An incisive and witty portrait of Trinidadian society impresses Bernadine Evaristo, who reviews the book for London’s Guardian.
A new novel by Earl Lovelace, now in his mid-70s and a major Caribbean literary figure, is something of an event. And he’s kept his fans waiting a long time: his Commonwealth prizewinning Salt was published 15 years ago. Lovelace is unusual among celebrated Caribbean writers in that he has always lived in Trinidad. Most writers leave to find support for their literary endeavours elsewhere and this, arguably, shapes the literature, especially after long periods of exile. But Lovelace’s fiction is deeply embedded in Trinidadian society and is written from the perspective of one whose ties to his homeland have never been broken. In his new novel, he turns his attention to the remote fictional village of Cascadu and the lives of ordinary individuals whose relationship to politics, their peers and their own weaknesses provide fascinating material.
Beginning in the 1970s and spanning some 20 years, the novel weaves together multiple characters and narratives against the backdrop of a post-independence society where political leaders are self-serving and the villagers are voiceless, often self-defeating. The narrator, Kangkala, is a singer and poet whose narrative voice slips in and out of the extempore style of calypso, creating a breathless stream of consciousness. The novel’s opening lines set up his mischievous role: “My name is Kangkala, maker of confusion, recorder of gossip, destroyer of reputations, revealer of secrets . . . I reduce the powerful by ridicule. I show them their absurdities by parody.” The motif of calypso, with its history of social commentary, protest and praise, is sewn into the novel as Kangkala turns his insightful, bemused eye on the inhabitants of the village.
The young Sonnyboy appears initially to be the protagonist, although as the novel progresses other characters jostle for space and his story is consigned to the sidelines. Abandoned by both parents, he is sullen and resentful and becomes a robber, gambler, fighter and all-round “badjohn”. A turning point comes when he finds an outlet for his anger in local politics, encounters the Black Power Movement and stops hustling. Other characters also undergo radical transformations. Dorlene Cruickshank enters the novel as a cool, beautiful librarian for whom no man is good enough (raised by a father with delusions of grandeur because they had a piano in the house), and she ends up, after a near-miss with death, a renowned healer to whom people flock. Manick, an Indo-Trinidadian, who in the 70s believed in the struggle to empower Afro-Trinidadians, ends up an aspiring politician abandoning his values for vapid platitudes. The novel dips into the lives of numerous other characters, a feat achieved using more summary than scene.
Lovelace’s ever-present humour is imbued with a great sense of the absurd. Sonnyboy joins the “intellectual” Hard Wuck Party that has hitherto been failing to garner support. This is not surprising when we learn that its solution to the nation’s problems is to get people to believe in themselves and to learn the names of all the different species of the nation’s wildlife. In this small, rural community where no one reads, the party’s ideology begins to gain currency. As the party’s new representative in Cascadu, Sonnyboy, now afforded the status he craves, appears in the local newspaper with his own brand of political aphorisms: “The voice of the people is the voice of God . . . Righteousness shall prevail . . . Who don’t want to hear will feel . . . Monkey does always climb the right tree”.
Politics is filtered through those who are self-regarding, power-seeking or susceptible to persuasive speakers and easy solutions. The government is ineffectual, the police its violent instrument for suppressing sedition – real or imagined. When Clayton Blondell, an arrogant pan-Africanist proselytiser, derides Trinidadian culture and gains a following in the village, the narrator, with characteristic perceptiveness, questions why. “Thinking later about what made him an arresting figure, I concluded that it was not only because he did not allow anyone to speak, not certainly because we believed in the simplicity of his accusations, but because we had nothing to say, or, rather, we had been saying nothing. Clayton was filling a space.”
Lovelace is bursting with things to say about this complex, heterogeneous society in the late 20th century. This he does with a flair that at its best reaches a soaring rhapsody. The scabs of racial tension are cautiously peeled back and we witness the community’s loves, aspirations and machinations; their little victories and defeats, their best selves and worst selves. And when things become too difficult, there is always the spirit of carnival that presides over their lives: recuperative, cathartic, communal, celebratory.