The Caribbean as Inspiration in Literature

Ever since Europeans came to the realisation that there was another world far beyond the Pillars of Hercules, ever since they ‘discovered’ the New World, the need arose for them to make sense in their own terms of something that was fundamentally different. One direct consequence of this need becomes evident (amusingly, almost, although also tragically) in the hopelessly inadequate accounts of the newly discovered lands sent back by the early explorers to their respective courts (think of Walter Raleigh’s account of oyster bearing boughs and sprays, in his Discovery of Guyana, or of Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo’s Natural History of the Indies, where, among other inaccuracies, he miserably fails to describe avocadoes, which he takes for local pears).

Another, quite different, consequence points towards the fascination Europeans have always felt towards the New World, and the not-totally-understood peculiarities that shape its existence. In literature, the influence of implausible characters recounted in the chronicles of the time can be seen in examples ranging from Don Quixote (purportedly based on the unlikely tale of heroism of the old Alonso Andrea de Ledesma, who single-handedly tried to defend the city of Caracas from the English raiders) to a whole sub-genre of the adventure novel of the XIX century, devoted fully to pirates and their exploits.

Since the days of Kingsley’s Westward Ho! and Stevenson’s Treasure Island the interest in the exoticism of the Caribbean has not dwindled, even if literary sensibilities have changed dramatically. Nevertheless, one thing that has remained constant throughout the evolution of literary styles in the past two hundred years is the alienated point of view adopted by foreign writers who choose the intricacies of life in these islands as the topic of their work.

Looking at the facts and myths that form the Caribbean reality from the detached perspective of an onlooker who is skeptic at best, ignorant at worst and uninvolved in most cases, inevitably undermines the complexity and the accuracy of any attempt to chart the overlapping influences that shape Caribbean societies. It is, however, precisely in the multiplicity of reading-levels and the richness of depth that modern post-colonial literature – the works of a Zadie Smith, of a Caryl Phillips, of a Junot Díaz – proves so much more engaging, more interesting, even, than the simplistic accounts of the third quarter of the XX century, where the Caribbean so often becomes little more than an exotic, sometimes infuriating, land devoid of any ‘real’ defining characteristics.

Proof of this syndrome is that often where it reads ‘Cuba’, it could as well read ‘Santo Domingo’, or, bar the language, ‘Trinidad’. What is worse, often where it reads ‘Santo Domingo’, the name could be replaced for ‘Tahiti’ (for the good) or ‘Darfur’ (for the bad). For instance, Graham Greene repeatedly uses Caribbean countries to recreate his tales (Haiti in The Comedians; Cuba in Our Man in Havana; Panama in Getting to Know the General). Nevertheless, in many of these variants, the role played by the location is less prominent, less consequential, than one would expect. 

To put it in V. S. Naipaul’s words, Greene ‘took the Graham Greene figure to Congo, took him to Argentina, took him to Haiti, for no rhyme or reason.’[1]

Naipaul might be characteristically severe with Greene here: there certainly is a reason for The Comedians to be set in Haiti, if only to condemn Papa Doc’s tyrannical regime and to denounce the negative effect of USA’s foreign policy, acutely felt throughout the region, then as now. However, insofar as insight into the psyche of contemporary Haitians, the novel is as unsuccessful as Naipaul suggests.

Indeed, it is anonymity, rather than uniqueness, the trait that most abounds in the book. It is no coincidence that Greene chooses the plainly forgettable names of Smith, Jones and Brown for the three main characters of his story, a situation which, the narrator admits, ‘was improbable.’[2] As the tale unfolds we find there are, actually, substantial differences between the people whose names are ‘almost interchangeable’ (p. 286): Smith, a former US Presidential Candidate on an altruistic journey to set a vegetarian centre in Haiti, ‘was an impressive figure in spite of the innocent ears… a genuine article, if ever there was one’ (p. 6). In sharp contrast to him, Jones, a phoney Major of the British Army looking to cut an arms deal with the Haitian government, and Brown, a fortuitous hotelier with no allegiances and less identity, turn out to be mere pretenders, two of the many comedians acting their parts for their survival and the benefit of the reader.

