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The Caribbean Review of Books (New vol. 1, no. 19, February 2009)

A sample of the new CRB, as published by MEP until 2009

The

The Caribbean Review of Books, February 2009 In the nineteenth century, poetry was a ubiquitous part of the Trinidadian French Creole social calendar. Landmark events such as births, weddings, and even funerals were marked by verse, which was often sung Balzac . . . and Janin procured for young Devenish — (who needed to earn money to help support himself at the university) — some journalistic work, particularly that of critical appreciation of the theatre; and this led to his introduction by intimate friends of both, to Chateaubriand . . . at Paris, and Beranger, songster, at Tours. Even up to old age Syl remained fascinated by Beranger’s simple catchy tunes. Perhaps these eminent connections influenced de Verteuil in his assessment of Devenish’s poetry: Indeed, so outstanding, even dominant, was he as a poet from 1850 to 1900 with no equivalent figure either then or in the present (if we are to except one or two of our calypsonians who might possibly be happy to be classified as poets) that I have had no hesitation in entitling this book as — Sylvester Devenish: Trinidad’s Poet. The sweeping range of this statement does a disservice to both Devenish and de Verteuil. Poor Devenish has a large claim to live up to; and de Verteuil runs the risk of appearing partisan by not giving a nod to the substantial literary legacy that Trinidad can lay claim to, a century after Devenish’s death. Derek Walcott hails from St Lucia, but much of his work was born in Trinidad. To ignore the Nobel laureate’s presence is akin to ignoring the elephant in the room. It also fails to acknowledge the literary voices that surrounded Devenish in his day. Despite his sweeping comments, de Verteuil is aware of Devenish’s obsession with rigidity of form, and the fact that he was criticised on occasion “as having the same boring rhythm.” Devenish was an acolyte of Nicolas Boileau, the seventeenth-century French poet, who was himself greatly influenced by Horace. Boileau was preoccupied with maintaining impeccable regularity of his verse. For Devenish to carry on in this mode almost two hundred years later was at odds with literary trends in France. De Verteuil acknowledges that “French poetry in Trinidad lagged behind the times. Even in the 1840s, there was the old adherence to the use of periphrasis and of cumbrous mythological allusions.” But Devenish was comfortable in his regular rhythmic patterns for many reasons, not least of which was his propensity to sing his verse. In fact, many of his poems have an early extempo feel, and Devenish’s sense of humour often takes the form of picong or mamaguy, uniquely Trinidadian varieties of teasing or heckling. For much of Devenish’s lifetime, Trinidad’s French Creole community was under social, economic, and cultural assault from the anglicising influences of the British colonial government. The literary scholar Selwyn Cudjoe, in his book Beyond Boundaries (2002), notes that “in many ways the French Creoles used their poems/songs to attack the anglicising tendencies and other perceived threats that were rampant in the society from 1870 through the 1890s.” Cudjoe also takes a closer look at Devenish, or “Papa Bois”, as he was known throughout the country because of his surveying work, which took him deep into the interior of the island. Devenish’s great contribution, Cudjoe suggests, lies in the sheer volume of his work that remains to give insight into the society of the time, and not necessarily in the claim that he was a proficient poet. He was, Cudjoe argues, “neither a great nor a brilliant poet.” Devenish’s verse offered a lot of platitudes and showed little originality. Even his political satires, which were more original and personal than his other poetry, turned out to be steeped in techniques that had been developed some two centuries previously. The more he looked to France for his inspiration, the more he became immersed in a past that had little relevance to Trinidad. Despite this harsh assessment, Cudjoe is remarkably generous in his estimation of Devenish, and eloquently pinpoints the many conflicts that would have pulled at this loyal citizen and good man. While his Romantic contemporaries in Europe had the luxury of flexing and stretching the concept of verse to embrace nature and its powerful and exciting potential, Devenish was all too anchored in the prosaic by the limitations and commitments of his day-to-day life. And when he ran afoul of the Franco-phobic colonial regime and lost his job after decades of devoted service, he was treated shabbily, living the rest of his days on a pension far less than he was rightfully entitled to. Devenish was a national figure, widely mourned on his death in 1903. Gregarious and popular, he comes back to life in de Verteuil’s biographical pages, which contain delightful anecdotes that the reader may suspect are made up of one part historical fact and two parts creative license. Describing the birth of Syl — as his young parents, en route from Europe to Trinidad to assume responsibility for the family estate, were forced to lay over in Nantes — de Verteuil writes: 24

