New and recent books about the Caribbean (November/December 2002)

–––––––

PICK OF THE MONTH

Selected Writings

José Martí, ed. & trans. Esther Allen, with an introduction by Roberto González Echevarría (Penguin Classics 2002, 462pp, ISBN 0-140-243704-2)

Revered as “the Apostle of the Nation”, the visionary writer-revolutionary José Martí is everywhere in Cuba. Statues and busts adorn plazas, public buildings, schools; his face is on coins and banknotes. Almost every Cuban knows significant passages from his writings by heart. A century after his death, his ideas and rhythms still pervade the island’s everyday life. His astonishingly abundant works take up over 20 volumes in the collected Spanish edition. Yet outside Latin America Martí is barely more than a name, and English-speaking readers until now have had little chance to understand the phenomenon of martianismo.

Esther Allen’s new selection, the most comprehensive English translation yet available, is the chance we’ve been waiting for. Letters, journals, poems, essays, speeches — Martí’s entire indefatigable career is covered. He was 15 when the first revolution against Spanish rule broke out in 1868, only 16 when he was arrested on charges of disloyalty. Deported to Spain in 1871, Martí spent almost the rest of his life in exile. For 15 years he lived in New York, working as a journalist, leading revolutionary efforts in the exiled Cuban community and rallying his countrymen, through his writing, round the ideal of Cuba Libre, free Cuba. To him this meant more than political independence; true freedom required social, racial and sexual equality. But beyond his incandescent nationalism Martí considered himself a representative of all Latin America; much of his journalism, published in Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina, was intended to explain the United States and its boisterous ways to the rest of the hemisphere, recognising the influence the Yanquis would soon wield.

Finally, in 1895, Martí returned to his homeland. The third war of independence, which he had spent his life advocating, broke out; despite his poor health and complete lack of military experience, he joined General Máximo Gómez, leader of the revolutionary army. His War Diaries (never published before in English) are a strange, sombre record of these three months, half historical document, half prose poem. They are also his last work. On 19 May he rode into a skirmish with some Spanish troops and was killed instantly in a volley of bullets. He was an instant martyr. To his countrymen, Martí’s death became the most important event in his life. (NL)

 

FICTION

Creoleana & The Fair Barbadian and Faithful Black

J.W. Orderson, ed. John Gilmore (Macmillan Caribbean 2002, 264pp, ISBN 0-333-77606-2)

First published in 1842, Creoleana launches a new Caribbean Classics series from Macmillan Caribbean, intended to reprint little-known literary works of the past. Orderson’s novel concerns itself with details of life in the colony of Barbados in the late 18th  century. The central plot, the wooing of Caroline Fairfield by young Jack Goldacre, is developed with soap-opera intrigue and sensation; admittedly, this is not what recommends the text. While making no commitment to chronological accuracy, Orderson litters the story with traceable historical incidents and personalities. His portrayal of the white Barbadian upper class as they engage with, ignore or reject the African slave population is revealing in both admission and omission. The volume is rounded out by Orderson’s earlier dramatic work The Fair Barbadian and Faithful Black, a comedy in three acts. The primacy afforded an African character here (the Faithful Black of the title) is remarkable for the time. No less so is Orderson’s unapologetic use of the Bajan vernacular. (AL)

 

Dirty Havana Trilogy

Pedro Juan Gutierez, trans. Natasha Wimmer (Faber & Faber 2002, 392pp, ISBN 0-571-20620-3)

Be careful where you read this book; you’re liable to be swept off your seat by a seizure of manic laughter. But for all the hysteria it induces, Dirty Havana is no light comedy. Gutierez’s solar-plexus-slamming study of post-Cold-War Cuba signals a new development in the Latin American novel, super realism as opposed to the magical realism of Alejo Carpentier and Gabriel García Márquez. This trilogy of cinematic picaresque episodes, delivered with laconic stoicism by a narrator who is usually stoned on marijuana, rum or sex, or preferably all three together, shows outsiders (sex tourists, culture vultures and PC socialists alike) the reality of surviving in Cuba during the early and mid 1990s, when Russian subsidies dried up and Castro’s dreams turned to dust. This isn’t just an X-rated book about the sexiest city in the world; it’s a passionate, sad, sensual and very Caribbean testament to human resilience. (SL)

 

ESSAYS

The Writer and the World

V.S. Naipaul, ed. Pankaj Mishra (Knopf 2002, 524pp, ISBN 0-375-40739-1)