The story told in The Comedians is that of the ‘uncoloured’ (p. 172): the local expatriates, the foreign diplomats, the visiting idealists and the arriving opportunists, all moving through the maze of a dangerous country ‘where the half-castes are the aristocrats waiting for the tumbrils to roll’ (p. 41). Within this context, Haiti plays a prominent role as the poor, threatening scene that hosts a plot of intrigue and suspense. As soon as the Medea, the boat carrying the three protagonists, calls at Port-au-Prince the reader is shown into a pitiful stage overcrowded by ‘porters, taxi-drivers who hadn’t had a fare in weeks, police and the occasional Tonton Macoute in his black glasses and his soft hat, and beggars, beggars everywhere’ (p. 40). These are different beggars to the ‘Two one-armed men and three one-legged men’ who hemmed Smith when he went to the Post Office to buy stamps (p. 166):

Two were trying to sell him dirty old envelopes containing out-of-date Haitian postage stamps: the others were more frankly begging. A man without legs at all installed himself between his knees and removed his shoe-laces preparatory to cleaning his shoes. Others seeing a crowd collected were fighting to join in. A young fellow, with a hole where his nose should have been, lowered his head and tried to ram his way through towards the attraction at the centre. A man with no hands raised his pink polished stumps over the heads of the crowd to exhibit his infirmity to the foreigner. It was a typical scene of the Post Office except that foreigners were rare nowadays.

 Brown comes to Jones’s rescue in a gruesome scene of pushing and shoving past undignified invalids. Indeed, after witnessing the abduction of the dead body of Dr Philipot, a politician fallen into disrepute, and experiencing the dramatic extent of poverty in the city, Brown is determined to show Smith and his wife ‘that all Haitians were not either politicians or torturers’ (p. 186). To this effect he invites Mr Magiot for dinner, a local ideologist sympathetic to the communist cause.

Papa Doc Duvalier. Source: wehaitians.com.

The figure of Magiot will be crucial for Greene to voice his opinion on the current state of affairs in the region. While Brown has been led by a curious twist of fate to own the Hotel Trianon in Haiti, where over the past seven years or so he has seen the rise and fall of his fortunes in direct inverse proportion to the emergence of Francois Duvalier as leader of the nation (le drapeau Haitien, Uni et Indivisible), Brown remains, self-consciously so, ‘a stranger’ (p. 194). Even Magiot subtly questions Brown’s integrity when he complains to his listener for acting ‘as though I were an old man speaking of a distant past. You seem so indifferent – and yet you live here’ (p. 251).

Live there he might, but neither Brown nor Greene, it appears, understand the very palpable elements at play in the erection of a reality that, however surreal, tightens its grip on the protagonists with their every move. Except, of course, that the world in which they act, the New World, is one where the prevalent force is not reason, but faith, superstition, violence and corruption.

It is the indignation inspired by this corruption and this violence which shapes Greene’s characterization of an island that ‘was no longer an attraction to tourists’ (p. 8), because under the despotic rule of Francois Duvalier (‘Papa Doc’, ‘Baron Samedi’) ‘the terror started and the American Mission left, and the British ambassador was expelled, and the Nuncio never returned from Rome’ (p. 94), and nowadays what could be felt most was ‘the indifference of the world outside Haiti’ (p. 304).

