Books: Creole and unusual

Fraser Harrison enjoys some literary island-hopping, but feels all at sea without a proper introduction to his guides
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Faber Caribbean Series

edited by Caryl Phillips

Faber & Faber, pounds 7.99 each

Strange Words and School Days

by Patrick Chamoiseau, translated by Linda Coverdale

Granta, pounds 5.99 each

Faber's new Caribbean Series is excellent news. Seen as an organic entity, the literature of the Caribbean has been overlooked for far too long. According to Faber's mission statement, the aim is to give English- speaking readers a better sense of the literary culture that has evolved in the area over the past 500 years.

Yet these books have not been well served by their publisher. They have an orphaned look, having been pushed into the world with little more than stylish jackets and their name tags to recommend them. The jacket copy of Maryse Conde's Windward Heights (translated by Richard Philcox) is a grammatical dog's breakfast, while the copy for A View from the Mangrove by Antonio Benitez-Rojo (translated by James Maraniss) shamefully misnames John Hawkins, the famous Elizabethan slave trader, as "Hopkins".

The Fragrance of Guava, a book of conversations with Gabriel Garca Mrquez, seems at first sight an odd presence in the series. Mrquez, interviewed by an old friend, is not usually identified as a Caribbean writer. Has the book, now in its third British publication, been included out of commercial nervousness on Faber's part, or will the series uncover literary links between writers of the islands and their Latin American neighbours?

Only one of the four Faber titles, Wilson Harris's novel Palace of the Peacock, carries any kind of explanatory material, though it is the book that least needs introducing. It has already enjoyed several British printings and the Guyanese Harris has lived in England for nearly four decades. Unlike the other three authors, he writes in English. Where does this leave Maryse Conde? We are told she was born in Guadeloupe, writes in French and teaches in America, but nothing more, except that she is a prize-winner.

An introduction to Windward Heights, her reworking of Emily Bronte's novel, might have told us where she stood in the long struggle that writers in Martinique and Guadeloupe have undertaken since the 1930s to forge an independent Caribbean aesthetic. The absence of any account of her part in this search for creolite means that the English speaker is bound to give her book a narrower reading, restricted to comparisons with the original.

Conde calls her novel an "interpretation" of Bronte's masterpiece. Transposed to turn-of-the-century Guadeloupe, 50 years after the ending of slavery, it too is a story of obsessional love between a Heathcliff figure, renamed Razye and recoloured black, and a Cathy, the daughter of a mulatto. This Cathy is described voluptuously as being "the colour of hot syrup left to cool in the open air, with black hair like threads of night". The Lintons are transformed into the Linsseuils, a family of rich white plantation owners who share the effeteness of their English counterparts. This tropical landscape hardly resembles Bronte's stormy Yorkshire heathland, but it is no less dramatic and doom-laden.

Conde's plot varies from its paradigm in a number of ways, and her novel turns out to have peculiarly Caribbean concerns. "Living with him," Cathy says in the fateful speech that breaks Razye's heart and turns him into a vengeful devil, "would be like starting over as savages from Africa". The book is about the communal effort to neutralise and grow beyond the different savageries of Africa and of slave-based colonialism, whose poisoned legacy of contempt for colour is soaked into almost every page.

Following her model, Conde tells her story through more than one voice. Indeed, with Caribbean profusion she uses a dozen, all black - maids, nannies, ex-slaves, housekeepers, fishermen. They are the people whose sufferings and despised history must be voiced before a healing culture can emerge.

A similar sense of Caribbean abundance is found in A View from the Mangrove, a collection of stories written in Spanish by Antonio Benitez-Rojo, who is Cuban but now lives in exile in the US. He comments that the stories differ radically because he wants to represent "the historical complexity and ethnic and linguistic diversity of the Caribbean". In fact, they share a ferocious cynicism trained on the men who have raided, colonised and governed these tormented islands over the past five centuries. Here again, English-speaking readers would value an introduction telling us about the state of Spanish-Caribbean literature and Benitez-Rojo's place in it.

By a refreshing contrast, Strange Words by Patrick Chamoiseau does contain an introduction by its author, the Martinican novelist who won the Prix Goncourt for Texaco. These stories are an attempt to reproduce the experience of listening to the Storyteller as he whispers to the slaves at night when the master and his dogs are asleep. He speaks for "a people enchained": with their magic, tricks, disguises and jokes, his folktales provide a kind of handbook to survival in a colonised land. The book is also an attempt to capture the oral essence of the Creole language, which should be impossible. But, judging by Linda Coverdale's translation, he has pulled it off through sheer vivacity and good humour.

Chamoiseau's School Days is an autobiographical account of a small boy, the writer-to-be, who pesters his family to let him go to school. There he is shocked to find that education involves the unlearning of his Creole culture, especially his patois. He and his classmates must speak formal French or suffer the tamarind switch that hangs behind their teacher's head. His linguistic equilibrium is turned topsy-turvy, for ever. A boy called Big Bellybutton resists, pitting Creole legend and spells against the teacher's books. The little boy is silenced at first, but gradually sees that words in books are not gags but agents of mysterious power. His inner world has been sacked, but as he starts to shape letters, without realising it, he traces "an inky lifeline of survival".

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