A New World Odyssey

James Ferguson on Omeros, by Nobel Prizewinner Derek Walcott

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The decisions of the learned people who hand out the Nobel Prize for Literature can sometimes be slightly mystifying. But in 1992, they made the right choice when they selected Derek Walcott for the award. In the year that marked the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Caribbean — and all the seismic cultural change that the “discovery” involved — the nomination of St Lucia’s great poet and playwright fitted the occasion perfectly.

In the press release announcing the award, the committee particularly mentioned the “majestic Caribbean opus” published only two years previously. This work, Omeros, was the culmination of Walcott’s already long and distinguished literary career. In the preceding three decades, he had produced an impressive corpus of poetry and drama, establishing himself as one of the world’s leading poets. But Omeros was something altogether more ambitious and astonishing: a modern Caribbean epic.

What do we understand by epic, and how can this term be applied to a late 20th-century piece of poetry? First perhaps, there is the question of length, and here Omeros comfortably fits the dictionary definition of “a long poem”, with its seven books of 64 chapters filling 320 pages of metrically precise three-line verses. But the term suggests more than sheer quantity, implying a certain nobility of style, a heroic theme, the idea of a large-scale conflict or momentous journey with universal ramifications. For here, consciously or not, we are influenced by the timeless Greek classics of The Iliad or The Odyssey, works whose breadth of vision and human intensity have ensured their survival as foundations of Western culture. Their author was Homer, Omeros in Greek, the blind chronicler of the Trojan War and Odysseus’s heroic journey home to Penelope.

In its very title, Omeros points directly to a poetic tradition and to a set of identifiable themes: war, bravery, the collapse of empires, the intercession of the gods. And these themes, one might think, are hardly relevant to a small Caribbean island such as St Lucia, famed mostly for its beautiful landscapes and bananas. Castries, after all, is a long way from Ithaca; it is a world of all-inclusive beach resorts, far removed from that of Greek galleys and one-eyed Cyclops.

Yet the bridging of this apparent gulf, or the fusion of the epic genre into the contemporary Caribbean, is precisely the goal of this ambitious and suggestive work. For Walcott, not unlike Homer, takes a profusion of material — documented, mythic, historical and autobiographical — and orders it into a single, unified poetic structure. To build this structure, the contemporary poet borrows unapologetically from the Homeric tradition, calling not only on his blind predecessor as narrative voice, but also on his classical protagonists: Achilles, Hector, Helen.

The Greek heroes and heroines of old are reborn in Omeros as characters in a small St Lucian fishing village. Here, Helen, the enigmatic waitress and domestic servant, is every bit as beautiful and beguiling as the daughter of Zeus who famously launched a thousand ships. She leaves Achille, a humble fisherman, for Hector, his former friend who has moved up in the world by buying a taxi van. Hector, with all the inevitability of a tragic hero, will meet his nemesis in a road accident, while Helen, pregnant with his child, finally returns in a scene of moving reconciliation to Achille. Achille, for his part, has in the meantime undertaken a symbolic journey of self-discovery, an ordeal, in which, stunned by sunstroke, he returns to an ancestral Africa and to a long-lost father figure.

The emotional trials of the protagonists are paralleled by other conflicts and tribulations of the heart, soul and body. Philoctete, the reincarnation of the snake-bitten Philoctetes, has his own unbearable and seemingly incurable wound to bear in the form of a stinking lesion on his leg. If the Greek hero is cured by divine intervention and surgical skill, the crippled plantain farmer finds his remedy at the hands of Ma Kilman, owner of the No Pain rum shop and obeah woman versed in the secrets of herbal magic. Major Plunkett, residual personification of St Lucia’s imperial past, must also carry his own pain, when his wife Maud dies. Here, too, Ma Kilman can provide solace, for as a medium she enables the widowed Plunkett to communicate across death’s void with his beloved wife.

There is much more to this vast and complex work than a clever reconstruction of Greek myth in a tropical setting. Walcott’s purpose in appropriating the epic tradition is not merely to create parallels and allusions for their own sake, but to show, without any trace of making an obvious “political” point, that ordinary people can and do live extraordinary lives, that heroism and grandeur are not the exclusive preserve of distant civilisations. That his characters include a waitress, a fisherman, a taxi driver and a pig farmer merely underlines the implicit idea that those normally ignored by history and literature contain within their unchronicled lives the stuff of epic romance.

This notion that the seemingly humble conceals the exceptional is also transferred onto Walcott’s native St Lucia, for in many ways the poem is a lyrical exploration of this small island’s tumultuous and tragic history. Not for nothing was it named “the Helen of the West Indies”, as British and French armies struggled for a century or more to conquer its beauty. Into his story of village passions, Walcott weaves the wider historical thread of Caribbean history, the genocide of the indigenous Amerindians, the horrors of slavery, the grandiose naval battles that raged around this much-desired colonial outpost. Plunkett, by no means an unsympathetic character, represents that colonial history and, in the process, a part of Walcott’s own genetic and cultural make-up, for here, as in much of his other work, Walcott meditates on his own mixed ancestry and, by extension, the hybrid nature of the Caribbean itself.

There is a powerful theme of reconciliation in the latter part of Omeros: Helen returns to Achille, Plunkett comes to terms with Maud’s death (and continued spiritual presence), the poet accepts his multifaceted identity and his relationship with St Lucia. At Maud’s funeral the main characters, including the narrator, are united in a shared grief and a strengthened sense of community that transcends the divisions of the past:

I recognized Achille. He stood next to Philoctete

in a rusted black suit, his eyes anchored to the pew;

then he lifted them and I saw that the eyes were wet

as those of a boy, and my eyes were watering too.

Why should he be here, why should they have come at all,

none of them following the words, but he had such grace

that I couldn’t bear it.

Far-reaching in its range of suggestions and references, Omeros is truly epic both in its completeness as a poetic vision of the Caribbean’s past and as a narrative of human frailty and resilience. In drawing on the timeless motifs of classical mythology, it irresistibly suggests the universal nature of suffering and redemption while, most appropriately for the quincentenary of Columbus, reminding us that the Caribbean stands at the crossroads of world history.