Bookshelf (Winter 1994)

Some new and recent books about the Caribbean

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A Way In The World

V. S. Naipaul (Knopf/Heinemann, 1994)

The American edition of Naipaul’s latest book calls it a “novel”; the English edition says it is a “sequence”. Naipaul is a tease, and has practically invented a new form of literature: part fiction, part autobiography, part history, part travel, with the defining lines blurred. Here, nine separate narratives are linked more by association and by memory than by character or plot. Nothing is quite what it seems; the atmosphere is heavy with strange connections between present and past. So here we have a masterly chapter on the Trinidad capital Port of Spain from the late thirties to the insurrection of Yasin Abu Bakr in 1990; a modern-day explorer in the Guyana interior is confronted with an Elizabethan doublet; we meet Columbus, Waiter Raleigh and Francisco de Miranda at the end of their long and dubious careers, a Port of Spain clerk turned international financial bureaucrat in Africa, a revolutionary who is very like but not quite the same as C.L.R. James. Writers, like explorers, re-invent the world, contain the echoes of numberless other visions and voices: “we cannot understand all the traits we have inherited. Sometimes we can be strangers to ourselves.” Naipaul has been over much of this ground before, in different ways: the post-colonial distress, the re-ordering of experience, what it means to be a writer. This is a rich and rewarding book which continues Naipaul’s own re-ordering, as his epigraph confirms: “And year by year our memory fades / From all the circle of the hills. / Till from the garden and the wild / A fresh association blow, / Anil year by year the landscape grow / Familiar to the stranger’s child.”

Swimming in the Volcano

Bob Shacochis (Charles Scribner’s Sons/Picador 1993)

Shacochis is an American writer who made quite an impression with his collection of stories Easy in the Islands a few years ago. His first novel, a big book — over 500 pages — and much praised in the United States, is part thriller, part romance, part elegy. It’s the saga of an American economist, Mitchell Wilson, who is attached to the Ministry of Agriculture on the mostly fictional Caribbean island of St Catherine, and of the comedies and tragedies into which he falls by trying to do the decent thing, help out and live a good life. Wilson is first discovered literally swimming in the deep warm waters of the island’s volcanic crater, apparently immune to metaphor. His decline into the murky depths of island politics, complicated by his sexy but sadly compromised American girlfriend, is chronicled in rich, funny, lively prose that makes a good read. It’s very much an expatriate novel, but Shacochis gives it an analytical sharpness and topicality that would be welcome in more home- grown Caribbean books.

Ballad for the New World

Lawrence Scott (Heinemann Caribbean Writers 1994)

Lawrence Scott is a Trinidadian teaching in London. His first novel Witchbroom, the saga of a creole Trinidad family over the centuries told in a lush and lavish prose reminiscent of Marquez and Rushdie, was much praised when it appeared in 1992, and was serialised in Britain on the BBC’s Book at Bedtime. Ballad for the New World, Scott’s first collection of stories, some dating back ten years, also deals mainly with the uneasy figure of the white West Indian and the difficulty of fully belonging. Some of the stories focus on the Monagas family of Witchbroom, others on the more prosaic family of a junior overseer on a run-down estate; it is beautifully crafted work, full of irony, humour, pain and sharp observation. The 12 stories occupy barely a hundred pages, and make an unusually rewarding collection.

The Assault

Reinaldo Arenas (Viking 1994)

This is the last in a five-part series of novels by Arenas, the Cuban author who continues to stir up controversy long after he committed suicide in 1990. His memoir Before Night Falls, completed shortly before his death and published posthumously, sparked widespread interest in Arenas’s output: nine novels and as many collections of plays and short stories. Since then, much of the work has been translated into English. The Assault, a chilling tale of a revolution gone awry, received glowing reviews in the United States. Written in a hurry and in secret, it was smuggled out of Cuba before Arenas fled in the Mariel exodus in 1980.

