Friday, December 3, 1982
Though Paul Theroux’s name is synonymous with the literature of train travel due to two bestsellers, The Great Railway Bazaar (London to Japan) and The Old Patagonian Express (Boston to the tip of South America), most of his twenty books are fiction. His new travel book on Britain, The Kingdom by the Sea, has just been published. His most recent novel, The Mosquito Coast, was a 1982 bestseller. Like much of his work, it deals with people displaced—an American family building a gigantic ice machine in the steaming jungles of Honduras. This sense of displacement inevitably leads to self-discovery, in the fiction as well as the travel books.
Because of his travels, Theroux has staked out a fictional territory very much his own. Many of his books are set in parts of Asia, Africa and South America that for most Westerners are out-of-the-way places. He also has the capacity to make the ordinary seem foreign, understandable and new. His fiction is vivid, flexible in style and experimental in range, yet at heart Theroux remains a traditional storyteller.
He is fascinated by outsiders, like the American consul stationed in a dusty Malaysian outpost for the short-story collection The Consul’s File and now transferred to Britain for the recent The London Embassy. And there are the former insiders turned outsiders again: in a much-overlooked masterpiece, The Black House, an elderly British couple who have spent their lives doing anthropological work in a remote part of Africa retire to a small British village.
Theroux currently lives in London with his wife Anne, and two sons, Marcel and Louis, who are entering their teens. Born near Boston in 1941, Theroux has spent most of his adult life abroad. As a young man he taught English literature in Malawi, Uganda and Singapore. He is an affable man with the relaxed air of someone who has been in uncomfortable places. His accent is a bizarre mixture of British vowels and American consonants. A constant train of thought runs through his conversation: that there is still much out there to see if one is willing to open one’s eyes and undergo a bit of risk and hardship in order to see it. As he wrote years ago, “All travel is circular—the Grand Tour is just the inspired man’s way of heading home.”
AW: There’s a tradition of a grand tour, a journey that exposes a young person to the important cultures of his time. What should today’s grand tour be?
PT: A person should travel not only to find out about the present but to find out about the future. A grand tour today should be the opposite of what it was in the past. It should avoid museums, cathedrals, castles, and ruins. It should go where human life is, to places that throw you images of the future. It should be an intense experience of time, but not historical time, not high culture. Not an experience of opera, museums, and clever talk. It should be the more human experience of seeing the underside of life, because we’re closer to it now than we have ever been. I think that by looking closely at New York, or conversely at India, Laos, or parts of Chicago, you see the pattern of what the future holds for us: a society that is unsafe, difficult, lacking in distribution of things like water, fuels, food; a society in which transportation is bad and security a little shaky. The future has already arrived in Burundi; it also has arrived in Japan. It’s a hundred years ago in Burundi, and perhaps it’ll always be that; it’s tomorrow morning in Japan. There’s a date you can assign to all places. Maybe in Malaysia it’s 1956. In Afghanistan it might be 1910. In Tokyo it might be 1983—or 1984. Travel should be an experience of time. Not an evasion of reality but a confrontation with it. The trouble with most travel today is that it’s done by the very old, people who are retired, on whom it makes an impression but who won’t make much of a difference.
AW: You don’t think young people travel enough?
PT: No, I don’t, and I don’t think they go to the right places. A young person of today should go to the wildest, deepest, most remote, most difficult, most poverty-stricken place he can think of. He should go to the wilds of Asia, Africa, South America. A person should go to as many places as he can, because these places are closing up and in time they’ll become impossible. Only a few years ago I went to Afghanistan, and I walked around looking through a pair of binoculars. If you did that now, they’d shoot you. The other area a person has an obligation to travel is the same sort of area within his own country. In the States, places like Detroit, parts of Chicago, parts of New York, parts of Boston, areas that are a kind of terra incognita, the equivalent of the Congo Basin. A lot of New Yorkers have been to the hinterlands of Chicago but never to the South Bronx.
AW: How has travel changed over the years? What’s wrong with the way people travel?
PT: People have always traveled in two ways. There have always been explorers and there have always been vacationers. The first vacationers were Greeks, Romans, Spaniards, English—people from great civilizations and great empires. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries America became a great “empire”—a place that was large, powerful, rich, and felt itself a kind of conscience and morality for the world, a standard by which the world could measure itself. Americans are now traveling the way the British did in Victorian times, with tremendous confidence and with the authority of a civilization behind them. But in general Americans are not very intrepid tourists; we mistake vacationing for travel. We’re very horizontal tourists—to go to a place merely to lie on a beach is not travel. People today are either doing it on their backs or doing it the way Lady So-and-So did, carried through Arabia in her sedan chair. Our equivalent is the package tour. People get to the upper reaches of the Yangtze without ever standing up. They can actually just sit the whole time. Sit on a plane, sit on a bus, sit on a boat. But the tours are so expertly organized that they can miraculously get very lazy, infirm, chain-smoking, drunken people all the way to the Galápagos. The explorer has a different instinct, the instinct of Columbus, Robinson Crusoe, Adam—to be the first person to see something, or the last. That instinct is very strong in the discovering mind, the exploring mind. Only explorers will tell you this, but it’s a fact: there are many, many places on earth where no one has ever been. One of the comic aspects of the twentieth century is our addiction to science fiction—that kind of stupid, slavish love for other planets and the idea that our future is somehow bound up with space travel. So maybe a dozen people go to Mars, what difference does that make to the rest of us? None. It makes no difference. NASA is the cargo cult of the present, thinking there’s something up there that will deliver us. We’re like New Guinean savages. They have their stupid airstrips in the jungle, and we have NASA. The fact is there are tributaries of the Amazon where animals will walk up and lick your hand, otters will climb into your boat, because they’ve never seen a human being. And it’s the same in Borneo. And Africa. So there’s a fatigue and world-weariness in thinking the planet’s all mapped, everyone’s been everywhere, that there was a time in the past when the going was good. For the intrepid person who has money, time, alertness, and health, the going is still good, and you can see things as strange as Columbus ever saw.
AW: What does it take to be a good traveler?
PT: Courage. Curiosity. A traveler has to be alone. He has to take risks. And he has to be among many things vastly different from those he has come from. You see, a lot of people who travel are merely looking for an idealized version of home. I mean, what is the south of France? The south of France is Florida with slightly better food, except it’s harder to find a parking place in Cannes than in Ft. Lauderdale. So the difference is not very great. People travel to find home plus better food, home plus more sunshine, home plus easier parking, home but no crime, home plus the possibility of romance—a fling with a native, no social diseases. The point is, they’re not looking for much. They’re not looking for the foreign, the strange, the really outlandish. People travel thousands and thousands of miles in order to feel at home. That’s why wars are fought in places that are idealized or dream versions of the countries waging war. To be specific, Vietnam struck me as just that sort of place the French would want to colonize and keep. Saigon and Hanoi were idealized versions of Paris. Delhi and Calcutta were idealized London, London the way the English wanted it to be. Empire and warfare never happen in a complete wasteland. People want to annex a country either because it reminds them of home or because it enhances their version of what they want to be. Americans always saw Vietnam as a horrible place. Vietnam is a very beautiful place, with extremely nice, gentle, civilized people who would, if they had the money, buy IBM computers, toilet paper, and everything else. And they would become perfect colonials if there were a God in heaven, let’s say, and General Westmoreland were in charge. These people would be one of us. There was an American soldier of fortune, William Walker, who became the president of Nicaragua for a year, just before the Civil War. He took over, kept slavery going and changed the language to English. He just assumed it would be part of Dixie. This is Nicaragua. He was shot, actually, but he was president for a year. He was five feet tall. And yet Nicaragua, in Walker’s terms, is just like Alabama or Mississippi. It’s not a banana republic, it’s a place where you can smoke a cheroot, sip a mint julep, and watch people harvest cotton. His plan didn’t work, but it makes you think twice about what the motives for empire might be. So imperialism and tourism are parallel. Maybe they’re lines that never meet, but they’re very close.
