Bookshelf (March/April 1999)

New and recent books about the Caribbean

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FICTION

The Migration Of Ghosts

Pauline Melville (Bloomsbury 1998; ISBN 0-7475-3675-9)

Here, already on her third book, is a fresh and powerful voice in Caribbean fiction. The stories in this collection hold the attention with a strong narrative, spiced with unexpected twists of plot — and then at the end leave you listening to all sorts of echoes, forced to go back and look again, realising how much you’ve missed. Pauline Melville is an actress and a published poet; her first collection of stories, Shape-Shifter (1990), was fresh and original, and her debut novel The Ventriloquist’s Tale (1997), set in Amerindian Guyana, confirmed her reputation. Both won awards. In this new collection, Melville’s Guyanese roots, her instinct for radicalism and her range of interests give her rich raw material: a dead Burnhamesque Guyanese president revisits scenes of triumph and humiliation in London, the enormous figure of Mrs da Silva sails through the Notting Hill Carnival, a Guyanese parrot meets Descartes and watches the first performance of The Tempest, a business baron is brought low by his idealistic wife, the awesome Erzulie is reincarnated in Georgetown. In the title story an English expat and his Brazilian Indian wife learn that you cannot know a place until you know its ghosts, and unwittingly demonstrate that the fall of communism is a mere interval, not a final curtain — all this in 17 skilled pages. The final story, English Table Wuk, starts with Princess Diana’s funeral and ends near Mahaica in Guyana with one of the most bizarre images in Caribbean literature, capturing in 12 pages everything that needs to be said about post-colonial hypnosis.

CARIBBEAN LIFE

Chanting Down Babylon: The Rastafari Reader

ed. Nathaniel Murrell, William Spencer, Adrian McFarlane (Temple University, US, and Ian Randle Publishers, Jamaica, 1998: ISBN 976-8123-62-1)

It’s significant that this survey of the Rastafarian movement has been put together by two theologians and a philosopher. Even in the Caribbean, too many people still think of Rastafari in terms of reggae, ganja, dreadlocks, crime, and delusions about Haile Selassie: these American scholars treat it as a religion, with a complex network of beliefs and cultural practices, seriously devoted to “the dismantling of all oppressive institutions and the liberation of humankind”. They have compiled a 470-page book that covers, both objectively and readably, every aspect of Rastafari that you could think of. Alongside a battery of American academics, many of the people who have contributed to public understanding of the movement over the years are here, from Rex Nettleford and Barry Chevannes to Roger Steffens. They cover the movement in careful detail: the history, the ideology, the arts and culture, the theology. They include, with commentary, one of the founding texts of the movement, Leonard Howell’s The Promised Key. This excellent reader might have been even more welcome had it originated with Caribbean rather than American scholars. But at least it is a co-publication with Ian Randle Publishers in Jamaica, the most successful indigenous publishing house in the English-speaking Caribbean; a reminder that the day will come when key Caribbean texts are generated and published in the region. Irie.

MEMOIR

Reckoning With The Force

David Godfrey (Mill Press, Jamaica, 1998; ISBN 976-8168-01-3)

Englishman David Godfrey, aged 23 and fresh from several years with the navy in the Far East, arrived in Jamaica in late 1949 as Assistant Superintendant in charge of Water Police. He spent ten years there, acquired a Jamaican wife, and went on to an international career in security and counter-terrorism. These recollections of police work in 1950s Jamaica range from his first ceremonial parade — he left the Constabulary Band behind in his enthusiasm and arrived at the Governor’s podium proud and alone — to more sober days as head of Jamaica’s Special Branch, solving such grim cases as the great Royal Mail theft, the Headless Corpse and the Police-Can’t-Catch-Me Oil, often with the aid of his “Flying Saucers” squad. Many of the stories are funny, well told, and could come from a contemporary collection of Jamaican folk tales. He even has a couple about BWIA, which he liked to fly with in the 1950s. There is an expatriate flavour to it all of course — senior officers puff pipes, wear ceremonial swords and worry about the cricket scores, grim inspectors and bumbling royals arrive from London, there’s gossip about Noël Coward and Ian Fleming. But the book is an affectionate insight into a part of pre-Independence Jamaica, and into police work somewhat different from late 20th-century Trench Town. The book’s last page catches the tone: “JUDGE: Who cast this allegation? ACCUSER: I ham de halligator, sah!” May the Force be with you.

BIOGRAPHY

Sir Vidia’s Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents

Paul Theroux (Houghton Mifflin 1998, ISBN 0-395-90728-4)

This is a painful book to finish. Most of its 358 pages are a beautifully crafted portrait of Trinidad and Tobago’s most eminent literary export, V. S. Naipaul (“Sir Vidia”). Theroux was an apprentice writer when the two met in Uganda more than 30 years ago; Naipaul took the young American under his wing. Theroux went on to become a prolific novelist and travel writer, with one of the biggest literary reputations of our time. His account of his lifelong friendship with Naipaul is affectionate, loyal, grateful, funny; it is also a fascinating study of the business of writing, or rather, being a writer. Like Walcott, Naipaul has a “priestly” vision of the writer’s role, which requires unceasing hard work, dedication, alertness, ruthlessness, confidence and truth-telling; Theroux shows what a perilous vision this is, how easily is slides into arrogance and cruelty and crankishness. Still, without this double-edged sword, the world would probably have no great literature to read at all: you don’t become a good writer by being normal and nice. The real indictment comes in the last two chapters, where Theroux concludes that Naipaul has crossed the line by fracturing a 30-year friendship and betraying his own high-minded principles, apparently under the influence of Nadira Khannum Alvi, the second Lady Naipaul, whom he married in 1996 two months after the death of his first wife. This has all the makings of a monumental literary scandal; but the real interest here is Theroux’s ground-breaking portrait of a great writer, and the two men’s exploration of what can happen to your life when you take on that role.

