Caribbean Bookshelf (July/August 1998)

New and recent books about the Caribbean


FICTION

The Ventriloquist’s Tale

Pauline Melville (Bloomsbury,1997; ISBN 0-7475-3150-1)

The Ventriloquist’s Tale contains 166 pages of some of the best prose I have ever read. Unfortunately, the book is 357 pages long. It tells the tale of an incestuous relationship between an Amerindian brother and sister in the Guyanese hinterland. This key event is interwoven into Amerindian myth, the intrusion of Western culture through a fanatic Christian priest, and famed writer Evelyn Waugh. The incest theme is part of the Amerindian creation myth, and Melville uses it to make a statement about preserving cultural purity. The novel works wonderfully well until she reaches the actual incest act (on page 166). The prose in the first third of the book is lucid, colourful, evocative, with image and metaphor and statement seamlessly interwoven. Yet, as soon as the taboo act happens, it is as though the author loses energy. It is not that the writing becomes bad. But its transcendent quality is lost. There is a definite sense thereafter of a skilled writer going through the motions: this symbol, that event, this relationship. The disappointment is severe for, though the novel is still good, this reviewer closed it disappointed for what might have been. (KB)

Homer In Flight

Rabindranath Maharaj (Goose Lane Editions,1997; ISBN 0-86492-220-5)

As a writer, Rabindranath Maharaj displays many of the talents of the early V.S. Naipaul: comic detail, effective characterisation and witty dialogue. But it sometimes seems that Maharaj has too many of Naipaul’s early gifts. Homer in Flight is the story of Homer Santokie, who leaves his birthplace of Trinidad to seek a better life in Canada. Maharaj draws an excellent portrait of the difficulties faced by West Indian immigrants: the struggle to find meaningful work, the small betrayals by fellow countrymen, the problems of adapting to a new culture. Yet the effectiveness of this broad picture is diminished by the handling of the story within it. While there is real wit throughout the book, it often degenerates into mere bitterness — a satire which is too petty to be funny. This is especially marked when Maharaj recounts Homer’s memories of Trinidad. But it is also there in his portrayal of Canada: minute observations of every racist transgression by some white Canadians, while the helpfulness of others goes unremarked. This is what marks a crucial difference between Naipaul and Maharaj: for it is the former’s controlled style and intellectual dispassion which have placed him in the highest ranks of literary writers. Maharaj’s novel, while a skilled update of Naipaul’s literature of alienation, is still only an imitation. (KB)

Feeding The Ghosts

Fred D’Aguiar (Random House, 1997; ISBN 0-7011-6668-1)

The title of this book reflects the idea that story-telling is an act of expiation: “The past is laid to rest when it is told”, concludes the novel. And this story by Guyanese novelist and poet Fred D’Aguiar is a harrowing one: about a slave ship, the Zong, where many members of the “cargo” get sick. The captain and his crew face serious financial losses, but there is a way out: throw the sickest Africans overboard and collect on the insurance later. The crew do as they’re told, but with mixed reactions. And one woman, Mintah, manages to get back on board the ship. Mintah, the pragmatic Captain Cunningham, and morally torn First Mate Kelsal are the focus of the story, which is divided into three parts: the journey, the court trial afterwards, where the insurance company argues that Cunningham’s decision was unnecessary; and the final days of a freed Mintah. The novel is mostly written in a curious, Boy’s Own adventure style — curious because it is interspersed with passages written in more literary fashion, the last section being completely so. The narrative thus proceeds in a rather disjointed fashion, and although the book effectively highlights the stark economic considerations of the African slave trade, the one-dimensional treatment and superficiality of characterisation left me feeling that the ghosts are probably still hungry. (KB)

The Duppy

Anthony C. Winkler (Kingston Publishers Limited, 1997; ISBN 976-625-091-X)

This must rank as one of the funniest books ever coming out of the Caribbean. The author of that remarkably constructed tale of The Lunatic (which was made into an excellent film by Chris Blackwell) has done it again, using the rich imagery of the Jamaican idiom to create a brilliant analysis of the Jamaican psyche. Winkler’s story of the Duppy tells of the plight of a Kingston shopkeeper, Taddeus Augustus Baps, who dies and goes to heaven, only to discover that his notions of Paradise are very much at odds with the reality of life after death. Baps is bewildered by the similarities between life on Earth and in Heaven, and his eventual reconciliation between the two is roughly guided by his heavenly mate, the voluptuous Miss B, who almost “grinds” him to the ground in the process. “My first night in heaven Miss B gave me twenty-five super-duper grind before a frothy morning light curdled against the window of the small room. After time number twenty I heard myself gasping, more from shock than from real fatigue, ‘You right! I didn’t see donkey yet! But I see donkey now!’” But he soon gets used to the culture of heavenly bliss and, as he bumps and grinds his way to a friendship with God, he reformulates his earthbound philosophies and develops one that is distinctly more down-to-earth and philanthropic in its nature. This book will leave you laughing out loud. (VB)

