The British, a nation of Sancho Panzas, like to dream of governing an island. The majority of ideal states both ancient and modern have been imaginary cities rather than sea-girt lumps of rock, but the British Utopia is a fertile commonwealth surrounded by beaches in which, like Gonzalo in The Tempest, we would by contraries execute all things. Both the word and the island of Utopia were the teasing inventions of Sir Thomas More. More’s vision of the good place which is no place may have been inspired by the voyages of Columbus’s follower Amerigo Vespucci, who explored the coast of Venezuela and, absurdly, managed to adorn with his name both of the continents of the New World.
The literary tradition of Utopian landfalls ranges from the scientific and technological hothouse of Bacon’s New Atlantis to the voluptuous and indolent paradise of Haidee’s island in Byron’s Don Juan. At a rather different level there are the weekly castaways of Radio Four’s Desert Island Discs, including, a few weeks ago, our current island governor John Major. The BBC’s (by now rather crowded) island retreat both affirms and denies the insular character of Britain itself: once there, you would have the advantages of an island without the British climate and the rest of the British people. The Prime Minister, however, was alleged to have broken BBC rules by choosing, as his one permitted luxury, to have the Oval Cricket Ground transported to his island.
It seems axiomatic that a fertile island climate has to be wet. However, the myth of an ‘island in the sun’ can be traced back without difficulty from today’s favourite holiday destinations to Daniel Defoe and, before him, to the real-life adventure of the Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk. Selkirk’s cave on the beach of Robinson Crusoe island in the Juan Fernandez group is still shown to visitors; the island is rich in vegetation but its population is reported to consist mainly of hoteliers, tourists and a flock of wild goats. How pleasant it would be if the British romance with tropical islands had actually begun with Selkirk’s innocent escapade off the coast of Chile. But that would be to forget the distant islands which have really shaped British history; above all, our involvement in the bloody turmoil of the Caribbean, where the very ocean, in Derek Walcott’s words, drags the ‘weight of chains of centuries’.
The British colonial regime in the West Indies began with the occupation of Barbados in 1605, six years before The Tempest was written. Marina Warner’s magnificent new novel portrays an imaginary Caribbean island both at the time of first contact with the British early in the 17th century, and in the post-colonial period of the last twenty years. The title, Indigo, denotes the native dye, while the subtitle ‘Mapping the waters’ may be understood in relation to the line from Walcott’s poem ‘A Sea Change’ from which I have quoted. Indigo, like this poem, reinterprets and builds on some aspects of The Tempest, though the fact that Shakespeare’s play is so frequently and readily associated with the Caribbean is itself something that needs explanation. After all, the one geographical certainty about Prospero’s isle is that it lies in the path of a storm-tossed ship en route from Tunis to Naples.
Just as Crusoe’s island had been traced to Selkirk’s, so 17th-century scholars attached some importance to identifying the Mediterranean islands which could be thought to have served as the raw material of Shakespeare’s art. The strongest contender was Pantelleria which has most of the requisite physical features, including fresh springs and brine pits. Near it, on the African coast, Elizabethan maps showed the town of Calibia, a possible source for the name of Shakespeare’s dark monster. Other possible derivations are from the Arabic kalebon (meaning ‘vile dog’), from the Greek word for a drinking cup, or from the German for codfish. Caliban must be presumed African by birth, since his mother, Sycorax, has been banished from Algiers.
How then did it come to be generally accepted that Caliban was to all intents and purposes a native American – an ‘imaginary portrait’, as Sidney Lee wrote in 1898, of the ‘aboriginal savage of the New World’? This is the principal theme of the Vaughans’ learned and sceptical cultural history of Shakespeare’s Caliban, a book which traces both the construction of the various American readings of The Tempest (readings owing as much to Latin America and the Caribbean as to the United States), and their bringing-together in the form of the now commonplace post-colonial political understanding of the play. According to this understanding, Caliban is the island’s rightful owner, and Prospero is a usurper who degrades and enslaves both Caliban and Ariel. Since Caliban has been thwarted in his attempts to possess Miranda, the island left behind by the colonial oppressors at the end is indeed laid waste; there is no longer any chance of peopling it with Calibans.
