A REVIEW OF A NOVEL BY LAWRENCE SCOTT
My father was an agriculturist who planted cocoa, among other crops. Whenever he mentioned the word 'witchbroom' it was with trepidation mixed with a tinge of awe that spelt one word across his face - fear. I never showed any particular interest beyond observation, at least not until I was asked to review a silver jubilee reprint of the 1992 novel of the same name by Lawrence Scott, the well known and respected Trinidadian author. A quick online check revealed the cause of my father's qualms was a fungus which plagues cocoa trees in Latin America and the Caribbean, substantially reducing yields and consequently destroying lives in the process. A disease so devastating that vast estates have disappeared over the centuries, reverting to virgin forest with only the occasional ruin to remind us that an entire civilization perished there at the levelling hand of nature.
I started reading the novel already tainted by portents of doom, hoping for a glimpse at the horror that would mirror the name, juxtaposing a host of characters in my mind against country, location, space and time, searching for a lever, which like a chord would open the parachute to plummet me back to earth under its broad mushroom umbrella to a place that would help me understand the cruel monster which haunted the lives of cocoa farmers in times past. Contrary to my prearranged conception, I found myself entering a world that was equally ethereal as it was terrestrial through the eyes of one of its main narrators, Lavren a hermaphrodite. In the words of the novelist: “He [Lavren] is not a fashionable writer, merely a child of the new world: educated in a parody of Albion's culture; a failer of exams; a procrastinator of tasks; a fantasiser who would have liked to have danced on the stages of the world, a creole Diaghilev; been the prince of Elsinor; the Puck of an English forest; Cesario at the feet of her Orsino; Oberon and Titania, the two heads of the same dream with their changeling boy; Ganymede, a Rosalind wooing in disguise, wooed in disguise; a creole child from a creole house; the child of a silent father and a talkative mother who told too many tales.”
I was to witness History's Cavalcade in the full carnival mode of a Mardi Gras procession gyrating down a main street in the two o' clock hot sun that could be Port of Spain, Trinidad; Roseau, Dominica, or even Castries, Saint Lucia, although we no longer celebrate Mardi Gras, thanks to the custodians of our culture. A rhythm that never subsides even while Marie Elena (Lavren's mother) is in the throes of labour, or Auguste (his father) is angered by Lavren's pantomimes at the Demerara window dressed in his mother's clothes “to the accompaniment of Mantovani's interpretation of Beethoven's ‘Eroica' which was played at full volume, blaring over the trembling cane fields...”
As a first novel I could feel the writer's eagerness to paint this escape in words with an intensity that creeps through the pages, building towards the crescendo to come in his carnival tales at the end, but never really explodes. Instead I feel a calm logic in the voices representing generations of the Monagas de los Macajuelos clan as they unreel in ‘cinemascope and vistavision' on a large screen in the mind's theatre.
There is no plot as we often expect in the conventional sense, but as we weave through discovery, colonialization, adventure, history and geography, the conflict of cross and glory, love and deceit, the harsh realities of that brutal thrust which conceived the new world are manifested in Gaston's love for his child bride Clarita, whom he seduced with tamarind balls in the parlour of a heavily cloistered convent. The lure begins with the fantasy of disillusionment: a father hides his daughter from lecherous eyes, in the sanctity of the convent of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of the Nuns of Cluny, in Aracataca on the savannahs of the Monagas on the continent of Bolivar. That same father who gave his daughter to the church to become a bride of god would direct Gaston de Lanjou where to find her after seeing the lust in his eyes for his ten-year-old daughter Elena. In Lavren's inimitable style, like the waves on the Sea of Sadness from where he resurrects periodically to weave his web, the past suddenly becomes present and the present a nearer past, all in one breath. She/He recreates the Garden of Eden and then juxtaposes the image in his mind with events that seem like only yesterday: “These same young boys and girls, some of whom were themselves destined for the convents and the priesthood, had been sent out to collect eggs... Their parents were worried and wondered what they were up to, imagining the worst: that they might be looking at each other in the bushes, taking off their clothes and feeling for the first time the wonder that lay in the nests of the hair between their legs... A comet appeared in the sky... A storm which had been threatening the banana crop in Aracataca had exhausted itself out in the Caribbean Sea. A rare orchid bloomed on Point Galeota on the neighbouring island of La Trinidad. At the very moment that Clarita consented to have another tamarind ball...”