The Caribbean Review of Books, February 2009 James Sylvester obtained the leave of an Irish friend who was renting the chateau, to give a ball. Gertrude (who was in the family way) opened the proceedings with a minuet, dancing beautifully to the swell and fall of the music; but she had soon to leave the floor to other bounding beauties and was rushed to a bedroom, where in the middle of the ball, to the strains of the music, was born the subject of this story, Peter James Sylvester Devenish, the date being the 9th March 1819. Anyone familiar with de Verteuil’s previous books will recognise his trademark narrative style, which assumes the reassuring timbre of oral tradition. He conjures up the feeling of sitting on any Caribbean verandah, listening to the elders recounting family lore. As a much-respected Catholic priest and a member of a prominent French Creole family, de Verteuil is privy to information that might otherwise be lost if not documented in his books. This privilege is a double-edged sword, as his narrative voice tends to slip into the rambling style of oral historians and, especially when he describes large French Creole clans, it is often difficult to keep the dates, names, and convoluted familial relationships straight. The reader is forced to go back and forth within the text to clarify and check accuracy. Minor errors that would have been picked up by a scrupulous editor are a reminder that most of de Verteuil’s books are selfpublished, and probably do not have the luxury of professional editing. Which raises another key point: the print runs of most of his books are limited. Once out of print, they can be difficult to source. De Verteuil’s readers may find themselves willing to forgo criticism on the basis that the documentary value of his books far outweighs their flaws. Read the CRB archives online at www.caribbeanreviewofbooks.com In brief Into the Mosaic, by Marlene St Rose (Athena Press, ISBN 978-1-84748-184- 9, 228 pp) The historical novel can be an exciting glimpse into a time or location that has gone the way of the dinosaur, bringing the dusty past to vivid, pulsing life. On the other hand, a badly done historical novel can be as dusty as the past it tries to illuminate, failing to create believable characters, dialogue, or settings in favour of tedious repetition of historical detail. To her credit, Marlene St Rose has succeeded to some extent in avoiding the latter trap. Her novel Into the Mosaic seeks to tell the story of the Indian immigrant’s success in the Trinidadian community. That story is admirably researched and adequately told. As a historical narrative, it succeeds, even as it fails as a novel because it utterly lacks cohesive conflict. St Rose, a Trinidad-born English teacher who has made her career in St Lucia, traces the history of the Khan family from arrival on an immigrant ship to their absorption “into the mosaic” of the multicultural island of St Rose’s birth. The Khans achieve success in business, acceptance into the middle class, and high position in the missionary Canadian Presbyterian church in the island — through sheer hard work, good thinking, and sacrifice, the novel says. Each character is a shining example of the above, whether it be the teenage girl who marries an old man for his money (sacrifice), the studious boy who gives up his name and his family for the opportunity to study more and become part of the Presbyterian establishment (hard work and sacrifice), or the clever agriculturist who parlays his love of the land into a large farm and lumber concern (hard work, good thinking, and sacrifice). The conflict in the novel is embodied in the circumstances over which the characters must triumph. Those difficulties — while not negligible — are just not significant enough to give the novel teeth. There is no villain, no self-doubt, no evil. There is only poverty and the same hard choices that we all have to make in our own lives, and, sadly, that’s not interesting enough to carry the story. What St Rose does well, however, is evoke the times about which she writes. With a very nice touch she describes the various settings of the tale, from late-nineteenth-century cocoa estates in the Maracas Valley to the mid-twentieth-century streets of the emerging town of San Fernando, and various points in between. There is a palpable sense of this being a family’s history, which, coupled with the almost reverent tone of each characterisation, makes one suspect this is the story of the author’s own family, rather than the purely researched product of her imagination. And despite its shortcomings, Into the Mosaic would be a useful addition to the library of anyone interested in Indo-Caribbean, Presbyterian, or Trinidadian history. Lisa Allen-Agostini There is a palpable sense of Into the Mosaic being a family’s history, which, coupled with the almost reverent tone of each characterisation, makes one suspect this is the story of Marlene St Rose’s own family 25

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