AW: You need the first in order to have the second.
PT: Definitely. But exploration is completely different. Tourism is inward-looking. Tourism is hunting for New Canaan with palm trees, Westchester with balmy breezes. Exploration is bitter cold, terrible heat. It’s malaria. It’s the Mato Grosso rather than Manaus. It’s discovery. It’s finding you know nothing, that you are completely naked and completely vulnerable—and so you offer yourself. You have to be humble enough to say, “Teach me your language, let me live among you.” And arrogant enough to think you’re not going to be killed. The combination is very rare.
AW: You’ve traveled to many of the poorest places in the world and lived for a time in some of them. Does one become hardened to poverty?
PT: Well, no. It’s hard to see poverty and not feel that there’s an oppressor and an oppressed. V.S. Naipaul once wrote, “Hate oppression; fear the oppressed.” Poverty is a relative concept. It’s not really a question of money, it’s a question of what the expectations are. Some poverty does nothing to some people. There are a lot of Africans or South American Indians who’d tell you they’re as rich as Croesus, and they’re subsistence farmers. You see, the people who’ve become aware of their poverty are the people who are observed; their poverty is witnessed by other people who remind them that they’re poor. That didn’t happen in the past; there was a kind of benign neglect. People who go to Lima or Bombay make the poverty worse by commenting on it.
AW: What are some of the great travel books?
PT: Kinglake’s Eothen is one. Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta is another, and so is Claude Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques; Hudson’s Idle Days in Patagonia; Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle; and South, by Shackleton. And then there are books that are not about great trips, but they’re written in a tremendously interesting way: American Notes, by Dickens; Twain’s A Tramp Abroad; Graham Greene’s Journey Without Maps—I’m looking at my travel shelf here—Fermor’s The Traveller’s Tree and A Time of Gifts; Stanley’s In Darkest Africa; V.S. Naipaul’s The Middle Passage and An Area of Darkness.
AW: Your train books make clear the advantages of slow travel over quick travel. Wouldn’t the best way, then, be simply to walk?
PT: Walking is the ideal way to travel in any country, and if I had the time, if I didn’t have to make a living, that’s definitely what I’d do; I’d just walk. Twenty miles a day on foot is the ideal rate. You leave a place in the morning, have lunch in another place, and sleep in another place. And you keep moving. This is what I’ve just done, actually, for my new travel book. I’ve walked around the coast of Britain—not just England but Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland. If it was raining I took a bus or a train, but it’s such an easy country to travel in that you constantly have to slow yourself down. I went on the assumption that there was a coastal path that went entirely around Britain. And what I want to do now is write about Britain as it’s never been written about before. More books have been written about Britain than about perhaps any other country on earth, but it’s still very much an unknown place because of people’s received impressions. People come looking for Dickens’ England, Thackeray’s England, cookie-box England. In order to write well you have to rid yourself of accepted notions of a place.
AW: What reaction do you want from readers?
PT: I want people to burst into tears, I suppose, or be thrilled. Or to give the book to someone else and say, “Read this book, I hope you like it as much as I do.” Because offering a person a book is like offering him a destination. You say, “Take this and you’ll be happy.” We’re all trying to find something that will give the world a sense of order. And that’s what fiction does. In the case of my travel books, if a person says to me, ”Your book made me want to go there,” that always makes me feel I’ve failed. He should say, “I’m glad I read your book, now I don’t have to go there.” That’s an important distinction. In a sense the travel writer is traveling for the reader. The book should be an intense experience of the place, and the reader should receive the experience as freshly and directly as I have.
AW: in The Old Patagonian Express, you describe yourself in passing as a feminist. Could you comment?
PT: I like treating women as equals, and I like to be treated as an equal. The good thing about feminism is that it actually allows men to be free; it liberates men. It’s sickening, boring, and I think, backward-looking to regard yourself as either the protector of women or the seducer of women. I think women in a job should be equally paid. I believe in equality of the sexes as far as raising children goes. I don’t believe in alimony. There are a lot of things that disgust me about the rigid ways men regard women and women regard men. Many women aren’t liberated and yet want to be treated that way. Many women would insist on having doors opened for them or being called up—the cliché roles. And if you’re writing, unless you have some liberated sense of women and men, you’re writing about a dead world, a world in which women are being sold short and men, too, for that matter. This is parenthetical, but I suppose feminism led me to think about myself as a spouse, with no more rights in choosing a place to live than my wife.
AW: Why do you live in England?
PT: When I stopped teaching and started to write full time, almost twelve years ago, my wife said that she didn’t want to stop working. Since for all our married life she’d lived in places I wanted to live in—East Africa and Singapore—I said, “We’ll live where you want to live.” Being English, she chose England. She’s a radio producer for the BBC. At the same time, I have a very strong homing instinct. After I’d lived here for three or four years I began to think England was not a country I felt very passionate about. I can’t vote here, I can’t run for Parliament; I pay taxes but I’m an alien, and I don’t like being alien, I don’t like not having roots. I’m not an exile or a refugee; I come from a big, strong, friendly country, and there’s no reason I shouldn’t have some claim. So when I got the money I bought a house in Massachusetts, and that’s where I call home. So I live here as an alien, not as an Anglophile. In fact Anglophiles don’t last very long here if they believe in Britain as Merrie England. This is an expensive, rough, decaying, semibankrupt, difficult, inward-looking, frugal, not very pretty society. A very backward-looking, very pessimistic and even very cynical place. The English are not a romantic people. They’re practical, and romance comes to people with optimism, with a sense of possibility: yes, you might fall in love; yes you might get rich. Something good will happen to you—that’s romance. Americans have it, most Europeans don’t. The English definitely don’t. It’s interesting, and hard, to live in a society that’s in decay, but it’s not inspiring, and it doesn’t make you feel at home. I live here in the same way I lived in Uganda, looking at people the same way, feeling a tremendous sense of detachment, feeling that if my future were bound up with theirs I’d throw myself off a bridge. My spiritual inspiration is that I have a house in the States and I can go there anytime I like.
AW: Are there any trends that you see in American reading and writing?
PT: I think there’s a tendency among serious American readers to think that reading has something to do not with enjoyment but with study. But reading shouldn’t be something you have to delve around in or study in order to enjoy; the experience should be direct, immediate and vivid. All reading should be pleasurable in the way that all travel ultimately, in retrospect, should be pleasurable. The trouble with a lot of American writing is that as Americans we think we’re only doing the work of writers when we’re inventing a language. You notice that a lot of American writing is a conscious attempt to forge a new language, to find a new narrative technique and to invent a new idiom. I think it’s one of the blind alleys of the American tradition, this feeling that we have to create a new language out of the sense of inadequacy in the face of British writing. The main road should be a very simple one. It’s forging the uncreated conscience of the race, yes, but in standard English. It’s actually writing clearly, but not plainly, in one’s own voice. It’s more difficult to write clearly than in a mannered way. Only mediocre writers adopt a style: you either have it or you don’t. We don’t write as we want to write, we write as we can. I read a lot, but if I thought I was reading something that encompassed the world as I knew it and the experience I’d had, I wouldn’t write. I would be content to go on reading. I think that’s true of most people: they tend to feel that their experience is unique and inimitable. You have to start with that arrogant confidence. Actually, although I’ve had my ups and downs, I’ve been very lucky as a writer. I’ve gotten, I suppose, much more than I deserve out of it. Writing made me a free man. No other profession could have done that. When you think that writing is something you do by yourself, that you’re making something out of nothing, it’s like a conjuring trick in one sense—there is nothing like it. Except, I suppose, painting, composing music, the other creative professions. All of those make you free. They free you from dogma, they free you from every sort of earthly constraint, they give you a tremendously vivid dream life, and they add to your sense of joy and liberation. And that’s the only point of going on living, being able to feel that as your time on Earth progresses you’re becoming steadily more free. You can’t feel as if you’re subject to someone else’s will. I suppose that’s why rich people buy an island or a jet plane. In a material sense they want to be free, and they’re trying to do it with money. But it is possible with the imagination.
