Its Own Dark Styx

Marina Warner

  • The Nature of Blood by Caryl Phillips
    Faber, 224 pp, £15.99, February 1997, ISBN 0 571 19073 1

‘Memory says: Want to do right? Don’t count on me.’ So writes Adrienne Rich in a poem from An Atlas of a Difficult World, opening an unpunctuated sequence of horrors: lynchings, pogroms, Auschwitz, Berlin, Palestine, Israel:

I am accused of child death   of drinking blood ...
there is spit on my sleeve    there are phone-calls in the night ...

She concludes: ‘I am standing here in your poem unsatisfied / lifting my smoky mirror.’ Memory’s smoky mirror, like the witch’s crystal, or the burning glass of the Aztec god who demands human sacrifice, has become the prime instrument turned on history by several of the most powerful recent or contemporary novelists. In its shadowed and unreliable depths Toni Morrison, Kazuo Ishiguro, Leonardo Sciascia, Alejo Carpentier have searched out their material, reflections of ourselves; and from A State of Independence his second novel (1986), to The Nature of Blood, Caryl Phillips, too, has been scrying for glimpses of troubled histories.

The Nature of Blood opens in a Displaced Persons camp in Cyprus after the Second World War, where the British are holding Jews before releasing them in quotas to travel to Palestine; a boy asks, emblematically, the name of the country to which they will be going. Israel, replies the doctor-soldier, Stephan Stern. Dr Stern threads through the story like the implied key of a sonata; for Phillips’s construction is musical, and his predominant motif – of an unsparing minor starkness – is provided by Eva, Stern’s niece. In her parallel story, she’s liberated from another (Nazi) camp; having lost her much-loved sister Margot and her parents somewhere unnamed in Germany, she goes mad in the aftermath. The novel’s phrasing strikes echoes across different movements, as the several stories and characters twist through time and place, until Phillips brings the various themes together in a beautifully poised, tender and melancholy coda. The Holocaust and its victims (among whom Phillips counts the survivors: this is a novel in which no one escapes damage) occupy the foreground, but it is Israel as the dream of the Promised Land that provides the book’s tragic core. For Israel, in the sense of home, cannot exist except as yearning. However clearly it appears on the atlas, it eludes the explorer and the refugee alike in the restless involutions of the mind’s desires. In the closing scene, a nurse from Ethiopia, one of the Falasha invited ‘home’ to Israel, meets Dr Stern at a dancing club; they make love, the single act that attaches; she can’t find work in racist Israel; he has become a lonely old pensioner, a stranger without moorings in the country he gave up wife, child and birthplace to create.

Both in its contemporary theme – the desolate condition of diaspora and the impossibility of a resolution – and in its diachronic approach, The Nature of Blood extends the methods Phillips developed in Cambridge and Crossing the River, his most recent novels. Both of those, however, explored black identity directly. Cambridge returned to the Caribbean, to an 18th-century slave plantation, where a young woman from England voyages in order to set her father’s estate in order. Phillips tells much of the story in her words, unflinchingly voicing the plantocracy’s assumptions of racial superiority, and setting up against them the figure of Cambridge, the dignified, literate, ironically named slave who unsettles her received ideas. It is as if Sir Bertram had died and Fanny Price had slipped through the gates of Mansfield Park to see for herself what the family’s fortunes entailed in Jamaica: Phillips drew for his portraits on the literature of abolition, including such powerful witnesses as Olaudah Equiano, who wrote one of the most eloquent and detailed accounts of life as a slave. Crossing the River, Phillips’s last novel, and his most intense to date, took up an even less familiar corner of black history, and explored the failure of the American experiment in Liberia, the West African nation that ‘enlightened’ citizens sent freed slaves to settle after the Civil War.