Graham Greene. Source: notablebiographies.com

This same indignation is fully at play in Brown’s long conversation to Magiot, in the pivotal moment of the plot: ‘“it is astonishing’’’, he says, ‘“how much money can be made out of the poorest of the poor with a little ingenuity”’ (p. 249). One can’t help but feel that this is Greene speaking through Magiot, as he does a few lines later, when Greene/Magiot’s intimations continue with a condemnation of the role played by the Americans in the struggle against Duvalier: ‘“Papa Doc is a bulwark against Communism. There will be no Cuba and no Bay of Pigs here… There was a resistance group here who were in touch with a sympathizer in the American embassy: they were promised all kinds of moral support, but the information went straight back to the C.I.A. and from the C.I.A. by a very direct route to Papa Doc.”’ Finally, Greene takes the opportunity to put the situation in a wider international context, and to speak up against one of the great atrocities committed in the years between the Great Depression and the Great War, overshadowed by both to the point of oblivion: ‘“You can do what you want with Haitians. Trujillo murdered twenty thousand of us in time of peace on the River Massacre, peasants who had come to his country for cane-cutting – men, women and children – but do you imagine there was one protest from Washington? He lived nearly twenty years afterwards fat on American aid”’ (p. 250).

Perhaps Greene’s most sincere attempt to furnish his view of the New World with an air of authenticity comes with the emphasis he places throughout the book on Voodoo and its sway over the local population. Framed within the ‘terrifying’ causality of ‘unreason’ that governs Greene’s Haiti (p. 132), Voodoo mythology and the devotion it generates on its followers becomes a powerful tool both to prompt actions and to understand that which otherwise might seem beyond the understandable. As such, the ruthlessness displayed by Papa Doc and his place in Haitian folklore are acknowledged in his incorporation into the Voodoo tradition both through his alternative nickname, Baron Samedi, ‘who in the Voodoo mythology haunts the cemeteries in his top-hat and tails, smoking his big cigar’ (p. 27), and his inclusion in the Voodoo rituals, ‘a new legal requirement’ (p. 190).

Source: horrorpedia.com

At the same time, it is precisely in the power of Voodoo that the dissidents of Papa Doc’s government seek inspiration to depose the dictator: ‘“Perhaps only Ogoun Ferraille can teach us how to fight”’, says the head of a minute guerrilla group, just before leaving to the countryside to lead the doomed resistance (p. 184). 

But conviction is a necessary prerequisite for the otherworldly to take place. Greene, the perennially conflicted Catholic, most certainly knows this, but nowhere in The Comedians is he explicit about it. Instead, he provides us with a forensic account of a Voodoo funeral seen through Brown’s eyes (pp. 190-3):

Between us stood the pole of the temple, stuck up, like an aerial, to catch the passage of the gods. A whip hung there in memory of yesterday’s slavery, and, a new legal requirement, a cabinet photography of Papa Doc, a reminder of today’s…

  Was it a summons to Legba, the gay seducer of women, to sweet Erzulie, the virgin of purity and love, to Ogoun Ferraille, the patron of warriors, or to Baron Samedi in his black clothes and his black Tonton glasses, hungry for the dead?…

  The drums were silent: the singing stopped: only the houngan spoke in some language older than Creole, perhaps older than Latin, and Joseph paused and listened, staring up the wooden pillar, past the whip and Papa Doc’s face into the thatch where a rat moved, crackling the straw.

In the cynical eyes of Brown, the scene turns progressively more undignified in the same measure as the events he witnesses challenge his notions of the rational (and the reasonable). Eventually, he cannot (or won’t) bear it any longer, turning away from the spectacle, thinking to himself ‘I should never have gone to this funeral, I should never have come to this country’ (p. 194). 

Greene fails to portray the other side of the action, fails to justify the apparently ignorant fanaticism of a sophisticated doctor engaging in black magic. This incapacity to transgress the fringes of his own cultural background ultimately relegates The Comedians to the long list of titles that exploit the Caribbean for its colourful exoticism, without delving into the origins or significance of such eccentricity. Consequently, Greene’s characters fail not only to understand, but even to engage with, the environment where they find themselves, forcing the potential richness of Caribbean culture to go begging and provoking the kind of suffocating alienation that consumes Brown throughout the novel.

