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#31 Home is where your start is

A State of Independence
By Caryl Phillips
Vintage Books, 1986

Knowing that Caryl Phillips was coming to my hometown for Writers Week, I put aside Letters to Burma and picked up Phillips’ A State of Independence. I attended a session on Tuesday night where Caryl or “Caz” as he was introduced, spoke along with Alan Hollinghurst, Dionne Brand and Les Murray. As is often the case, the image I had of the writer of this book while I was reading it was nothing like reality. I had in mind a slightly bedraggled, thinnish man with long curly hair and spectacles and dressed in a causal white shirt and shorts. In reality, Phillips is exceptionally suave looking; he was kitted out in a trendy black suit and v-neck black shirt, is quite well-built, good-looking and has an amazing voice that everyone in the audience found quite mesmerising.

Caryl Phillips

The topic of this Writers Week session was about the sense of place so you can imagine why I was front and centre for this talk. Phillips chose to reflect on the notion of “journeys” and, in particular, how the shortest journeys can sometimes be the most life-changing and profound.

In his case, that short journey was the one he made coming out of his apartment in New York, walking a few steps into the street and witnessing the plane crash into the second tower on the morning of 9/11. Phillips wrote a short piece of non-fiction about this journey (which can be found in his book Colour Me English) and he read this to us during the session. It was a fascinating idea and made me reflect on some of the shorter journeys I have made that impacted on my life, realising there had been many.

St Kitts

A State of Independence is also about a personal journey, the one of an expatriate returning home after many years abroad. Bertram Francis was born and raised in St Kitts before a scholarship sent him to England with promises of a new and fulfilling life…which reality fails to deliver.

After 20 years away from St Kitts he returns to the island hoping, perhaps naively, to pick up where he left of, only to discover that the family, friendships and loves he knew as a boy and teenager have become mere memories and rather than return to the life he had before, he has to confront the necessity of building a new one.

Bertram’s personal journey towards establishing a new sense of identity is mirrored by that of St Kitts itself. Both have been colonised and developed by England and now, having claimed their independence, face the uncertainty of determining what their identity is and how much of that is to be composed of what they began with, what they acquired through colonisation and what they seek to have in the future.

Throughout the book, Phillips languidly evokes a strong sense of place and life in this tiny Caribbean island. The capital – Baytown – is described as a “tropical ghost town” from the movies, one which began its life “as part slave-market and part harbour, primarily designed to facilitate the importation of Africans and the exportation of sugar”. More recently, the capital has developed in three separate directions: a middle class estate; an industrial area and a “hellish and labyrinth-like entanglement of slums”.

Bertram and his brother Dominic were raised by their single mother in the small village of Sandy Bay (their father plays only a minor almost mythic role in the boys’ lives). The two siblings are inseparable, sharing dreams of being professional cricketers and nightmares about what really happened to their father. As Bertram matures, he excels at school, dates the most sought-after girl and is a popular member of his social circle. He then wins the much sought-after scholarship to study abroad and believing this is his ticket to bigger and better things,  leaves with little consideration of the impact on his brother and mother, his girlfriend, his best friend and, indeed, himself.

While it might be the case that it is always harder to be left behind, and in Dominic’s case this is tragically true, Bertram is to discover that it is not so easy to be the one that returns either. His girlfriend is now a single mother and no longer the beauty she once was, his best friend is now a successful businessman destined to become a politician and his brother…well, I won’t ruin it for you. Battling to carve out their own identities in an island that has changed as much for those who stayed as those who left, Bertram’s family and friends are unsurprisingly disinterested in expending their energies to help him create his and, of course, the easy answer would be for Bertram to return to England. In order to decide which way to go: stay and fight for a state of independence or run and always be tied to the apron strings of England, Bertram finds he must reconnect with the island, both its joys and sorrows, and reconnect with its people.

A State of Independence is a lulling, lying-in-a-hammock kind of book which like much Caribbean fiction I have read, offers a brief episodic glimpse into an individual’s life – and through them, their country – rather than providing something substantial to say. One reviewer of this book described it as a “calypso” and while I would agree with this, I felt that what I wanted was more like “reggae” – something with more action, life and intent. I am hoping I may find this with other books from the region to come.

The Literary Nomad xx

More on St Kitts & Nevis…
Capital: Basseterre

Population: 53,000

Area: 261 km2

Language: English

Religion: Christianity

Currency: East Caribbean dollar

Delay your stay: Caribbean Chemistry: Tales from St Kitts by Christopher Vanier;

#30 ROCK!

The Book of Chameleons
By Jose Eduardo Agualusa
Arcadia Books, 2006
Winner, Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2007

“They told him of a man who dealt in memories, a man who sold the past, clandestinely, the way other people deal cocaine”.