He has distinguished himself in these three works by his refusal of pieties; there’s a quiet dourness and cussedness in his handling of the material; he pits himself against any kind of received wisdom, including the prevailing feel-good tendency of some black American writing. His ironies work at everyone’s expense: no one, black, white, patrician, serf, is spared. He is a sympathetic impersonator of women (Eva in The Nature of Blood) and white idealists (Stern the well-meaning terrorist/freedom fighter), but his pitiless irony projects their self-deceptions, too: Eva, befriended in the camp by an English soldier who gives her chocolate, follows him to London after the war, where he turns out to be married. He jilts her, abandoning her in a pub with a gin and tonic. But before we can align ourselves against this betrayal, Phillips discloses, in one of his fingertip asides, that in her dazed condition, she had forged the letter of invitation from him with which she arrived in the country.

By setting out, in Cambridge, the beliefs that underpinned slavery, by playing parts far beyond the borders of his own autobiography, by choosing to write about the Holocaust when he is not Jewish, Caryl Phillips is making a political statement, angled strongly at the United States, where he lives and teaches for half the year. But he’s not simply flouting the parish boundaries of PC, in which only a woman may write as a woman, or only a black may address the themes of race. Phillips’s contumaciousness arises from a more philosophical view of identity, which his fictions propose in their ventriloquism and polyphony, without assistance from the authorial voice. Much current writing takes up similar issues, but it is dominated by the confessional or advocacy mode, reflections of America’s legal and religious culture. Hilton Als’s recent essays, The Women, Henry Louis Gates’s Colored People, the reportage of Keith Richburg in Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa square up to the way in which the black individual is the perceived representative of his race, and of ‘being black’; the writers fight against it, plead furiously as they realign the co-ordinates and propose re-evaluations (for example, Ebonix, or black street slang). Phillips sets aside this direct mode of address in order to avoid group labelling and the corral of designated racial character. The regulation of difference, The Nature of Blood seems to tell us, has excited more hatred and bloodshed than the weaving and binding of societies according to elective affinities between persons. The blurb on the jacket – and authors are routinely asked to provide this nowadays – says: ‘What emerges through these inextricably linked stories is the realisation not only of how we define ourselves but also, shockingly, that we sometimes determine who we are by destroying others.’

Questions of national place, of roots, of where one belongs, depend on psychic identifications: where hostility and contempt are projected, where fear springs. Conversely, affinities are elected where sympathy rises, where love happens. Narrative, when it throws its voice, can dissolve hatreds by deepening understanding: The Persians, in which Aeschylus dramatises the terrible grief of the enemy Xerxes’s mother, represents an early instance of this potential.

In pursuit of this possibility, Phillips contrasts in The Nature of Blood two stories taken from the past and plaits them into his Holocaust theme: a blood libel occurring in the small town of Portobuffole near Venice in 1480 and the story of Othello, the African general who, according to a glancing reference in the 16th-century Venetian drama that inspired Shakespeare, served the Serenissima and thanks to his ‘good qualities’ won the love of one of the Republic’s most nobly born daughters. With his love of helical structures, Phillips twists together the story of a fair-haired child beggar’s disappearance and the subsequent trial, torture and execution of a group of Jews charged with his sacrifice; his Othello crosses into this world when he enters the ghetto – that stifling, overcrowded, indeed concentrated city within the city – in search of a scribe who will write a love letter to Desdemona for him. Labelling is libelling; only personal contact can efface the characteristics attributed to groups: Desdemona’s father reacts with furious bigotry to his daughter’s choice, but she is steadfast; Dr Stern, looking at the colour of the nurse Malka’s skin as she sleeps beside him, sees her as someone who has made him a belated gift, not a representative of her Otherness, her tribe, her race.

