholic rites — a choir of white-clothed girls jigging & singing & responding, holy banners — one marked St. Jacques, the portrait of a saint, the kissing of crosses & vestments, endless prayers from the Houngan or priest recited in a Catholic way, the 'fairy' motions of a server, a kind of Asperges with a jug of water — the horrible really began when the Agape began — a procession carrying fuel & food & dishes & a live hen. The man carrying the hen swung it like a censer, & then would dash to this & that member of the congregation & plaster his face & body with the live bird (you can imagine how I felt about that!). More interminable prayers & then the bird's feet were cracked off like cheese biscuits & the attendant put the live bird's head in his mouth & bit it off — the body of course went on flapping while he squeezed the blood out of the trunk (a small black boy a little older than James watched it all solemnly).

The next startling thing was the initiations after the feast — the initiate wrapped in a sheet like a mummy was carried in on a man's back to the cooking pit flames (extraordinary shadows), & one hand & one foot were drawn out of the cerements & held for as much as a quarter of a minute in the flames while the drummers drummed & the women shrieked their sacred songs. Last of all & quite suddenly (the intervals were filled with a kind of bacchanalian dancing) came 'possession'. They believe that the various gods of war & love etc. start winging their way from Africa when the ceremony starts. They had taken about five hours to cross the Atlantic — & on this occasion it was the God of War. A man started staggering & falling & twisting. People held him up, twisted a scarlet cloth round his middle & put a rum bottle & a panga in his hand. Then he began to whirl around the room, falling & tripping & brandishing the axe; we had to leap up on benches to get out of the way. Sometimes he pressed the blunt end of the panga in someone's stomach, & that man or woman knelt on the ground before him & kissed it, while he sprayed them with rum out of his mouth. Two of those got possessed too, but were quieted by the priest. I was glad when the man gave a shriek & collapsed, & the God had started back to Africa & the party was over.

I like Truman Capote very much. A most queer figure not only in the technical sense. He is telling my fortune & it gives one the creeps because one half believes — there's an odd psychic quality about him. The fortune depresses me for obvious reasons even though it might be called a happy one. I'll put it on record.

Between September 1956 & February 1957 I marry a girl 20 years younger who is either Canadian, American, New Zealand or Australian. I am very much in love & she is 5 months gone with a daughter who proves herself a genius by the time she is 18. I see little of my other children. My whole life changes. We have a house abroad by the sea where we are very happy & about the same time I finish (or start) my best book. When I am in the seventies (I remain sexually active till the end!) we spend the summer in the mountains & the winters in the desert. We are very happy, but before we marry I go (in about 2 years time) through a great crisis with myself. Well, there it is — watch out. I'm oddly depressed by it. I want to be with you till death. [. . .]

Reprinted from Graham Greene: A Life in Letters edited by Richard Greene. Copyright (c) 2007 by Verdant SA. Introduction and editing copyright (c) 2007 by Richard Greene. . With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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Graham Greene: A Life in Letters
Edited by Richard Greene.
Hardcover, 480 pages
W.W. Norton & Company
List price: $35.00

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