AW: Which of your own books are your favorites?
PT: That’s a hard question. I like the books that I still find a little difficult to understand, that I’m not quite sure which imaginative reservoir they drained out of. For example, The Black House, Picture Palace, The Mosquito Coast. I know where The Great Railway Bazaar came from. I know how it arose, how I planned it and what the trick was. I still wonder about The Black House. And then sometimes I begin a story in a different voice and it's almost like ventriloquism, like doing a funny accent and then somehow believing in the accent and saying something I wouldn’t have said in my own voice.
AW: Do you know where you’re going next?
PT: I don’t, but I find that encouraging. I’ve been skirting around it, but what we’ve been talking about, actually, in writing and travel, is an experience of the unknown. And that awaits discovery.
Saturday, September 18, 1982
"Before you leave the island," said Baptiste, "you should be sure to meet Mrs. Lavalie."
With the dusk, fireflies had begun to dart; already Baptiste’s face was merging with the shadows. It was my third evening at Papillote, a place Crusoe might've dreamed up: two wooden bungalows perched against a green canyon wall of maniacal foliage. From above came the steady wash and roar of a high waterfall and flutings of innumerable birds.
"Why should I meet Mrs. Lavalie?" I asked.
Baptiste grinned. “You see, she's a famous writer. They say the book she wrote many years ago is very great. Many, many years ago.”
I had come to the wild green island of Dominica for a rest; I was between books. I wanted a place the world had ignored. The island rises steeply from the sea, Caribbean on one coast, Atlantic the other, sleeping volcanoes covered with coconut palms and luxurious banana trees. The roads are poor, landslides frequent. But the air is perfumed and leaves you in a delirium of good health, and it took only three days for me recover from a year’s steady labor on a novel. There were hot springs in a grotto filled with bats, and wooden tables under a thatched roof where I read each morning, while wild chickens, geese, and peacocks wandered about.
Best of all, there were no other guests, and most of the time Baptiste left me to myself. I had no interest in Mrs. Lavalie, yet I didn't want to offend my host. For want of anything better, I said, “Where does she live?”
We were sitting at one of the open tables, Baptiste leafing through a magazine I’d bought when I changed planes from London in Miami. He was studying a photo essay on New York subways and talking to himself and me interchangeably.
He said, "Oh, she lives just a few miles from here. Before Roseau. She was born here, you see.” He paused. “And she as white as you. Her family was British for many, many generations. Then they settle."
I thought: if there's anything you must avoid, it's meeting this old lady. She'll be some ex-colonial biddy whose grandfather retired here from service in Inja, she'll have written one book a half-century ago, before her marriage, that was privately printed. It'll be called Quaint Tales of Old Dominica, Collected and Retold By One of Her Daughters. Or it'll be the darling story of the British girl’s visit to the island and all the friends she made. There was only one Jean Rhys, and she left here a long time ago.
My thoughts may have been cruel, but quiet and privacy are hard-won things, and I’d come here to make my time entirely my own. Yet I couldn't think how to change the tack of the conversation without being rude. I had a drink in front of me and it wasn't dinnertime; I needed nothing.
“Felicia Rose Lavalie,” recited Baptiste, without any further prompting from me. He glanced back to the magazine. "I would like to see that myself," he murmured, and pointed to a crowded subway platform. He shook his head in disbelief and turned the page. He was about to tell me more about Mrs. Lavalie, so I offered him the magazine. It seemed the easiest way out.
And yet the next morning her name seemed familiar, and in the vague way that elaborate or unusual names often do. I woke to a furiously dripping tap—it was raining thirty feet from my window. Mists dangled around the mountains’ summits. A change in the weather has a peculiar effect on the traveller: it makes him think something is about to happen, and it gives him the illusion he has been away a long time. Because I knew no one who'd been to Dominica I felt a great secret had been confided in me.
Those first moments after landing in a tiny plane from Antigua had been exquisite. A mountain of steaming vegetation rose beside the pocked airstrip. At the end of the tarmac, red poinciana trees and a small cemetery. A road wound up the tall coast to where the sun was descending in silver light. Beyond, the gun-metal grey Caribbean stood motionless, keeping its promise of peace.
I’d wanted nothing more at that moment. Now, over breakfast, I was a little bored. No one likes to think of himself as fickle. Baptiste, clearing away my plates, said he was driving to Roseau for supplies. Did I wish to come?
It stopped raining after we began threading our way down the canyons, and soon the air began to curdle from the heat. Small shops appeared and the hovels were more gaily painted, and we passed a stone wall with botanical gardens beyond. Even though it was early, the immaculate streets were full of people. Since Baptiste had many errands I told him I'd make my own way back.
It was already very hot, and I joined the ambling throng on the shaded side of King George Street. The shingled houses pressed tight together, most painted white or green or blue, shutters flung open and faces staring down. Roseau seemed higgledy-piggledy, and the mountains beyond gave its clutter a comic air.
Up Old Street the sea began. Past a French fort devastated by a hurricane was a circular wooden building, pale green with white trim, a veranda embracing it. In the garden stood an almond tree. A stone wall divided the garden from the blue Caribbean, and an aged cannon pointed out to sea. A girl lay sprawled on the cannon reading a magazine, her head against the muzzle; she glanced surreptitiously at me. Then I noticed the small sign above open red doors: LIBRARY.
I went in. Fiction was on the right wall, mostly familiar writers in British editions. I found my first and third novels there, and misfiled with them my travel book on the Sudan. None had been taken out for over a year—no point in autographing them.
Then I thought of Felicia Rose Lavalie. Surely she would be here, represented by several copies. Yet I couldn't locate her beside the pack of Jack Londons.
To the girl in pink at the front desk I said, “Excuse me, Miss, I am looking for a book by a local—”
Her arm flew up. She pointed to tall glass doors open on a Caribbean pouring blue light.
"Sir. Mr. Felix has got it. Lavalie Rose.” She pronounced the name like an elongated, musical “lovely.” She licked her lips; it was difficult switching to English from the patois. "On the porch." She pointed again. "You ask him when he's through with it, maybe.”
I nodded. "Thank you. His name is Felix?”
“Mister Felix.” Then she added. “He’s a writer too.”
I started to ask how she’d guessed my profession and then realized she'd meant Mrs. Lavalie. From the glass cases filled with rotten leather books, one gold title gleamed at me: Six Months In the West Indies, by S.T. Coleridge. Coleridge had been here? Perhaps one of Mrs. Lavalie’s great-aunts had taken tea with him. I stepped onto the veranda.
