Bookshelf (May/June 2000)

New and recent books about the Caribbean

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BOOK OF THE MONTH

For the Love of my Name
Lakshmi Persaud (Peepal Tree Press 2000, ISBN 1-900715-29-5, 336pp)

Lakshmi Persaud’s third novel is a much more ambitious affair than her first two, Butterfly in the Wind and Sastra. It asks the question: why and how do we allow tyranny to take root? As the despot entrenches himself – the violence, the sophistry, the vote-rigging, the power-games, the asset-stripping – why is he not unmasked by other governments, by the intellectual elite, by the churches, by ordinary thinking people? Why is it so easy for him to outsmart us, divide us, manipulate us, until it is too late and there is only ruin and desolation? These are questions which range far beyond the Caribbean, but they are dangerous and uncharted territory for the Caribbean novel (yes, and why is that?), especially when the case study is a barely disguised version of a Caribbean state which will be easily recognised by any Caribbean reader. (And it’s not Cuba, either; this is not post-Cold War polemic.) What’s more, Persaud suggests a large number of persuasive answers, which do no credit to anyone. The book is adventurous in its structure and its range of narrative voices; it’s a shame it did not get much tighter editing, which would have sharpened its effect further and made it less repetitive and word-heavy. For this is an important book: it asks us all to put aside cynical resignation about politics and politicians, and to engage much more firmly with anyone who thinks – as the President for Life does here – that “Power matters. Nothing else.” (JT)

HISTORY AND SOCIETY

Fire from the Mountain: The Story of the Montserrat Volcano
Polly Pattullo (Constable 2000, ISBN 0094793603, 209pp)

Like its neighbours, Montserrat was created by volcanic fires, so the latest eruption of its Soufriere Hills – which began in 1995 – has been nothing new. But until recent (geological) times, the eruptions had the island to themselves; this time there was a population of 12,000, with rulers – both in Plymouth and in London – who had given no serious thought to the problems of living with a volcano, and happily assumed that nothing would happen. Polly Pattullo’s excellent book investigates the consequences of that innocence. She traces the history and geology of the Soufriere Hills, the baffling phases of the eruption, the scientists’ struggle to understand and explain what was happening, the deaths, the degradation and trauma of life in the “shelters”, the new exiles, the bungling and dithering of two governments, the heartbreaking destruction of homes , businesses, livestock, ways of life. Pattullo, an English journalist who has written books on Caribbean tourism and Dominica’s gardens, documents all this with clarity and objectivity; her book is a model of intelligent research and sympathetic understanding. (JT)

The Settlement of Indians in Guyana 1890-1930
Dale Bisnauth (Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 1 000715 163)

After the emancipation of slaves throughout British Caribbean territories in 1838, some 239,149 Indians arrived in what was then British Guiana between 1838 and 1917, to service the sugar plantations as indentured labourers. Most came from agricultural backgrounds in the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, Bengal and Madras. By 1911 the Indians were the largest ethnic group (followed by Afro-Guyanese, Portuguese, Amerindians, Europeans and Chinese), and racial tension between the Indian and African communities had become a disturbing fact of Guyanese life. Dale Bisnauth, Guyana’s current Minister of Education, has provided an exhaustive study of the Indian community during the period in which it became the most significant element in Guyanese society.

This vital document on the region’s largest Indian settlement and culture traces the history of ethnic hostility against a background of colonial exploitation and divide-and-rule strategy, and makes an important contribution to understanding not only the South Asian diaspora but also the complexities of Caribbean society. (SL)

FOR THE COFFEE TABLE

Trinidad and Tobago: Terrific and Tranquil
Ed. Kash Ali (Hansib Publications 2000, ISBN 1 870518 675, 312pp)

For those who know Trinidad well, don’t worry – the place has not had a sudden attack of tranquillity. The title of this handsome hardcover book picks up one of the many tourism slogans of recent years – Trinidad is “terrific” and Tobago is “tranquil”. Despite its size and weight, this is a fine souvenir: with nearly 500 colour photographs from local sources and a UK agency, plus 30 brief articles by 16 local writers on everything from the richness of the language to the wonders of the economy and the investment climate, it’s a good buy even at US$45. As in the previous six volumes in this series (which covered other Caribbean countries plus India), the London-based publisher Hansib has given itself space to cover just about everything, and does so with the relentless political correctness which is essential for the bestowal of official blessings. There are some excellent photos here, plus short summaries of the main points in French, German and Spanish, and listings of hotels, restaurants and events. (JT)

