Return of the Native

Hugh Barnes

  • The Final Passage by Caryl Phillips
    Faber, 205 pp, £8.95, February 1985, ISBN 0 571 13437 8
  • Merle, and Other Stories by Paule Marshall
    Virago, 210 pp, £9.95, February 1985, ISBN 0 86068 665 5
  • Heaven and Earth by Frederic Raphael
    Cape, 310 pp, £8.95, February 1985, ISBN 0 224 02294 6
  • The Tenth Man by Graham Greene
    Bodley Head, 157 pp, £6.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 370 30831 X

Homesickness is fabulous magic. Even as the world shrinks and the epic edge is blunted, the resettlement myth persists. Ulyssean travelogues are few and far between in Caryl Phillips’s The Final Passage and the novels of Paule Marshall, but families uproot themselves. Their stories correspond, but not in time or place. Phillips’s travellers leave their small Caribbean island for Britain in the 1950s, when prospects were cheery. The white folks of the West had never had it so good: too good, or so their masters told them, to settle at menial labours. Since the publication of her first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, in 1959, Paule Marshall has been weaving a delicate history of the Barbadians who emigrated to America earlier in the century. Stepping off the boats, though not all were so fortunate, the wayfarers arrived in their new homes with nothing to declare but memories and aspirations.

The West Indians who alighted at Southampton and Bristol, wives in cotton dresses, husbands in demob suits and trilbies, were items of unfinished history, dredged up from the bottom of the sea of progress. Perhaps their experience has still not been assimilated. It is appropriate that The Final Passage opens at the seafront with the exiles-to-be waiting for the SS Winston Churchill to drop anchor. The peanut vendor offers comfort to the greedy. Leila and her baby son Calvin are waiting not only for embarkation orders but also for a third passenger whose valedictory boozing has left him worse for wear. Phillips ruptures the time-scheme of his novel, leading us back from impending departure into the events of the previous year. Michael is an unprepossessing family man. He takes what he likes and abuses the rest, which is sometimes his wife. When her pregnancy entered its advanced stages, she became useless, no longer pleasurable, and he left her for the consolations of his mistress. Nevertheless, for all his shortcomings, he emerges as the avatar of his companions’ forebodings: ‘Leaving this place going to make me fed old, you know, like leaving the safety of your family to go live with strangers.’ Leila would say he was a fine one to talk of his family and its safeties. Phillips’s thesis is straightforward and unassuming. The Final Passage chronicles loss, not acquisition. The opening section which unveils this small beginning is ominously entitled ‘The End’.

Leila is unimpressed by the amenity of Bay-town and environs, which she interprets as stasis: ‘this small proud island, overburdened with vegetation and complacency’. And not much else, apart from dreams of excellence at sex or cricket or calypso. Bordered by mountains that contain the heat, the island sprawls in dust, its inhabitants for the most part listless and contented. Politics and anger surface intermittently, but they seem to belong to the older generation always, to Leila’s mother, who scolds her for loitering with white tourists, or to Michael’s grandfather, who tries in vain to prepare him for the ways of the world: ‘Too much laughing is bad for the coloured man, too much sadness is bad for the coloured man, but too much hating is the baddest of them all and can destroy a coloured man for true.’ Michael listens doubtfully, taking little of it in. His determination to reach England is founded on fantastic rumours about white women, for whose sake he is cultivating a Ronald Coleman moustache. Alphonse Waters tells him it’s ‘a stupid and bad crazy world’ across the sea. Secretly this is what he hopes. During the sea voyage, the men assemble on deck and exchange boastful ignorance, gleaned from random studies of The History of the English-Speaking Peoples and the Encyclopedia Britannica. There’s an industrial revolution raging in England, that much they are agreed on, but who’s leading it, and against whom, remain mysteries. Phillips neatly captures the harsh reality of the promised land, its smugness and its outlook of permanent grey, booms and recessions notwithstanding. The notices outside guest-houses and cafés are manifestly hostile, and the faces on the advertising hoardings stare down reprovingly at the strangers. The family move out of a communal slum into a slum of their own, which they cannot pay for. Michael’s periods of silence draw out and last for days at a time. Seldom at home, when he is he trains his surliness like a weapon, or returns in the early hours for drunken assaults on his wife and for vomiting. After one particularly ugly ordeal, and dispiriting inquiries from the social work department, Leila abandons Michael and his adopted country for the sufferable hardships of home. Perhaps this is the novel’s bleakest moment: it is also one of affirmative self-discovery which unites Leila with the heroines of Paule Marshall’s novels. Selina Boyce in Brown Girl, Brownstones leaves Brooklyn for Barbados, where her father had inherited a plot of land. And Avey Johnson in Praisesong for the Widow digs deep into her past, and that of her ancestors in South Carolina, to replenish it and make it usable. The Final Passage is a small story by comparison, and only partially illuminates its theme. There is sadness certainly, and defeat. But as Christmas comes to London, Leila’s hopes are exhausted and also just beginning.

