I hate to abandon books, but I had to do just that with this one earlier this year, not because it’s not good – far from it – but its structure is so fluid and complicated that I found it difficult to read a bit at a time. Luckily, recently I had a day free to start it again and read to the end in one sitting.
It’s a novel that begins by recreating a time of turbulence in the early 1970s in Trinidad following the Black Power revolution which nearly brought down the government of Eric Williams. But at the same time as documenting the sense of injustice which fuelled that rebellion, it also gives those of us who’ve never been to Trinidad an idea of the world that helped foment that revolution, and which survived it. And it does so by telling us a myriad stories from the mundane to the fantastic. Stories that you can inhabit and absorb.
I suppose if it’s ‘about’ anything, it’s about community, identity and self-respect. The phrase ‘Is Just a Movie’ comes from the episode when a big American film is being made in Trinidad and many of the main protaganists sign up to be extras, playing grass-skirted natives.
The trouble is, the narrator, Kingkala, a Calypso singer, and another protagonist, Sonnyboy resent being told how to act their deaths. They’d prefer to die in style. The director halts filming, their peers – some of them considered to be fine actors – urge them to swallow their pride and do as directed. ‘Is just a movie’ they say. Not to Kingkala and Sonnyboy who both quit the film.
This complaint runs throughout the book: the idea that put-upon people put up with things.
When police launch a raid on Sonnyboy’s father and friends,
His father was angry, but nobody was outraged. Nobody.
This burning sense of humiliation and injustice drives Sonnyboy first into criminal ways before he finds Black Power and various unsatsifactory forays into politics. But he’s repeatedly disappointed as are other characters who rail against the system.
Using a rhythmic patois that takes no time to become accustomed to, Earl Lovelace takes an obvious delight in language; it’s no mistake that the narrator is a Calypso singer who thinks that ‘lots of Calypsonians recite their calypso. I sing my poems.’ And the writing often soars to the poetic, such as this multi-metaphor description of steel band music:
And Sonnyboy hear the notes flying out like flocks of birds frm the nest of the pan, like a sprinkling of shillings thrown in the air, like a choir of infants reciting a prayer. He hear them again, like a rush of butterflies in a swarming dance, angular and precise ike sharpened steel knives, soft like rain falling on a galvanised roof, like dragonflies dipping their tales into the water of a pond the first steelpan notes in creation.
The kaleidoscope of characters and stories, shifting back and forth in time and, ultimately, between reality and dream is what makes it difficult to follow. To illustrate, I tried to summarise one section.
Sunnyboy returns from prison, falls in with the National Party and is attending an event at which the Prime Minister is speaking. At this event he tears his shirt into pieces so that he can light kerosene lamps. A mention of Kingkala’s aunt Magenta leads into her story and then that of her son Franklyn, his phenomenal batting skills and how, when he’s playing cricket, it draws numerous people to watch. This takes us through several stories of those who are drawn to watch. Franklyn joins the revolutionaries and is killed by the police. Her grief is eased by the appearance of Clephus,
with his springy, tiptoeing walk, his shoulders spread out around him, his pants stick up in his crotch, its seat tight across his bottom, as if he in the grip of the arresting hand of the police.
Aunt Magenta begins to idolise the Prime Minister, whom she believes will give hear answers to the questions raised by her son’s death. This brings us finally back to the rally where she echoes Sonnyboy’s shirt-tearing by tearing strips from her petticoat but not before we’re also taken away to Sonnyboy’s exhausting wooing of Sweetie-Mary which explains his tiredness and the subsequent kerosene-caused fire.
No wonder I got lost when I tried to read it the first time!
To add to confusion and the kaleidoscope, the novel in its later stages moves into magic realism. You suddenly realise the action is now taking place in the late 1990s or 2000s and that the Prime Minister is still in power, long after the real-life version had died.
The PM tells his opposition leader that he’s living forever; a character is apparently resurrected; people become able to sell their drams and finally figures from colonial history such as Sir Francis Drake and William Wilberforce, visit the present, attending events and appearing on TV.
This is a strange, exuberant, confusing and enjoyable novel. It’s playful in plot and language and says much about how where you are determines who you are. I’d warn you against trying to read a few pages a night though. It’s not particularly long so save it for when you have a good chunk of time so that you can devour it in one.