The girl on the cannon was gone. A white dog lay asleep in the shade of the almond tree. A young man with thin flopped brown hair sat leaned against the wall of the library, legs drawn up to his chest. He wore faded jeans and a white shirt open halfway, sleeves rolled to his elbows. A small blue book, missing its dust jacket, was balanced on his knees, and a pair of sunglasses balanced on the book. He had large ears, a donkey’s ears, and his lips were pursed, as if I’d caught him whistling. He also had a suspicious air which, in this innocent place, made me suspicious. He reminded me of one of those scaly clerks in Dickens, with a name like Bartleby Smike.
"Good morning," I said. "The girl inside thought you might be through with the Lavalie book.”
He certainly looked through with it. He looked bored by it. I couldn't read the title on the spine.
He scrutinized me as if he thought he might know me from somewhere. But the only people who recognize middle-aged writers are younger writers, and he looked more like someone trying to cheat people out of their inheritances. He said, “I'll be through with it by this afternoon. It's yours after that.”
He meant: Go away.
"Not till then?” I said. I was hoping he'd offer it to me now so I wouldn't have to hang around Roseau in this heat. Near the almond tree two boys were watching us intently, transfixed by the sight of two white men together. I felt a brief irritation at being put in some allegiance with this slouching person.
"Not till then,” Felix murmured. He blinked out to sea. "It's an interesting enough book.”
His voice was flat, with the careless lack of intonation of someone so recently divorced from college they feel they can say anything they want, any way they want, and still be fascinating.
"I'll come back for it later, then," I said, and stepping off the veranda I crossed the garden to the road. The flagstones were hot enough to blur the air above them.
I wandered about Roseau for the next hour, I nearly fell asleep under a banyan tree in the botanical gardens. Through twisted trees that blotted sunlight I followed a steep rock staircase into the jungle, and passed an old man descending with a red-ribboned straw hat in one hand and a machete in the other. I heard the toy honks of cars piping in the stillness; from on high I saw the sloping gardens, the low town with houses like colored dice, the Caribbean calmly swelling the rim of the blue world.
What was he doing here? What had he heard about Mrs. Lavalie?
On Bath Road near the gardens I came to an old white wooden structure, once a club for British expatriates. It had the same sprawling abandon and paradoxically self-protective air of similar clubs I'd seen in the Far East. The sign out front read: La Robe Creole. Lunch & Dinner. On the sign was painted a slender black woman carrying bananas on her head.
It had not quite aged to nostalgia: stained mahogany, whirring fans, standing palms and locally woven stools at the bar, prints of West Indian plantation scenes on the walls. The second dining room would've been the billiards room. I took a table on the veranda, which looked out on the club’s tennis courts. A boy and girl were playing barefoot, with a single ball.
I ordered lunch, took out my notebook, and wrote: Frayed clothing. Grass sprouting between child’s legs. Net sagging like boy’s trousers. White umpire’s chair toppled like dead giant.
A shadow greyed my paper. Mr. Felix.
I said, "Is it afternoon already?”
"Just about." He sat down shamelessly in the cane chair facing me and stowed his knapsack under the table. It poked my sandal.
He said, "I thought you'd be here." He screwed up his face as if the next sentence gave him genuine physical pain. "You're Leo Harrison, aren't you.”
He smiled thinly. One of his teeth, on the left upper, was gold. How old was he, to have such teeth? Twenty-five? Older.
He put out his hand, "John Felix.”
I shook hands with him perfunctorily. I am not one of those people who feel you can glean a lot from the other fellow’s handshake, and I dislike having mine slowly read. He had a man-to-man grip that felt as phony as late Hemingway. I tried to make mine unenthusiastic; he was blocking my view of the children.
He let my hand go as a young woman brought my lunch. Felix ordered his.
"Are you here to write?" he asked after she left.
"To eat." The soup, blessedly, was a cold one.
"I've written here every afternoon for a week now. After the luncheon crowd leaves. And when the day cools off—” He grinned. “Well, the rum here is cheaper than the ice." Gales of laughter from the court. “Some days are more peaceful than others.”
"Why are you here?” I asked. Who’s paying? I wondered.
“Oh, I'm getting sent round the islands by a travel magazine. A pretty good one.” He didn't name it. He scratched one large ear.
"You're writing an article for them?”
“Articles. On these islands the stories just beg you to breathe them in.” His green eyes finally met my glance. “I"m hoping, I don't know, they may collect themselves into a book.”
He was taking out a pack of cigarettes as he spoke. I said, “Please don't, I'm eating." He looked insulted. I added, “You sound like you've already written quite a bit.”
"Oh, sure." He ticked books off his fingers like they were errands he’d run that morning. ”Two novels, both unpublished. One and a half books of short stories. No need to tell you about those.” He smiled sadly. “A few magazine articles. Published.”
The candor implicit in all this upset me. His face already had the scorned severity of someone whose hopes have been frustrated irrevocably. Where would being bitter get him?
"All that writing can only help," I said. "You don't want to publish too early. I'm sorry I did."
"I don't want to publish too late, either," he said darkly. "And you got started, didn't you. Well, if my magazine buys several pieces I can keep going for a year. I'll have another book done by then."
“That’s pretty fast," I said.
The young lady brought his sandwich and his face brightened. "Want to hear the truth about Mrs. Lavalie?" He had the smugness of someone with a secret. “I'm sure everyone’s mentioned her. As soon as they found out I was a writer they wanted me to meet her."
"Maybe you should've said you do something else."
He shrugged. "Maybe. It's strange to read her book, all right." He tapped my wrist. “She wrote it when she was my age, and it's damned well-written.” He leaned back. “But it wasn't what I expected. Not after I met her."
He looked triumphant.
"What did you expect?" I asked.
He lit a cigarette; I stirred my soup. That cigarette made me lose all sympathy for him.
He inhaled deeply. “They ought to call her Mrs. Lively." His face took on an expression of pity. “I suppose that's not very kind. You see, she's mad as a hatter."
He said it as casually as saying she had two feet.
"What does she say that's mad?"
He tapped the cigarette ash over the veranda railing. The girl on the court, on the way to retrieve the ball, noticed his action. "It's not just what she says. It's how she lives."
"Like a mad person?" I said. “By herself?"
He didn't hear the sarcasm. He glanced at me curiously, as if I'd unwittingly given him a good idea. "I don't see how anyone could live with her. Hundreds and hundreds of books on these sagging shelves—everything sagging—and at least a dozen cats wandering all over this tiny house that looks like a bomb went off inside it. She doesn't remember she wrote a book. Says she was once a great scientist, and she's got a secret formula that certain governments don't want to fall into enemy hands, and she won't tell it to them either, so they've squirreled her away—” He relished the phrase. “ —down here. She just sits and reads, all day long. Mutters to herself." He gave a brief laugh, a bark.
His posture, even seated, held a swagger now: he knew something I didn't.
I said, "That's pretty harmless. Reading all day."
He smiled. "We did talk about various writers, though. She mentioned you. She said—” He glanced up, to recollect word for word. He licked his lips and looked back at me. "She said you were nothing but an entertainer, and a not very good one at that."
I said, "She's probably right,” and wondered if she was.
He grinned. "Have it your way." He was happy. He'd said something nasty to me, he'd gotten his revenge, and he hadn't had to take responsibility. "She gave me great material. I expect she's about seventy.” He wagged his finger at me. "You know why I'm telling you all this? I know you. If you stay here long enough you'll meet her and see what a great story she is. But she's my story.”
I said, “I'll be leaving in a day or two.” Suddenly I'd had enough of the island.
"Don't you think it's quite a story?” he asked. "I mean, how the mighty are fallen." He spread his hands on the table. "Well, I just wanted you to know I got to her first.” He checked his watch. "So much for my last lunch on Dominica. This time tomorrow I'll be on Guadeloupe. Friday, Martinique. I've got a lot of islands to cover in the next month."
