New and Recent Books about the Caribbean (July/August 2002)

The latest books from and about the Caribbean

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PICK OF THE MONTH

The Last Days of St Pierre: The Volcanic Disaster that Claimed 30,000 Lives

Ernest Zebrowski, Jr. (Rutgers University Press 2002, 291pp, ISBN 0-8135-3041-5)

For a month the citizens of St Pierre in Martinique had been bobbing in a rising wave of worry. A few miles above “the darlingest little city in the Antilles” was Mt Pelée, a volcanic peak which had last shown signs of activity 50 years before, and which most people had ceased to consider a threat. Except that through April 1902, and into May, Pelée had given more and more obvious hints of horrible things to come: sulphurous fumes and tremors, then ash-falls, increasingly heavy, then devastating flash floods and mudflows down its slopes. No one knew what would happen next.

Then on May 8, Ascension Thursday, Pelée acted abruptly to end all doubt. Announced by a terrible explosion, a super-heated cloud of gases and ash descended upon St Pierre at 120 miles per hour, demolishing solid stone buildings, setting the city afire (it burned for three days), even sinking ships in the harbour. In minutes the 20th century’s deadliest volcanic eruption had destroyed St Pierre and almost everyone in it.

One hundred years after this disaster, Ernest Zebrowski has set out to tell the full story of Mt Pelée. His title may be sensationalist and his book often reads like a densely-plotted historical thriller — he’s a ripping storyteller — but it’s founded on a solid base of historical and geo-scientific research. He reminds his readers that St Vincent also suffered from this volcanic event: a day before Pelée, Soufrière erupted and killed 2,000 in the north of that island.

But Zebrowski’s greatest interest is in the people of St Pierre, many of whom he resurrects through letters and other surviving documents, and the scientists who studied Pelée after the eruption, some of them nearly losing their lives for the sake of discovery. He also takes up the task of clearing the name of Governor Louis Mouttet, himself killed that day, who traditionally has been blamed for not evacuating the city while there was still time. Zebrowski shows that Mouttet made the best choices he could, given the state of colonial politics and the limited understanding of Pelée’s real danger. St Pierre, it was thought, was too distant from the summit to be harmed by a lava flow, and the phenomenon that actually levelled the city, the glowing cloud of destruction today called a pyroclastic surge, was unknown to vulcanologists before Pelée. After 1902 the mistake would not be made again, but St Pierre’s citizens paid the ultimate price to give this knowledge to the world. (NL)

 

FICTION

Discretion

Elizabeth Nunez (Ballantine 2002, 288pp, ISBN 0-345-44731-X)

A novel disputing the notion that it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, from the Trinidad-born author of Bruised Hibiscus. Oufoula is a dashing young African diplomat stationed in the United States. Into his life stumbles Marguerite, a Jamaican artist living in Manhattan. Their attraction seems predetermined and their passion plays out over the sultry summer of 1968 (or thereabouts), until Oufoula admits he’s married. “Leave,” says Marguerite. “Go home and love your wife.” Oufoula returns to Africa and a brilliant career. But 20 years later they meet again and discover the durability of desire. Once more Oufoula must choose between his stable life of family, career and power, and the vita nuova Marguerite offers. Oufoula’s spare, melancholy narrative voice is sometimes the only thing between this story and the territory of Mills and Boon; and the lovers’ relationship never convincingly advances past the physical, despite extensive romantic exposition. But Nunez’s moral is clear: discretion is the better part of valour, as another old adage claims — though sometimes deceit is the worst part of discretion. (NL)

 

POETRY

Ancestors

Kamau Brathwaite (New Directions 2001, 473pp, ISBN 0-8112-1448-6)

Brathwaite’s risky reinvention of his important trilogy — Mother Poem (1977), Sun Poem (1982) and X/Self (1987) — has much to offer old and new readers alike. The celebrated Barbadian poet has reworked the text in his own hieroglyphic “Sycorax video style” type. His dispossessed speakers habitually declare themselves in free verse dialect. Yet there is little of the parochial about the voices of those who “nevva get no pension from de people”. Here, the Caribbean’s past, present and future are encountered with a sense of melancholy, of inevitability and finally of hope. “Lookin back to the land,” he reminds us, “you wd see that only the tallest trees/are still standin.” The typography is sometimes puzzling; and, though ruminative, Brathwaite is not a metaphysician. His most startling moments are concrete: they evoke a solid appreciation of how and why West Indians of the 20th century expressed themselves as they did, and still do. (RES)

 

HISTORY

Slavery, Freedom and Gender: The Dynamics of Caribbean Society

Brian L. Moore, B.W. Higman, Carl Campbell & Patrick Bryan, eds. (UWI Press 2001, 297pp, ISBN 976-640-111-x)