General History Of The Caribbean: Volume III — The Slave Societies Of The Caribbean

ed. Franklin W. Knight (UNESCO Publishing/Macmillan Caribbean 1997: ISBN 92-3-103146-5)

It has taken the best part of two decades to get UNESCO’s magisterial six-volume Caribbean history on the road. Volume III seems to be the first of the six to appear, and covers the most-trodden areas of the region’s past — the period of slavery. Not exactly a light read, this is an exhaustive, comprehensive, 400-page paperback that tackles the subject thematically rather than chronologically. In individual chapters, taking a regional view as far as possible, Professor Knight’s team of high-powered academics moves systematically through demographics, economics, social structure, maroon communities, social and political control, slave resistance, culture, religion and the disintegration of Caribbean slave systems. Oddly, for a project that is supposed to view Caribbean history from the inside rather than from the outside (“as if from the ports and capitals of European colonizers,” as Sir Roy Augier’s introduction puts it), only three of the 11 contributors are Caribbean historians, and only one of those (Professor Hilary Beckles of the University of the West Indies in Barbados) actually works in the Caribbean. The other volumes in the series will cover everything from the first settlers to the late 20th century, with a whole volume reserved for methodology and historiography; Volume III is studiously silent about when these might appear. (JT)

CHILDREN’S BOOKS

Shadows on the Moon

Joylon Byerley and Katie Shears (Macmillan 1998; ISBN 0-333-71022-3)

This is the adventurous tale of Lizard and Bungle (a bungling bird) and tells of their journey across an undisclosed Caribbean island to symbolic self-discovery. Along the way they meet up with a number of colourful, if not a little colonial, characters until their final encounter with Capitaine à l’Orange, Space Duck Extraordinaire and Prince Whistling Tree Duck, heir to the throne of Planet Pluto. These interplanetary ducks have crashed to the earth in their spaceship shaped like a Spanish galleon. When reading this book one gets the feeling of brilliance never fully realised. Byerley seems to lack the confidence to deal with the Caribbean setting, and as such it becomes almost arbitrary and politically suspect. Shears’s artwork is beautiful, with fine attention to detail, though this is somewhat lost in a disappointing layout. There are things to be experienced in this imaginative journey, but it will never be a children’s classic. (SM)

INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS

The Debt Dilemma

Horace A. Bartilow (Macmillan/Warwick University Caribbean Studies, 1997: ISBN 0-333-67990-3)

Since the 1970s, the long shadow of the International Monetary Fund has fallen heavily on many of the Caribbean’s small economies. Enmeshed in the developing world’s debt crisis, heavily dependent on single-commodity exports and on a dizzying range of imports, governments in dire need of capital infusion found themselves locked in complex and bewildering negotiations over “conditionalities”. This usually meant a partial surrender of sovereignty to an institution that behaved like a grim global schoolmaster: price controls, devaluations, wage freezes, spending limits, tax increases, divestment, interest rate hikes, trade liberalisation — it was bitter medicine. But if you did not take it, you were put in detention by the unrelenting schoolmaster. Take it or starve. For many regional ministers, it was a sharp and painful learning experience, made even harder as their already small geo-political leverage (the Cuba card, etc.) drained away with the fading of the Cold War. Dr Bartilow’s thoroughly researched and well argued book focuses on the delicate art of negotiation, taking as case studies Jamaica (under both Manley and Seaga), Grenada (under Maurice Bishop and the PRG) and Guyana (under Burnham). How the game was played makes an often fascinating story. Among other things, Dr Bartilow — a political scientist at the University of Kentucky — shows how IMF objectives were sometimes quite different from the US government’s. Pragmatism counted for more than ideology — especially in Grenada, where the IMF was more interested in working with Bishop than indulging Ronald Reagan’s obsession with those meddling Cubans. Some useful insights here, by no means irrelevant to the late 1990s.

Reviews by Vaneisa Baksh, Kevin Baldeosingh, Simon Marriot and Jeremy Taylor