Caribbean Bookshelf (November/December 1997)

New books for and about the Caribbean

Barbados: Thirty Years of Independence

ed. Trevor A. Carmichael (Ian Randle Publishers, Jamaica, 1996; ISBN 976-8123-18-4)

Barbados gained its independence from Britain in 1966. Thirty years later, a leading Barbadian attorney put together a collection of articles from a variety of contributors in different areas of life–scholars, teachers, writers, activists–assessing the island’s progress. Here are DeLisle Worrell, Martin Williams and Neville Duncan on Barbados’s economy and politics; chapters on health, the church, education, sport and labour; Kathleen Drayton on art and culture, John Wickham on “Literature and Being Barbadian”, editor Trevor Carmichael on law, environment and development. The result is a state-of-the-nation survey, a detailed snapshot of Barbados after the first generation of independence, and a valuable reference point. (JT)

Historical Dictionary of Trinidad and Tobago

Michael Anthony (Scarecrow Press 1997; ISBN 0-8108-3173-2)

Novelist Michael Anthony has long had a second role as a writer–he is one of the most prolific historians of Trinidad and Tobago. Pestered for many years by parents, students and researchers for information or advice about things historical, Anthony saw the need for a single comprehensive reference book that would cover not only major historical events and cultural institutions but “people whose activities have in some way made a difference to this country, for better or worse”. So he jumped at an invitation from Scarecrow Press to add a Trinidad and Tobago volume to their series of Latin American historical dictionaries, and the result is a comprehensive book of nearly 700 pages, complete with a historical summary and an extensive bibliography. It works as a dictionary does, so you find the Jamaat al Muslimeen rubbing shoulders with C.L.R James, the steelband pioneer Tony Williams next to the country’s first Prime Minister Eric Williams, and Stokely Carmichael, the Trinidad-born black power icon of the sixties, jumping up on the same page as Carnival, separated only by the Carnegie Free Library. This is an extremely useful reference source; perhaps now Michael Anthony can change his phone number and get on with his next novel. (JT)

Quick Fixin’ Recipes

Wendy Rahamut (Trinidad and Tobago, 1996)

Wendy Rahamut runs a popular cooking school in Trinidad and writes a food column for the Trinidad Guardian. This book–a basic and practical production, self-published–is a collection of her recipes. It has a very Trinidadian sort of authenticity: it’s concise and to the point, it concentrates on easy-to-do dishes, it exudes enthusiasm for food, and it embraces practically anything that tastes good, adding a good Caribbean twist along the way. So a pragmatic creole Delicious One Pot Chicken Dinner rubs shoulders with a falafel prepared with yogurt mint sauce, a Thai beef curry done with coconut milk, and Sizzling Burgers. The book is available in good bookstores in Trinidad and Tobago. (JT)


Wilson Harris (Faber and Faber, 1997; ISBN 0-571-17773-5)

“I drifted into what seemed an abnormal lucidity upon chasms of time. The price one pays for such voyages is far-reaching” opines Francisco Bone to W.H, whose “sympathies for voyages of the Imagination” have prompted him to turn over (t)his “Dream-book” manuscript. Timid readers farewell! Wilson Harris –his flashing eyes, his floating hair!–probes the mass suicide of Jonestown, Guyana, “by immersion in the terrifying legacies of the past and the wholly unexpected insights into shared fates and freedoms such legacies may offer.” This novel, which opens rather charmingly with the narrator, “Jonah” Jones, and Marie Antoinette (sic) “clutching a mystical cup or grail of music from which she had drunk milk and sugar and deadly cyanide,” takes the long way round–examining the event via the Mayan concept of calendrical “twinships” a sort of urNietzchean idea of repeated historical moments), musing on the tribal instinct, ghosts (“we all have ghosts in this country for fathers”), Alcatraz, brothels, Moby Dick, celestial mathematics and a score of other unpredictable connections, in a bizarre but often brilliant excursion into the historical territory that underlies Jones, Guyana, imperialism, violence and death. Wilson Harris is the Wallace Stevens of the Caribbean novel: always discernibly on the edge of meaning, grandmaster of the lingering phase, a mystic who can use the language of a child when it serves, yet capable of the most daunting obscurantism. Unlike Resurrection at Sorrow Hill which headed straight for impenetrability and stayed there, this novel has enough sanity–not least its several fascinating vignettes of a pre-Independence Georgetown–in it for the squeamish to clutch at when the high tide of reverie comes in. (bdC)