I’ve hit #30 in my reading journey…only 200 to go! What a journey it has been so far and despite occasionally considering giving up on blogging due to the demands of an increasingly busy life, I am enjoying this challenge and what I am learning from it too much. It is unlikely that had I not set myself this task of reading my way around the world, that I would have come across gems like The Book of Chameleons, a novel which reminds me a lot of the film Inception in that both explore the unreliable nature of reality, history, memory and the past – whether it is our own, our society’s or our country’s. The book also plays with the notion of literal and metaphorical meaning as is best exemplified by the title which refers to the fact that the book is literally about chameleons – it is narrated by a “gecko” – and also metaphorically about chameleons in the sense of people who change who they are to suit new circumstances.

The chameleon’s name is Eulalio, although we don’t discover that until the end, as for most of the book the chameleon is narrating in the first person. Eulalio lives with a man named Felix Ventura who is an “albino” and therefore technically a black African but whose skin is white (Agualusa is very interested in the deceptive nature of appearances).

Felix has the rather unusual occupation of re-creating people’s pasts when they no longer wish to retain their own. He creates a family tree, complete with photographs of fictitious grandparents and great-grandparents, and provides these false histories to business people, politicians, smugglers and other “people whose future is secure but what they lack is a good past”. However, Felix is not in the business of forgery, as he explains to a client who wishes him to go further and create a new name,  and a real alternative past complete with official documents and actual ancestors who did, in fact, once exist. Rather, Felix sees his job as to “sell dreams”: fake yet comforting pasts for those who simply find their own too unbearable.

This is an important detail in the book for there are many chapters interspersed through the narrative which, on face value, the chameleon’s dreams of his own past life as a man who lived for nearly a century. However, as we learn more about Felix and his occupation, we become increasingly unsure whether the chameleon actually ever was a human or whether he too has simply been sold the dreams of a human past by Felix.

The author: Jose Eduardo Agualusa

When the chameleon is not recounting the dreams of his (fake? real?) past life, he is narrating his observations of Felix’s work with other clients, includng the client who seeks to have not only a different past but an entirey new identity. Although Felix is reluctant to provide this service, he is convinced by a large sum of money and he creates for the client a new identity as “Jose Buchmann”, complete with official passport and other documents and a detailed genealogy filled with colourful relatives and events.

Over the course of the next week the client, now Jose,  undertakes a chameleon-like change, literally transforming before Felix and Eulalio’s eyes into the identity Felix has created for him. His European accent is replaced with a Luandan one, his dress becomes Angolan, even his laugh has an African air to it. What is most surprising to Felix and Eulalio though is that Jose manages to track down details and photos that support the  history Felix created for him, as well as embarking on an obsessive quest to track down as much information as possible about his new past.

This incarnation of the identity Felix has created for Jose holds a sort of Frankenstein horror yet also fascination for Felix, as the chameleon (Eualio) observes. In one of Eulalio’s dreams, he imagines himself interviewing Felix about his creation of Jose, saying:

You invented him, this strange Jose Buchmann, and now he’s begun to invent himself. It’s like a metamorphosis…A reincarnation…Or rather: a possession”.

Felix replies to this by drawing an analogy between his own work and that of authors or novelists, stating:

I think what I do is really an advanced kind of literature…I create plots, I invent characters, but rather than keeping them trapped in a book, I give them life, launchingthem into reality”.

Felix’s occupation becomes dangerous, however, when he creates a past for another client “The Minister” who, like Jose, also comes to believe its reality and, through a bizarrre sequence of events and perhaps improbable coincidences, the Minister and Jose come to believe their pasts were intertwined and that one incurred an injustice by the other – an injustice for which revenge must be executed. This creates a thrilling, if somewhat, surreal climax and an ending which further throws into uncertainty whether we can reliably trust our chameleon narrator or, whether not only his past but his very existence, was also a mere creation.

Funnily enough, as I was reading this book I also saw the Woody Allen film, Deconstructing Harry about an author who, suffering from writer’s block, revisits his past, interacting with both the real and imagined characters that influenced his work. There are many parallels between that film and this book, both of which I found mesmerising and challenging at the same time, not only in making me think about the exent to which our pasts, dependent on our selective and limited memories, can be considered reality or fiction but also on what that means we all create together when producing what is known as collective history.

On that very esoteric thought, I finish this post and look forward to beginning the countdown from 200.

The Literary Nomad xx

More on Angola
Capital: Luanda
Population: 18,498,000

Area: 1,246,700 km2

Language: Portuguese

Religion: Christianity

Currency: Kwanza

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