Ian Thomson reviews Earl Lovelace’s new book

Thomson reviews Is Just a Movie  by Earl Lovelace for the Financial Times.

Trinidad, where Earl Lovelace was born in 1935, is an island of  bewildering mixed bloods and ethnicities. Chinese, Lebanese, British, Jewish, Indian and aboriginal Taino Indian have all intermarried to form an indecipherable blend of Caribbean peoples. In some ways, this multi-shaded community of nationalities was a more “modern” society than postwar Britain, where Trinidadians had migrated in numbers during the 1950s and 1960s. British calls for racial purity often puzzled these newcomers from the Anglophone West Indies, as racial mixing was not new to them. Trinidad remains a nation both parochial and international in its collision of African and European cultures.

Over the 50 years of his writing career, Lovelace has chronicled the racial and cultural diversity of his birthplace with affection and a sharp-eyed humour. His best-known novel, The Dragon Can’t Dance (1979), offered a wildly exuberant paean to Trinidad’s carnival traditions and the calypsonians who challenged British rule in the wake of the second world war.

His latest novel, Is Just a Movie, is set in post-independence Trinidad and reprieves the theme of calypso as a weapon of black self-empowerment. In 1970, dramatically, Trinidad was convulsed by the Black Power Revolution, when it was hoped that Africa and African culture would provide an antidote to the “defilement” of the British period and redeem the black masses of Trinidad.

Influenced by the example of the African-American race activist Stokely Carmichael, the 1970 uprising came close to toppling Trinidad’s ruling prime minister Eric Williams. Following island-wide strikes, extra-judicial police killings and grotesque acts of political violence, the “PM” (as Williams is referred to here) was forced to embrace a dilute form of Black Power and rehabilitate a notion of Mother Africa in his cabinet policy.

Only then was it thought the poor of Trinidad be could be rid of the servility ingrained in them by centuries of slavery. Wretchedly, however, that was not before Black Power had branded the island’s paler-skinned Lebanese, Indians and Chinese as “lackeys of imperialism” and in some cases had them murdered. Such are the turbulent events behind Is Just a Movie.

The narrator is a disaffected singer-musician called KingKala, who finds in Black Power a reformist vision of the West Indies without race hierarchies or colonial prejudice. His domino crony and fellow calypsonian, Sonnyboy, is a “badjohn” drifter and jailbird figure for whom playing in a steel band and composing songs of praise to Fidel Castro and Malcolm X is synonymous with political action. They are joined by third militant, VS Rouplal, whose initials impishly recall those of Trinidad’s fiercely anti-Black Power novelist, VS Naipaul.

Around this trio of “back-to-Africa” brethren revolve such old-fashioned themes as friendship, love and betrayal. In their different ways, all three men are eventually transformed by their experience of black militancy. Having gone to jail for contesting “PM” Williams and his cabinet, Sonnyboy settles to a life of humdrum domesticity with his partner Sweetie-Marie. VS Rouplal, for his part, abandons his Black Power politics in order to migrate to Canada, where he is unmasked as a small-time gambler with a trumpery academic degree.

For Lovelace, calypso reflects Trinidad’s hybrid collision of roots and cultures. After independence in 1962, the music drew on a variety of sources, from news headlines to film themes to Ellingtonian jazz-inflected Chinoiserie. Black Power, by contrast, is portrayed as ultimately narrow-minded in its insistence on the wickedness of the white man and its Afro-centric view of Egypt as a biblical land of milk and honey. The novel’s Stokely Carmichael figure, Clayton Blondell, is pooh-poohed for his conviction that carnivals and steel bands are as nothing compared to “the kings and queens of Egypt”.

Written in a vigorous, patois-inflected prose, Is Just a Movie celebrates the lives of other characters caught up in the ferment of 1970. The narrative scissors confusingly backwards and forwards in time, yet it memorably documents a period of “dreams and vitality” in Trinidad’s history, when Black Power was briefly in the ascendancy and, in the space of just one year, the island went through an accelerated cycle of political temptation and folly. A piquant if uneven work, Is Just a Movie confirms Lovelace as a master storyteller of the West Indies.

Ian Thomson’s ‘The Dead Yard: A Story of Modern Jamaica’ (Faber) won the 2010 Ondaatje Prize and the Dolman Travel Book award

The review can be found at http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/16920e66-19e2-11e0-b921-00144feab49a.html#axzz1B3RChDFN

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