Thursday, September 23, 2010

Book 25, Belize: “Beka Lamb” by Zee Edgell

This is a bit of a step down from the national epic of Asturias, but it’s a welcome step. Beka Lamb is one of those lovely interior novels that describes a nation’s culture through a single woman’s largely domestic life. In this case, the woman is year-old Beka, a black high school student keeping a wake for her dead friend Toycie in 1960s Belize - scratch that!, I mean British Honduras.

It’s a familiar setting: multi-ethnic, colonial and faintly grubby, like ‘60s Singapore, like ‘60s Malaysia, like sometime French Polynesia. Young girls here attend convent schools with strict yet empathetic nuns, counting themselves lucky to be educated rather than confined to household servitude, dreaming of golden futures as career women while the dangers of handsome boys lurk at their fertile feet.

So yes, maybe it’s a story I’ve heard before. But Edgell writes her cultural landscape so beautifully: stories of the veiled nuns arriving with the missions; the evenings harvesting and eating mangoes and cashews; the petty prejudices of the Caribs and the Mayas and the bakras and the panias; the Creole dialogue; the crash of the waves on the lighthouse dedicated to Baron Bliss, the crippled Englishman who gave his fortune to the colony; the horror stories of the Tataduhende, the thumb-stealing dwarf; the stinking canal bordering Holy Redeemer Cathedral; the great hurricane itself. It's a whole universe. Wish I had that eye for detail.

Methinks there's too much politics, though. Sure, the arguments between the father and the grandmother about independence and Governors rounding up the people for sedition have their place in history, but they don't quite fit in with the rest of the tale - or is that my chauvinism speaking? Why shouldn't politics fit into a woman's coming of age story?

But one thing there's a pleasant surfeit of is food. I revel in the casual lists of cuisine brought about by a meeting of British, Mexican and Caribbean influences: fried barracuda crayfish foot, red snappers stewed in coconut milk, peppered oranges, breadfruit, yams, honey buns, creole bread, relleno soup, red kidney beans with rice, escabeche with hot tortillas, potted meat sandwiches, calves' liver and onions, crushed avocado, salted pigtails, roasted pumpkin seeds, custard apples, craboos...

(Yes, I did compose most of this post before dinner. Why do you ask?)

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Representative Quote:
'I know. But nothin' lasts here, Beka,' her Gran answered. Her eyes looked funny. 'Things bruk down.'
'Ah wonder why?"' Beka asked, bringing the conch and minced habanero peppers to the stove.
Her gran leaned the fork carefully against the frying pan, pushed the window over the back stairs, and propped it open with a long pole. Then she said,
'I don't know why, Beka. But one time, when I was a young girl like you, a circus came to town. I can't remember where it was from, and don't ask me what happened to it afta. The circus had a fluffy polar bear - a ting Belize people never see befo'. It died up at Barracks Gren, Beka. The ice factory broke down the second day the circus was here.'
Beka's Granny Ivy was crying. Her apron tail was over her face, and she said again and again,
'It died, Beka, it died.'
The conch fritters had burned.

Next Book: Octavio Paz's El laberinto de la soledad, from Mexico. In the original Spanish, too! Wish me luck!

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