Although fundamentally different to the alienation experienced by Thomas Hudson, the protagonist of Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream, The Comedians does have an element in common with Hemingway’s posthumously published Caribbean tale: both novels adopt the perspective of (white) outsiders incapable of crossing over and stepping inside the world that they (inadequately, dysfunctionally) inhabit.

This might be one of the few similarities between The Comedians, a cross between what Greene called ‘entertainments’ and a political pamphlet, and Islands in the Stream, a psychological portrait of a conflicted man with no discernible plot and little structure. Set in Bimini, Cuba and the strait between the two, Islands in the Stream maps the state of mind of Thomas Hudson through several moments of happiness, anxiety and distress at different points of his life.

Essentially a single-character exploration, Thomas Hudson is even more distanced from the environment that surrounds him than Greene’s Brown is in The Comedians. As an artist living a totally severed life in Bimini, Hudson’s only contact with the local population comes through his troublesome aide, Eddy – an enigmatic servant with a natural talent for drinking, cooking, fishing and fighting.

However, while Eddy’s character recreates every cliché attached to indigenous cultures since Montaigne developed his theory of the noble savage, Hemingway’s depiction of Cuba is (perhaps due to biographical reasons) more sophisticated. Indeed, in what can only be an uncanny coincidence, Hemingway revisits a point made by Greene in his portrayal of Dr Philipot, ‘not a bad man as government officials go’, who had ‘made some attempt to improve the condition of the shanty-town along the waterfront; they had built a water-pump… but the pipes had never been connected because the contractors had not received a proper rake-off.’[3]

Hemingway explores the issue of water by staging an exchange in which Thomas Hudson asks a local politician:[4]

  ‘How’s the aqueduct coming?’

  The man next to him on his left at the bar, a short, cheerful-faced man with a broken nose whose face he knew well but whose name and whose politics escaped him, said ‘Those cabrones. They can always get money from water since water is the one great necessity. Everything else is necessary. But water there is no substitute for and you cannot do without some water. So they can always get money to bring water. So there will never be a proper aqueduct.’

  ‘I’m not sure I follow you completely’

  ‘Sí, hombre. They can always get money for an aqueduct because an aqueduct is absolutely necessary. Therefore, they cannot afford an aqueduct. Would you kill the goose that lays the golden aqueduct?’

This scene leads onto one of the more genuine moments in the novel, when Hudson, the politician and a local whore engage, like young modernists at the Café Voltaire or a Parisian cabaret before World War I, in ‘el grito de la Floridita’: an eloquent toast that turns into the political manifesto of a spontaneous movement originated then and there by the three founding members, which will advocate for the worst possible ideas, from doing away entirely with transport, to developing a 100% Cuban syphilis (p. 262-3).

Political gags aside, there are moments when the observational skills of Hemingway shine through in Islands in the Stream. For instance, the nonchalance with which Thomas Hudson recalls the episode of ‘the girl who had once been cut into six pieces by her policeman lover and the pieces wrapped in brown paper and scattered along the Central Highway’ as he drives over the bridge where they found her trunk highlights the familiar presence of brutal violence in the island’s daily life (p. 215). Similarly, character traits can be inferred from Hudson’s description of fishermen and countrymen: ‘the fishermen wore the remnants of any old clothes they had and were cheerful, self-confident men… The hands of the old men were gnarled and brown, spotted with sun blotches, and the palms and fingers were deep cut and scarred by the hand-lines’; meanwhile, ‘the countrymen wore formalized pleated shirts, wide hats, tight trousers and riding boots when they came to town and nearly all of them carried machetes… The countrymen were reserved and shy, unless they were drinking’ (p. 184).

However, powerful as they might be, these observations remain somewhat stayed in the context where they appear, revealing no more (or less) about the essence of Cubans than a Flemish still life painting does about the essence of crustaceans.  

