Robber talk and revolution: Earl Lovelace’s Is Just a Movie

Trinidadian writer Monique Roffey on Earl Lovelace’s first novel in 15 years: Is Just a Movie

Book coverEarl Lovelace

Is Just a Movie is Earl Lovelace’s first novel since his 1996 Commonwealth Prize-winning Salt. In a career spanning 40 years, Lovelace has produced not just novels which have won him awards, fellowships, and recognition as a Caribbean great, but also plays, essays, short stories, and even musicals. Is Just a Movie is packed with the energy of a man who still has lots to say.

Set in the aftermath of the 1970 Black Power revolution, it tracks the life and times of three friends: King Kala, a deposed calypsonian, Sonnyboy Apparicio, a badjohn and “breakfoot man” (who nevertheless gets the girl), and Rooplal, another Indo-African Black Power militant. While its characters are mostly everyday people, this story is not simple at all. It is told using devices which are recognisable as the hallmarks of a sophisticated post-modern writer – the parody of quest, the celebration of chance and the absurd, pastiche of high and low culture, the weaving together of real-life events and characters – and in doing so introduces the reader to a multitude of uniquely Trinidadian cultural references. There is also an experimentation with structure, with the use of digression and switching of perspective via narrator. The reader swiftly gets involved with this book; there is a sense of being ensnared both by the story and by the way the story is intricately told.

Not only does Lovelace employ a variety of narrative devices, but he makes a point of keeping the language and voice of the novel natural. Lovelace writes in Trinidad’s everyday spoken English, which has its own cadences and rhythms and even vocabulary (the word “obzocky”, for example, is a word used in Trinidad alone). Throughout the novel we also meet with a range of Caribbean forms: calypso, grandiose speech-making or “robber talk”, and the bantering wordplay of picong. The novel opens with what Trinidadians know as a midnight robber speech, a monologue where one of our Carnival characters, the Midnight Robber, a cavalier-type bandit, makes a series of often malevolent declarations about himself and his intentions.

Lovelace’s narrator King Kala introduces himself as a kaisonian, “maker of confusion, recorder of gossip, destroyer of reputations, revealer of secrets”, who, due to a slip of the tongue in the kaiso tent one night, has his stage name mispronounced, and decides there and then upon a new role in life: poet of the revolution. When this doesn’t work out, he stumbles upon Sonnyboy as he is handing himself in to the police to save face back in his hometown of Cascadu.

And so in the first pages, Lovelace turns convention and expectation on its head: robber talk is turned from bold vainglorious boasting to the rather subdued confession of a man who, post-revolution, has lost his way.

As we track the life and discourse of King Kala, Sonnyboy and Rooplal, we are introduced to a complex web of characters and village life. Some of these are Everyman characters, others are either famous Trinidadians (like masman Peter Minshall) or possibly drawn from infamous Trinidadians (like Stokely Carmichael). As in Salt, Lovelace, even mischievously weaves himself into the novel (as the local novelist John de John, writer of 35 unpublished novels).

Whether it is the Baptist Shouters or the quasi-communist Hard Wuck party, Lovelace rarely drops a sense of parody of the state of affairs in the country post-Black Power. He presents a time of post-revolution confusion, a cast of characters at odds with each other, and yet we understand which of the young, black, politicised men he sympathises with. While Sonnyboy is a badjohn and a hustler, he is also a man who has said, “No, I not f—ing taking that.” He is a man who has found his own notions of resistance and protest. Clayton Blondel, on the other hand, a man who arrives late in the day, wearing a pendant in the shape of Africa, head of a group wearing army jackets and dashikis, dreadlocks and turbans, spouting revolutionary claptrap, is shown as a charlatan. Lovelace knows his people and his country intimately; he is one of the few Caribbean writers who, in a determined stance to write about the region, Trinidad in particular, have not left the region.

This novel is worth reading more than once, for embedded in this often arch and ribald text are serious notions and questions about post-independence Trinidad. It exposes the pompous, pokes fun at those with high-minded political ideas and yet also offers themes of redemption. When the lovesick Dorlene is let down badly on her wedding day, she turns to charity work and later dies in a steelband competition. Her funeral is lavish but pointless, for it turns out she is not dead at all. Close to being buried alive, Dorlene rises from her coffin – and becomes an instant celebrity as a healer, attracting an economic boom for the country. Just as he turns boastful robber talk into real-life human self-doubt, Lovelace turns death into a resurrection and celebration.

Is Just a Movie is cavalier, picaresque, and unpredictable. Do not put this book down, or you will get left behind. We never know what will come next in the mix of street life and political life, Carnival and movie-making, revolution and failure of ideals. It is a biting satirical comedy of errors crossed with a serious book about social reform. It smells of Trinidad; it is of the Caribbean, uncompromising and bold and at every level a crafted piece of work which tells, in the novel form, what resembles a very true-to-life story about the island.

Is Just a Movie Earl Lovelace
(Faber and Faber, ISBN 9780571255672, 368pp)

This is an edited version of a review first published at www.writershub.co.uk and delivered at the Trinidad launch of Is Just a Movie