Bookshelf (May/June 2002)

New and recent books about the Caribbean

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PICK OF THE MONTH

Frantz Fanon: A Biography

David Macey (Picador 2001, 640pp, ISBN 0-312-27550-1)

Forty years after his death, who is Frantz Fanon? David Macey begins with this question, and a consideratio-n of what one might call his subject’s “afterlife”. In his home island of Martinique; in France, which claimed him as a citizen; in Algeria, for whose freedom he fought, Fanon is increasingly neglected. A handful of streets and schools are named for him, but few know the significance. It’s in the English-speaking world, particularly the United States, that Fanon’s life and works remain significant. Here he is more read now (in faulty translations) than ever. But Macey suggests our standard ideas of Fanon are based on two stereotypical figures: the “revolutionary Fanon” of The Wretched of the Earth, ideologist of violent revolution, adopted as a sort of patron saint of Black Power in the late 1960s; and the “post-colonial Fanon” of Black Skin, White Masks, an icon of identity politics currently in vogue in cultural studies departments. Neither of these characters does Fanon justice. Macey turns instead to historical facts to assemble the story of a more complicated, more subtle, more interesting man.

Fanon’s career as a psychiatrist was central to his thinking. Treating patients with “North African syndrome” in Lyon in the 1940s illuminated his own experience as a black man in Martinique. From this grew his essay on racial alienation, Black Skin, White Masks. Later, posted at a psychiatric hospital in Algeria, Fanon encountered both Algerian victims of torture and French policemen who had acted as torturers, after the war of independence exploded in 1954. He treated both sets of patients with equal concern, though his sympathy was always with the Algerian cause. His case notes document horrific depths of violence that had become commonplace. The Wretched of the Earth, written after Fanon resigned from his post (and published just before he died of leukaemia in 1961), is his diagnosis of the psychopathology of colonialism. The only cure was the fight for freedom, and Fanon did not flinch from accepting the forms this might take: “violence is a cleansing force.”

Yet to those who accuse Fanon of advancing a doctrine of hate, Macey points out that his subject’s anger (“a truly Fanonian emotion”) was justified by the indecencies and atrocities he witnessed, and that this savage indignation cohabited with great generosity of spirit. Fanon was always a humanist, devoted to the idea that “man is a yes”. Macey gives him to us also as an intensely human being. (NL)

 

FICTION

Mona and Other Tales

Reinaldo Arenas (Vintage 2001, 190pp, ISBN 0-375-72730-2)

In the constellation of 20th-century Latin American literature, Cuba’s Reinaldo Arenas is only a third- or fourth-magnitude star, but his reputation has burned rather brighter since his memoir Before Night Falls was filmed two years ago. Here, basking in these rays, comes a collection of Arenas’s short stories, most appearing in English for the first time. They range from his first published work, written in the 1960s, to longer tales written towards the end of his life in the 80s, in American exile. The earlier stories are often panoramas of a society in revolution, or portraits of young men discovering the sweet-and-sour solitude of outsiders and artists. The title story, about a temptress who haunts Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum, is an eerie fable of artistic immortality, festooned with Borgesian footnotes. Best of all is “Halley’s Comet”, recounting the further careers of the five daughters from García Lorca’s play The House of Bernarda Alba. They flee to Cuba, living in ascetic repression until the conjunction of a comet and an unexpected visitor exposes them to the magically real power of love. (NL)

 

POETRY

Travelling Mercies

Lorna Goodison (Ian Randle Publishers 2001, 96pp, ISBN 976-637-068-0)

The poems in Lorna Goodison’s seventh collection are full of singing: joyful, mournful, hopeful; travel songs of those longing for home, or those whose homes will never be found again, even

the call and response of the Pleiades
singing sweet constellations.

Her travellers are ordinary women and men in Kingston’s Coronation Market or on a Greyhound bus speeding for Detroit, but also extraordinary beyond themselves, “all misplaced beings . . . true selves ripped from the world book/of myths”. So the humpbacked man a little girl meets outside the market may be the divinity Legba, placing the gift of prophecy on her tongue. And on a dark road in the bowels of the earth, the poet meets her teacher Mr Brown, transformed from Dante’s Brunetto Latini (in a masterly and moving translation of canto XV of the Inferno). These are poems of rare balance and profound lilt, “small deeds of love for the world” and for all of us, all singing for the mercy to travel on. (NL)

 

ESSAYS

A New World Order: Selected Essays

Caryl Phillips (Secker & Warburg 2001, 309pp, ISBN 0-436-20560-2)

“History dealt me four cards; an ambiguous hand.” The Caribbean, Britain, the United States, Africa. These four places are the cardinal points of Caryl Phillips’s world, marking the territory he has explored in his novels and non-fiction. This collection of essays is a series of forays into the ambiguity of being “of, and not of” these places. Other writers and their work are his chief subjects: Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Nadine Gordimer, Naipaul, Walcott, Linton Kwesi Johnson and a dozen others. What these figures have in common (and have in common with Phillips) is the restlessness of exile, jerking between identities and cultures, even within their home countries. This is by now, let us admit, well-travelled ground; displacement is a major theme of post-colonial writing. Phillips’s breakthrough, achieved through sharp observation and furious contemplation, is the creation of an imaginary home, everywhere and nowhere; he charts the “high anxiety” of belonging to such a place. “In this new world order, nobody will feel fully at home.” (NL)

