Trinidad’s Earl Lovelace: Watching the Landscape of this Island

Kenneth Ramchand reviews the work of Trinidadian author Earl Lovelace, winner of the 1997 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize


On May 1, 1997, at Buckingham Palace, Earl Lovelace, an author from the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, was introduced to Her Majesty the Queen. A ceremonial meeting between the Commonwealth artist and the British monarch is one of the unique features of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and Lovelace’s sixth work of fiction, Salt, had been unanimously and enthusiastically chosen for the 1997 award. To those who know his work, the pleasure was greater than the surprise.

The Prize had come to a writer with a considerable oeuvre, and a substantial reputation in his own country. Since the publication of The Dragon Can’t Dance (1979) and The Wine of Astonishment (1982), Lovelace has been valued by readers in his own country for his story-telling, for the vividness of his characters, for the ease and energy of his language, for his celebration of the creole or island-born culture, and for the way his writing makes people feel good about the selves they see in the mirror of his art.

Earl Lovelace was born in the seaside village of Toco in Trinidad in 1935. He spent his early childhood with his grandparents in Tobago. At the age of 11 he returned to his parents who, by this time, were settling on the outskirts of Port of Spain, and Lovelace lived with them in Belmont and then in Morvant. He did not win the Government Exhibition he had hoped for, and he did not have the kind of success in secondary school that might have turned him into a civil servant or a cog in some other reducing machine.

In Salt, the schoolteacher Alford George is jolted out of a nervous breakdown by the realisation that for 19 years as the teacher of the college exhibition class (for this you could read Common Entrance) he had been supporting “a system that gave all its rewards, put all its prestige towards training a few students for escape.” The majority who did not escape settled down accepting second classness. “He realised that saving the two or three, if you could call it saving, was not enough for his life’s vocation. If he was to go on, he would have to begin afresh to prepare children for living in the island.” (76)

On leaving school, Lovelace held a short-lived job as a proof-reader at the Trinidad Guardian.

In these years he began studying the life that flows down like rivers from the hills:

On these hills there, it is not only poverty. It is disorder; it is crime; it is a kind of fear, and a way of thinking; it is as if there is a narrow meaning to life, as if life has no significance beyond the primary struggles for a bed to sleep in, something to quiet the intestines and moments of sexual gratification: indeed it is as if all the Gods have fallen and there is nothing to worship at, and man is left only bare bones and naked passions. (p 8)

From Port of Spain and the Trinidad Guardian Lovelace shifted to the village of Valencia and the job of Forest Ranger. The education in the ways of country people that had begun with childhood in Toco and Tobago was continuing. Supervising the activities of the log-cutters whom he accompanied daily to their work in the forests led to close participation in village life. The rural culture of Trinidad further opened itself to him when he accepted a posting as Agricultural Officer in distant Rio Claro.

In the urban and semi-urban milieu, Lovelace had experienced the conditions, mental and material, that were stunting and dwarfing the lives of young people, and he witnessed the growing violence that was the sign of these conditions. He saw too the creativity that could not be stifled, the almost religious embrace in these communities of carnival, calypso and the burnished steel pans. In the rural context he attended stick fights, wakes, village festivals and dances. He played cricket and football, and gambled in the rum shop with the villagers. He joined up to take part in the Best Village Competitions.

He was living among ordinary people as one of them, and as an artist observing. He watched the perilous awakening of these backward places to the possibilities of education and urban glamour. He took in the beauty and the music of the rivers and the forests, the rhythms of life on the land, and all the casual relentlessness of a landscape that had a mind of its own. These experiences and sensations continue to be the sources of his fictions and the triggers of his deepest concerns.

If Her Majesty had opened the copy of Salt presented to her by Lovelace on the Commonwealth occasion, she would have found on pages 181 and 182 a Memorial addressed To the Right Honourable Lord Baron Gleneagle, Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for the Colonial Department. In this Memorial written in 1834 a number of “African Subjects of Her Most Gracious Majesty the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland” remind Her Majesty that during the existence of the Slave Trade they were “torn from their country, their friends, their relations” and now, at Emancipation, they have “no other option but to make this island their home since it is the place that many of them were born into and it is the place their labour has gone to build”.

Salt brings Lovelace’s theme of reparation to an explicit, passionate and nearly ideological climax, but from the very beginning, and long before he put it clearly to himself in so many words, the artist had been exploring in his fiction the social, cultural, political and psychological consequences of the failure to make the gesture that would have released the perpetrators and the wronged from the indignities and the dehumanisation of enslavement and colonialism.

