A Necessary Gospel

Sean O’Brien

  • Dear Future by Fred D’Aguiar
    Chatto, 206 pp, £14.99, March 1996, ISBN 0 7011 6537 5

It was as a poet that Fred D’ Aguiar first won recognition, with his 1985 collection Mama Dot, set in the Guyanese village where the English-born D’ Aguiar was sent to be educated. The place is dominated by Mama Dot, the archetypal grandmother, source of wisdom, comfort and discipline, a woman so important that when she falls ill nature itself goes to pieces:

Bees abandon their queens to red ants and bury
Their stings in every moving thing; and the sun
Sticks like the hands of a clock at noon,
Drying the very milk in coconuts to powder.

This vivid, funny, uncluttered work, moving between standard and Nation language, was immediately attractive. D’ Aguiar, however, had other subjects and formal challenges in mind. Apart from its title sequence, his second book, Airy Hall (1989), was a much more troublesome affair, showing the pressure of a more discursive and politically complex area of his imagination, at some cost to clarity and impetus. ‘The Kitchen Bitch’, an ambitious but clotted narrative, seemed strongly influenced by the Guyanese novels of Wilson Harris, whose hallucinatory, half-abstract, outrageously bejewelled manner is as dangerous in its idiosyncrasy as that of Hopkins or Dylan Thomas. Problems persisted into D’ Aguiar’s most recent collection, British Subjects (1993), and it comes as no surprise that he should recently have turned to fiction: the loose baggy monster offers more room than poetry for certain kinds of manoeuvre. What is interesting, though, is that with his second novel, Dear Future, D’ Aguiar has once more put village life in the foreground: the author’s disclaimer notwithstanding, for the Co-Operative Village of Ariel read Airy Hall.

In a brief, charming, slightly mysterious Preface to a selection of his poems in E.A. Markham’s anthology Hinterland: Caribbean Poetry from the West Indies and Britain (1989), D’ Aguiar wrote:

As children we used to try and catch fireflies by locking onto their zigzag, lights-on, lights-off flight in the dark, the same zigzag uncles told us to run if chased by an alligator. When the light of a firefly came on we dashed to it, in the brief dark that followed we slowed then stood still, momentarily, lost in directionless night, left only with an afterglow. Then it would spark again forming an imaginary necklace of light that folded on itself.

Both the alligator and the zigzag path recur in Dear Future, as does the tale, recounted later in the essay, of an uncle stepping onto a log to cross a trench, only to find it sprouting legs and teeth. The pursuit of the firefly seems to speak for the blend of persistence and luck needed for writing to happen, while the delicacy of the quarry suggests the unencumbered naturalness the writer wants to attain – a condition D’ Aguiar remembers from his earliest poems, where ‘the images felt as much as meant something; meaning and feeling occupied the same space.’ In his imaginative return to Airy Hall/Ariel in Dear Future, D’ Aguiar achieves, in the idyllic opening from which the novel gradually darkens, a lightness and élan capable of supporting a substantial shipment of personal and social history.

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