The Caribbean Novel Analysis


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Literary critic Roberto González Echevarría asserts that Latin American literature originated in the Caribbean. “It is in fifteenth century explorer Christopher Columbus’s diary,” he writes, “that we [readers] first encounter what will become the most persistent theme of Latin American literature.” That theme, Echevarría argues, is “how to write in a European language about realities never seen in Europe before.”

Caribbean writers find before them the tools of four European languages, imported by the imperial aspirations of the Dutch, English, French, and Spanish. Writers from Dutch Caribbean regions, such as Frank Martinus Arion and Astrid H. Roemer, have been translated into other languages, making their work available to non-Dutch-speaking readers, but the Dutch Caribbean tradition stands largely unexplored.

Caribbean literature unites literary works that have been studied not only in terms of national traditions (Haitian, Cuban, and so on) but also under a wide range of classifications, such as West Indian (meaning from the English-speaking Caribbean), francophone (French outside of France), and Latin American literatures, as well as African diaspora and postcolonial literature. Caribbean literature designates literature not only from the island nations but also from Central and South American continental territories such as Belize, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana, which share a common experience of slavery and sugar-plantation economies with the island territories. Because the indigenous populations of Arawaks, Tainos, and Caribs of the Caribbean basin were almost wholly exterminated through violence and disease, Caribbean peoples primarily descend from settlers exogenous to the region, most notably the large number of African slaves brought to toil on the plantations and the indentured Asian laborers brought to replace African labor after emancipation. Consequently, Caribbean writers must negotiate a relationship with both a colonial metropolitan culture and the memory of the other African and Asian cultures from elsewhere.

Early flourishings

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

If Caribbean literature began with Columbus’s diary, the Caribbean novel, by contrast, was largely a product of the twentieth century. Nineteenth century Cuban antislavery novels, such as Anselmo Suárez y Romero’s Francisco (1880), Cirilo Villaverde’s Cecilia Valdés (first part 1839, completed 1882; Cecilia Valdés: A Novel of Cuban Customs, 1962), and Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda’s Sab (1841; English translation, 1993), offered early intimations that nationalist, anticolonial thought in the Caribbean was inextricably bound to the legacies of slavery. For the most part, however, novelistic interrogations of Caribbean identities waited until the first decade of the twentieth century, when Haitian writers began their realist experiments and thus provided the seeds for the later, great genre of Haitian literature, the peasant novel.

In this early period, the novels of a writer claimed by the Harlem Renaissance proved paradigmatic. The Jamaican Claude McKay (1889-1948) was the first black anglophone Caribbean novelist. His first novel, Home to Harlem (1928), depicts Jake, an African American returned from World War I to the streets and nightlife of Harlem, and Ray, an exiled Haitian intellectual and aspiring writer, who instructs Jake in pan-Africanism and awareness of a global proletariat. Notably, Ray finds himself in the United States working alongside Jake as a Pullman Car porter because he has fled the U.S. occupation of his island. McKay’s second novel, Banjo (1929), revisits Ray, this time as he pronounces on culture, world politics, and racial roots with an international assembly of drifters living on the Marseilles...

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Alejo Carpentier

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier (1904-1980) shares the baroque style of the Cuban novel with José Lezama Lima, Severo Sarduy, Reinaldo Arenas, and Guillermo Cabrera Infante. Carpentier began his novelistic career under the influence of the Afro-Cubanismo of the 1920’s and 1930’s. His first novel, ¡Ecué-Yamba-O! Historia Afro-Cubana (1933; Lord praised be thou), reflected the anthropological bent of the period by drawing on Carpentier’s observations of the syncretic African Cuban Santería ritual. Influenced by the avant-garde, particularly the Surrealists, Carpentier’s idea of the “marvelous real” of Caribbean life was transformed into the literary style of Magical Realism synonymous with the Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez. A 1943 trip to Haiti, during which Carpentier came face-to-face with the magical presence of vodun (or Voodoo) in everyday life, led him to theorize that this commonplace “marvelous” quality was far superior to the contrived attempts by the European Surrealists to achieve similar effects.

In his prologue to El reino de este mundo (1949; The Kingdom of This World, 1957), Carpentier introduced his idea of lo real maravilloso produced by the hybrid nature of New World culture. Set in Haiti, the novel traces an arc from a slave insurrection to the establishment of a postcolonial state, from 1751 to 1831, depicting real historical figures and drawing on the...