The Taste that Changed the World (The House of Angostura 1999, ISBN 976-8160-83-7)
Sumptuously produced and illustrated, this is a celebration of the world-famous remedy for tropical fever and stomach disorders, discovered in 1824 by a German-born surgeon-general in Simon Bolivar’s army of liberation, and now known as Angostura bitters. The big thing in the small bottle has been settling stomachs and adding a dash of je ne sais quoi to countless cocktails, thanks to Dr J. G. B. Siegert, for more than 175 years. With this elegant coffee-table- cum-cook-and-cocktail book, we can all vicariously enjoy (some of Harold Prieto’s photos are mouth-watering) recipes for exotic creole dishes like Ocean Trout cured with Bitters and Gin with Mustard and Dill Dressing, or Black-eyed Pea and Coconut Soup. With recipes by Wendy Rahamut, doyenne of Trinidadian cuisine, and a cocktail section from master bartender Roger Rampersad, this is the kind of book one might be tempted to eat or even drink. (SL)

POETRY

Elsewhere
Stewart Brown (Peepal Tree Press 1999, ISBN 1-900715-32-5)

This collection contains a good deal of new work, as well as revisions of earlier material. A lecturer at the Centre of West African Studies at the University of Birmingham, with three highly-praised books of poetry to his credit, Brown has a wide range and a highly developed poetic sense. In a delightful cricket piece called Counter Commentary at Kensington Oval, he interweaves the “plummy platitudes of Chris Martin-Jenkins” with the response of a Barbadian cane-cutter “taking his ease and Cockspur”. “And he’s out, Richards is out trying just one hook too many!” cries one. “Yu see Richards get out wid that same hook he hookin?/ Too damn foolishness!” quarrels the other. Brown has grouped his poems into three sections – Elsewhere, Homework, Africa – and he ranges with equilibrium and grace over each landscape, always thoughtful and perceptive, the words always finely crafted, a writer who knows his business. (VB)

Best Poems of Trinidad
Chosen by A.M. Clarke (The Majority Press Inc., 1999, ISBN 0-912469-36-6)
This anthology was first published in 1943, the first of its kind ever produced in Trinidad. Reprinted 56 years later, it is an intriguing taste of life and poetry in Trinidad in the forties. Many of the literary lions of the time are represented: Alfred Mendes, Albert Gomes, Edgar Mittelholzer, Clarke himself. The style of the poems reflects the colonial education and mindset of the day, though there are hints of the West Indian voice which would emerge strongly in the coming years. But the period flavour is the collection’s main interest. As a snapshot of a certain moment in the development of West Indian sensibility and poetry, it makes fascinating reading. (VB)

ROUND-UP

THE CALYPSO STORY

Contemporary soca is moving further and further away from traditional calypso. To understand the older tradition you have to stand back a bit from the soca frenzy; here are some books that will help.

Gordon Rohlehr’s Calypso and Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad (Port of Spain 1990, ISBN 976-8012-52-8) is a thorough history of calypso’s early years; Donald Hill’s Calypso Calaloo: Early West Indian Music in Trinidad (University Press of Florida 1993, ISBN 0-8130- 1222-8) covers some of the same ground and has a valuable CD attached. Louis Regis’s The Political Calypso (The Press UWI 1999, ISBN 976-640-056-3) deals with the period 1962-1987. Keith Warner’s The Trinidad Calypso is a general introduction to calypso history and development (Heinemann 1983, ISBN 0-4359-8790-9).

There have been some valuable contributions from calypsonians themselves. Calypso from France to Trinidad by The Roaring Lion (Rafael de Leon, who died last year) is a charming book, arguing eccentrically that calypso derived, not from Africa, but from 13th-century French troubadours. Atilla’s Kaiso, by Atilla the Hun (Raymond Quevedo) is full of useful comments and insights (UWI 1983, no ISBN), while Kaiso and Society by The Mighty Chalkdust (Hollis Liverpool) is a more scholarly study (Port of Spain 1986, ISBN 0-9374-2700-6).

Researcher Rudolph Ottley has thrown up plenty of basic resource material in Women in Calypso (1992, ISBN 976-8136- 24- 3) and Calypsonians From Then To Now (Part 11995, ISBN 976- 8136-63-4; Part 2 1998, ISBN 976- 8157-50-X).

Some of the best overviews come in books dealing more generally with Carnival – Errol Hill’s The Trinidad Carnival (revised edition, New Beacon Books 1997, ISBN 1-873-20114-1), Peter Mason’s Bacchanal (Ian Randle Publishers 1998, ISBN 976-8123-65- 6), and John Cowley’s Carnival, Canboulay and Calypso (Cambridge University Press 1996, ISBN 0-521- 48138-4).

Some of these titles were privately published or self-published in Trinidad, but can still be found in local bookstores.