Merle, and Other Stories is a collection of Marshall’s early work, previously unavailable in this country. This edition comes complete with the writer’s own retrospective commentary. In the introductory essay she charts her literary influences, from her visits to Brooklyn library as a child, where she discovered Thackeray, Dickens and Fielding, and, later, black writers (Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston) who informed her own experience and that of ‘the Race’. But more important to the young Marshall than the testimonies of the page were the stories she heard in the kitchen of her brownstone house, told by the ‘unknown bards who would put an apron and a pair of old house shoes in a shopping bag and take the train or streetcar from our section of Brooklyn out to Flatbush’ several mornings a week to clean the homes of white folks. These women were her principal educators, swopping Bajan folklore, talking politics (‘if FDR was their hero, Marcus Garvey was their God’) and the travails of living in this ‘man country’. The ‘unknown bards’ have populated her stories ever since, most memorably in Silla Boyce, the furious matriarch of her first novel. Women have been active elements throughout Marshall’s fiction – motors of community, husbands and children. ‘The Valley Between’ and ‘Brooklyn’, published here, are apprentice outings, from a time ‘when I could barely crawl, never mind stand up and walk as a writer’. But they explore characteristic themes. Cassie in the first story is a white woman who escapes domestic drudgery to go back to college, inviting the reproaches of her husband. Obstructive masculine indifference reappears in ‘Brooklyn’, where Miss Williams’s accomplishments in her foreign literature night-class, particularly her essay on Gide, provoke her professor into confession and conceit. In ‘Reena’ the narrator meets up with an old friend from her childhood. Reena has thrown over the security of her middle-class upbringing for Civil Rights activism. She would be at home anywhere in Marshall’s work. Her confidence is emblematic: ‘We are still, most of us, the black woman who had to be almost frighteningly strong in order to survive. For, after all, she was the one whom they left (and I don’t hold this against them; I understand) with the children to raise, who had to make it somehow or the other. And we are still, so many of us, living that history.’ At the end of the story the women separate – Paulie back to the suburbs, Reena onwards to Africa.

Merle Kibona was the heroine of Marshall’s second novel, The Chosen Place, the Timeless People, a foreign student in London waylaid by ‘the so-called glamour of the West’. In fact this glamour never amounted to more than idleness, a chequered lesbian affair, and the birth of her daughter. Back in the West Indies in this updated story, she occupies the house at Bournehills which once belonged to her white father, Duncan Vaughan, descendant of a celebrated island dynasty. His liberality backfired on him sometimes, in the illegitimate offspring with which he populated his patch. Merle was unexceptional, a Vaughan bastard child whose father refused to acknowledge her. She lived out the first years of her disinheritance a stone’s throw across the tracks. She describes herself as ‘a slightly daft, middle-aged woman with history on the brain’, and no wonder. The inertia of Bourne Island recalls parts of The Final Passage, ‘someplace the world has turned its back on and even God’s forgotten’. But dereliction has its conveniences, making possible impossible relationships, like Merle’s with an American anthropologist Saul.

