Caribbean Bookshelf (September/October 1998)

New and recent books about the Caribbean


Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among The Converted Peoples

V. S. Naipaul (Random House 1998: ISBN 0-375-50118-5)

One gets used to travel books in which the traveller-writer plays The Comedian, or The Intrepid Adventurer, or the Universal Expert, or some other entertaining but heroic role. Naipaul by contrast claims he is making himself invisible. He is developing a kind of travel writing where the traveller-writer is a barely-present “discoverer of people, a finder-out of stories”. He calls these books “cultural explorations”, not travel books. He interrogates a wide range of people, presents their stories as his main material, and welds the narratives together with brief and skilful commentary. In this way, Naipaul compiles a huge picture out of small details; he warns the reader against drawing “conclusions”: the point is in the stories. In Beyond Belief, Naipaul revisits four Islamic countries — Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia — through which he travelled in 1979-80, and about which he wrote in Among The Believers (1981). Then, he was sceptical about the ability of Islamic states to develop viable modern systems. Now, stressing that these four countries are converted, non-Arab, countries, his interest lies with the dislocation beneath an official, imposed ideology: displacement, unrootedness, zeal, legalism, ruptured pasts, fragile Islamic identities, volatility, jihads. The result, as you can imagine, is rather different from sending (say) Bill Bryson or Redmond O’Hanlon to Baghdad. His method demands from the reader time, space, thoughtfulness, attention to detail. Naipaul is deeply serious, rarely allowing himself a joke; he appears on the page only as the worried man with the notebook, anxious about appointments, reconstructing each day’s long and complex encounters. This stance is only half convincing: it is Naipaul’s personal perspective that makes the book so rich. Not just his endless curiosity and empathy, his ruthless independence of mind: but his own existential concerns. Naipaul is a Caribbean writer who grew up in a displaced Indian community in a British colony and became a British literary knight; dislocation and exile have been his great themes. No wholly western writer could have written this book, or shed such light on the grim headlines that poured from these four countries in 1998. (JT)


My Brother

Jamaica Kincaid (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1997; ISBN 0-374-21681-9)

Born and raised in Antigua, Jamaica Kincaid became a domestic servant in the United States, a star contributor to the New Yorker, and an exceptionally fine writer; she lives in Vermont with a new name and a new family, and five outstanding books already to her credit. All of them are fiction except one, A Small Place, but they all work out Kincaid’s tortuous relationship with her homeland, her mother, and her feelings about her childhood. This, her sixth book, is structured as a memoir, about the death in 1996 of her younger brother Devon, who had stayed in Antigua and played out many of the stereotypes of Caribbean male machismo, from drug use to crime; he also became a Rastafarian. He died of AIDS, forcing Kincaid into a turbulent re-engagement with her old life as she visited him, found a doctor for him, brought him AZT, and later discovered his hidden, homosexual side. The book is another bulwark against pain: “I became a writer out of desperation,” Kincaid concludes, “so when I first heard my brother was dying I was familiar with the act of saving myself: I would write about him. I would write about his dying.” This she does in prose so controlled and timeless that it becomes almost biblical in its hard-won simplicity and far-sightedness, even when it takes insistence to risky lengths of repetition and complexity. The facts become an extended meditation on the nature of love, death, meaning, families, survival. Any man — any human being — would be blessed to provoke this depth of testimony. (JT)



Sheik M. Hassan Aniff & Universal Bookstore, Guyana

This glossy magazine, for all its brevity (44 pages), is an attractive collection of images and brief histories of some of the landmarks of Guyana’s capital city, Georgetown. It features Guyanese architecture at its most gracious and beautiful. The buildings, State edifices and official residences, cathedrals, commercial offices and Grand Houses, are almost all constructed with the timber for which the South American republic is famously proud. There are numerous colour photographs, displaying frontal views that reveal high ceilings, airy Demerara windows, intricately carved awnings and jalousies. The magazine was conceptualised, designed and edited by Aniff, who credits Lennox Hernandez of the Department of Architecture at the University of Guyana for the data and research. The information is interesting and provides good, useful background for the curious visitor. (VB)


Pan Soul Vibrations

(J.P. Andrews, 1997; ISBN 0-9681312-1-2); Bareback Pan Sticks (1997; ISBN 0-9681312-2-0); Crackshot (1996; ISBN 0-9681312-0-4)

Jesse Peter Andrews

This trilogy of poems dedicated to the steelpan is a rather soulful rendition of the author’s deep passion for uplifting the culture surrounding the instrument. In three slim volumes, booklets almost, Andrews hammers away at the issues surrounding pan’s survival and raises his many concerns over its nature and future. If at times his fervour seems to overwhelm his poetry, it is because he is absolutely consumed by this concern for the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago. He has also illustrated each anthology. (VB)


Anastasia The Anteater and Other Stories

Janet Jagan (Peepal Tree, 1997; ISBN 1-900715-09-0)

This collection of 10 children’s tales blends the traditional story-telling elements of adventure, morality and fantasy with Guyanese history and culture. Janet Jagan, the current President of Guyana, dedicates the book to her children and grandchildren, to whom she says the stories were first related. Some of the stories, as in her first two collections, When Grandpa Cheddi Was A Boy and Patricia The Baby Manatee and Other Stories, give little interesting insights into the personality of her now deceased husband, the former President of Guyana, Cheddi Jagan. For this collection, in one of her stories, Rima — the Singing Bird, she relates how the fireworks at a previous year’s Independence celebrations had almost scared the roosting birds at the Botanical Gardens to death; and how the sensitive Commander-in-Chief had heeded Rima’s request to move the fireworks display, thus saving the birds. The book is simply illustrated by J. Simmons and Hawley Harris, and is presented in pretty much the same way as its two predecessors. Because these stories are so deeply rooted in Guyana, and because they have evolved from a grandmother’s story-telling rituals, they conjure up images of a darkened Caribbean bedroom and a little rapt child being guided gently into dreamland. And for that alone, as every parent knows, it is worth the investment. (VB)

Highlight Jamaica

Dave Saunders (Macmillan 1997; ISBN 0-333-69326-4)

This is an enticing overview of Jamaica from an outsider’s perspective. Colour photographs of major sites and attractions carry the text through its consideration of aspects of the island’s life. At times Saunders’s tone approaches that of the geography textbook and one wonders what exactly is the task he has set out to achieve. Would it be too much to demand more than the mere scratching of the surface that is on offer here, even within the confines that this kind of text provides? However, this is not to belittle the author’s achievement; there is much to be extracted from this tour in pictures, if not words, of Xaymaca, the Arawaks’ “land of wood and water”. If every journey begins with one step then Saunders shows us through his stunning photography what we might see if we placed our feet in his tracks. (SM)