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A brief history of seven readings

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Fifth Bocas Literary Festival enters the third of its five days today and anyone who ever took delight in a Clint Eastwood Western at Globe cinema—or at some genius comment shouted out to the screen from pit during the movie—would probably have a great time if they ambled across to the old fire station and the National Library and checked out one or two of the many free events.

Readers are, of course, the primary target audience of any literary festival, but you don’t have to have read Finnegan’s Wake to really get into, say, either of today’s two films about the work of Nobel Literature prizewinner, Derek Walcott (Poetry is an Island, 10 am, or Yao Ramesar’s The Saddhu of Couva, midday at the library’s AV room) or Hugh Robertson’s (the man who made Bim) film of Walcott’s play, Dream on Monkey Mountain (2 pm AV room), which play was hailed as “the single most important piece of writing ever to come out of the New World” by one critic (me). You might find there is a lot more to Bocas than just books. 

But there are seven books no one should miss getting and/or reading; actually, I have space to deal with only four—not even four—today, one from this year, the others from 2014, but I’ve taken my headline from and prefer to honour the title of the best book written by a West Indian in many years, and the one that is most likely to resonate with world readers longest and most powerfully.

Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings is, at 686 pages in the hardcover Riverhead edition, anything but brief—but anyone who knows anything about writing would tell you it could not be a sentence shorter; every em-dash pays its way. Just to cover the factual ground the book encompasses would require a handful of university departments—history, sociology, politics, perhaps more—and many shelves’ worth of books. 

Taking the shooting of Bob Marley at his own Jamaican home in 1976 as its lynchpin, A Brief History of Seven Killings actually sets out a brief history of modern Jamaica, and explains, within the confines of a hugely readable story, exactly why it took several days and scores of dead to arrest Christopher Dudus Coke in Tivoli Gardens in 2010. 

Several different characters take turns relating it, including non-Jamaican ones, but there is one story: of Jamaica, and of the great hope that it’s son, Bob Marley, the Singer, represented—and of the killing of that hope, Jamaican lack and despair trumping and trampling all before it.

When writers attempt to do much more than write a good book—to sum up the human spirit in one event, or a human life in a single day or in the taste of a single biscuit, or a nation’s modern history in a killing or in seven killings—these books are called “ambitious;” when writers succeed—as Aleksandr Solzenhitsyn did in One Day in the Life of Ivan Nenisovich, or as James Joyce did in Ulysses or as Marcel Proust did in Swann’s Way or as William Faulkner did in Absalom, Absalom!—and as Marlon James has now done in A Brief History of Seven Killings—it is called a masterpiece.

Having a book in contention for the prize against this one this year is like landing the role of Vladimir in Waiting for Godot or Corporal Lestrade in Dream on Monkey Mountain—and then discovering Daniel Day-Lewis has been cast as Estragon or Makak.

Judging by her geometric leap forward from her first (Black Rock) to her second book (A Kind of Eden), Amanda Smyth is well on her way to writing a masterpiece of her own. A Kind of Eden, one of the standout books of Bocas 2014, for me, deals with the primary, persistent Trinidadian issue no government has been able to tackle: violent crime; and the immediacy of its threat. 

In her very well-written book, peopled by real characters you might have sat next to this week, Smyth captures the horror of a violent attack and the ongoing trauma for the victim. 

The real strength of A Kind of Eden, though, is its depiction of naïve, half-formed Trinidadian society, in which someone who invades another person’s home and commits violent criminal acts can think of himself, not just as innocent, but as the real victim.

The other great book touching on Trinidadian crime by a female writer in last year’s Bocas was Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw’s Mrs B Anyone who read Derek Walcott’s daughter’s first book, her short story collection, Four Taxis Facing North, already knew the talent had not skipped a generation. What Mrs B reveals is the depth of the talent and the breadth of the author’s frame of reference. 

Part homage to, and loosely inspired by, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Mrs B feints at Trinidad’s omnipresent crime but its real target is Trinidadian society. 

Walcott-Hackshaw slices and dices Trinidad’s upper crust to reveal its thinness—and then exposes the loaf below to be just as insubstantial.

Walcott-Hackshaw’s writing is passionate—the family love of language itself shows in every paragraph—and she clearly feels great warmth towards her characters, many of whom are intensely likable, despite their flaws. 

But the characters themselves are stuck in a society they seem unable to shape for the better, even if that failure needs must lead to their own extinction. 

In an election year in which the electorate is sure to lose, no matter which political party wins, there can hardly be a more accurate description of modern Trinidad.

BC Pires is so stretched for space he “had was to” contain his appreciation of last year’s non-fiction prizewinner Kei Miller’s Writing Down the Vision to this firetrucking endline.


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