Books: A nice little slideshow in Sevenoaks
Sunday 21 February 1999
eds Stewart Brown and John Wickham, Oxford pounds 12.99
It is every writer's nightmare. In 1986, Sam Selvon, Trinidadian author of the tragi-comic masterpiece The Lonely Londoners, had just stepped on to the platform of the Commonwealth Institute to read from his latest novel, Moses Ascending. Suddenly a huge Guyanese woman known as Dancer climbed up and slapped him round the face, outraged by what she saw as that book's sexist portrayal of female Black Power revolutionaries. Selvon never recovered from the humiliation: embittered by his lack of public recognition, he had emigrated to Canada in 1978 after almost three decades in England; after this debacle he was to write no further novels. He died in 1994.
Dancer's lunatic outburst - today's academics would probably describe it as a "critical intervention" - recalls those bathetic scenes in Selvon's earlier fictions where feisty immigrants mount soapboxes at Speaker's Corner to berate white Londoners for their racialist attitudes, only to be heckled and shouted down by their own friends. And Caribbean literature itself has always been inflated by magniloquent grandstanders who talk tough but act small. Nonetheless, Selvon's retreat from centre stage mirrored the fall from grace of many West Indian writers in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Andrew Salkey, George Lamming, the mystical modernist Wilson Harris, even grouchy old V S Naipaul (dubbed V S Nightfall by Derek Walcott) - those authors whose post-war novels had signalled the birth of a serious Caribbean literature - all fell out of fashion. Sales waned. Inspiration dried up. Some relocated to the tenured slumbers of North American universities.
The 1990s, however, have been boom years for Caribbean writers. Walcott - regularly cited along with Heaney, Brodsky and Les Murray as one of the world's finest poets, won the Nobel Prize in 1992, and now collaborates with Paul Simon on over-ambitious Broadway musicals. Naipaul's crepuscular canon won him the inaugural David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's work and, in the process, a sizeable chunk of the vast fortune which, according to Paul Theroux's recent biography, he ceaselessly craves. In France, the Martiniquan writer Patrick Chamoiseau racked up huge sales for his Prix Goncourt-winning novel Texaco. In this country Faber recently launched their own Caribbean series, edited by the novelist Caryl Phillips, which seeks to expose celebrated authors from the non-English speaking Antilles such as Antonio Benitez-Rojo and Maryse Conde.
is a vast cruise-liner of an anthology which picks up writers from literary ports as diverse as Florida, Puerto Rico and Holland. This relaxed attitude towards patrolling creative borders allows for the inclusion of such well-known authors as G Cabrera Infante and Gabriel Garca Mrquez (though not, for some reason, the Dominican Junot Daz, whose fantastically wired collection Drown has been deservedly successful). It also recalls Mrquez's claim that the Caribbean is a cultural and historical terrain which stretches down to the north of Brazil and up to the Mississippi basin familiar to readers of Mark Twain and William Faulkner.
Spanning most of the century, the book kicks off with the spick-and-span, neck-tied colonialisms of Frank Collymore, founder of Bim, one of the region's most important literary magazines, before spooling through the socialist realism of C L R James, Fifties folk revivalists Jan Carew and Andrew Salkey, the emergence of women writers such as Olive Senior and Jean "Binta" Breeze in the 1970s and 1980s, right up to Chamoiseau. The cast of characters rarely changes: stingy farmers, stickybeaking village neighbours, cocksure philanderers, clerics who struggle to exert piety on islands full of rum-sodden cricket obsessives, gorgeous, light-skinned women who capitivate crack-footed peasant boys. Certain themes recur: the lure of exile and the disappointment of return; the need to resurrect historical consciousness; the damage caused by the precise colour-coding which inflects every aspect of social and ethical life in the Caribbean.
The anthology's copiousness is, ironically, the source of its own undoing. For while its historical sweep and its suggestions for wider reading make it a useful primer for prospective students of West Indian literature, it also confirms the suspicion that the appeal of these stories is largely academic. By exploiting the lash and lick of the creole register, the authors largely avoid the sub-Wordsworthian parrotry that has deformed most early Caribbean writing. Yet few of them make effective use of form. V S Pritchett once described the short story as "something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing". Too many of those collected here aren't glimpses so much as painstakingly researched slideshows staged in Sevenoaks village halls by well-meaning ex-colonial administrators.
Qualities we normally expect from short stories - menace, a certain intensity, moments of revelation - are absent. Like ageing Continental footballers imported to the Premier League, celebrated novelists such as Mrquez turn in happy, if lightweight, cameo performances. Jam- aica Kincaid, meanwhile, is represented by her bowel-quakingly awful ululation "Blackness" ("The blackness enters my many-tiered spaces and soon the significant word and event recede and eventually vanish: in this way I am annihilated and my form becomes formless and I am absorbed into a vastness of free- flowing matter.")
Lesser-known writers contribute the best and most joyously excessive stories: Rosario Ferre's "When Women Love Men" is a prostitute's wild monologue which needily paeans her former lover; in "Goodbye Mother" by Reinaldo Arenas, the grief-plagued daughters Ofelia, Otilia, Odilia and Onelia slay themselves in front of their dead mum only for their corpses to occasion a series of triumphant choruses from the legion of rats and maggots who feast on the putrefactory banquet.
Neither of these authors, nor the equally talented Rene Depestre and the former Dominican President Juan Bosch, is Anglophonic. It's often believed that the very best Caribbean literature in English consists of historical polemics (J J Thomas's Froudacity, an attack on the Oxford historian J A Froude; C L R James's Beyond A Boundary), and post-war novels (Wide Sargasso Sea, A House For Mr Biswas). The meagre pickings offered by this anthology - especially when set against the viscerality and galloping abandon of a Ferre or an Arenas - do nothing to dispel this impression.
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