The Language of El Dorado

Mark McWatt (Dangaroo Press 1994)

This is an impressive collection of poetry, and suggests that Mark McWatt could soon be recognised as one of the major talents in Caribbean literature. He evokes the Guyana of Wilson Harris — haunted, alluring, seething with archetypal forces. The poems have the assured economy of a man who has been there: who else would write of “the jealous gloom of the overhanging trees” or the “parallelism of a dragonfly / mating its own image on the river’s glass”. The poems are unfailingly controlled, and do not fall into the overwrought lyricism that Caribbean landscape so often evokes.

Survivors of Another Crossing

Marianne Soares Ramesar (University of the West Indies 1994)

The sub-title is A History of East Indians in Trinidad 1880-1946. This is a useful book, well- timed for next year’s 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first Indian indentured labourers in Trinidad in 1845 (they had reached Guyana seven years earlier). The system continued until 1917, by which time Trinidad had received 144,000 Indian workers. Both Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago now have large communities descended from India — a substantial majority of the population in Guyana, a marginal one in Trinidad and Tobago according to the 1990 census — and some of the inevitable tensions of all plural societies: there is room for greater understanding of what the indentureship programme was, how it came about and how it helped to create today’s distinctive societies. Marianne Ramesar’s new study goes some way towards that: it describes in detail the recruiting process, life under indenture, the challenges facing the group after indenture ended and the contributions it has made to contemporary Trinidad and Tobago.

Jaffo the Calypsonian

Ian McDonald (Peepal Tree Press 1994)

In one of these poems, lan McDonald writes of the “lsraelic chirring of brown grasshoppers”, a line which richly suggests the atmosphere of the collection. Following two critically acclaimed collections, Mercy Ward and Essequibo, this volume shows McDonald at his best and most wide-ranging. Vignettes of the West Indies, from stickfighters to cane-cutters and charcoal and pineapple vendors, are the material, and will please those who enjoy solid elegance.

Trini Talk

Rhona Baptiste (Caribbean Information Systems & Services 1994)

This is a hard-cover collection of Trinidad and Tobago dialect terms, words and phrases and proverbs, arranged in dictionary form. It doesn’t pretend to be a scholarly work, and does not dig into origins or borrowings. It simply records distinctive local words and phrases in use today, or entrenched by tradition, with a brief explanation and a sentence showing the usage in context. Thus the entry for “fresh water yankee” reads: “A native who returns from America with an accent after spending only a short time abroad. “He only see de Statue of Liberty and he turn fresh water yankee one time!” Scruntin’ is “a locally-coined word meaning ‘hard up’ or ‘desperate’. The ultimate in being broke. “Dese days ah have no work so ah scruntin for so

The Cocoa Panyols of Trinidad: An Oral Record

Sylvia Moodie-Kublalsingh (British Academic Press)

This is an oral history of the panyols, or españoles, Trinidadians of mixed Spanish, Amerindian and African ancestry descended from Trinidadian and eastern Venezuelan farmers. The “cocoa panyols” formed a unique and powerful community during the decades when cocoa was king in Trinidad, and have been strangely neglected by researchers. The book examines the history and culture of the community, and includes illustrations, notes and maps which trace its history and development. There is an extensive section on parang, the Spanish-influenced music which enlivens Trinidad and Tobago’s Christmas. The author is a former senior lecturer in Spanish at the University of the West Indies, and has written a fascinating account of the life and decline of a remarkable culture.

The Mermaid’s Twin Sister

Lynn Joseph (Clarion Books, New York)

This is a second collection of children’s stories from a New York-based Trinidadian writer: the first was A Wave In Her Pocket (Clarion Books, 1991). The tales are written in the time- honoured storytelling tradition; Amber and her cousins are listening spellbound to stories told by Tantie, their aunt. In Keeping The Duennes Away, for example, the children learn how to keep these legendary folklore characters away from baptisms — for the “duennes” are babies who died before being baptised, and can be recognised because their feet point backwards. There are six stories, haunted by mermaids and the terrifying La Diablesse who comes out at night to lead men astray by changing into a beautiful woman. There are attractive black-and-white illustrations by Donna Perrone.