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Wilson Harris

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In its emphasis on history and mythology, the work of Guyanese writer Wilson Harris (born 1921) has much in common with that of Carpentier. Harris’s novels, however, leave all trappings of realism behind. His nonlinear, hallucinatory style is by far the most challenging of contemporary Caribbean novelists, although his experimental approach is shared by the fragmented and polyphonic novels Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home (1980), Myal (1988), and Louisiana (1994), by the Jamaican Edna Brodber. While Carpentier, too, plays with time, particularly in his best-known novel, Los pasos perdidos (1953; The Lost Steps, 1956), in Wilson’s hands, it becomes even more fluid, looping in and out of itself in ways that defy any straightforward chronology. In an excellent metaphor for what it means to live with the history of the Caribbean, Harris’s explorers in Palace of the Peacock (1960) encounter their dead selves and then die again. Palace of the Peacock is the first of the four novels known as The Guyana Quartet (1985), Harris’s best-known work; the other three are The Far Journey of Oudin (1961), The Whole Armour (1962), and The Secret Ladder (1963).

Harris’s novels are distinctive in their emphasis on the American Indian presence in the New World and for their evocation and symbolic use of the rivers and jungles of the Guyanese territory. His The Eye of the Scarecrow (1965), The Waiting Room (1967), Tumatumari (1968), and Ascent to Omai (1970) deploy a symbolic Guyanese landscape, and they “remember” perspectives of endangered communities, stretching back to before Columbus. Harris identifies a flute made by Carib Indians from the bone of an enemy as a symbol for what occurs in his work. Flesh was plucked and consumed and in the process secrets were digested. Spectres arose from, or reposed in, the flutethe flute became the home or curiously mutual fortress of spirit between enemy and other, an organ of self-knowledge suffused with enemy bias so close to native greed for victory.

In Harris’s fiction, natives and European, African, East Indian, and Chinese settlers do commune, but with an unblushing acknowledgment of the violence of their mutual history. In this way, Harris’s work both consumes what he terms “dilemmas of history” and becomes an “organ of self-knowledge,” the bone flute that harmonizes the multihued peoples of Guyana with their historical struggles and conflicts.

George Lamming and V. S. Naipaul

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Unlike Harris, Barbadian George Lamming (born 1927) and Trinidadian V. S. Naipaul (born 1932) embrace realism. These authors stood at the forefront of the anglophone literary boom in the 1950’s. This decade was marked by an exodus of British West Indians to England to seek work and the burgeoning of independence movements that would come to fruition in the 1960’s and 1970’s, when British Caribbean territories began to gain their independence. Whereas Carpentier praises the “marvelous,” in the sense of magical realities of Caribbean hybridity, Lamming and Naipaul focus rather unflinchingly on grim Caribbean realities. Both take a critical view of colonial status and its legacies in the West Indies and explore themes of alienation and exile in their depiction of West Indian life. Beyond this, however, their intentions and conclusions wholly differ.

In his collection of essays The Pleasures of Exile (1960), Lamming represents the voyage to London as initiating a mutual recognition between people of the various West Indian islands, related to but distinct from the homogenizing imperial gaze of the mother country. At home, these voyagers are Trinidadian, Jamaican, and Barbadian, but in England (on the way there, even), they become West Indian. Migration enables pan-Caribbean identification and community, a possibility also proposed in Samuel Selvon’s trilogy The Lonely Londoners (1956), Moses Ascending (1975), and Moses Migrating (1983). In refusing to read “exile” as tantamount to a flight from identity, but rather as constitutive of it, in refusing to see migration as deracination, Lamming predates later studies of African diaspora culture, such as Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (1993) and Carol Boyce Davies’s Black Women, Writing, and Identity: Migrations of the Subject (1994), which see international flows as producing, rather than diluting, culture. As Gilroy suggests, “routes” are as important as “roots.”

For Lamming, the voyage to England is also a voyage of enlightenment, a journey into the heart of colonialism that permits one to emerge from its darkness. London is one symbolic stop along the journey to independence. Lamming’s The Emigrants (1954) brings black workers to London, and Of Age and Innocence (1958) returns them to the Caribbean and its growing independence movements. Approaching the themes of voyage and colonialism from another angle, his Natives of My Person (1972) charts the travels of a white crew of would-be settlers as they sail from the Guinea coast to the island of San Cristobal during the...