In this regard, Hemingway’s treatment of superstition becomes ever so much more incisive, precisely because it is rooted, one feels, in first-hand experience. The practical aspect of superstition as a satisfactory explanation for the uncanny is highlighted in a conversation between Thomas Hudson and Eddy, where they discuss the effects of the moon on people’s behaviour and whether it really is bad to sleep with it shining on you (p. 95). Innocuous as it seems, this episode gains relevance some hundred pages later, when a more vivid exchange between Hudson and another servant focuses on whether the mix of banana and alcohol is lethal. The Cuban page is convinced it is, and even calls to evidence the case of a man who, while Thomas Hudson was away at sea, ‘died very suddenly from drinking a small amount of rum after eating a large quantity of bananas’ (p. 206). Were it not for the previous, more plausible case, the reader would feel inclined to dismiss this argument as nonsense. However, the subtle difference between astrological and dietary concerns, as well as Thomas Hudson’s own attitude towards them, allows the reader to identify the structure that governs superstitious beliefs.

Not that anyone will suddenly stop drinking banana rum. But, aided by the perceived plausibility of the prior instance, Hemingway provides us with a nice blueprint of the psyche of the simple (Caribbean) man, in what must be considered the greatest accomplishment of Islands in the Stream.

Other than this, Hemingway’s study of Caribbean societies never gets past the shallowest surface: he continuously provides an atmospheric sense by using a Spanish sentence here, by describing an autochthonous (flamboyán) tree there; he refers on occasion, and by the by, to outstanding historical events, such as Colonel Crittenden’s failed expedition to Bahía Honda, Cuba, in the middle of the XIX century (p. 216); he dissects Spanish humour and dismisses it on the basis of it all revolving around the virility of man. Only when it comes to the weather does he put enough emphasis on the changing conditions to make the reader understand the dramatic effect the wind has on people’s lives in the Caribbean: ‘He knew too what it was to live through a hurricane with the other people of the island and the bond the hurricane made between all the people who had been through it’ (p. 10).

Hemingway makes use of the wind to describe the fine differences that mark the seasons in the islands: ‘Sometimes the summers were too hot, when the wind dropped in August or when the trade winds sometimes failed in June or July… the true hurricane months have fine weather when there are no storms’ (p. 9); ‘In the winter, when the northers blew… it was really cold’ (p.10). However, in what ultimately is a psychological exploration of the protagonist, the wind serves as a catalyst to let loose Thomas Hudson’s emotions. Thus, if ‘A big wind is the time to drink’ (p. 138), we know exactly what Hudson will be doing some forty pages later when ‘It was blowing a gale from the northwest’ (p. 179). What is more, when Hudson is accused by the local whore that he is ‘awfully sad and a little bit old today’, he blames the norther, despite the fact that, in the words of the hooker ‘you always said the northers gave you pep and cheered you up’ (p. 241).

For all its good intentions, Islands in the Stream remains a sketchy piece of narrative that lacks a lot more than just the refinement of a finished work. Perhaps this is the respect in which it most sharply differs from The Comedians: where Greene has carefully crafted a tale of intrigue and adventure to provide the reader with one of his thoughtful ‘entertainments’, Hemingway has digressed extensively, ignored the plot and abused the structure. And yet, strikingly, both recur to the same clichés (violence, corruption, superstition) to build the profile of a faraway setting for their tales where the most glaring misconceptions remain unchallenged, providing us with a distorted and inaccurate world-view.


[1]‘The Irascible Prophet: V. S. Naipaul at Home’, by Rachel Donadie, The New York Times(www.nytimes.com/2005/08/07/books/review/07DONADIO.html?pagewanted=2).
[2]The Comedians, Graham Greene (Viking Press: New York, second edition, 1966), p. 5.
[3]The Comedians, p. 51.
[4]Islands in the Stream, Ernest Hemingway (Collins: London, 1970), p. 260.

 

 

 

ABRIDGED VERSION PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPLEMENT OF THE DAILY HERALDSINT MAARTEN, MAY 16, 2009.

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