The Acid Tongue
Mike Phillips dances a different tune from Lawrence Scott
Selected By Cyril Wong
This issue’s Acid Tongue looks at Mike Phillips’s review of Lawrence Scott’s Night Calypso, published in the Guardian on May 8, 2004. Let’s sum up and get past the first few paragraphs of this review:
Night Calypso is set on the island of El Caracol, a leper colony off the coast of Trinidad, during the second world war. The island's doctor, Vincent Metivier, is a Creole, scion of a long line of plantation owners…In addition to the lepers, Vincent is asked to care for Theo, a boy who has apparently suffered psychological damage, as a result of which he refuses to speak. At night, however, Theo sleepwalks into Vincent's room and tells his story by instalments, mimicking the voices and behaviour of the people in his memories…Theo's story, however, is the hub of the novel's moral preoccupations…Like Vincent in the novel, the author, Lawrence Scott, is a Trinidadian Creole…the sexual and economic exploitation of Caribbean blacks and the conflict between personal moralities and religious dogma - are recognisable features of his previous work. In Night Calypso, however, he attempts to link them to larger historical events, using the second world war and the growth of industrial militancy in Trinidad as extended metaphors.
Viginia Woolf once wrote in her criticism of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre that Bronte tended to insert blatant hints of a feminist ideology into significant moments of her novel’s narrative. The implication was that an author’s literary skill is undermined by her political leanings. In a way that is not immediately similar when first contrasted, the reviewer shines a light from under the rich text of this Caribbean author to reveal the shadowed skeleton of an agenda to make distinctive a Caribbean literature. This implication runs through the reviewer’s criticism of Scott’s novel, as follows:
It’s a rich brew which turns out to be a great deal less than the sum of its parts. The Theo story is creepily persuasive, but the rest of the novel's elements don't hang together…The two protagonists remain enigmatic, while the attendant chorus, Theo, Singh and Jonah, function as symbolic presences, whose job is to sermonise about history or politics.
The style and language is another problem. During the late 40s and 50s, Caribbean artists and writers began to take on the task of reinventing and describing an identity that was specific to the history and the landscape. They tended to avoid English models; instead, their dominant influences ranged from French Symbolist poetry to American novelists such as Melville and Faulkner. The result was a self-consciously literary style that focused on mythology, detailed descriptions of flora and fauna, and fragmented, non-linear narratives which moved around in space and time.
The poetic mannerisms of Walcott and Braithwaite spring from this background, and Scott's style is a faithful revisiting of the period. He writes with an almost painterly precision about the look of things - the breaking of dawn, the power of the hurricane, the smell of fish, the changes in light and the mood of the sea. On the other hand, Scott's delight in description can seem utterly laborious. It takes two pages for Vincent to undress Thérèse, which is probably good news for readers with a fetish about nun's clothing, but doesn't add much to the book.
Slightly caustic joke aside, the above portion already signals the tendency towards myth-making, symbolism and long-drawn – albeit very often poetic – descriptions. One sees this in Walcott plenty of times. Only an utter and fanatic lover of imagery would tolerate pages and pages of it in Walcott’s poetry.
Mike Phillips gets more evil near the end of his review:
At the same time he insists on recreating everything as a symbol of something, and the result is both too obvious altogether, and not meaningful enough. Theo quotes Melville and the Bible and, sure enough, a beached whale turns up to confront Jonah, while the occasional glimpses of a German submarine are reminiscent of Moby-Dick's mysterious flukes. A turtle lays its eggs on the beach and the baby turtles begin their journey to the water's edge, assailed by a variety of predators. Just like us - geddit?
The last paragraph smacks a little of tokenism in the first line, the sudden need to redeem tellingly short-lived:
QLRS Vol. 3 No. 4 Jul 2004
Night Calypso is unique in being a serious, knowledgeable and beautifully written treatise about a little-known corner of experience and its relationship to a wider world, but in the end its vision is too narrow and its resources too limited for the reach of its ambition.
What's the deal with Caribbean writers? Drip acid in the Forum!
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Return to Vol. 3 No. 4 Jul 2004