Family history weaves backward and forward through the cacophony of time and space – a noise from fitful hints of incestuous unions, rapist's rhapsodies and/or paedophilia, with stories of child brides and other sexual indiscretions that could not go out into the world beyond bedroom whispers but found their way into the raconteur's monologue when he recalled the first person accounts of Elena Elena and her Englishman spouse; Sou Sou and Ramon de Lanjou; Marie Elena and Auguste de Boissiere; then back to the first of the Monagas de los Macajuelos with Gaston and Clarita becoming the first Adam and Eve, although their history is lost to memory owing to “a shortage of paper and ink.”
The satirical presentation of political figures from the sixties and their habits make for great comic relief. No Caribbean person over fifty, particularly a ‘Trini', would have difficulty knowing “the third most intelligent man in the world” or O'Hara who allegedly banked money abroad in Switzerland on behalf of the people. However, one may have to dig up the newspapers of the day to discover the Minister of Transport who imported hovercrafts to speed across the Gulf of Sadness to solve the traffic jam problem, or the Minister of Education who imported school meals from Luxembourg. I can go on wading through an assortment of mysteries and still not uncover the whorl of synergies that combine to create this novel. One cannot help but mention Scott's in-depth knowledge of the rituals of the Roman Catholic Church, through his use of Latin, vivid descriptions of the garments worn by religious orders and preparations to receive the sacraments of Holy Communion and Holy Orders. Corruption and its decadent antecedents, however, prevail in abundance like a foil to the overwhelming religiosity, reminiscent of “Doctor Faustus” an Elizabethan play by Christopher Marlow.
The brothel within walking distance of the convent walls, along with its obvious temptations, Father Rosario and his concubine, even the Archbishop's occasional leave of absence from his vows of chastity, all bear directly on the morals of the flock, vividly recalling the seven deadly sins, scions of Mephistopheles, sent out to trap the righteous.
There is also the errant uncle who sought the company of boys; a grandfather seduced by the sight of pearls from Margarita, thinking that he will not have to pay the usual dowry for his daughter's hand and is willing to give her to an unknown seducer, knowing that if he acquiesces, brothers will come for his other daughters.
Scott is not afraid to unleash the list of taboos that still haunt Caribbean Society through the actions of his characters with a gilded pen that glides unsuspectingly over every crack and crevice like an illustrator applying finishing touches to a book cover.
Marie Elena's treatment of her black housemaid Josephine reeks of racial superiority; the snobbery of the adults in the household in relation to the Indian agricultural workers and their children living nearby persists today. Auguste's indifference towards his ‘son' Lavren, who overtly showed his feminine side, although Auguste wanted a girl child, goes to emphasize the parallel world in which we live like a doublefaced Janus with one half in light, the other in darkness.
I cannot help but feel the strong shadow of Wilson Harris's subliminal world, first experienced in 'Palace of the Peacock', hovering over these chapters. There is the kind of magic realism I first encountered in Aljeo Carpentier's 'Lost Steps' in Lavren's tales, but made infinitely clearer in Marquez's one hundred years of solitude. Scenes of a New World comes bleeding through the frames in the margins of an old but quaint faraway place that had its visions long before giving birth to this pubescent country where similes are mounted on ancient structures to compare or contrast the new.
“Immediately new smells enter the world: Palmolive soap, Vaseline hair tonic, Capstan cigarettes, soap mixed with cigarette smoke and shit; aromas that pervade the rest of the century...”
As if not to be outdone I can also see snippets of Derek Walcott's 'The Joker of Seville' peering through the multitude of images in my mind: of particular interest is the beginning of Act 1 Scene 4 where Don Juan arrives (spontaneously, by accident) on a beach in the New World from a shipwreck, with only a straw hat between himself and modesty. This scene juxtaposed with Catalinion's words just before, at the end of Act 1 Scene 3, is perhaps the most poignant pointer of all: “For this new world, its promised feasts,/ Is nothing but the old one,/ As long as men are beasts, and beasts/Still bear their master's burden.”
Lawrence Scott's 'Witchbroom' as a first novel clearly indicates the versatility and promise of a bold new voice twenty five years ago, now mellowing with maturity in such recent works as 'Light Falling on Bamboo' (2012) and his second collection of short stories 'Leaving by Plane Swimming back Underwater' (2015). The history of the old world is blended with the new to produce an ageless symphony with its arpeggios, pizzicatos and crescendos rendered through the voices of animals, birds, the wind and sea. A new chemistry is born along with the modern literature it creates, in Lavren's words: “...you see that the magic of the old is still vibrant in the metaphor for transforming and understanding the new.” Editor’s note: Witchbroom was first published in 1992 by Allison & Busby, an imprint of Virgin Publishing Ltd. It was republished in 2017 by Papillote Press.