A Mouldy Destiny — Visiting Guyana’s Forbes Burnham

James W. Ramsahoye (Minerva Press, 1996; ISBN 1–86106–130–7)

Long after Forbes Burnham’s death Guyana is still recovering from his tyranny. Scourge of the middle-class and an intrusive controller of its major institutions, Burnham created social, political and economic rifts that refuse to go away. Nowhere are these more evident than in the decay of Guyana’s education system. Once the pride of regional educators, its schools are a deepening national shame: failure rates in all subjects have soared since the Burnham era. In this book, James Ramsahoye constructs a fictional dialogue between himself and Burnham’s ghost while attending the 150th celebration of the founding of Queen’s College — arguably Guyana’s finest secondary school. Cobbling together programmatic notes from Burnham’s writings (the title is a pun on Burnham’s A Destiny to Mould), Ramsahoye probes the Burnham legacy erratically, but fails to make sense of it. Amateurish prose, unforgivably bad doggerel and strange lapses of taste and judgement mar what could have been an interesting survey of Guyana’s darkest years. Instead, a self-serving and pretentious literary style soon exhausts all but the most indulgent reader. Ironically, the book’s failure is itself a poignant example of Guyana’s cultural emasculation at Burnham’s hands. One need only peep at Mittelholzer, Carter, Harris, even Carew, to see how far removed from even elementary literary competence this book is.

The Bounty

Derek Walcott (Faber and Faber, 1997; ISBN 0–374–11556–7)

If you felt a thrill at “the padded cavalry of the mouse” in Walcott’s early Ruins of a Great House, you will savour this collection. Sensuous details are everywhere: “the fading morse of fireflies and crickets”; the glide and twitch of “New creatures ease from earth, nostrils nibbling air”; the “rustling archery” of sea palms; illustrated pigeons that “gurgle epigraphs/ for the next chapter”, and the image of standing “like an exclamation on a page of white ground” in a European winter. The title poem, an elegy for his mother Alix and the poet John Clare, arguably does for elegy what Omeros did for epic. Praising Walcott’s “enchantingly Ovidian wryness and sense of nostalgia,” no less an authority than Professor John Bayley has written that: “Elegy makers of the past would admire almost as a new variation on the form’s technique the way in which sorrow for his mother makes him hate the lines he is writing in her memory.” Elegant tinkering with traditional forms is Walcott’s trademark. At least thirty of the other thirty-seven in the volume poems hymn the Caribbean past that has shaped him, in enviably beautiful language: I am considering a syntax the colour of slate,/ with glints of quartz for occasional perceptions and/ winking mica for wit. There are moments when the diction feels overwrought, and lines narcissistically fine tuned — ever a sunspot of Walcott’s lyricism. But have no doubt about it, here is one of the century’s great poets writing at the height of his powers.

Blessed is the fruit

Robert Antoni (Henry Holt and Company, Inc.; ISBN 0-8050-4925-8)

This dustjacket should win a prize for Most Effusive Blurbs (“dreamily stimulating…captures the Caribbean voice…better than any novel since A House for Mr Biswas”;”unfailing eye, exquisite humour, and astonishing insight”); in fact, before you even open the book you know the literati have deemed this A Good Thing. Dissent seems futile. Certainly , if you admired the phantasmagoric mythic/linguistic confusion of Divina Trace, or are fond of Mr Antoni’s adjectival largesse, this is your novel. The plot begins with an abortion attempt–with a pair of large sewing scissors, no less–by Velma Bootman, black maidservant to Lilla Grandsol, the lady of d’Esperance mansion. Then, as the women tell their stories to the child in long dreamlike narratives, the divisions between them (black/white, rich/poor, master/servant) are swept away in the human drama of their pasts. If you survive the shocks of the first chapters and reach the long reminiscences, suddenly the blurbs start to make sense. Lilla’s adolescence is written mesmerically: her perilous sexuality (she masturbates while saying the rosary), her seedy father, long suffering mother, her infatuation with Dulcieanne, the maid’s daughter–brilliantly evoke the swansong of colonialism in the Caribbean. Vel’s monologue is less convincing, and it takes a while to get used to the apostrophized Bolom, the unborn child. And a heady blend of Joycean dreamwork, Catholic mischief and Trinidadian dialect make the novel a slippery fish at the best of times; but persevere and Antoni’s “roar of mythological force” may take you to blurb-writers’ heaven. (BdC)

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