I said, “Suppose Mrs. Lavalie sees your story?”
He was silent an instant. Then he said quickly, “She’ll never see it down here, no way. Besides, it’s the truth.” He pushed back his chair and added, as if he’d been my invited guest all along, “Sorry to run. Lots to see before my early plane tomorrow.” He grinned one last time, flashing gold. “The island-hopping life is the adventurous life.”
He retrieved his knapsack, plunked down enough money for his lunch, and left. We didn’t shake hands; he was in too much of a hurry.
The children were gone, too, and the tennis court looked abandoned and forlorn. I tried to make conversation with the young woman when she brought my bill and some tea, but a stranger is known by the company he keeps, and she wouldn’t speak to me now. Perhaps Felix had asked her to sleep with him, or tipped poorly, or merely got on her nerves day after day. He’d got on my nerves in one day—one hour—but it was poor Mrs. Lavalie, alone and mad, that I couldn’t get out of my mind. After leaving La Robe Creole I hurried back to the library to read her book.
But I should’ve guessed. It wasn’t there.
Night fell and the cicadas began winding their watches as I wandered down the muddy canyon road, finding my tentative way with Baptiste’s electric torch. I had to see the old lady before I left, even if she were crazy. If Dominica were a secret island that people didn’t know, mysterious and remote and untouched by the rest of the world, then Mrs. Lavalie was a Dominica within Dominica.
The palms and the underbrush were thick all around but the moon had risen, and through the foliage ahead a worn, cracked stone house with a sloping roof revealed itself dimly. There were no other houses nearby. Tendrils covered much of the stone, as if the jungle were trying to take possession. Lights gleamed, but blue curtains were fully drawn across the windows.
With every step I imagined those many cats gliding from the house and through the darkness to brush softly against my legs, their eyes aglow, beckoning me inside.
And then, as if on command, the hordes of cicadas were silenced around me. I knocked twice, and hugged the wine bottle to my chest. I hadn't wanted to come empty-handed, but perhaps it was the wrong gift for a madwoman.
"Who's there?" A woman's voice called faintly. I heard shuffling.
I said, "My name’s Leo Harrison. I hope I'm not disturbing you."
The door was unlatched with a clatter. "Be careful, Mr. Harrison," she said, “This door opens toward you."
Her accent was British but her voice had a lilt, a melody that was pure Caribbean. There was little tremor of age.
I stepped back and the door creaked and swung open. The flood of light made me squint. The cicadas took up their litany again. All I saw was a silhouette, only slightly smaller than myself, filling the doorway. Then she chuckled. "Well, this time the books precede the man. Do come in, I'm so delighted to meet you."
And then, as she fumbled for my hand, I saw her. Her face was dominated by quick green eyes, and her grey hair was pulled back and down behind her ears to frame the aristocratic line of her cheeks and jaw. She was smiling and gazing at me as if comparing me to someone she'd seen years ago. She looked barely sixty.
She said, "I was so hoping you'd come visit us. Baptiste stopped by this afternoon and told us you were here, but I told him not to pester you, and it's so difficult for us to reach Papillote, our car won't make the steep road."
"Baptiste didn't breathe a word," I said.
"I remember when he was a little boy," said Mrs. Lavalie. “We used to loan him books."
She led me down a brief dark hallway into the small house. Eighteenth and nineteenth century portraits in chipped gold frames and clippings from newspapers and magazines hung on the water-stained walls. Three cats regarded me curiously—from a cluttered table, from a furiously overcrowded bookcase lining most of one wall, and from a high shelf in the kitchen area of what seemed the only room. Low wooden beams straddled the ceiling; I guessed it had been a slave house once. Another cat brushed my legs.
"Dylan's quite affectionate," said Mrs. Lavalie. She was not small, as I'd imagined she would be. "I named him after Dylan Thomas. My favorite poet. I should apologize for the clutter, but I won't. You're a writer, you understand clutter. I'm afraid we still haven't recovered from the great hurricane." She indicated a tattered armchair for me. I removed a white cat and a yellow book before sitting down. The book was Nabokov’s Glory.
"Have you read it?” she asked. She sat at the cluttered table. “Not my favorite of his. I've read only three, it's difficult to get books here, you know." She indicated the shelves. "These are my dear, dear friends, all of them. I give away my enemies." She inclined her head at a purple Indian bedspread hung on a line beside the long bookcase. “My very dearest friends stay in the bedroom, such as it is. Except Robert, of course."
I said, “Which cat is he?”
She regarded me with amusement. "Robert is my husband. Cats do have limitations, you know."
A door behind her opened. I was so surprised I started from my chair. A tall, elderly man in brown trousers and in an old blue terrycloth bathrobe, with a long, placid face, nodded politely.
“Felicia," he said, "you haven't offered him anything, I've been eavesdropping." He came over. "Robert Lavalie,” he said firmly, "former chief engineer with various drilling concerns, at your service, sir." We shook hands.
“This is Leo Harrison," said Felicia before I could introduce myself. She beamed at me. “You can't imagine how splendid it is to be with another writer. My friend Jean Rhys left here a long time ago and now she's gone, poor thing."
"What can I get you, sir?” said Robert. "We haven't much choice, I'm afraid, but—”
"Allow me," I said, adopting his manner without thinking. It seemed appropriate to the two of them. I handed the wine to Felicia. I said, “Accept this as an apology. I'm sorry I haven't yet had the pleasure of reading your novel."
She took the bottle and inclined her head slightly. "Yes, yes. The Poinciana Root.” She glanced at the label and passed the bottle onto her husband. "I'm behind on your work, I'm afraid, but I read the reviews from U.K. even if I can't get the books. Perhaps you can send me some? I must say, you still look like your photographs." She smiled. "You know, a London publisher was going to bring my book out again last year. And then they backed down. But they said I was ‘a forgotten woman's classic.’ Can you imagine how it feels to be called that while you're still alive? It sounds as if I need dusting." She laughed gaily. “I chose to write poetry for forty years before setting out on another novel. I'm three-quarters through with it now. It wasn't a bad choice."
Robert strode to the kitchen with the wine. He still moved with the grace of a large man but his shoulders were bent. He said, “Do you have any idea how it feels to be married to a forgotten woman's classic?"
"Are you married, Mr. Harrison?” asked Felicia.
"I was divorced several years ago," I said. "No children."
Felicia nodded. "Robert and I are childless. But we raised two Carib boys who lost their parents, and we sent them both to college." She took the proffered glass from her husband. "We need a toast," she murmured.
"Wait a moment, Felicia," said Robert, who’d handed me a glass and gone back for his. “All right, we’ve a quorum now."
"To your new book,” I suggested. We drank, and then Felicia put down her glass and said, “I've one of your early books here that I like quite a bit, I want you to inscribe it for me." Her face fell. "Oh, dear, I do so wish I had a copy of my book for you.”
She was no more mad than I was, and her eyes betrayed the incisive mind that comes only with accomplishment. I knew from her manner, without reading a word she'd written, that she was a wonderful writer. And I knew John Felix was a thief, not only of books but of honor.
She said, “I’d like to give you something, and I'll forget once we start talking.” She sighed. "I don't even have a copy of my own book except in manuscript. I gave away all the copies I had but one over the years, and then after the hurricane so many books were lost in Roseau I just gave my last copy to the library."
Her husband said, “Bloody stupid thing to do if you ask me. They don't take care of books at that place. All that sea air.”
Felicia said reprimandingly, “Robert, the point of books is to be read." Her eyes lit on the yellow copy of Glory. The grey cat’s tail was draped over it, and he was squinting at all the human commotion.
