Book reviews (January/February 2003)

New and recent books about the Caribbean

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The Autobiography of Alfred H. Mendes, 1897–1991

Alfred Mendes, ed. Michèle Levy (UWI Press 2002, 192pp, ISBN 976-640-117-9)

The painful conflict between an artist’s creative ambitions and the facts of his everyday life is at the heart of Alfred Mendes’s autobiography, finally published more than a decade after his death. The author of Pitch Lake and Black Fauns, Mendes was a crucial figure in the development of early 20th-century West Indian literature. (So the critics agree, but it’s a faint kind of praise; almost no one reads his novels nowadays.) The first 30 years of his life almost seem scripted to provide a keen young writer with material for his fiction. Mendes was born in Trinidad in 1897, the descendant of Portuguese immigrants. His mother died when he was 15; a few months later his father sent him off to school in England. Young Alfred was so happy there that he had to be forced to return home at the outbreak of the First World War. In 1915, barely 18 years old, he enlisted in the British army, desperate to experience more of the wider world.

His account of three years on the battlefields of Flanders is the book’s most gripping section, recording the horrors of trench warfare with a spare matter-of-factness which is the gift of distance (Mendes was writing 60 years later). His return to Trinidad in 1919 triggered a decade-long creative spurt, in which he wrote his two published novels, formed the influential Beacon group with friends like C.L.R. James and Albert Gomes, and grew notorious as an anti-Catholic polemicist in the merciless Divorce Bill debate (he even fled to Grenada for a short time, to escape prosecution for blasphemous libel).

In 1933, eager for literary success of a kind the West Indies could not offer, Mendes sailed to New York. The next seven years were the most rewarding and the most disillusioning of his life. His intelligence, his “swagger and bravura”, eased his way into Manhattan’s bohemian literary circles, where he fraternised with the likes of William Saroyan and Langston Hughes; he was for a time a close friend of Malcolm Lowry. He also met a young woman named Ellen Perachini, who was to become his wife of 53 years. But the United States was in the throes of the Great Depression; first Mendes was unable to find work to support his new family, then his application for US citizenship was denied. Finally, the decisive moment — was it a failure of nerve or of talent, or both? — was his loss of confidence in his writing. He burned the manuscripts of six unpublished novels, and prepared to return to Trinidad.

A short concluding section presents the rest of Mendes’s life, a whole half century, as a long anticlimax, the achingly prolonged decline of his early promise. He prospered in the world of commerce, got involved in Trinidad politics, raised his sons, and in old age retired in Barbados: a decent life, but not the one he intended when he grasped his literary vocation as a young man. Then in his 70s he sat down to write this autobiography. It took two major attempts, and some portions were never completed. The result was a study in brave, realistic regret. Autobiography’s animating spark is honesty. These pages glow defiantly with that fire. (NL)


The Polished Hoe

Austin Clarke (Ian Randle Publishers 2002, 467pp, ISBN 967-637-100-8)

Author of 14 books of fiction, Barbados-born, Toronto-based Austin Clarke is an admired elder figure in both Caribbean and Canadian letters. This new novel may be his most ambitious effort yet at imaginative exploration of the Caribbean experience. The Polished Hoe is the confession of Miss Mary Mathilda, an aging woman on the island of Bimshire, housekeeper and onetime mistress of the powerful sugar planter Mr Bellfeels — who she claims to have murdered. Told largely over the course of a single long night containing traces of many long nights, through a conversation encompassing the many conversations that make up a life, this is a daringly conceived microcosm of West Indian history and a society’s collective memory of colonialism. Above all, it is an epic of the individual spirit defying despotic fate and striking a blow for freedom. (NL)


Sketches of Amerindian Tribes, 1841–1843

Edward A. Goodall, with notes by M.N. Menezes (Macmillan 2002, 88pp, ISBN 0-333-99585-6)

In July 1841 a young Englishman named Edward Goodall sailed out to British Guiana. He had, on short notice, been named official artist to the Schomburgk expedition surveying the colony’s vast interior. Goodall’s commission was to record with his watercolours the way of life of the Amerindian peoples inhabiting this territory. For two years, travelling across the headwaters of the Essequibo and the Corentyne, Goodall painted the men and women of 14 indigenous tribes, and the landscapes they inhabited. A selection from his four folio volumes was published by Guyanese historian M.N. Menezes in 1977; this is a revised edition. A 21st-century reader naturally comes to this book with certain qualms: how can we trust the vision of this imperial observer, the filters of his prejudices and preconceptions (as we preconceive them)? But Goodall’s aim was an uncondescending visual truth. He never represented his subjects as caricatures or types; what shines out from these portraits is the strong, varicoloured light of human nature, captured with penetrating insight and delicate skill. (NL)


