In The Wasted Years, Caryl Phillips’s 1984 radio play, the young Solly Daniels writes a note to a girl asking her out: ‘Dear Jenny, I know that I don’t know you very well so please forgive me for just writing to you like this.’ ‘Where,’ asks the girl, ‘did he learn to write like that?’ That question resonates. The first joke it contains is that he learnt to write like that at the same school where the girl – who has not learnt to write like that – studies; the second joke, which isn’t a joke at all, is that she is surprised because Solly Daniels is black. And black people are not supposed to be articulate, and especially not fancy with it. They do not ‘write like that’.
Phillips’s talent has developed along the lines of accomplished ventriloquism. In his last novel, Cambridge, and most of his latest, Crossing the River, he writes in a near-perfect pastiche of 18th and 19th-century English. He picks these centuries because they represent the time when racial prejudices were at their most vivid and, literally, powerful, in that they granted and excused overwhelming power.
A mere glance should be sufficient to convince an observer that the West Indian negro has all the characteristics of his race. Thai he steals, lies, is witless, incompetent, irresponsible, habitually lazy, and wantonly loose in his sexual behaviour, is apparent to even the most generous of those who would take sambo’s part.
This is the plantation doctor’s view in Cambridge, and even though it’s reported speech, you can’t help but thrill to a black writer facing such views head-on, or almost head-on. Where did he learn to write like that, indeed? And, just as much to the point, how could he bear to write like that? In his travel book, The European Tribe, Phillips records that his sense of identity and self-esteem was woken when Emile Leroi Wilson, a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, shouted at him: ‘Hey you, motherfucker. You don’t talk to black people or what? This place fuck up your head already.’ The main theme of Cambridge was that of the black better educated than his white masters, a condition that Phillips at Oxford would have empathised with. That Phillips had the educated exslave ignorantly and arbitrarily renamed ‘Cambridge’ on his re-entry into slavery was a bitter and deliberate joke. Mr Rogers, the plantation overseer in the novel,
insisted that should the negroes become as well-informed as the whites, and should thoughts be implanted, the likes of which have never before visited their wool-thatched brains, then the combined forces of the militia and the navy would not be able to keep in check rebellion against their natural condition of servitude.
The funny thing is, that apart from that skewed ‘natural’, Mr Rogers was more or less right, the best attempts of the militia and the navy notwithstanding. The implantation of thoughts – the ideas that are conceived when someone fucks up your head – is as much Phillips’s Big Theme as the whole saga of deracination, both black and white. This is what makes Phillips such a crucial author for anyone on either side of, or who takes any interest in, the Eurocentric/Afrocentric debate.
One critic recently complained about Cambridge on the grounds that Phillips had sacrificed his talent to research. You can see what she meant, but Phillips’s retreat into the past doesn’t seem like abandoning the contemporary in favour of historical certitude (not that, as multiculturalists remind us, there’s necessarily any such thing as historical certitude); he seems compelled to go back into the past, almost in spite of himself. This place fuck up his head already, so it seems sensible to go back and find out why.
Crossing the River contains four narratives, bracketed by the overarching consciousness of a guilty man. ‘A desperate foolishness. The crops failed. I sold my children.’ These opening sentences reappear, subtly mutated, as the prepenultimate line of the novel. (I would like to think that the way the word ‘beloved’ pops up there is a nod to Toni Morrison’s best-known novel.) In between these lines, Phillips writes the stories, ‘the chorus of a common memory’, of these three ‘children’. The first, ‘The Pagan Coast’, is about the search for Nash Williams, a freed slave who has been allowed to set up a colony in the newly-formed Liberia in the 1830s. The second, ‘West’, is the story of Martha Randolph, struggling with a band of black pioneers to get to California. The third, ‘Crossing the River’, is the log, along with a few letters, of the young captain of a slave-ship trading along the windward coast of Africa. The final narrative, ‘Somewhere in England’, details, in a chronological jumble, the relationship during World War Two between a (white) girl in a Yorkshire village and a (black) GI.
Higher Ground, the novel Phillips wrote before Cambridge, also asked us to accept that discrete narratives from different characters, from different continents, centuries and races, could be called a novel (‘a novel in three parts’, it wilfully says on the title page). In persuading us that the point being made is being well made – that narratives of slavery belong to the same story – Crossing the River does the better job.
