Is Just a Movie, or Is It?

One of the giants of the Caribbean literary establishment, Earl Lovelace, has finally broken the silence that followed his last novel, Salt, published in 1996 and awarded the 1997 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize. Almost fifteen years later, Is Just a Movie has been published by Faber & Faber, hitting the bookshops earlier this year.

Earl Lovelace. Photo: goodreads.com.

Set in Trinidad on the aftermath of the 1970 Black Power Revolution, Is Just a Movie borrows substantial elements from both Salt and Lovelace’s most celebrated work, The Dragon Can’t Dance (1979), projecting them towards the future of those novels, which is roughly our present time. Perhaps wisely, given the lapse of time separating the three works, Lovelace does not take for granted the message of his previous oeuvre, but rather restates the issues of identity, of national unity, of political responsibility that have constituted the kernel of his work so far. Like a good professor, Lovelace makes the same point over and over again in Is Just a Movie, but he uses widely differing examples that at times make the reader forget all about circumstances to surrender to the utter pleasure of reading.

Opening with one of the most hilarious passages of the book, Is Just a Movie places us on the days immediately after the defeat of the revolutionary initiative of the Black Power movement. Sonnyboy, ostensibly the protagonist of the novel, and a badjohn at that, is inspired by the gesture of the leaders of the revolt, whose fists are raised in defiance even as they are being carried away by the police, and chooses not to escape the authorities, but rather to roam freely until they come for him. Except nobody is at all bothered about his presence, or his role in the revolution.

Circumstances take Sonnyboy and King Kala, the failed calypsonian, the poet of the revolution, whose voice will become the dominant narrator of the novel, to the set of an international film where they are being employed as extras. Neither of them agrees with the director’s instructions and they both walk away from the job, uttering the first and most resonant leitmotiv of Is Just a Movie: “I not taking that.” The novel then follows the tale of Sonnyboy in his return to Cascadu, but sadly the narrative loses its liveliness and the anecdotes become somewhat stale.

Until we come across the figure of Franklyn, whose batting at cricket “represented the people of the Settlement, not only talent but application.” When it was Franklyn’s turn to bat, the whole town would drop whatever it was they were doing and would go by the cricket ground to watch in awe the spoils of a process so perfect that, by the end of it, everyone would be infected by the same urge to do something themselves. But Franklyn gets involved in the Black Power movement, and the next time we see him is when “the police bring him down on a stretcher, dead.” Indeed, the pages dealing with the nature and the consequences of the Black Power movement in Trinidad jump at the reader with great intensity, making them the most engaging portion of the novel.

Lovelace’s characterization of Clayton, an opportunistic ideologue who arrives in Cascadu to promote an extreme version of Africanism, is at once funny, troubling and fascinating. Left with the vacuum that came after the Black Power revolts, which succeeded only in emphasizing the powerlessness of the people, the highly romanticized symbols of Africa, with its Sphinx and its pyramids and its kings and queens, emerged majestically in the popular imagination to dwarf the seemingly trivial elements of national identity in Trinidad, such as the calypso, the steelband, the Carnival. Predictably, Africanism fails to provide all the answers, not least because “now when at last we had the opportunity to claim Africa we would (…) do so at the expense of all we had created in the Caribbean.”

Lovelace’s main concern, not only in Is Just a Movie, is with the intricacies of forging a country made of Africans and French and English and Indians and Chinese and Portuguese and so on, where the resulting society might be a blend of all those elements and not a segregated group of people occupying the same space but not living together in any other sense. Thus, his concern is truly with the twists and turns of History (past and future), told not from the overarching perspective of a textbook, but rather from the singular point of view of each of the lives that go through that History. Unfortunately for his text, however, the vast number of characters who come in and out of this movie ultimately takes away from the focus of the overall work. Thus, the story told through the entertaining and (some more, some less) engaging anecdotes of the “little people,” as it were, is not as tightly wrapped as it might have been. Sonnyboy and King Kala are meant to provide the thread that binds the whole novel, but all too often their connection to the tales is loose, circumstantial or altogether forgettable.

Nevertheless, while Is Just a Movie might not be Lovelace’s greatest piece, it is still a hugely enjoyable book to read. Furthermore, certain developments in the formal and conceptual postulates put forward by Lovelace help to better understand his previous work. This is most notably the case with his use of the first person narrator, which, much like in Salt, disappears for large periods of time, only to reappear in the form of different characters later on. While King Kala is the dominant narrator of Is Just a Movie, on occasion the perspective shifts to other characters, equally important to the whole. Indeed, it seems as if the I of the narrator could be appropriated by any of the characters at any one time. Thus, the story that King Kala tells, the story of Sonnyboy, is, in reality, the story of every character in Is Just a Movie, which, in turn, is meant to represent every strata of society in Trinidad, from the most powerful to the least influential. In this sense, Is Just a Movie is a vindication of the history, of the story, of each individual in Trinidad, of every struggle, every pain, every new idea and every single failure that has taken the country in its troubled journey through History. From the rebel to the PM, Lovelace wants us to take seriously, to respect, to consider the lives of each of our fellow citizens – and only for that, Is Just a Movie is worth a thorough read.

PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD ON SATURDAY, APRIL 16, 2011.

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