Earl Lovelace: The Future and the Self

Earl Lovelace is one of the giants of Caribbean literature. So much has been official at least since 1997, when his latest novel to date, Salt, merited him the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. Born in Toco, Trinidad, in 1935, he spent his early childhood in Tobago, before attending secondary school in Port of Spain. After a short spell as proofreader at the Trinidad Guardian, Lovelace worked in the rural depths of Trinidad, in the Department of Forestry and the Ministry of Agriculture for over ten years, from 1954 to 1966. It was precisely during this period that his literary vein developed and, eventually, prevailed, when the manuscript of While Gods Are Falling was selected as the winner of the 1964 edition of the British Petroleum Independence Literary Award. The novel was published by Collins the following year in London, and several of his stories were printed in the Trinidad Guardian: in short, a whole new world of opportunities had opened wide for Earl Lovelace, and he was about to take full advantage of it.

Lovelace’s second novel, The Schoolteacher, was already written by the time When Gods Are Falling was published. Collins continued to support Lovelace and launched The Schoolmaster in London in 1968. Lovelace had given up on agricultural affairs by now and had joined the staff of the Trinidad & Tobago Express as a columnist and reviewer. But soon thereafter he began his career as an academic, teaching at the University of the District of Columbia, acting as Visiting Novelist while completing an MA at John Hopkins University and later teaching at the St. Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies in Trinidad. In 1979 he published The Dragon Can’t Dance, an extraordinary account of life in the destitute area of Calvary Hill in Port of Spain, and in 1982 his reputation was cemented, at least in home ground, with his fourth novel, The Wine of Astonishment.

The Prologue to The Dragon Can’t Dance provides a perfect and concise example of the value of Lovelace’s art: as you would expect, it is a short preliminary note, some five pages long, where the theme and feeling of the novel are put forward both emphatically and appealingly. It begins with the story of a man who asks to be stoned, only to get vexed and demand to be taken down as soon as the first stone hits him. This comical episode is both defining of the place that Lovelace wants to depict (“This is the hill”, he writes, quite literally) and also establishes the arena in which the following 200 pages will develop, an atmosphere that is charged with humor and tragedy, with intense feelings, but that is also self-consciously literary, because the story of Taffy, the man who would be stoned in Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance is reminiscent of the story of Man-Man in Naipaul’s Miguel Street (1959), a work that Lovelace would, no doubt, have known in detail. As well as The Hill, Lovelace goes on to define Calypso and Carnival in the same manner, through five powerful pages that pick up in rhythm and force the reader to adopt its pace, to race through the lines, to “Dance to the hurt,” to read till it hurts, to read till the prologue suddenly stops, and the rest of the page is blank, and there is no other alternative but to turn the page and start the book proper.

In one of the innumerable interviews to Mario Vargas Llosa that have saturated the print media in the past few days and weeks, he restated his concern that to the new generation, to young writers, it no longer seems as if the final product, the book, were an instrument capable of enacting change, a tool for insurrection, a weapon at the disposition of the masses. For him, he has said, a book had always been more than merely an avenue for entertainment: it had been a meaningful vehicle for protest. Lovelace’s fiction plays a very similar role to that described by Vargas Llosa, which he no longer seems to find on the bookshelves. For Lovelace, the novel is a way to (re)present an unsatisfactory reality in its most trivial (and often comical) detail and to postulate through highly likable, though hugely problematic, protagonists a way ahead that might in the future redress the wrongs that assail the present. Both The Dragon Can’t Dance and Salt, for instance, close with the protagonists having fallen from their respective status as heroes, with both of them gaining on enlightenment from their experience, and both of them happily reuniting with their ideal partners. Similarly, however, both endings are happy for the individuals only, as the general condition of those around the protagonists have no immediate prospect of improving.

Because the central concern in both of these novels is the quest for the self. Salt could be described, in a simplistic and not immediately evident way, as a bildungsroman, a novel about the coming of age, the life experiences of its protagonist, Alford George, who starts as a silent child who still hasn’t spoken a word at the age of five. The same Alford tells his lover, Florence, “The truth is we don’t know who we are.” Florence herself has previously told Alford that all she wants is “to learn to be me, how to be myself.” And, following a nine year affair in which neither has slept in the other’s house more than once, Florence is ready to leave Alford, because in her eyes he had arrived: he had lost his position as teacher, failed at politics, been ostracized by his party and was marching on his own in an unpopular protest, but “he had arrived at a self.”

The quest for the self of each of Lovelace’s characters is neatly inscribed within an explicitly local environment, richly informed through the writer’s own experiences of the lifestyle and traditions of both the metropolitan area and the countryside in Trinidad. Thus, Calvary Hill, in The Dragon Can’t Dance, is a place where you had to walk between the garbage and dog excrement, where a woman has seven children, with no man either, where girls ripen like a mango rose, where the predominant language is not standard English, but the melodic dialect that is found in the narrative. A place, just like Cascadu in Salt, where the struggle against the established power represents the most evident statement of assertion of the self, the easiest way to identify with, and be recognized by, those around you. Except, of course, such struggle is devoid of meaning – is just an empty performance – if it doesn’t come with the conviction of someone who knows what he is fighting for, not just what he is fighting against. Precisely this is the conviction that Alford George, the protagonist of Salt, defeated in all other senses, gains from “arriving at a self.” And that, in turn, is the condition that each individual must attain by themselves, in order for the collective to move towards a better future.

But Lovelace’s fiction is not only socially oriented and consciously political: his exquisite control of Trinidadian inflection, his great sense of rhythm, an uncanny ability to blend parallel plot lines and a daring development of a narrative voice that reaches phenomenal levels of diversity in Salt, as well as a subtle sense of humor and a restrained knowledge of the literary tradition make Lovelace an absolute joy to read. Not for nothing is The Dragon Can’t Dance a classic of Caribbean literature… and you can quote me on that!

PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD ON SATURDAY, OCTOBER 30, 2010.

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