"Off we go, Marcel," she said, and put him on the floor. The pages of the book had been slightly water-damaged. She said, "Everything here, including us, went through the hurricane. And survived, more or less intact."
She took up a nib pen and scratched in a strong, lean hand beneath the lone word GLORY on the title page: To Leo Harrison, in friendship, from Felicia Rose Lavalie, May 31, 198-.
I took it from her almost automatically; for the last minute I'd been thinking of someone else. My anger silenced me.
"You must excuse me while I change," said Robert. "Shan't be a moment." He pushed the hanging bedspread aside and I had a glimpse of a four-poster bed, more bookcases, and a Siamese.
Then Robert was gone and Felicia and I were alone.
The knowledge that we would almost certainly never see each other again made us speak intimately. I said, "Do you have any regrets you stayed on Dominica all these years?"
She paused before answering, and her hand stopped stroking the grey cat in her arms. It had fallen asleep. She gave a curious half-smile. “Of course I have regrets for all the lives I didn't lead. Don't you?"
I thought: Do I?
She laughed. "You're probably too young still. You know, there are advantages to being largely unknown as a writer, or known only for one's poetry, which amounts to the same thing. No one expects me to write in a certain way at all. I have no public life as a writer, Mr. Harrison. If I write badly today no one is fishing in my wastebasket tomorrow."
I said, "That's one reason I like London. The British leave everyone alone."
She shrugged. "I must say, though, at this point a little attention wouldn't hurt."
I wondered then if she’d been taken in by Felix. I said, "I met this young fellow in Roseau—"
“Felix the Cat! She raised her glass. "We should've drunk to his health. He needs it more than we do.”
"Why do you say that?"
Her eyes danced. "He wants so badly to be a success. He told me about all the books he’d written. I told him the ones that matter are the ones he hasn’t written yet. He told me time was running out for him. I told him to take more time. He said he couldn't think up any stories about Dominica for his magazine. I told him there are hundreds." She arched her eyebrows. "I know I must have been ridiculous when I was young, but I don't think I was ever at that ridiculous. Were you?"
“I hope not.”
She sighed. "The thing is, we even put him up here one night. Do you know, in the morning he didn't have the courtesy to say thank you? And—” The cat had awakened and she began to stroke it again. "He drank all of our lime rickey!”
It was our good luck that Baptiste's cousin worked at the tiny airport. The next morning the only young American man on the only flight out was surprised at how carefully his knapsack was searched, right on the tarmac. Felicia's book was there, all right. "Some words were exchanged," Baptiste told me with a grin, and some money may have changed hands, but the thief was allowed to leave. The island-hopper even waited for him. It would have left late, in any case.
I left Dominica a day after. I couldn't stay, thinking of John Felix and the story I knew he intended to write. I didn't tell Felicia of his intentions; nor did I tell her he'd stolen her book. I wonder now if I am being too polite using a name that is not his.
But I have changed his name, and I have written this to prevent him doing injury to Felicia. As impermanent as he feels his writing to be, it is still the most permanent act of his life.
I like to think that he has reconsidered, that the other islands gave him better stories. But perhaps not. Perhaps at this very moment, under overcast New York skies, he is stopping casually at a corner newsstand and buying the magazine containing this story because he sees my name on the cover and thinks he knows me. Perhaps by now he is reading these very words, with a mixture of rage and disbelief. Perhaps he does not understand, yet, that in writing this story I have helped him as much as I have helped Felicia.
And perhaps someday soon I will receive an angry letter from him, accusing me of stealing his story. Very well. But should he decide to change his plans, work to become what every good writer hopes to be—merely one traveller among many, accurately telling a tale he imagines to be the truth—then let me wish him, as one traveller to another, all the luck in the world.
Tuesday, June 15, 1982
I wrote this in June 1982; it was published in Geo magazine in September 1983, my first article for them. At the time, living alone in Manhattan, my total expenses were about a thousand bucks a month. Thus a piece for Geo, after my literary agent took 10%, bought me just over two months to work on a novel. (I was able to work for them only because their kindly editor, David Maxey, took a chance on me. I wrote well but I'd published nothing.) On my first trip for them, I had two assignments: the first meant a week on salt lakes in the wild wastes of the southern Bahamas with 50,000 flamingos. Then came the Caribs, which was also my first assignment with the extraordinary Irish photographer Alen MacWeeney. The Caribs were my real beginning as a traveler and a writer. All those adjectives! Perhaps I learned something over the years.
On a wild island of legendary beauty, along a steep coast of palms facing the loud Atlantic, the last indigenous race of the West Indies has made its final home. Once conquerors and roving seamen, now farmers, the Caribs will vanish within a century, doomed by intermarriage. Yet here on Dominica the last dim echoes of their past may be heard, a past of war-canoes sailing up the islands, of a population that once numbered in the millions, of annihilation by the Europeans—and eventual shelter on these eight miles of rough coast.
Dominica rises suddenly from the Caribbean Sea between Guadeloupe and Martinique, dense with rain forests and converging mountain valleys. Mists drift among the peaks, that at three thousand feet and higher are the summits of submerged volcanoes, long extinct. The few roads are rugged and empty save for an occasional rattling truck or a solitary figure trudging through the fervent landscape, a machete dangling from one hand. Columbus christened the island on his second voyage, in 1493, and sailed on without ever setting foot, deterred by the apparent absence of natural harbors. Nowadays the few villages that pepper the coast and even Rouseau, the small, innocent capital, contribute paradoxically to the impression that nothing much has changed here in five hundred years.
The sense of isolation and secret grandeur is overwhelming. The hurricane of 1979, the frequent landslides due to heavy rains, the ever-encroaching foliage, all have wreaked havoc on the poor roads that attempt those green mountains. The Carib Reserve—thirty-seven hundred acres that are not even legally theirs, since Dominica achieved independence from Great Britain in 1978–lies on the north-eastern coast of the island, as far as possible from Roseau. To get there from where we were staying, miles away, we hitched a ride in the back of a truck that would be passing along the road that winds like twine among the Carib hills. A breeze rushed upon us, as if from a great height, as the truck jolted along through the gathering evening. A blue twilight spilled across the profuse palms to the sea on our right. We had been told the Caribs bore little resemblance to Dominican blacks, who make up most of the island’s population. On our left were hillsides thick with the giant lackadaisical leaves of banana trees. There was no one about, and the twilight was failing.
Then, abruptly, the road curved once again and small houses began to appear on the hillsides. They were small and immaculate, of neat grey breadfruit planks. Smoke rose from outhouses near them; the vague scents of cooking reached us with the breeze, and we realized we were among the Caribs at last. There are seven Carib villages that are really one continuous village of houses here and there and in clusters, peeping from the hillsides or set on the road. But as our truck hurried on we saw no one.
And then behind us a man stood diminishing in the road, barely visible in the twilight, waving and smiling curiously at us. We waved back. He looked oddly dignified, wearing only long trousers, barefoot and barechested; his skin was copper, and his features almost Asian, though milder and unstrained, and the blackest hair imaginable. Then he was gone behind a curve in the road. The road descended, and the truck stopped to let us clamber out: we were in Salybia, the main Carib village.
Night was falling, and in the moonlight we saw a stream coursing down over rocks that seemed to tumble up the hillside thick with palms. An old Carib man, who we learned was a coffin-maker, adjusted his scarlet-ribboned straw hat when he saw us coming. We were looking for the Carib chief, we said. He serenely pointed us up a clay path that ran alongside the stream. On our way up the path a Carib woman holding an infant in her arms stepped back to let us pass and smiled shyly, as if two strangers were expected.
