A RE­VIEW OF A NOVEL BY LAWRENCE SCOTT

The Star (St. Lucia) - - BOOK REVIEW - By McDon­ald Dixon

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.

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