‘The Pagan Coast’ is a frightening story, in the way that Heart of Darkness is frightening, in its revelation of something nasty in the soul, but without the bugaboo anonymity of Conrad’s natives. Edward Williams, the reformist slave-owner, finds out that his favourite exslave, Nash Williams, has disappeared into the Liberian interior, and comes over to find him. We learn about Nash from a series of increasingly piteous letters sent by him to Edward, as he recounts the vicissitudes of the new colony.Most of these are to do with death, for which the pious Nash has a battery of euphemisms: ‘I am sad to learn that your brother has been called to his long and happy home’; ‘he was, come Wednesday, perfectly sensible of his death as he fell asleep in Jesus’s arms’; ‘but alas she was soon sacrificed to the climate and called home to rest’. Note the precise way Phillips makes Nash’s consolations dizzily oxymoronic: ‘sad/happy’, ‘perfectly sensible/fell asleep’, ‘alas/home to rest’, all in the same sentences. Later, in ‘Somewhere in England’, both the reader and Phillips do a double-take as the vocabularies of conversion and euphemism blur: ‘I live with my mother, I said. In 1926 she fled to the bosom of Christ. She’d lost her husband ... Luckily, God took her up. What I mean is, God took her up to do good works for him. On this earth.’
‘Crossing the River’ is itself a euphemism for death, as well as a blanket term for emigration, willed or unwilled (‘If a trader buys a man, it is down the river. To die,’ says Martha in ‘West’.) Phillips dedicates this novel ‘for those who crossed the river’. The poignant ambiguity of the phrase – does it refer to those who survived, or those who did not? – echoes the African corollary of Christianity’s great, founding oxymoron, the felix culpa, the eviction from Paradise that is, at the same time, our one great hope: Phillips is well aware that slavery led, indirectly and by the most ghastly path, to education and empowerment. And death is there even in the texture of the prose: the language of the 18th and 19th centuries is dead, and Phillips appears to relish making people coin phrases that are now debased into cliché. (The term ‘people of colour’, which seems to enrage some people, was pointedly revivified by Phillips in Cambridge: ‘I confessed that while walking abroad with this female in the Haymarket I had been rudely set upon by a swarm of white gallants with epithets of black devil, while she that was under my protection received considerably worse for being in company with a man of colour.’ The word ‘colour’, in this sense, has been around since 1796.)
If the language of his characters seems wooden, it’s because that’s the only language they understand: one of the techniques Phillips has always used best is that of letting the story seep out between the lines, as opposed to through them. The slaver’s log, in the novel’s title story, is brutal in its casualness. One day’s entry, in its entirety:
Thursday 6th May ... made two trips with the yawl for water and rice. Canoes brought 6 loads of wood. Got on board 4000 lbs of rice, dry and in good order, all hands filled more than 5 butts. Have near 7 tons of rice in good order. One more turn of water and wood in the afternoon finished this troublesome job. Buried a boy slave (No 189) of a flux. Have a promise, from Mr Ellis, of more trade in die morning if the wind does not suit to sail. Towards midnight wind came off the land with rain.
The history of black people in the West has had to seep out, by degrees, by listening as much to what was not said as to what was. The swift skipping over No 189’s fate might seem calculatedly cold-hearted, but in a preliminary acknowledgment Phillips singles this story out as the one which owes the most to original documents. In other words, it really did happen like that. The paradox is to find a voice for a people long denied a voice of their own, and it’s in wrestling with this paradox that Phillips produces something that transcends the immediate concerns while never letting them out of his, or our, sight.
Well, almost transcends. It’s an inescapable premise of Phillips’s stories that he is black and of dispossessed heritage while the majority of his readers are not. Thankfully, he is a careful enough writer not to let himself get bogged down in issues or politics. That said, you can sometimes hear a hum of special pleading going on in the background: ‘West’, only 22 pages long, is so much a weak point in Crossing the River that you might ask what it’s doing there, except to make us feel bad about Martha.
I sometimes wonder if there isn’t a failure of nerve at the centre of Phillips’s fiction, a reluctance to grasp the nettle of how the black person copes in a white culture – whether, so to speak, you bring up the black orphan with the white family or not. Phillips, brought up to ‘write like that’, might well feel some ambivalence about it; though his very skill at doing what has mostly been done well in the past by whites is a careful endorsement of his position. There was an understandable anger at the end The European Tribe; in Venice Phillips ‘responded coldly to the aesthetics, but recognised the traditions ... Despite my education I found myself then, and still now, unable to engage with the Eurocentric and selfish history.’ Six years after that, the closing lines of the introduction to the paperback edition are less unforgiving: ‘I have no suggestions as to how to combat tribalism, or the resultant racism that continues to stain Europe. There are, however, people of all colours and nationalities, of many religions and political persuasions, who are attempting to wrestle Europe’s face around so that she might at least be forced to stare in the mirror.’
This call for honesty is itself honest, but it is interesting that a look in the minor is the metaphor chosen as Europe’s only option for candid self-appraisal. The first thing you see in a mirror is your own face; and it is with superficial judgments about faces – about the colour of faces – that racism begins. But you can observe a face and learn from it without letting its colour become the main issue. Phillips’s flat prose is itself a mirror and a level surface on which the superficial differences between black and white can be smoothed out. We only leam, for instance, that the GI in ‘Somewhere in England’ is black when the diarist mentions his hair: ‘it’s short, like thin black wool’. This is heartbreaking, delicately and tenderly observed: this, perhaps, is how we should start to go about it.