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Édouard Glissant

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

One response to this sense of Caribbean derivativeness has been a search for roots—not European ones, as in Naipaul’s case, but African ones. The appreciation of “blackness” and the connection to Africa were epitomized by the highly influential negritude movement associated with Aimé Césaire and his seminal Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1939, 1947, 1956; Memorandum on My Martinique, 1947; better known as Return to My Native Land, 1968), but the movement’s positing of a historical black identity that serves as a prelapsarian preserve against the “fall” of the Middle Passage and enslavement came under fire for its essentialism and romanticized view of Africa. The Martiniquan poet, essayist, and novelist Édouard Glissant (born 1928) critiques this craving for pure, stable origins.

Glissant’s theoretical work Discours antillais (1981; Caribbean Discourse, 1989) poses models of métissage (mixture and miscegenation) and créolité (creoleness) that destabilize notions of a fixed or permanent identity. These concepts are modeled on Creole, the mixed language that was born in the Americas. For Glissant, Creole is not a degraded cultural form, but the epitome of Caribbean cultural formations. From this perspective, other sites of hybridity, such as Caribbean music and the carnival ritual, prove valuable forms of Caribbean expression.

Glissant’s theories inspired novelists, among them Raphaël Confiant and Patrick Chamoiseau, who choose to write in Creole. Chamoiseau’s writing is increasingly available in English translation, particularly his Prix Goncourt-winning novel Texaco (1992; English translation, 1997). Puerto Rican writers Ana Lydia Vega and Luis Rafael Sánchez similarly embrace investigations of inter-Antillian traffic and commonalities, such as those posed in Glissant’s Poétique de la relation (1990; Poetics of Relation, 1997). Sánchez’s La guaracha del Macho Camacho (1976; Macho Camacho’s Beat, 1980) and Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s Tres tristes tigres (1967, 1990; Three Trapped Tigers, 1971) employ a regional Spanish strongly evocative of the French Creoles of Haiti, Martinique, and Guadeloupe. These writers also exhibit a preoccupation with popular culture and an ironic postmodern style that link them to other postmodern Caribbean novelists such as Marie Chauvet, Dany LaFerrière, and Willie Scott.

Glissant’s novel La Lézarde (1958; The Ripening, 1985) recounts a series of voyages down the Lézarde River, using the Martinique landscape to meditate on the island’s history. The titles of his later novels, including Tout-Monde (1993), particularly reflect his theoretical interests.

Maryse Condé

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Like Glissant, the Guadeloupean writer Maryse Condé (born 1937) also strains against the return to African origins embraced by negritude thinkers, and her work displays a healthy postmodern irreverence. She leaves no sacred cows standing. Her first novel, Hérémakhonon (“welcome house” in Mandingo), records the internal monologue of the cynical, Sorbonne-educated Veronica, who travels to Africa to teach at a university. Confronted with a postcolonial Africa torn by internecine violence, an Africa that has moved on since her ancestors’ removal from it to Guadeloupe, Veronica concludes her visit by reflecting, “My ancestors led me on. What more can I say? I looked for myself in the wrong place.” The role of...

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Caribbean transit

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The idea of migration features prominently in the literature of the Caribbean region. Interestingly, other novelists not from the Caribbean region have also seen fit to “migrate” there for fictive purposes: Ernest Hemingway’s much-acclaimed novella The Old Man and the Sea (1952) pits humanity against nature in the ocean off Cuban shores; war correspondent Martha Gellhorn’s novelistic skills matured in Liana (1944), her tale of a powerless mulatto, or person of mixed race, living on a Caribbean island. Graham Greene chose Cuba on the eve of revolution as the backdrop for his satirical reflection on Cold War paranoia in his Our Man in Havana: An Entertainment (1958), and Toni Morrison created a...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Arnold, A. James, ed. A History of Literature in the Caribbean. 3 vols. Philadelphia: J. Benjamins, 1994-2001. Excellent overview of all genres of Caribbean literature. Volume 1 surveys works of the Spanish- and French-speaking Caribbean, volume 2 examines the English- and Dutch-speaking Caribbean countries, and volume 3 provides a cross-cultural study of the Caribbean region as a whole.

Balutanksy, Kathleen M., and Marie-Agnès Sourieau, eds. Caribbean Creolization: Reflections on the Cultural Dynamics of Language, Literature, and Identity. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998. Critics and writers, among them Maryse...

(The entire section is 502 words.)