Anthony Winkler: Funny sad stories

Kim Robinson Walcott on The Annihilation of Fish and Other Stories, by Anthony C. Winkler, originally published in the Caribbean Review of Books

  • Anthony Winkler

The Annihilation of Fish and Other Stories by Anthony C. Winkler (Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 1-4050-2639, 174 pp)

Readers familiar with the novels of Jamaican writer Anthony Winkler have come to expect a certain quirkiness and outrageous humour in his work. This collection of short stories does not disappoint. Most of the stories are funny — both funny ha-ha and funny peculiar. They are filled with the usual eccentric behaviour by seemingly ordinary people that has characterised most of his novels.

Some themes in these 20 stories are familiar. The first in the collection, “Preliminary Report”, is a policeman’s report of an accident in rural Jamaica where an American tourist killed by a speeding truck and his companion turn out to be immortal, and are horrified by the Jamaicans’ concepts of God, death, heaven, hellfire, and damnation. God, for these strange foreigners, is gentle, ever-loving, and ever-forgiving — reminding one of the peenywally God which Jamaican shopkeeper Baps has difficulty getting used to in Winkler’s novel The Duppy (1997). Similarly, the story “Unconventionality” explores the distortions of Judaeo-Christian morality — as manifested in Father Chen’s rigid (no pun intended) disapproval of his parishioner’s addiction to clutching her husband’s penis to prevent insomnia.

The stubborn fisherman Baba in “The Man Who Knew the Price of All Fish” may be familiar as a character type to those who have read The Painted Canoe (1983), Winkler’s first published novel, and in fact Baba was the germ of Zachariah, that novel’s main protagonist. Baba’s story was written much earlier than the others in this collection, and, though well written and well constructed, it lacks the ease of telling that Winkler later developed. However, “The Man Who Knew the Price of All Fish”, like The Painted Canoe and Winkler’s second and most popular novel, The Lunatic (1987), gives a sensitive and insightful portrait of a member of the struggling, dispossessed black majority. Other stories — like “The Happy Days of Dog Eat Dog”, “A Sign of the Times”, and “The Thief” — laugh at the pretensions and arrogance of Jamaica’s middle and upper classes, as did Winkler’s novels The Lunatic and especially The Great Yacht Race (1992). And, like The Lunatic, the most moving of these stories, “The Thief”, wryly juxtaposes the sense of vulnerability of these classes with the real vulnerability of the underprivileged majority surrounding them.

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In his autobiographical work Going Home to Teach (1995), Winkler spoke of his discomfiture as a migrant in the United States — hence his decision to go home to Jamaica to teach after many years abroad. Many of the stories in this collection deal with Jamaican migrants to the US, most of whom are unhappy, some of whom return to Jamaica. In “The Big Picture”, the migrant Chester struggles to understand how to “play the game” American-style in order to keep his job. “Absentee Ownership of Cows” is one of the more hilarious of these migrant stories (and clearly delighted the audience when read at the Calabash Literary Festival in Treasure Beach, Jamaica, earlier this year). Alfred Hutchins, an elderly Jamaican widower living in Georgia (which, incidentally, is where Winkler resides), lonely and frustrated by a culture he does not understand, keeps getting letters from “A. Cow” in Jamaica, requesting politely that he return to the island to “release [it] from despicable absentee ownership and [to correct] unsatisfactory past treatment”. Finally, Alfred can take this cow harassment no more, and returns home. On arrival, he says to his dead wife, with whom he has been having frequent conversations, “You know, Thelma, de cow was right. Jamaica give us life. We give our strength, our children to America. And what we give to Jamaica? Our old bones.” He dies that very night.

There is a lot which is very new about this collection, even when Winkler is reworking familiar themes. There is a sadness in these stories that lingers long after the laughter has ceased. In “Hard Woman”, Winkler shows the other side of alienation in a foreign culture: an American woman living in Jamaica is not understood by the locals, and dies a lonely death. Death in fact lurks in the background of many of these stories, but, in defiance of its shadow, the stories often attempt to come to grips with life’s meaning and negotiate a sense of purpose. In “Dawn Song”, a woman living in America returns home to Jamaica for a wedding, and is forced to face her aging and her mortality. In “The Annihilation of Fish”, the elderly Fish wrestles first with loneliness then with the devil in a seedy California rooming house. His friend Poinsettia, equally eccentric and equally lonely, eventually comes to understand that Fish’s fights with the devil are his motivation for living. (This story was recently made into a film starring James Earl Jones as Fish, Lynn Redgrave as Poinsettia, and Margot Kidder as the landlady. However, distribution wrangles have prevented its general release to date.)

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In “The Cultivator Who Lost His Heart”, the most allegorical story in this collection, a farmer loses his heart, and so his sense of compassion, and finds himself “haunted by the unchanging, everlasting and persistent nothing” which alienates him from his community. He loses his heart, and eventually recovers it, in an area called the Land of Look Behind. And, indeed, many of these stories address, in one way or another, a coming to terms with one’s past. In “The Chance”, a migrant who has prospered in the US comes home to Jamaica to his father’s funeral and finds that the grave digger is the man whose chance to go abroad he stole 40 years earlier, when he persuaded someone to give him a job on a ship that had been promised to his fellow villager.

Some stories are particularly poignant. For example, in “A Trip to Paris”, a hard-working couple find success in America, but work pressures have long prevented Ancel from giving his wife Monica her heart’s desire: a trip to Paris. Finally, after many years and many cancelled trips, he forces the space in his hectic work schedule. But it is too late.

“The Story of the Fifth Boy” is the saddest in the collection. A sensitive boy who goes bird-shooting with his schoolfriends kills a petchary by mistake. The event plunges him into despair, and eventually he commits suicide. The story is about coming of age, about Jamaican male codes of macho conduct (“During the sad service, I think all of us bird-shooting boys felt like crying . . . but we held ourselves back. I don’t know why, but that’s just the way Jamaican boys are. They just don’t cry”), about misfits in society (“A quiet boy, Bruce acted most of the time as if he had blundered into the wrong life and couldn’t find his way out”), about people alienated in a foreign culture (Bruce is Canadian). Ultimately, the story paints a desperate, dark picture of life; yet asserts the necessity of creativity, of literature, in the midst of this darkness and uncertainty:

We are being swept downstream by a relentless river of time. Ahead is a vast ocean of approaching darkness. Behind is the flicker of hazy recollection. We huddle marooned in the present, where life is uncertain and filled with constant death.

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No longer boys, the four of us have long drifted away from Bruce, the petchary, and that day in August 1955.
All that tethers their memory to this moment is this frail string of words.

The discovery of multiple layers of meaning beneath the surface of humour is nothing new for Winkler. But, unlike the author’s previous works, these stories leave, after the laughter, lingering impressions of loneliness, homesickness, alienation, yearning, regret, and an awareness of mortality and death. This collection reveals a new dimension to Winkler’s writing — a new sensitivity, a new sadness. The string of words may seem frail, but it is actually disturbingly powerful.


Reproduced with permission from the Caribbean Review of Books (CRB), August 2004. Copyright Media & Editorial Projects Ltd (MEP) and the CRB.