Sir Vidia’s 70th-birthday present: an impressively massive volume of his short non-fiction, with an impressively vague title. Most of these 21 essays are taken from previous books (The Overcrowded Barracoon, The Return of Eva Perón, Finding the Centre) but three were previously uncollected, as was the postscript, “Our Universal Civilisation”, a speech delivered in New York in 1992. It’s useful to have these all together in one place, but certain features of this assemblage are puzzling. Reports from St Kitts, Anguilla, Belize and Trinidad are sorted into a section called “Africa and the Diaspora”; essays on the 1984 Grenada invasion and on Guyana’s Cheddi Jagan in 1991 come under the heading “American Occasions”. (There is no Caribbean section.) Only a single book review is included, despite Naipaul’s reputation as a fiercely brilliant reviewer back in the 1960s. Still, The Writer and the World works as a comprehensive Naipaul sampler, demonstrating the characteristic qualities of all his writing: a critical consciousness of almost painful acuteness; a concern for the fate of the world’s “half-made societies” so urgent as to sometimes appear cruel; a faith in the redemption through individual ambition and effort offered by modern civilisation. (NL)

 

CULTURE

The Barbadian Rum Shop: The Other Watering Hole

Peter Laurie, with photographs by Sue Hume, Maxie Baldeo & Orlando Marville (Macmillan Caribbean 2001, 112pp, ISBN 0-333-79390-0)

This must have been Peter Laurie’s dream assignment: to visit every rum shop on the island of Barbados (about a thousand, he says casually) and “capture in photos . . . a quintessential piece of Barbadiana.” Laurie light-handedly sketches the evolving relationship between the rum shop and Barbadian society: rum was invented on the island 350 years ago, but it was the growth of numerous small villages at slavery’s end that led to an explosion in the number of establishments serving as bars, general stores and informal community centres all at once. A special section contains a pictorial tour of those rum shops Laurie and his photographers took a special liking to in the course of their research — with detailed directions for those readers who wish to corroborate his findings in person. (NL)

 

RECIPE BOOK ROUNDUP

Caribbean Flavours

Wendy Rahamut (Macmillan Caribbean 2002, 216pp, ISBN 0-333-93743-0)

Classic Caribbean Cooking

Sharon Atkin (Hansib 2001, 360pp, ISBN 1-870518-58-6)

French Caribbean Cuisine

Stéphanie Ovide (Hippocrene 2002, 227pp, ISBN 0-7818-0925-8)

A Vegan Taste of the Caribbean

Linda Majzlik (Jon Carpenter 2001, 112pp, ISBN 1-897766-70-X)

As Christmas approaches, tables across the Caribbean become stages for great feats of holiday gastronomy. It’s a good time, therefore, to browse some recent recipe books for inspiration. (They also make super presents.)

Wendy Rahamut, food writer for the Trinidad Guardian and host of a weekly television programme, is as well known in her homeland as are Jamie Oliver or Emeril Lagasse in theirs. Caribbean Flavours is an enticing introduction to her version of fusion cuisine, reinventing traditional dishes through clever combinations of tastes drawn from the region’s abundance of cultural influences. Rahamut’s fresh approach delivers recipes with a thrilling contemporary twist that still taste like home, like breadfruit vichyssoise, coconut curried chicken with lemongrass, or crepes with roasted pineapple salsa. Those who can’t imagine a meal that doesn’t pack a little heat can set their mouths (and eyes) watering with an entire section on hot pepper sauces and chutneys.

Less glossily packaged, Sharon Atkin’s Classic Caribbean Cooking is a reliable introduction to the basics, from Jamaican rice-and-peas to Barbadian coo-coo and Trinidadian doubles. Atkins steers away from elaborate inventions; her cheerful and straightforward recipes will best be appreciated by novice cooks, or at least those new to the strong flavours of the Caribbean. Nervous beginners would do well to start with the ample drinks section. A couple of stiff St Lucia cocktails and they may even be ready to attempt Dominica’s famous Fricassee Crapaud.

Back in the 19th century, cooks from the French islands were generally considered the best in the West Indies; it was the height of fashion for wealthy households in the other islands to have Martiniquan and Guadeloupean mesdames commanding their kitchens. It seems les Antillaises still take matters of the table more seriously than their neighbours. Stéphanie Ovide’s French Caribbean Cuisine, like all classic French culinary texts, infuses elements of poetry and metaphysics into the purely practical science of ingredients and techniques, as it makes its rigorous way from avocado omelette and breadfruit soufflé to dishes such as Vivaneau au Roucou (snapper in a roucou sauce) and Tourment d’Amour des Saintes (a sort of exalted coconut custard pie).

There are at least two native strains of vegetarianism in the Caribbean, associated with Hinduism and Rastafarianism, and many of our popular dishes are easily incorporated into a meatless diet. Linda Majzlik’s Vegan Taste of the Caribbean goes a step further, demonstrating that a diet eschewing all animal products, including eggs and milk, need not be dull fare. Her main courses include a mixed veggie jerk and christophene curry with dried fruit, and her rice dishes are especially succulent. Boldly deploying the range of flavours available to Caribbean cooks, Majzlik creates a range of dishes even dedicated carnivores will enjoy. (NL)

 

Reviews by Anu Lakhan, Nicholas Laughlin and Simon Lee. Books editor: Nicholas Laughlin