Life on the island is brutish and short, but Marshall observes it with the meticulousness of Jane Austen, demonstrating a comparable genius for conjuring the manners and mechanics of a small, introverted community. Merle is a Third World revolutionary Emma Wood-house: ‘some people act, some think, some feel, but I talk, and if I ever was ever to stop that’d be the end of me.’ Instinctively she talks sense, in short blasts against exploitation. When it rains, the island’s roads are impassable, and now the local law firm is conspiring to sell Bournehills down the mud-streams to property developers, hellbent on jettisoning the island into the ‘modern swing of things’. Merle has the measure of the multi-nationals, at least she thinks she has. Her loyalties are to ‘the Little Fella’, the indigneous poor, and she encourages them to rise up against the conditions of their lives: primarily to resist the courtesies of the dollar by ensuring that the island can feed itself. To this end Merle storms the Cane Vale refinery where Erskine Vaughan, in a curious Luddite inversion, lays off the workforce after vandalising his own machinery. Her defiance is the absurd gesture of a crystal spirit. At the end of the story, if her initiatives have come to nothing and the socialist transformation of the West Indies has been postponed, her energies are undiminished. Saul’s wife is carried off into the sea by winds, and Merle makes sedate preparations to follow her. Like Reena, she chooses Africa as her ultimate destination, but this time in search of a younger generation: ‘I’ll never get around to doing anything with what’s left of my life until I go and look for my child.’ Paule Marshall’s final passage anticipates her ports of call, from Recife in Brazil ‘where the great arm of the hemisphere reaches out toward the massive shoulder of Africa as though yearning to be joined to it again’. Merle suffers a similar yearning, and it furnishes this remarkable collection. She departs to gather up the fragments of her identity, ‘as it had been in the beginning’.

Like Merle, Frederic Raphael’s characters don’t act or feel much, but do an awful lot of talking, albeit after a fashion few of us would recognise. The ordinary functions of conversation are subsumed in bouts of gladiatorial articulacy. They don’t so much converse as brutalise each other verbally, while their audiences bay like a circus crowd. There is entertainment to be had along the way. Raphael’s punnery takes no prisoners, and the sleights of mouth are relentless. But you can’t help feeling that ‘cleverness’, if that’s an accurate appraisal of the author’s subject, involves something more than this donnish dexterity with words. The people in Heaven and Earth are all incapable of simple utterance. It’s an endearing uniformity, but you wonder how they get on at the dentist.

Gideon Shand lives with his wife Pamela and their children in the Midlands town of Chaworth. It’s a far cry from the cloisters and quadrangles of his varsity days, and he knows it. To compensate, be still inhabits the other world emotionally, although mortarboards and high table have had to be exchanged for shabbier duties at the Open University, as a receptacle of undergraduate packages. In his spare time he compiles a newspaper bridge column and television documentaries. The reasons for these reduced circumstances (if that’s what they are) are buried in the past: to be exhumed inevitably. But family matters preoccupy our hero immediately. His son air-fixes and swots military history. These are unhealthy habits in a growing lad and occasion some unpopularity among his contemporaries. He gets beaten up daily. Gideon eschews the obvious counter-measures (boxing-gloves and coaching from the sports centre) and plumps instead for the upheaval of emigration to Colchester. This is the reader’s first disappointment, because the Chaworth neighbourhood is the best thing about Heaven and Earth. All of life, it seems, is here – a South African refugee who is penning his memoirs for a plush sunday, his transcendental wife, a family of Irish bog-people, and Piers Rougier, a bisexual, right-wing priest.

Ostensibly Raphael’s appeal is nostalgic. His parade of fruitless brilliance indulges the rest of us who never had the brains to squander. As in the previous books, we are taken on a backwards journey, off into the electric past. Gideon’s best friend is even cleverer than he is, and obnoxious. Stephen Hellman’s rise to the Bar and media fame has been heady and uninterrupted. An unsympathetic type, he is nonetheless essential to Raphael’s scheme, and without him Gideon’s personal history would remain for ever ravelled. They were at Cambridge together, young men punch drunk on shimmering futures, until Gideon slated a prominent college alumnus in a magazine article, and was cast out into the darkness. The Shands repair to a cottage on the Hellmans’ estate.