Such an oversimplified, ‘politically correct’ reading is neither advocated by the Vaughans nor implied by the author of Indigo, but it is very much in their minds. Though the word Caliban resembles both ‘cannibal’ and its root ‘Carib’, this etymology, which is listed in the OED, is not necessarily any less speculative than those mentioned above. However, it is endorsed by Marina Warner. Her Caliban owes his name to the corruption of the word ‘cannibal’ in the mouths of the British settlers’ children on the island of Enfant-Béate, formerly Liamuiga, where he had once lived peacefully with his stepmother and stepsister, Sycorax and Ariel. His correct name is Dulé, and he is the son of an African slave, having been miraculously delivered by Sycorax from his dead mother’s womb. Ariel comes from the American mainland, while Sycorax – sorceress, midwife and brewer of indigo – is a true islander. These family relationships allude only very loosely to The Tempest, just as Warner’s 20th-century protagonist, Miranda, is not in any meaningful sense Prospero’s child. The use of The Tempest in Indigo is a tribute to the play’s contemporary power of focusing and symbolising the issues of exploitation, usurpation, racism and slavery – those issues which emerge so inescapably from the identification of Caliban with the Caribbean.
Like Warner’s last novel, The Lost Father, Indigo is a family history: but the new work is far more ambitious. It combines a remarkably self-assured interweaving of realism, romance and fantasy with a political and moral urgency that were merely hinted at in the author’s earlier writing. Indigo boldly enters such traditionally masculine domains as the imperialist adventure tale, the ‘first contact’ narrative, and even, for a brief moment, the sporting epic (though in the latter case the heroine soon makes her excuses and leaves the stadium, and shortly afterwards the game is terminated by a riot). There are two violent military episodes, the first involving a doomed onslaught by Dulé and his companions on the stockade erected by the new colonists, the second an unsuccessful contemporary coup d’état by machine-gun-toting terrorists. The sporting element in the novel is far more surprising, and far less part of the conventional baggage of colonial and post-colonial fiction, than these outbreaks of sensational violence. ‘The Game mirrored the nation’s ideals, its athletes were patriots’: it is by inventing the national and imperial game of Flinders that Marina Warner triumphantly exemplifies the element of alchemy, the sea change, which turns fictional history into artistic romance.
Marina Warner is the granddaughter of Sir Pelham (‘Plum’) Warner, the great Middlesex cricketer who was born in Trinidad. The magical quality of Indigo can be seen from the fact that, far from transporting the Oval Cricket Ground to a tropical island – something the British actually did, in the form of Barbados’s Kensington Oval – the novel attempts the much riskier business of describing an imaginary sport which originated on Enfant-Béate and spread throughout the British Empire. Flinders is a contest of bat against ball with resemblances to cricket, baseball and contract bridge. Its London headquarters, Doggett’s Fields, is recognisable enough, but the names of the Houses for which rival teams compete – Grand-Thom’ and Petit-Thom’, Figtree and Mangrove, Creek and Jamieston, Sloop’s Bight, Rebecca, Belmont – are drawn directly from the history and geography of Enfant-Béate.
The founder of the British settlement on the island was a Jacobean freebooter, Sir Kit Everard, whose brutal arrival is witnessed by Ariel and Sycorax. His modern descendant, Sir ‘Ant’ Everard, is the former national champion of Flinders as well as being Miranda’s grandfather. We are told enough of Flinders and its rules to wish to know more, though Miranda, being a girl, has of course never learned to play. (There is some, perhaps inadvertent, mystery about ‘Ant’ Everard’s affiliations and whereabouts during his playing days, and about the date at which Flinders became an international sport.) At times the heroine’s view of it suggests some rather acute observations of a cricket match: when the spectators are at their noisiest, ‘the tumult did not help the game speed up, Miranda noticed, and the cacophony increased the tedium.’ However, a master at Flinders is said to possess the quality of sangay, and sangay, meaning preternatural insight and power, is a word from the ancient island vocabulary, once used of the sorceress Sycorax.