At the head of the path, shrouded in darkness, was the small house of the Carib chief, Hillary Frederick. He is twenty-five, and was educated for two years at a community college in New York State, where he studied anthropology. Not long ago he was elected for a five-year term by the eight hundred voting adult Caribs, out of seven candidates.
In the tradition of Carib chiefs since Jolly John, who led the “Carib War” as it is remembered now—a violent incident with several British policemen over smuggling in 1930—the present chief is more spokesman than leader. He lit a candle and invited us into his house, one wall of which was decorated with pictures cut from magazines, Christmas cards, and a few snapshots. He was glad to see us, he said, if we would be willing to tell the truth about the Caribs. The Caribs had never been cannibals, he insisted; whoever had made up that story, centuries ago, was a cannibal himself. No, the Caribs had never kept slaves. His mission, he argued, was to bring back the old Carib ways, especially the language, all but entirely lost at the turn of the century, replaced by the French patois and English. How many pure Caribs remained? we asked. He shrugged. Perhaps twenty or thirty, no more. He did not look at us as he spoke, except when he smiled, and we were never able to determine how much of his false history was deliberate misinformation and how much wishful thinking.
As we left Salybia that night, stumbling down the clay path in the darkness, the Carib Reserve seemed deserted, and it was difficult to believe that the belt of seven villages was comprised of some twenty-five hundred inhabitants, including children. But Caribs tend to go to sleep soon after nightfall and to rise with the sun, and the next day in the clear morning light Salybia hummed with activity. In the stream some Carib girls were bathing nude and washing clothes; they were not particularly shy and eventually emerged, in simple dresses, and wandered down the road with huge plastic containers filled with water balanced on their heads, confidently chatting and turning as they walked. Lean brown dogs roamed about but never barked. Chickens scurried around the houses, unmolested by cats, and a few black piglets nosed around.
Today was the week’s banana-boxing day, and a huge open warehouse was fillled with Caribs. Like most of Dominica they subsist mainly through agriculture, and though there is no private property on the Carib Reserve—perhaps the strongest remaining Carib tradition—a person may live on any land he or she works. All around the warehouse were long walls of piled bunches of bananas, and inside the open walls bananas were being weighed and passed to a huge tank of water to be washed and then to tables to be boxed for trunks that would carry them to Roseau, thirty-three pounds of bananas per box. Caribs of all ages worked at weighing and washing and boxing, and it was the week’s main communal event besides Sunday mass. Two thousand boxes were sent to Roseau every week on boxing day.
Beneath several palms a handful of men waited to have their bananas weighed, to receive slips for eventual payment. A boy with a machete lopped off the ends of fallen coconuts—the Caribs’ other main form of income—and handed the coconuts to people to drink from. One Carib man lay stretched out on a branch a few feet above us like a sleeping lion; everything we said to him made him laugh. These men’s features were distinctly Carib, though some of their skins were quite dark, and it would seem certain that long after there are no more “pure” Caribs the features will persist through many generations. Some of these men’s dark skins no doubt went back as far as the seventeenth century, when the Caribs kept black slaves captured from Europeans. We were to find that the chief’s estimate of the number of pure Caribs was inexplicably low—there are certainly over a hundred left, and they are by no means all old.
One middle-aged Carib woman in a blue smock came over to talk to us, followed by her teenaged son, who remained strangely silent, his gaze fixed on the middle distance. He had fits, she explained, and could not take care of himself, so he followed her around all day and kept her company. He was her fifteenth child, she said. After a time she introduced herself: we could call her Mistress Thomas. We asked what she thought of the chief’s idea of bringing back the old Carib language, was it possible?
She shrugged. Her voice was rather plaintive. “I don’t think so, a few of the older Caribs remember a few of the words. We had a language book but we lost it. If you want to meet many of the pure Caribs you will find them in Bataka and Sineku, two of the older villages.” Then she put the problem of intermarriage very simply. “You see, many of the girls have to leave the Carib Reserve to get work. And what do they bring back for husbands? It’s not a white, it’s a black. And if you have a mango and you graft it with some other plant it doesn’t give you a pure grafted mango.”
The Caribs settled Dominica perhaps as much as a thousand years ago. They were quite a tall race, and they came from the banks of the Orinoco River in South America and conquered the docile, smaller and lighter-skinned Arawaks who had populated the West Indies in vast numbers for several centuries. The Caribs had great ocean-going skill, in canoes of up to sixty feet in length equipped with sails, and they were tremendous warriors, as the European accounts are hasty to point out. The defeated Arawak men were eaten—not as torture but as a means of defeating an enemy’s spirit so it could no longer do one harm, but would give strength from within—and the Arawak women and children were taken into the tribe. Thus what we speak of as “pure” Caribs are really the result of intermarriage between the Caribs and the Arawaks. The Caribs ate and married their way up the Antilles, but Arawaks flourished in the Bahamas until the European conquest. Today the only Arawaks in the West Indies are on the Jamaica coat-of-arms.
Eventually this intermarriage resulted in two languages, one spoken by the women (Arawak), one by the men (Carib). They merged as the race dwindled, and by the time the language was abandoned by the remaining Caribs of Dominica around the turn of the century the language was proportionally more female than male, indicative not only of the power of the women’s tongues within the Carib society but also of the influence the Arawak culture had on the Carib.
Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with Spain’s power in the New World waning, it was the British and French whom the Caribs resisted and waged sporadic war against, devouring any hopeful monks who visited their islands and carrying off Negro slaves and European women in raids. It was a struggle the Caribs could not possibly win, and both Britain and France ordered the destruction of the Caribs. By 1700 the Caribs in most of the other islands had been virtually wiped out, and only four hundred survived on Dominica. The difficult terrain that has kept the hotel magnates away from this paradise in the present century kept the European settlements to a minimum until the end of the eighteenth century. Early on the Caribs of Dominica had fled from the island’s western, leeward, Caribbean coast, where the sea is calm and beckons to fishermen, to the rugged, windward, Atlantic Coast, where the sea rages constantly. A few place names near Roseau—like Massacre, the site of a great Carib defeat—betray the initial attempts to hold on to the western coast. Throughout this time the Caribs resisted European attempts to enslave them; a captured Carib simply ate dirt until he died. The Caribs’ own slaves were invariably well-treated, as intermarriage would suggest.
The early attempts at conversion to Christianity also failed. The Caribs devoured the first Spanish priests, who quickly came to the conclusion that the Caribs were not worth the trouble, a conclusion already reached by the Spanish navy. Thus it is to the journals of the French monks of the mid-seventeenth that we owe our knowledge of the early Caribs. Though more amenable toward Europeans through light trade, they were still poor subjects for conversion. Cannibalism was still practiced: the French, followed by the English, were considered the most delicious Europeans, while the Dutch were dull and the Spaniards so tough as to be practically inedible.
These Caribs were tremendously skilled weavers of reeds, (a skill which persists to this day though there is no tourist market), and they slept in hammocks. Their main weapon was the bow and arrow, used also for sport, and Père Labat in 1700 reported with incredulity seeing small Carib children bring down birds from far away without missing and with absolute ease. The arrowheads were made from fish bone and smeared with poison sap from the manchineel tree. Parrots were captured as pets either with blunted arrows, or by setting fire to peppers placed under trees, so that the fumes stunned the parrots. The Caribs ate mainly fish, agouti (the local possum), manioc, and a kind of beer made from manioc. The Carib name for Dominica was Waitukubuli, meaning “tall her body.”