Removal eastwards heralds crisis, which affects the structure of the novel as much as it does the lives contained in it. The renewed relationship between neighbours is littered with untimely revelation. Unsurprisingly (after all, we’ve been here once before in The Glittering Prim), Gideon’s daughter turns out not to be his at all, but Stephen’s. In her new surroundings Pamela undergoes an implausible reversal of temperament. She develops misanthropic, cultic neuroses, and dabbles in herbal medicine. Heaven and Earth struggles to match the magnificence of its title. The narrative is continually interrupted by philosophical and literary digressions, or curt generalisations about human affairs. Raphael’s versatility is as ever beguiling. But Stephen is never satisfactorily ‘the beast with two pricks’, nor is the rape of Pamela easily taken on board. The upshot is an uncharacteristic formlessness. In the latter stages the plot engines overheat and horrible events become farcical.

Past, present and future join seamlessly in Graham Greene’s The Tenth Man. This short novel has been yellowing in the MGM archives for over forty years. Like The Third Man and The Fallen Idol, it was written specifically for the cinema, at a time in the author’s life when, as he admits in the Preface, his primary consideration was the upkeep of his family. The story begins in a German detention camp somewhere in occupied France during the early years of the war. ‘Prison leaves no sense unimpaired, and the sense of proportion was the first to go.’ And then, apparently, the sense of time passing, as the prisoners’ watches are pilfered, broken and confiscated in turn. One night the mayor of Bourge neglects to wind his watch. He wakes in the morning to find its hands frozen at a quarter to one. ‘It seemed to the mayor the most terrible moment of his life: worse, far worse, than the day the Germans fetched him.’ The inmates eke out their desultory solitude, impatient of liberation. Greene’s tricksiness is rarely flamboyant, but he retains an elusive, and vaguely disturbing, presence. His sentences swell inexorably and then buckle under their ensuing melodrama.

Jean-Louis Chavel is a wealthy Parisian lawyer, ‘a lonely fellow who made awkward attempts from time to time to prove himself human’. These attempts are at once forgotten, or sublimated, when an aide-de-camp, a sergeant and a civilian are murdered by the flagging forces of resistance outside. Hungry for retribution, the German officers demand three voluntary victims. The drama unfolds itself simply, the requirements of the cinema quietly satisfied. Lots are drawn, and with each sigh or relief, the odds narrow. In its bare bones this central scene anticipates Dr Fischer’s bomb party. Having selected a marked scrap of paper from the shoe, Chavel offers his fortune to anyone who will deputise for him in front of the firing squad. Janvier consents because be is anxious for the approbation of his family, posthumous if it must be. He barters his life for Chavel’s riches and the estate at Brinac he will never see. Greene borrows freely from diverse genres, mixing thriller and Morality. Familiar themes introduce themselves: the parabolas of money and death, of humiliation and natural justice.

After the completion of hostilities, and his release, Chavel finds himself in straitened circumstances. He is branded a collaborator, even the waiter at his favourite café disowns him. He returns destitute to his home, now in the hands of its new owners, Thérèse Mangeot and her cantankerous, Janvier-doting mother. The world reveals unexpected vicissitudes to Chavel. He learns in his identity as Charlot that, far from saluting their unknown benefactor, Thérèse reproaches Chavel for his part in her brother’s death. Nevertheless he eaters the Mangeots’ service, believing that, if one is to be reviled, the burden is lighter in familiar surroundings. Chavel falls madly for his detestor and only the fear of separation counsels him against owning up to his disguise. Instead he consoles her with apochryphal stories of Janvier’s heroism. Greene’s hurried finale, a dubious gun-fight sandwiched between Chavel’s ritual confession and death, does nothing to restore the equilibrium. The inhabitants of this small terra nova of Greeneland are exiles in their way, not because of their colour or cleverness, but out of ennui. Chavel’s isolation, temporarily obscured by affluence, harks back to his beginnings; and he understands this finally as the shadows lengthen over his material world: ‘He had thought that home was something one possessed, but the things one possessed were cursed with change.’