The story of Sycorax, Ariel and the coming of Sir Kit Everard is the novel’s most extraordinary tour de force. Inevitably, this revival of the genre of the prehistoric romance takes the form of a lost idyll, a tropical island Utopia in which Time, like the sorceress’s indigo vats, appears not as an arrow or a straight line but as a circular container for life’s endless ferment. Yet there are premonitions of the death of the old order even before Kit Everard’s landfall. The island where there is so far (as in Gonzalo’s ideal commonwealth) no use of metal has already a word for Europeans – ‘the tallow men’ – and the corpses of manacled slaves have been washed up on its shore. Sycorax pays monthly visits to the Hot Springs, where people come in search of her physical and spiritual remedies from all over the island. Three centuries later we shall see the Springs in a new incarnation, as the site of a glorified massage parlour frequented by the international jet-set. The sorceress, imprisoned in a tree, in condemned to live on throughout these centuries, pierced by the cries and suffering of her people, but unable to help.
It would be misleading to imply that Indigo in any way overlooks the narrative pleasures of more conventional contemporary novels. We are shown both the life of Sycorax and the present-day hotel trade on Enfant-Béate, which after independence reverts to its earlier name of Liamuiga. In the novel’s London sections there are such finely comic incidents as Miranda’s meeting with an uncouth but world-famous Sixties film director, and Miranda’s mother’s arrival, dressed in nothing but her black silk underwear, at a stuffy christening party in a London flat. (This is in 1948, long before the age of the Kissogram girl.) Even in London the presence of Serafine, the Everard family’s Caribbean nanny and a storyteller with her own brand of sangay, lifts the novel above the level at which it functions, and functions very effectively, as a British family saga and comedy of manners. There are many other manifestations of Warner’s richer and stranger conception: for example, the colour symbolism which is foregrounded by the titles of the novel as a whole and of the six parts into which it is divided. Indigo, we are forcibly reminded, is both a narrative continuum and a changing spectrum.
When Sycorax sees, and when Ariel is later seduced by, the first of the white colonists, their sensuous reactions are fully spontaneous and uninhibited. In the 20th century, Miranda like the rest of Sir Kit’s descendants has a ‘touch of the tarbrush’, of which she is very conscious; moreover, she has the trained eye of a professional artist and designer. She will have a crucial relationship with a black actor whom we see playing in The Tempest. Yet it is virtually impossible, in a contemporary novel exploring the issues of racial prejudice and racial guilt, to write fully and openly about the characters’ responses to differences of skin colour. Miranda as a child is fascinated by Serafine’s colour, which she connects, naturally enough, with the ‘little black sambo’ on the marmalade jar: but she knows already that the subject is dangerous and must never be mentioned. A similar deviation may account for the author’s ostentatious use throughout this novel of primary colours, from the name and nature of Miranda’s garish aunt Xanthe, later known as Goldie, to the sunburned red of the first English settlers and the rich blue of the indigo vats.
Indigo, for all its complexities, begins and ends with two of the simplest of fictional devices: a family tree in the process of extension and, on the endpapers, a map of the island. There could be no more welcome addition to the genre of the British island novel, a grand tradition which had been languishing, more or less, since Lord of the Flies. The prevailing mood in island narratives of the last thirty years can be gauged from such titles as Christopher Priest’s Fugue for a Darkening Island and J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island, not to mention Hugh Kenner’s literary-historical work A Sinking Island. Despair and terror are given their due in Indigo, with its reminder of the ravages wrought by Eurpoean intervention in the Caribbean since Columbus and the time of first contacts: but Marina Warner’s island, a place of enchantment and disenchantment, an isle full of noises, is not sinking but buoyant.