This volume unites the Elsa Goveia Lectures (an annual series established to honour that pioneering social historian of the Caribbean) delivered between 1987 and 1998 at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies. Thirteen of the region’s most distinguished historians have participated; the range of their research is prodigious, and so are some of their endnotes. But non-scholarly readers need not fear to tread — the way is un-menaced by patches of prickly jargon. (But why no index?) Douglas Hall writes on 18th-century Jamaican horticulture; Woodville Marshall revisits the post-Emancipation labour problem; Bridget Brereton considers the importance of private documents written by women as historical sources; and Hilary Beckles tackles “gender paradigms” in the experience of slavery. Rex Nettleford’s musing on “Our Debt to History” aptly concludes the book. “Part of knowing,” he reminds us, “is knowing one does not quite know. History has an uncanny way of taking us via that route.” (NL)

 

TRAVEL

Where the Sea Had an Ending: A Caribbean Travel Miscellany

Brian Dyde (Macmillan Caribbean 2001, 274pp, ISBN 0-333-75200-7)

Lured by the exotic, travellers from elsewhere have been making the circuit of the Caribbean for 500 years now, many leaving written records of what they saw, heard, smelled, tasted and bought. Brian Dyde, an ex-Royal Navy surveyor now settled in Antigua, has assembled brief excerpts covering all the islands from 43 such accounts, starting with Hakluyt in the 16th century and coming almost up to the present day, with the verbose Victorians providing most of the content. It makes a bountiful bedside book, mentally untaxing yet eccentric enough to keep you awake a few minutes more. Where else will one discover that even in 1888 Trinidad’s Pitch Lake was a “wonder,” “which all travellers are expected to visit, and which few residents care to visit”? Or read of the pet electric eel once kept by a governor of Demerara? Or of the 18th-century Scots soldier in Dominica who lay in his hammock at night reading Smollett’s translation of Don Quixote by the light of three fireflies caught in a bottle? (NL)

 

ART

ARTE: Dutch Caribbean Art

Adi Martis & Jennifer Smit (Royal Tropical Institute/Ian Randle Publishers 2001, 142pp, ISBN 90-6832-514-0/976-637-074-5)

An illustrated survey of “recent developments” in the Dutch Antillean art world, which, according to the authors, has grown explosively in the last decade. The first half of the book sketches a historical context; the latter half fills in details of 12 leading contemporary artists. It’s a dizzying read, not thanks to dazzling contents, but because of the confusing, heavy-handed layout of the bilingual text. Following the historical narrative demands such concentration that one can barely take in the artworks depicted. And many of the illustrations are too small for satisfying scrutiny. Gaze with patience, and some truly intriguing work does emerge: the collages and sculptures of Felix de Rooy; or Ellen Spijkstra’s photograph of an orange ocean tanker spewing bilge water, an unlikely suggestion of a luminous Rothko. But, on the whole, a less fascinating volume than its authors seem to hope. (NL)

 

FOOD

World Food Caribbean

Bruce Geddes (Lonely Planet 2001, 288pp, ISBN 1-86450-348-3)

Wanderlust is served up with gourmandise in this travellers’ guide from the intrepid folk at Lonely Planet. Cheerful, opinionated, and with a nose for local specialties, it presents the cuisine of the Caribbean from Cuba to Trinidad in sections covering historical traditions, region-wide staples (like seafood or peas and rice), shopping tips, and the particular delights of each island, all tastily illustrated with photos. Frequent asides offer anecdotes and recipes, and a glossary translates local ingredients for the uninitiated. Of course, there’s a generous chapter on drinks. Readers should note this is not a restaurant guide: not many individual establishments are mentioned, and the authors hint that rewardingly genuine dining experiences are best found at low-priced eateries and street vendors’ stalls, or in private kitchens. One suspects most foreigners actually prefer the upscale tourist joints, but more daring visitors should dig into this banquet of appetising information. (NL)

 

ALSO RECEIVED

The Mechanics of Independence: Patterns of Political and Economic Transformation in Trinidad and Tobago

A. N. R. Robinson, with a foreword by Dennis Pantin (UWI Press 2001, 207pp, ISBN 976-640-115-2) A new edition of this seminal 1971 study by the former Prime Minister and current President of Trinidad and Tobago

Caribbean Man: Selected Speeches from a Political Career 1960–1986

A. N. R. Robinson (Lexicon Trinidad 2001, 323pp, ISBN 976-631-025-4) A new edition of the crucial record of Robinson’s early political career

Trini Talk

Miguel Browne (2001, 48pp, ISBN 976-8136-61-8) The second edition of a collection of dialect stories and poems by this popular Trinidadian performer, using sly wit to address serious social issues

The Amazing Adventures of Equiano

Jean-Jacques Vayssières (Ian Randle Publishers 2001, 60 pp, ISBN 976-637-029-x) An illustrated retelling, for children, of the famous autobiography of the former slave and abolitionist Oloudah Equiano — a multilingual project, breaking new ground in Caribbean publishing.

 

Reviews by Nicholas Laughlin and Robert Edison Sandiford. Books editor: Nicholas Laughlin