The choice of Othello leads to some richly worked passages on Venetian courtship rituals, on the lore of gondolas, on oligarchical banqueting, as well as on the harsh expediency of the Republic’s politics. But Shakespeare’s tragedy necessarily throws its long shadow over the steadfast love that grows between Desdemona and the older stranger. Phillips has decided not to trace their story to its conclusion, nor to revise it. Given the harshness of the novel’s general music, the reader cannot dare hope for a happy ending, though the couple are last seen in Rhodes feasting. Two brief passages, in an external, anonymous voice, then interpellate Othello:

And so you shadow her every move, attend to her every whim, like the black Uncle Tom that you are. Fighting the white man’s war for him / ... The republic’s grinning Satchmo hoisting his sword like a trumpet / You tuck your black skin away beneath their epauletted uniform, appropriate their words (Rude am I in speech), their manners, worry your nappy woollen head with anxiety about learning their ways ... O strong man, O strong arm, O valiant soldier, O weak man. You are lost, a sad black man, first in a long line of so-called achievers who are too weak to yoke their past with their present; too naive to insist on both; too foolish to realise that to supplant one with the other can only lead to catastrophe. Go ahead, peer on her alabaster skin ... My friend, the Yoruba have a saying: the river that does not know its own source will dry up. You will do well to remember this.

This passage, and another that comes soon after it and closes, ‘Brother, jump from her bed and fly away home,’ are hard to interpret, and in their apparently direct and rootsy Afrocentrism, run counter to the disillusion recorded by Phillips as far back as A State of Independence, in which his protagonist returns to St Kitts, the island where Phillips himself was born, tries to rejoin the society of his extended family, but fails. The taunting of Othello by this unanchored late 20th-century voice is disruptive in a book whose title implies, surely, that blood of its nature is common. Yet the discomfort it produces reintegrates itself into the novel, which refuses comfort from any source; these cries from outside the narrative express Phillips’s sense of the futility of his general enterprise as he tries to locate homelands outside the formal geography of the difficult world. Novelists can’t be shut out of exclusion zones, but novels, it turns out, can’t be charters for newfoundlands.

There is, however, another clue to the way Phillips sees this existential and perpetual displacement: his prose. He belongs to the current school of ironists who button their lip; his sentences mimic the histories he’s excavating: indecipherable fragments are picked out of the mud in which they were buried and handed over to be pieced together, making the reader work to read them. (We are only allowed to suspect that his Dr Stern is the Stern of the Stern Gang.) This is also Ishiguro’s unemphatic method, and to some extent, Graham Swift’s, both of them contemporaries of Phillips. It could not be more different from Rushdie’s method, or Angela Carter’s: they are baroque ironists, for whom the interest swirls and flares on the mobile and sumptuous surface of the prose. Ishiguro and Phillips are elliptical encrypters: what is happening is not what you see, but what you can’t see, until you adjust your perception – Wittgenstein’s duck/rabbit. Both writers perform quasi-autistically as they draw the rabbit and make the duck at the same time. Phillips’s storytelling manner is flat, his sentences short and bare of ornament; the rhetorical finesse exists entirely in the mimicry of voices (as it does in Swift and Ishiguro). How this reflects – and indeed extends – his inquiry into history and belonging can be seen in the effect of paralysis that the flatness creates. History itself – in this book the Holocaust; in the earlier novels, other great themes, slavery, emancipation, utopias – gives up its evidence grudgingly: a damaged child in a case-study whose rare and enigmatic utterances must be carefully collected and examined and pressed to yield meaning; which often enough they stubbornly refuse. The lacunae between them open, but meanings hide.

The temperature of this latest novel runs a little low. The several lost lives and loves that crowd the banks of its own dark Styx are too numerous to bind the reader emotionally in the way his three dominant protagonists did in Crossing the River. The effect is a little remote, the method a little schematic, and here and there the research still pokes through the extreme reticence. But in a blur that itself reflects lost history, the maimed subjects of events – Eva maddened by surviving her sister and the camps, Dr Stern desolate in Zion, the murdered Jews of Renaissance Venice, Othello travelling ineluctably towards Iago, the novel’s population of exiles and immigrants, so many of the undone and unbelonging – appear in the cracks that fissure the clouded mirror Caryl Phillips is holding up as he stubbornly wills memory to articulate something we can maybe count on, in spite of everything.