Book Reviews (March/April 2011)

The new books that are reflecting the region right now

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  • Lise Winer. Photograph by Marlon Rouse

A lexicographer’s lifework

Lise Winer has a doctorate in linguistics and teaches at McGill University in Montreal. She is also a character (stress firmly on the second syllable, please; we’re talking “local parlance” here). It was this combination of personality and professional qualifications that perfectly equipped her for one unique, herculean task.

Winer first encountered Trinidadians in her native Canada, and was fascinated by the way they spoke. She was drawn to the country by the colour and humour and outright seductiveness of its language; by Trini ole talk, that is, talk practised as an art form, not for money, but for love.

The same love led Winer herself to embark on what became her life’s work, a dictionary of the language spoken in Trinidad & Tobago that took her over 30 years to compile. There were no previous dictionaries to use as a foundation, and regional counterparts were of limited relevance: Winer estimates that her dictionary overlaps with Cassidy and Le Page’s Dictionary of Jamaican English by only 25 per cent, and it is far more comprehensive than Allsopp’s 697-page Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage.

One reason for this is that Trinidad & Tobago’s ethnic heritage is more diverse than that of any other Caribbean country, and that is reflected in its vocabulary. This dictionary contains words whose origins are, among others, English, French, Spanish, Hindi, Urdu, Chinese, Amerindian, Yoruba, Portuguese, and Kikongo. Then there are words used only or mainly in Tobago, whose history is quite different from that of Trinidad.

At times this book reads more like an encyclopaedia: Winer gives special attention to an idiosyncratic range of topics that includes snakes, the niceties of various games of marbles, kite-flying, food and cooking, and types of pan. Thus, for example, the dos cocorite snake is given 20 lines, and the chickichong kite 34. As if this weren’t enough, there are also separate lists of the scientific names of flora and fauna. This magisterial volume, then, is not merely a collection of words, but a compendium of an entire national culture.

Nevertheless, it won’t settle all the wrangling over local words; for one thing, it won’t solve the perennial disputes over rival spellings. (Unlike Allsopp, Winer wisely doesn’t use Kwéyòl spellings for Trinidad French patois words, because Trinidadians don’t.) Winer generally prefers spellings with better established historical precedents, but includes variations: thus for instance dougla comes first, but she also offers dogla, doogla and douglah, though she employs the root dougla– in subsequent entries such as douglarisation and dougla tonic. (A dougla, by the way, is someone of mixed Indian and African descent.)

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Winer also cites published, oral and recorded sources for each word, sometimes at length. The published edition has been pruned down to just over 1,000 pages from a draft almost twice as long (Disclosure: I had the privilege of being asked to read that draft, and would like to hope that a few of my bold-faced comments had some infinitesimal influence on this final version.)

The result is a towering work of scholarship whose thoroughness and importance are impossible to overstate. But it must also be said that, like any good dictionary, it’s not just useful for looking up words, but is a jolly good read in itself. Its sources range from Nobel laureate VS Naipaul to the weekly tabloid newspaper The Bomb. It defines words and phrases that encompass the amusing and enlightening, the obscene and the obsolete; from abentana,  “the space between four cocoa trees planted in squares, used to plant shade trees and food crops” to zeef, as in the phrase make a zeef, “to show off; make a big impression but with not much serious behind it” – a national bad habit encapsulated in one terse definition.

Dictionary of the English/Creole of Trinidad & Tobago, edited by Lise Winer
(McGill-Queen’s University Press, ISBN 978-07735-3406-3, 1,039pp)

Judy Raymond


A strong dose of comedy 

The Paria Publishing Company is known for producing quality, often beautiful, books on matters relating to Trinidad & Tobago: history, culture, folklore.

So they were kind of overdue for a comedy; they’ve found their material in Trinidad’s Doctor’s Office, a 207-page collection of the writing of one Vincent Tothill, a Scottish physician who lived and worked in Trinidad in the 1920s.

The text is a genuine pelau – and Dr Tothill probably would have approved of that comparison – of deliberate comedy/mockery (the first chapter alone repays the cover price in laughter), observation, biography, travel writing, reportage and medical opinion; but what really makes it worth reading (and hilarious) is the tone the good doctor adopts throughout.

A white man (as the cover design deliberately reveals) living in an island overwhelmingly populated by non-whites, and at a time when few black people owned shoes, Tothill takes his superiority as given and, 90 years later, it reads like a black-and-white minstrel novel. Though he is often outraged by the treatment of the local blacks and Indians by the local whites, not one line in 200-plus pages concedes the humanity of either black or Indian, who are assessed in much the same way the good doctor might contemplate his cattle or domestic pets: the cat is sly and so is the Indian.

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The reader with any sense of decency must be torn between cackling out loud and wanting to file a constitutional motion banning the book, or at least its sale around the times of the Emancipation and Indian Arrival holidays – but the reader with more sense than proclivity to be incensed can’t help but err on the side of comedy and laugh all the way through his or her Equal Opportunity Act prosecution.

Trinidad’s Doctor’s Office Vincent Tothill
(Paria Publishing, ISBN 978-976-8054-76-0, 207pp)

BC Pires



Che: the condensed edition

Few writers would attempt a biography of the most famous revolutionary in the world in less than 500 pages, but Nick Caistor does an impressive job in just 167. And that includes an index, a select bibliography, and photos.

The most disturbing image is that of Che Guevara’s corpse, photographed on the same day he was murdered by a sergeant in the Bolivian army in a small hamlet called La Higuera. Che’s last words to him were (reportedly): “I know you’ve come to kill me. Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man.”

The devil is truly in the details that Caistor highlights: Che’s body was tied to the skids of an army helicopter and flown back to the nearby garrison town of Vallegrande, where it was buried by the side of the runway. And there it remained for 30 years, until the Bolivians finally elected a stable and moderate government that would allow a team of Cuban forensic scientists to search for the remains.

The author’s experience as a former BBC Latin American analyst undoubtedly helped in producing such a succinct yet comprehensive portrait of Guevara. (The Argentine was baptised Che by his fellow Cuban fighters during the guerrilla struggle – they call all Argentines this because the South Americans tag it on to the end of their sentences. The word actually comes from one of Argentina’s indigenous languages, and means “man”.)

Caistor carefully selects key episodes and relationships in Che’s life – the severe asthma attacks that kept him away from school; his mother’s devotedness; his contact with the poor and indigent in his travels throughout Latin America – to piece together this puzzle of a man. Perhaps his indomitable will to overcome asthma and still lead an active life forged the stubbornness that made Che ignore all reason and still attempt to create a revolutionary foco (a small, totally committed group) in the Congo and Bolivia that would win converts and lead a mass movement to overthrow repressive bourgeois rule. He would listen to no one. Not even Fidel Castro. In the end, his determination to help the poor and suffering, admirable though it was, cost Che his life.

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This biography also manages seamlessly to tie in how both Che and the Cuban revolution changed the iconography of the Caribbean, and indeed, the global perspective of socialism and the guerrilla fighter. Of his decision to study medicine, Che once said: “I dreamed of being a famous researcher, of working tirelessly to discover something which could eventually be made available to the whole of humanity, but which in the first instance represented a personal triumph. I was, as we all are, a product of my environment.”

In a sense he did just that: he worked tirelessly to create revolutions against oppression and to live as he believed the new man of socialism should. It was a personal triumph; and both his ideas and his unrelenting will to bring about social reform have been made available to the whole of humanity – again, and beautifully, by this pocketbook portrait.

Che Guevara Nick Caistor
(Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 9780230012509, 167pp)

Nazma Muller