‘Watch the landscape of this island,’ he began with the self-assured conviction that my mother couldn’t stand in him. ‘And you know that they coulda never hold people here surrendered to unfreedom.’ The sky, the sea, every green leaf and tangle of vines sing freedom. Birds frisk and flitter and whistle and sing. Just so a yard cock will draw up his hest and crow. Things here have their own mind.

It is fitting that Salt has been praised first of all for its language — for its “flowing melodious prose”, its tremendous energy, and its “utterly original voice”. It is written in Trinidadian English, and Lovelace has taken the fusion of orality and literariness pioneered by Sam Selvon into soulful reaches and up to rhythmic heights that the older writer never dreamed of. The book was chosen from a field that included entries from 53 countries in which modified forms of English are written or spoken.

The winning of the Commonwealth Writers Prize came 31 years after the publication of Lovelace’s first novel While Gods are Falling (1965) which, incidentally, also won a prize, the British Petroleum Independence Prize. As soon as he read While Gods Are Falling, C. L. R. James recognised “a new type of writer, a new type of prose, a different type of work” linking Lovelace and Michael Anthony with Mark Twain as “native writers in the sense that their prose and the things they are dealing with spring from below, and are not seen through a European-educated literary sieve . . .” (Journal of Commonwealth Literature, July 1969, no 7, p 79).

The first novel has many passages of earnest discussion and agonised reflection, and it contains patches of fresh direct philosophising about human existence that are reminiscent of Selvon’s An Island Is A World. It announces many of Lovelace’s themes in rudimentary form: manhood; the need for things to believe in; the search for selfhood and the search for meaning; the need to belong; the necessity to address the condition that produces urban and youth violence; community as family or extension of family; the birth of desire and materialism; the creativity of ordinary people; and the alienation of a barren middle-class from the enduring poor.

In the two years that he spent in Tobago right after submitting his entry to the competition and getting married in April 1964, Lovelace wrote one of his most deliberately controlled books. According to Lovelace, he had finished another novel which he considered wild and indisciplined, and he had set himself the task of mastering some of the rules in order to be able, when he was ready, to break them. For The Schoolmaster he invented a language to represent the people of Kumaca, a remote Spanish Creole village of timbered hills, fertile valleys and clear cool rivers that comes breathtakingly alive in Lovelace’s descriptive prose. The story concerns Kumaca’s decision that it needs education to help it to break out of its isolation and enter the world. And it ends with the betrayal of its trust and hope by the schoolmaster whom the villagers have imported into their world. Kumaca does not turn back into itself. It will use its bitter knowledge to understand itself better and try again to move forward into the new times.

The Schoolmaster can be read as a celebration of the natural world and the attuned people in it; as a parable about the perils of transition from small island to modern nation; and most obviously as a satire about education in a colonial context, the treason of the middle class clerks: “‘He is Black, yes. But not my own people. Priest, he is closer to your people. I think he is your people. He learned in your schools, and he wears the clothes the way you wear them, and he talks the way you talk, and his thinking is that of your people. He is yours, priest. He is not mine’”(p.66).

The man who writes the Memorial in Salt is called JoJo. JoJo belongs to the unforgettable company of extravagant own-way, uncompromising characters, sometimes brooding, who loom almost larger than life in Lovelace’s pages. We take delight in these characters, because their author does. It is a delight that never goes flat because these characters are not spurious or comic inventions designed to divert us for a moment. If anything they are closer to being mythological figures generated right here by a tangled historical experience.

They take themselves seriously and so does their author. They have an innocent integrity, a stubborn refusal to be to the world anything other than what they are to themselves. They persist as real people with a particular history, learning the depth and validity of their claim to a landscape they have humanised by their work and their daily living. They are charged with a sense of their potential, and every movement of body or mind is proclamation of the self they are trying to discover, affirm and conceptualise. But they are people striving to make meaning of the relationship between the self and all the things in the world that are not-self, including other selves. They are individuals in search of family and community. They are people striving to become a people.

This JoJo, great-grandson of the legendary Guinea John who had flown away to Africa from a cliff in Manzanilla, was a marked man. In 1821 one of his ears was cut off as punishment for trying to escape captivity. For the next 13 years he remained defiantly free, always in motion, living like Anancy off his wits and his charm, evoking the tenderest passion and caring from woman after woman whom he touched with his unconquerable spirit and his dreams.

Everybody understood that JoJo couldn’t stop or change his ways even if he longed to. So they cherished him for what he kept alive in them. “And he went along with his dances and his singing and his loneliness, carrying in his bosom the treasure of all that tenderness, all that love and only this way to give it. It was of these women and this love that he first thought when he heard that emancipation was coming, of the chance at last to make noise with them, to shout, to bawl” (172).