 

HISTORY

Port Royal Jamaica

Michael Pawson & David Buisseret (University of the West Indies Press 2000, 264pp, ISBN 976-640-072-5)

The authors describe Port Royal today as “an unspectacular little town”, but with the aid of this book, it is possible to reconstruct that infamous place from the arrival of the English in the middle of the 17th century and the great earthquake of 1692, to its gradual decline in importance as a military and commercial centre. While the research here hardly substantiates Port Royal’s almost ostentatious reputation for debauchery and wickedness, detailed accounts of maritime activity (including privateering), trade and urban growth create a clear picture of the early Caribbean town. A number of maps, sketches and other illustrations attempt to further clarify the evolving topography of the site; unfortunately, many have lost something in reproduction. Painstakingly cross-referenced, Port Royal Jamaica offers a nuts-and-bolts method for re-imagining a more glamorous and daring past. (AL)

 

BIOGRAPHY

The Elusive Eric Williams

Ken Boodhoo (Prospect Press/Ian Randle Publishers 2002, 302pp, ISBN 976-95057-1-4/976-637-050-8)

Thirty years after his death, Eric Williams, Trinidad and Tobago’s first prime minister, is the object of undampened popular curiosity, yet many aspects of his life remain tenaciously hidden, and no biographer has dared attempt a full-scale life. The title of Boodhoo’s study hints at his intent as well as at his daunting chief impediment. He tries to “unmask the man behind . . . the dark glasses and the hearing aid”, to comprehend the private person behind the public persona, but to do so Boodhoo has had to pierce the veil of secrecy obsessively woven by Williams himself, and long maintained by his friends and associates. The psychological portrait he presents is of a man both single-minded and conflicted, an affectionate family man and a cold political player, a brilliant scholar with limited emotional understanding of those near him, and a leader proclaimed “father of the nation” to his dying day, even as he withdrew in disillusionment from the people he had struggled to give voice to. (NL)

 

NATURAL HISTORY

The Snakes of Trinidad & Tobago

Hans E. A. Boos (Texas A&M University Press 2001, 270pp, ISBN 1-58544116-3)

Snakes are probably the most feared animals on the planet. Forty-seven species are found in Trinidad and Tobago, at least two unique to Tobago. In Trinidad, home to four venomous species, all snakes are unfortunately still assumed to be deadly and therefore killed, though most are harmless or even helpful. This guidebook includes for each species sections on scientific description, habitat and range, local names, behaviour and folklore. Lively personal and reported anecdotes, as well as numerous colour and black-and-white photographs, add to the interest. A mini-history of local herpetology includes references to snakes in Trinidad and Tobago as early as 1665, and describes the work of local field naturalists in the late 19th century. The author discusses both scientific and popular controversies: just how long is the longest anaconda? Why were so many pet rainbow boas named “Jack”?  Do traditional snakebite antidotes really work? A remarkably thorough and readable work. (LW)

 

MUSIC

Jamaican Warriors: Reggae, Roots & Culture

Stephen Foehr (Sanctuary Publishing 2000, 239pp, ISBN 1-86074-314-5)

Jamaica’s foibles and contradictions are so bewildering to outsiders that distorted accounts are the norm in written work. Colorado-based travel writer Stephen Foehr grasps the bull by the horns in examining such contradictions head-on, creating an engaging text full of perplexing imagery and historical detail, relayed as a humorous travelogue. Foehr has a knack for describing the kinds of experiences white outsiders encounter on the island, from the sickly sadness of Negril’s unnatural hedonism to the protracted religious reasoning and endless haggling of a group of Nyabinghi drummers. He traces the liberating elements of reggae, but also takes to task the homophobia and misogyny currently in vogue. Unfortunately a few things get lost in translation: founding politicians Alexander Bustamante and Norman Manley have their roles reversed; Scotch Bonnet hot peppers appear as Scott Bonnie. Otherwise, a highly enjoyable book. (DK)

 

ALSO RECEIVED

 

Caribbean Islands Handbook 2002

Sarah Cameron (Footprint Handbooks 2002, 1072pp, ISBN 1-900949-89-x), the 13th edition of this encyclopaedic tourist guide, covering the region from the Bahamas to Bonaire

A Fading Rainbow

Roland P. Joseph (Authors Choice Press 2001, 251pp, ISBN 0-595-17999-1), a novel about a Trinidadian woman unravelling and reweaving the pattern of her life.

 

Reviews by David Katz, Anu Lakhan, Nicholas Laughlin and Lise Winer. Books editor: Nicholas Laughlin