TRAVEL

Caribbean Islands Handbook 1999

ed. Sarah Cameron (Footprints Handbooks UK, 1998, ISBN 1 900949 23 7; Passport Books US, 1998, ISBN 0-8442-4963-7)

You have only to scan through the piles of Caribbean guidebooks available these days to see what the difficulties are in producing them. You have to balance the big picture against the small detail that’s so useful to travellers. Avoid the temptation to be patronising or over-critical on one hand, or starry-eyed on the other. Be accurate and reliable in the full knowledge that you cannot visit every bar and beach from Nassau to Paramaribo in a single lifetime. Tell the truth without being damaging or offensive. Get everything important in, from the mating habits of the indigenous Amerindians through the history of the Cuban revolution to the wittiness of the proprietor at St George’s Portofino restaurant or the quality of the fruit punch at Restaurant Paiho in Roseau. In terms of hard concise information, balance, reliability and value (1,056 pages for £14.99/$24.95 in a sturdy lightweight format), The Caribbean Islands Handbook is still the one to beat. It starts with a very useful section of travel tips, moves on to survey the Caribbean’s attractions from whale-watching to walking (with a stern chapter on Responsible Tourism: brownie points for that), then works clockwise around the region from the Bahamas to Aruba. A large network of contributors ensures that each country gets a thorough and thoughtful review which is both streetwise and sensitive. Highly recommended.

BOOKS IN BRIEF

Plants and gardens

• British journalist Polly Pattullo has teamed up with Anne Jno Baptiste (of Papillote Wilderness Retreat) to produce a loving portrait of The Gardens of Dominica (The Papillote Press 1998, ISBN 0 9532224 0 3), which visits gardens across the island and provides plenty of good background information. A whole new dimension to Dominica.

• In Wild Plants of the Eastern Caribbean (Macmillan 1998, ISBN 0-333-67443-X), Sean Carrington, who lectures in plant biology at the University of the West Indies, describes and illustrates 214 flowering plants to be found in the eastern islands, along with distribution maps. Useful reference anywhere from Anguilla to Trinidad.

Orchids of Jamaica (The Press UWI 1995, ISBN 976-640-002-4), by expert Ancile Gloudon and botanist Cicely Tobisch, covers 125 species in clear helpful detail, and boasts an award-winning cover. Good for the hobbyist as well as the specialist.

Social history

Caribbean Creolization (The Press UWI 1998, ISBN 976-640-060-1) is an unexpectedly lively venture into one of the Caribbean’s most fundamental processes, especially as it shows up in the region’s language and literature. Editors Kathleen Baluntansky and Marie-Agnès Sourieau have put together contributions from all over the region, many of them thought-provoking.

• In The White Minority in the Caribbean (Ian Randle Publishers 1998, ISBN 976-8123-10-9), editors Howard Johnson and Karl Watson focus on the wily ways in which post-colonial white elites in the Caribbean have managed not just to survive but to flourish at the end of the century.

Institutional Aspects of West Indian Development (Ian Randle Publishers 1997, ISBN 976-8123-21-4) is a more laborious academic report on cooperation between the region’s public and private sectors and the academic world; it’s the third in an earnest series on “Critical Issues in Caribbean Development”.

• In Law, Justice and Empire (The Press UWI 1997, ISBN 976-640-035-0), UWI historian Bridget Brereton delves into the life and times of Sir John Gorrie, a Scottish judge with unusually radical views for his time, and their unhappy consequences in colonial Mauritius, Fiji, Antigua and Trinidad (where Gorrie served the last years of his life, from 1886 to 1892). Surviving the Colonial Office was nothing compared with trying to survive local power brokers.

• If you’ve ever wondered why the flamboyant Caribbean took so warmly to the English game of cricket, read Keith Sandiford’s Cricket Nurseries of Colonial Barbados: The Elite Schools 1865-1966 (The Press UWI 1998, ISBN 976-640-046-6). The leading culprits and their areas of operation are finally unmasked.

Writing and writers

The Whistling Bird: Women Writers of the Caribbean (Ian Randle Publishers 1998, ISBN 976-8123-51-6) is an anthology of mostly enjoyable work by 30 women in 13 Caribbean countries, put together by two American-based academics, Elaine Campbell and Pierette Frickey. The bird of the title is the “siffleur de montagne” found in Dominica and Martinique, a “rare and wonderful bird” used to symbolise “what was until recently the little-heard voice of women writers from the Caribbean”.