The news of the coming thing (Emancipation) fills JoJo with hopes of a richer emotional life and expectations of a just social order, violation and injury giving way to restoration and healing. But with the proclamation that there would have to be 10 years of preparation for freedom before freedom could be granted, JoJo realises that this Emancipation was not freeing anybody. “What it had done was to manoeuvre them into accepting not freedom but the promise of being set at liberty”, with compensation for the planters but nothing for those who had nothing. No compensation, no apology. No access to amenities for those who had been uprooted, and transported, and bought and sold and used as unfeeling tools. And JoJo knew that “if they accepted these terms as freedom they would be forfeiting their own future and the future of this island” (177).

By the time JoJo returns to the barracks from his unsuccessful attempt to persuade his brother’s maroon community to join in a war of total liberation, he finds that the men who might have fought have already taken off to grab land of their own, for themselves, and the authorities are letting them be. JoJo reads this as a trap, a way of removing the danger of the able and the adventurous. Everybody was entitled, according to JoJo, and appeasement for a greedy and desperate few was not a long-term solution to the problems of his people or the whole society for that matter.

In keeping with his all-or-nothing belief and moral principle, JoJo returns to the plantation where he offers his services to the French Creole owner André Carabon, and hands him the letter to be forwarded to Her Majesty (“You joking with the Queen?”). He expects a flustered and blustering Carabon (“You joking with me, then?”) to give conscientious support to the claims of the Memorialists.

After delivering the letter into Carabon’s hands, JoJo goes back to his shack on the plantation to await a proper settlement. That is where, three generations later, the Duritys, including JoJo’s grandson and reincarnation Bango Durity, are still to be found: “They living there on the plantation where they used to work. It used to employ everybody back in slavery times and they still there waiting. The plantation run down now, the cocoa gone, the sugar ain’t have no price. They don’t want to hear about that. They don’t want to hear that at all. They waiting for some miracle to save them. They have this belief. They believe that somebody owe them something. It have something to do with the land that they waiting on Government to give them; but they have no papers and no claim. I am not sure about it, if is true or is something they make up just to explain their laziness and to hide their shame” (p.139).

One of the propositions in Salt, and to some extent in all of Lovelace’s fiction, is that all the time in West Indian societies between Emancipation and now is unfulfilled, unlinear. This time is still waiting to deliver its bounty and to be redeemed. The redemptive act that will unlock the past and open up the future, however, has to be carried out together by all the ethnic groups. And this, as Salt draws to a close, is set to be carried out at the Independence Day celebrations in Cunaripo. It is the first time that Lovelace refers to Independence in his fiction.

Lovelace’s reticence about Independence is as interesting as the novels’ obsession with the coming of a political party in the 1950s. In While Gods Are Falling, The Schoolmaster and Salt, the political party raises hopes of a new world at last, but in all three novels the Party brings greed, corruption and a jockeying for economic advantage.

Lovelace was 21 when the People’s National Movement (PNM) was formed, and it must have caught his imagination as the event that would make something out of Emancipation. It hardly needs proving that the fictional party is a representation of the PNM. Its coming is described in chapter 8 of Salt by Bango’s enthralled wife Myrtle who takes out a party card, so drawn is she by the promises on the platform and a crusade that promises the education that school is not interested in. But as Ethelbert Tannis the long-serving member explains to the narrator, the Party began to substitute slogans for action and the leader proved himself to be a false prophet.

In Salt, the chimera of the National Party is replaced by an attempt to install an authentic Independence. The agent who comes to perform this task is the middle-class politician Alford George, who is a Minister in the National Party. Alford hopes that on what may turn out to be the first true Independence day, his colleagues Lochan and Carabon will join him as he breaks with the party and answers JoJo’s petition to Her Majesty the Queen by giving a piece of land openly to Bango, “with the full knowledge and concurrence of the entire community.”

It is possible to describe Salt as a book in which there is a first person narrator, the nephew of Bango, to whom Bango tells a story that begins with the flight of Guinea John. The boy’s mother Pearl considers Bango a dangerous character since the story he wants to tell is likely to turn the boy away from the path of education, the scholarship, and the escape into higher studies overseas. At the end, the boy appears to have taken nourishment from both streams and is to be found marching to the Independence day ceremony with Bango and his troupe.

But this narrator, like the narrator in Wilson Harris’s Palace Of The Peacock, disappears for long periods, and his telling function is taken over not only by the omniscient voice of the author but also by the several characters into whose voices and points of view the novel switches without warning. It is better to think of Salt, therefore, as a ceremony of the souls in which the voices and spirits of the past enter the present in order to unbind the past and open up the future. The boy is the medium or device through which they manifest, and the purpose of the gathering of so many stories and so many lives is to raise the consciousness of all who are present at the ceremony. ν

Kenneth Ramchand is Professor of West Indian Literature at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad.