by Beretta Rousseau
Short review: I hated this book.
Let me say right off the bat that I am the wrong person to be reviewing this book. I am going to be fifty-nine this year; I am a die-hard radical feminist; I have been in recovery for almost thirty years now; I read the entire canon of Carlos Castanedas over forty years ago; I grew out of this kind of “using drugs to find spiritual enlightenment” bullshit before the age of THIRTY.
To be honest, I might have liked this book – a whole lot – when I was twenty-one or so – but that was many, many years ago. In my twenties, I had a great attraction for erotic literature and any book with lots of sex in it, whether or not it was necessary to the plot. This book is one of those books.
I was ready to throw it into the garbage after I read the first sentence. “I woke up sweating, alarmed, and with a painful erection.” So fucking what? Waking up with an erection is perfectly normal. This author acts like it’s some kind of accomplishment. I’m sorry but I don’t want to read this shit. I really don’t.
On page 10: “It took me some time to realize that the twelve-step program I had entered was a spiritual program.” Gee … how fucked up were you? Because all twelve-step programs tell you that right off the bat. But of course, they also tell us that some of us are more damaged that others. This author is obviously very damaged.
The thing is, “Beretta Rousseau” is actually two people – Omar Beretta and Bénédicte Rousseau – evidently a man and a woman – and they trade off chapters in the novel like John Lennon and Yoko Ono trading off songs on “Double Fantasy”. It makes for a very uneven novel (just like “Double Fantasy”). Rousseau is the better writer, in my humble opinion. I googled them separately and Omar Beretta is a travel writer – he looks to be maybe ten years or so younger than me but of course, looks are deceiving – and Bénédicte Rousseau is a Belgium writer born in 1980 – incidentally the year I first took LSD (I was twenty). I couldn’t find very much about Omar Beretta – or the correct Omar Beretta because it’s apparently a very common name and there were lots of them to choose from, from investment bankers to Uranium entrepreneurs to Argentine tax lawyers – but with a little work, I did find an interview with Berretta which is here: https://yacarevolador.com/omar-beretta-has-been-interviewed/. According to that article, you can access Berretta’s website here: https://yacarevolador.com/. It is in Spanish but can be translated easily into English. Rousseau has a website that you can visit here: https://www.benedicterousseau.com/. Rousseau is Belgium but her site is in English.
This book is labeled “A Novel” but I am not sure that it is. It really reads more like creative nonfiction – especially with all the quotes and the footnotes – but of course, that’s the trendy cool way to write novels nowadays – check out The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz – but Diaz’s book is obviously a novel whereas Shaman Express is a novel only because it bends the barrier between fiction and non-fiction. In a way, it doesn’t matter at all if it’s a novel or not. It’s the story that counts – whether or not it’s factually true is beside the point.
I guess I just didn’t care about the story.
So what is the story? That’s a really good question.
Part One is called “Alive”. Part Two is called “Dead”. Part Three is called “Awake”.
All three parts are written as diary entries. Each chapter is an entry – one written by Berretta and the next one by Rousseau. I found myself having to read chapters over and over again, since none of it made very much sense. It seemed that both Berretta and Rousseau were interested in “shamanism” and in finding evidence of European shamanism. Why they don’t do this in a scholarly fashion is beyond me. There are all kinds of scholarship on this very subject. I myself have been studying European shamanism – not that I called it that – since the mid-1980’s. But I guess if they spent their time in libraries, we wouldn’t have a novel to read, wouldn’t we. The trouble is – if you’re looking for “action” – there really isn’t any “there” there. Or – it’s there – but it’s all busyness with no real substance.
The “action” goes from Amsterdam to Brussels to Belsedere to Ulan-Ude back to Brussels and then to Lake Baikal and then to Bangkok – but during all this movement, there is so much hallucination and “guided meditation” that you wonder if any of this travel is actually happening at all or if Berretta and Rousseau are really talking to any of the people they are talking to or even to one another. It’s almost like they were sending emails to one another and the chapters don’t quite match up. On the other hand, the whole novel made me think of those story-games we played as children – one person starts the story and another person adds to it and it gets crazier and crazier with the telling. A version of this is in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, in the chapter “Camp Lawrence”. Since Berretta is a travel writer, this is eminently possible. He seems to be the one who is always on the move and Rousseau is always having to meet him at this or that place.
In one of the guided meditations, Rousseau meets her “spirit guide” who apparently is the god Apollo. She writes,
“…My spirit guide strokes my hair tenderly. I find comfort in this heavenly touch.
‘Your situation is simple, Benedetta. You must choose between life and death. You must hurry though…’
…This seems unreal to me. I am speechless. I am not even sure I am having this conversation.” (page 70)
So she chooses life. Well, of course she does. But that’s the end of the first part and like I said earlier, the section part is called “Death”. And believe me, it’s a small death just to get through it.
The end of the third part ends with: “Awake. Really?” and then, “One day at a time can lead to a glimpse of eternity.” (page 214) Which is probably the wisest statement in this entire book.
Again – I don’t want to diss this book entirely – some of you are going to read this and absolutely love it. I just didn’t.
One of the links on Rousseau’s website is entitled “Top Five Tips for Writing in a Literary Collaboration”. I highly recommend this for any writer, whether or not you write with other people – and let’s face it, most of us do collaborate with other writers, whether we are aware of it or not – and I liked #2, “Practice conversation”. If you read this book as a conversation between two people, it’s Rousseau’s voice that is the more engaging. I found myself rushing through Berretta’s chapters, just wanting to get them over with – they were oversexed and over-violent – so I could relax with the more soothing and reasonable voice of Rousseau. I was also wishing that there were a few more voices in this conversation. Maybe the teacher’s? Or a few other students?
The other thing I thought while reading this “novel” was that it was really a screenplay and the authors didn’t realize it. Perhaps it’s been optioned and we’ll all be watching the movie on Netflix at this time next year. I do think it will work better as a movie.
That said, I know there are plenty of people who will absolutely love this book. I am just not one of them.
Berretta Rousseau. Shaman Express. WA: Amazon Digital Services, LLC, 2018.
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. NY: Grosset & Dunlap, Publishers, 1947.
About the Author:
Polly MacDavid lives in Buffalo, New York at the moment but that could easily change, since she is a gypsy at heart. Like a gypsy, she is attracted to the divinatory arts, as well as camp fires and dancing barefoot. She has three cats who all help her with her magic.
Her philosophy about religion and magic is that it must be thoroughly based in science and logic. She is Dianic Wiccan and she is solitary.
She blogs at silverapplequeen.wordpress.com. She writes about general life, politics and poetry. She is writing a novel about sex, drugs and recovery.