Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Book 39, St Kitts and Nevis: "Cambridge" by Caryl Phillips

We might have a bit of a gap for a while, since I'm going to Jakarta/Bandung/Yogjakarta for a week come Friday, and I don't really feel like lugging my hardcovers with me. East Indies is East Indies and West Indies is West Indies, and never the twain shall meet.

And really, "Indies" is a good term to use in the case of this book, since Kittitian-British author Caryl Phillips never names the island where it takes place - it's some fictional spot in the Caribbean, in the mid to late 19th century, between the abolition of the slave trade and the actual abolition of slavery itself.

The truly awesome thing about this book, however, is that it's not just a historical novel: it's a historical novel written with the distinctive style of the documents of that era with astonishing verisimilitude of language and style. Sorry, Jean Heyn, this guy blows you out of the water.

Part One's told from the viewpoint of Emily Cartwright, the 29 year-old plantation owner's daughter who makes the sea crossing to manage her father's property, both in terms of land and human livestock. She fancies herself an intellectual: her diary records her anthropological observations of the slaves and their overseers - not unlike Isabella Bird's travel narratives, which I'm reading on my iPhone - and it's lengthy and verbose and flowery and terribly coloured by prejudice, but in the complacent, well-intentioned manner of a person who cannot fathom the idea of a black person as an equal: no demonstrations of excessive hatred, and observations objective enough that damn the slave community as uncivilised in our eyes. It makes us uncomfortable: we want to hate this woman as an oppressor, she even has thoughts of a future lecture tour around the British Isles defending slavery. But we can understand her discomfort and her inability to peer beyond the limits of her class and era.

Then Part Two - better put up a [SPOILER ALERT] sign, because we now find out the unfathomable truth behind a rather minor character, the old slave Cambridge. His section's written in the style of the old slave narratives: think Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, Mary Prince: eloquent and demonstrative of intellect, but brief, summarising everything from his abuction in Guinea as a child to the present in a tiny pamphlet-sized section - but what a story it is! As a young man he becomes a slave in abolitionist England, learns to read and write and converts to Christianity, gains his master's respect, his freedom on his master's death, and gets married to his fellow servant, a white woman, becomes an abolitionist preacher - all the while mingling with the wide array of 19th century black British society, beggars and fops and doxies and merchantmen, barely conceivable to us except that we know that this historical research has been done, that there've been peoples of African descent in the British Isles since the Romans.

And then, when he's kidnapped and sold back into slavery in the Indies, it's his damnable Christian values and principles of propriety that prevent him from being the true rabble-rouser and rebel that the whites believe he is - reading this section we're screaming, don't be a dumbfuck, just kill your master, or at least tell everyone how educated you are, what happened to you! - but no.

And because of that, the tragic ending occurs without Emily even understanding the remarkable figure who's been at her side, who could have knocked some sense into her brain if they'd only talked for more than five minutes. [SPOILERS END]

There's a Section Three as well, but I won't bore you.

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Representative quote:
O lucky Isabella that she never lived to see these shores, never lived to witness the treachery of the negro that some would set free to wreak havoc upon our persons. Their lying subservience, their sly pilfering, their murderous violence, mark them out as very like the Irish, but of an even more childish character. If this overworked land possesses a soul it has indeed been profoundly abused and made to endure much that is evil.

Next book:
Jamaica Kincaid's Mr Potter, from Antigua and Barbuda.

1 comment:

kittitianhill said...

Smart way to know the world through books when Nearly everyone is connected to the web these days.

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