Beyond the Front Page: A Caribbean Journalist Remembers

George R. John (UWI School of Continuing Studies 2002, 271pp, ISBN976-620-171-4)

George John joined the Trinidad Guardian as a cub reporter in 1936. Sixty-six years later, he’s still active in journalism — an astonishing record in a profession never easy on the mental constitution. He’s been editor of the Trinidad Express, of London’s Weekly Gleaner, and of Trinidad’s Daily Mirror during that newspaper’s brief, heady existence; he was press secretary to Eric Williams in the volatile early 70s, UWI lecturer in mass communications in the 80s, then at an age when most people are happy to give in to quiet retirement he agreed to run a radio station in Dominica. Along the way he’s managed to win the true affection of colleagues up and down the region. Clearly, to call George John the dean of West Indian journalists is not rhetorical flattery! His new memoir, written with characteristic charm and showing off an enviably keen memory, is the account not just of an extraordinary career, but of an extraordinary faith in the journalistic ideal. And John is a writer still far too lively to put away his pen just yet. (NL)


After the Dance: A Walk Through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti

Edwidge Danticat (Crown 2002, 158pp, ISBN 0-609-60908-4)

“We paint what is missing in our lives,” a Haitian painter says, explaining the preponderance of lush landscapes in the art of his denuded country. Edwidge Danticat has tried to achieve something like this in her works of fiction, and now in this meditation on carnival in the town of Jacmel in southern Haiti. The author, herself a dyaspora, picks at the international media’s anti-Haitian paint — poverty, Aids, refugees — to reveal the hidden masterpiece: a place and people rich in culture and history, and a spirit that allows them, for a few days at least, to dance beyond their troubles. Hers is a journey of confrontation and acceptance, though at times a bit too determined to wring meaning out of every incidental happening. Haiti’s carnival does not differ greatly from others in the Caribbean. What’s remarkable is not what it is; given Haiti’s troubled existence, the real miracle is that it is. (AL)


Gendered Realities: Essays in Caribbean Feminist Thought

Ed. Patricia Mohammed (UWI Press 2002, 537pp, ISBN 976-640-112-8)

The text-bookish title does no favours for Patricia Mohammed’s new anthology — a pity, because strewn among the stodgy academic stuff are some very realistic portraits of Caribbean societies, rendered in engaging prose. Journalists Kathy-Ann Waterman and Kim Johnson offer vivid, unapologetic reports of two women from Trinidad’s underworld, one a drug-baron’s woman in the 1990s, the other a notorious flag-woman from Carnival’s wartime outlaw days. “Grandma’s Estate”, a look across four generations of women from the Jamaican collective Sistren, is as beautifully written as it is honest. Mohammed does well to include these non-academic voices; accessible and palatable, they speak directly where the theorists can only allude. Even among the more scholarly pieces, there are some — most strikingly, Merle Hodge’s “We Kind of Family” — in which a typically Caribbean frankness replaces the stilted jargon that too often characterises academic discourse. Analysis of gender relations, however abstract or complex, is rooted in lived experience; this collection makes a happy meeting space for both kinds of voice. (AL)


A Guide to Plants in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica

Susan Iremonger (UWI Press 2002, 280pp, ISBN 976-640-031-8)

The Caribbean region is one of the world’s most botanically diverse, with something like 6,500 endemic species, yet it remains under-scrutinised by scientists, and the shortage of reliable field guides is a frustration for enthusiastic amateurs. Susan Iremonger’s new book fills a small, significant part of that gap, covering over 400 species from the upper montane rain forests of Jamaica’s Blue Mountains. This is not a field guide for complete beginners; some knowledge of botanical terminology is necessary for successful use of the identification keys, and most species (all the trees, shrubs and climbers) are illustrated only with line drawings. Herbaceous plants get colour photos, not always of the best quality. (Full-colour illustrations, painted by an expert artist, are the ideal, but would have sent the price up through the forest canopy.) This is nonetheless a valuable resource, required reference for professionals and those amateurs willing to take a little trouble. (NL)


Reviews by Anu Lakhan and Nicholas Laughlin. Books editor: Nicholas Laughlin