Book Buzz (May/June 2005)

New and recent books from the Caribbean

––Jamaican writer Anthony Winkler reading at the 2004 Calabash festival.

The Carnival is over

Carnival Robert Antoni (Black Cat, ISBN 0-8021-7005-6, 297 pp)

“Laurence de Boissière was once the tennis champion of Oxford. Don’t think I’m too highly impressed by that as a tennis title, but it meant something to Laurence.” Two sentences into Robert Antoni’s new novel, observant readers who know their 20th-century American literature will already be exclaiming, “Aha! Hemingway.” Carnival — Antoni’s fourth book — is part parody of, part homage to The Sun Also Rises, translating that classic story of the “lost generation” of the 1920s to Trinidad in the close-to-present day. Hemingway’s characters Jake Barnes, Robert Cohn, and Brett Ashley become Antoni’s narrator William Fletcher, an aspiring Trinidadian writer living in New York; his old schoolmate and now celebrated poet Laurence de Boissière; and William’s cousin Rachel, connected to him by the force of mutual attraction and the shared memory of a traumatic event years in the past. The three friends meet by chance in Greenwich Village, and after a night of carousing — as the outline of a love triangle starts to appear — they agree to assemble again in Port of Spain a few months hence, for Carnival.

The novel’s second section details the events of that Carnival weekend — the fetes leading up to the festival, J’Ouvert, Carnival Monday, and the grand climax of Carnival Tuesday — in an atmosphere of spiralling excitement and matter-of-fact debauchery that will be familiar to anyone who’s been through the real thing. For Trinidadian readers, the true bacchanal will be the stream of references to actual persons and events (and scandals?), some only thinly disguised. A character called Peter Minshall is a barely fictionalised version of the celebrated Carnival designer. The “real” identities of other characters will be obvious to anyone familiar with the milieu around Minshall’s Callaloo Company. Even an unnamed but clearly recognisable V.S. Naipaul makes a cameo appearance in an audacious comic interlude.

Antoni runs the risk that his readers will be too busy either counting Hemingway parallels or sifting for nuggets of real-life gossip (“did so-and-so really sleep with so-and-so?”) to take in the intricacies of his plot, or notice that behind the old mas lurk powerful forces of racial resentment and misunderstood desire. But in the final section, when Carnival is over and William, Laurence, and Rachel escape to a secluded beach on the north coast, the novel’s dark themes emerge unmistakably, as Antoni creates a sense of foreboding that builds to a violent conclusion. The heady hedonism of Carnival gives way to an assertion of the brutality of history, personal and social. Taboos have been broken; while the merry monarch reins, it seems old prejudices no longer matter. “Isn’t it happy to think so?” But a price must be paid for this “freeness”. And after the music- and rum-fuelled intimacies of Carnival Tuesday, when barriers between strangers seem to dissolve at a glance or the flick of a waist, with Ash Wednesday return desolate truths about human loneliness and the fetters we place on our loves. As Minshall says in the book’s epigraph, “We are all a lost tribe.”

Nicholas Laughlin

 

Remembering Babylon

Book of Memory: A Rastafari Testimony
Composed by Prince Elijah Williams, edited by Michael Kuelker (CaribSound, ISBN 0-9746021-0-8)

“Book of Memory is many things, including an abeng sounding from the margins of the Two-Thirds World.” So says editor Michael Kuelker of this fascinating and timely text, which should be required reading for anyone seeking a peaceful solution for the problems of mankind. The book ventures several steps further than a standard academic text on Rastafari by being grounded in the voice of Prince Elijah Williams, the Rasta elder who has composed it. As Williams recounts a life of hardship, describing with poetic clarity the beatings, jailings, and harassment meted out to his community because of their chosen faith, a broader picture emerges of the poverty, prejudice, and power imbalances that have blighted post-independence Jamaica. Williams and his fellow Rastas are landless peasants whose existence is little better than their ancestors’ a century ago. As Williams tells his story, Jamaica is depicted as bankrupt, rife with guns, its soul sold to the IMF, foreign businesses, and tourism; Rastafari’s contradictory relationship to Christianity is also touched on. Thoroughly engaging and eminently thought-provoking, Book of Memory is a great— but, more importantly, a necessary — read.

David Katz

 

Books at the beach

All literary paths lead to Treasure Beach, Jamaica, once again this May, for the annual Calabash International Literary Festival — a three-day celebration of the written, spoken, and sung word. Now in its fifth year, Calabash promises to live up to its pledge of being the festival of choice for both writers and readers. This year, the grown-up festival will be featured on the cover of Poets & Writers, one of the most influential publications on the American literary scene.

Artfully programmed by poet and critic Kwame Dawes, this year’s line-up promises a diverse range of outstanding artists from the Caribbean and around the world, including Jamaica Kincaid (Antigua), Russell Banks (USA), Dionne Brand (Canada), Linton Kwesi Johnson (UK), Andrea Levy (UK), Alwin Bully (Dominica), Mark Doty (USA), Meena Alexander (India), Amiri Baraka (USA), Roger Bonair-Agard (Trinidad), Manthia Diawara (Mali), Li-Young Lee (Indonesia/USA) and Stacey Ann Chin (Jamaica).

More than a forum for established writers, Calabash 2005 continues its dual purpose of introducing a new generation of budding Caribbean writers and reintroducing Caribbean classics to a new generation of readers. Once again it opens with a reading by members of its writers’ workshops, which take place earlier in the year. This year, chapbooks for six of the poets in the workshops have been published, and were launched at the official festival launch in Kingston on March 11. And as with Roger Mais’s novel Brother Man in 2004, this year Calabash will issue another 50th-anniversary edition of a Jamaican classic that had fallen out of print: John Hearne’s Voices Under the Window. Oliver Clarke, chairman of the Gleaner Company, and Perry Henzell, writer and director of The Harder They Come, will participate in a special reading from the book.

Another highlight of this year’s festival will be a literary programme exploring the lyrics of Jimmy Cliff. (Previous years have featured the lyrics of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh.) The musical theme will continue with the reintroduction of Calabashment — a Saturday night concert featuring four hours of live reggae with major artists, including Jamaica’s Lloyd & We the People Musicians on a separate stage at Jake’s, the resort that serves as Calabash headquarters. Other musicians scheduled to appear throughout the festival include jazz greats Ernie Ranglin and Monty Alexander and reggae superstar Freddie McGregor.

Kellie Magnus

The Calabash International Literary Festival runs from May 27 to 29 at Jake’s, Treasure Beach, St Elizabeth, Jamaica. For more information, visit www.calabashfestival.org