Justice among the Caribs was simple. The wronged party might or might not choose to take revenge upon the offender, and assuming that person did not survive his family might or might not choose to take up the feud. The Carib practice of adopting a pseudonym for a journey, a pseudonym in which all concerned apparently believed so that any actions performed by that person were treated as if they had been done by another person entirely, derived from the Indian’s dislike of the indiscriminate use of his name by strangers. We still found a reluctance in the Caribs to divulge their name until deep in the conversation. The root of this is the belief that one’s name is so integral to one’s person that if evil spirits know it they can do one harm. The traditional Carib love of journey has been diminished over the years by the violence of the Atlantic, though Caribs still think nothing of walking over the mountains to Roseau in order to sell their woven baskets, and until recently this was how bananas and fish were transported for sale. Several fishermen told me they had sailed to Guadeloupe for the fun of it, in small canoes (the word comes from the Carib canoua), as their forefathers had done. One morning we met at down on the shore below Salybia with a fisherman named Joseph. The day before we had waited with the other fisherman in the afternoon as Joseph’s canoe with its square red sail heaved through the high waves to where the other canoes were drawn up on the rocky shore. Everyone had returned empty-handed that day. Dolphin and flying-fish are most frequently caught, but there are also shark, kingfish, and swordfish in the Atlantic waters, and the Caribs catch them with a harpoon as long as a man’s forearm, which they can throw accurately at a distance of thirty-five feet. A stick attached by line to the harpoon floats on the surface to indicate position if the fish dives or the throw misses.
Joseph rowed us out through the wild surf and then raised the sail. Walls of gray water rose around us, and the canoe seemed ready to go over at any moment. “Of course I would prefer to fish the Caribbean, it is always calm,” said Joseph. “But what can we do? We are here. It is disappointing to go out in this rough sea and get nothing. There are not so many fish as there used to be. Years ago we caught sharks so big several boats would have to help bring them in.” That day the sea proved too rough even to try, and we turned back.
Up from shore we passed the Carib Catholic church, a stone building with a gray roof, green doors flung open like big shutters, and an upside-down canoe as altar. Lizards were everywhere, and the high palms blotted Salybia, above us, from view. A man with a close beard was coming down the rough road of stones, flanked by several laughing girls. Their names—Miranda, Felicia, Theresa, Andrea—suited their caroling voices. The man was slightly drunk. He was the gravedigger, he said, had been for several years. His name was William.
“What’s it like to be a gravedigger?” we asked.
“Yes, I like it,” he answered solemnly, then laughed. The girls giggled at him.
“What do you like about it?”
“Well, anybody that dies, I bury them!” He made it sound like fun. What was fun about it? “When they’re dead, I don’t want them to smell! I buried one hundred ten, all dead, for payment. It’s hard to dig six and a half feet in this hard ground, you know.” He nodded to us and headed down to the tiny cemetery of Sainte Marie, near the church and the shore, and the girls led us up the hill.
As we passed the long pale-blue wooden school the girls explained that a group of young people calling themselves “Carifouna”—the Carib name for Carib— was trying to bring back the old Carib dances and songs, for the most part forgotten. Did one learn much Carib history in school? we asked. Nothing at all. Because the teachers were from outside? No, the teachers were Caribs themselves, it was because there was no syllabus, no Carib textbook, ignorance of their own history. One man, a former chief named Faustulus Frederick and cousin of the present chief, carved masks from coconut and calabash, but his knowledge of the old designs was mostly guesswork. It was the fault of the generation that lost the language, the girls said, the parents of the oldest living Caribs. They were told by the priests to give up their Carib ways, that the Carib language and all the old stories were jokes. Now it was too late.
By now the girls had lost most of their shyness, and they stared directly at us with huge dark eyes. They were all sixteen or seventeen, none of them married; two had children who lived with them, not with the father. There is no stigma put on illegitimacy among the Caribs, and we never saw any Carib children without parents or siblings.
Past Salybia, in St. Cyr, thirty men were assembled to help move a house up the road and over the hill. The men had rigged ropes and logs to help move the house, which ordinarily perched on stilts and flat rocks piled three feet off the ground. Later the men would be rewarded with rum.
The owner, an old man named Cyrus, took us inside. The bed and table had been moved out; no, no one made hammocks anymore, though he could make us a watertight basket if we needed one. On one wall was a frayed picture of Queen Elizabeth in her youth.
We made our way past Salybia, up several steep clay paths to Bataka, hoping to find someone who remembered even a phrase of the old language. The young girls had not even known the Carib name for Dominica. In Bataka the houses were larger, more permanent—Cyrus had feared landslides—and we stopped before a large, extraordinarily well-tended vegetable garden. Beside it a canoe half-full of water was held off the ground by two Y’s of stick. There were two dams of fist-sized rocks in the canoe, to help it expand. In a few weeks a fire would be lit under it, to boil the water and help the expansion of the wood.
A pure Carib man in his fifties greeted us. Yes, he was Juan Louis du Pigny. He laughed when we asked him if he spoke any of the old tongue. “A little. My father-in-law spoke some. But there was no need, with the patois and English, two languages are enough.” His wife, small son, and two daughters surveyed us from the house. “It would be good to go back to the old language but difficult. Anyone from outside can marry a Carib girl and move here. It was once not that way. And much of our land is not good for farming.” He made a helpless gesture with one hand. In his house flowers stood in glass vases on two tables he had built himself. “I’m jack of all trades, master of none,” he said with a smile, proud of the expression.
But there were still quite a few pure Caribs left, he said. “My parents were both pure Carib, and there were ten children. My wife is pure Carib also, and we have six children. We are proud to be different, but the ways are gone. Fish are scarce. Once if you didn’t have money you could still get enough to eat. Not now. Now the Caribs die young, fifty, sixty, seventy. We are not as healthy a people as we used to be. My mother-in-law was ninety-four when she die. My grandmother was one hundred fourteen. No longer.”
Mr. Du Pigny told of an elderly woman in Bataka who some said was a witch. He would not say if he thought she was, but he would not give her name either. She could fly up in the night and change her skin, and could hurt us if she wanted, or heal us if we were sick. The Caribs still believe the legend of the great snake living up in the high woods—the tête chien—whose passage carved a long staircase of rock to the sea one night. A few other superstitions persist: a thatched roof’s reeds are cut during the new moon, because there is a worm that will get into the thatch if there is moonlight. If there were no worm in the thatch it can last more than a year.
What about the old practice of catching iguanas by whistling, so they fall asleep? Du Pigny laughed. “We can still do it,” he said. “But there are not many iguanas left, either.”
We wandered down from Bataka, back toward the sea. Near the church and school several men were playing a furious game of cricket—it seemed as good an occupation as any for a dying race on a sunlit morning. We passed the tiny cemetery, with wooden crosses the color of driftwood, and skirted a ridge above the narrow beach. The waves were deafening. A few hundred feet from shore lay two islets of rock, that the Caribs used to believe turned into great canoes at night, to bear the spirits of ancient Caribs out to sea.
Then we heard a strange, measured sound over the sea’s booming, like someone chopping wood. We peered over the ridge. Below us a naked man stood on the sand, wielding an axe with great determination, small against the vast green headlands on either side. A fallen gommier tree lay at his feet: he was beginning a canoe. In the thunderous sunlight of the coast this tireless Carib seemed a shape out of time.
It began to rain torrentially, even though the sun was out, and when we reached the road Salybia looked deserted. Then we heard giggling, and saw three little Carib girls running up the hill, green banana leaves flopped over their heads. They squealed with delight and ran past us. The rain stopped as suddenly as it had begun. A truck rattled by with a red motto painted on the side: GOD SAVE US OR WE PERISH.
We hopped in the back. Old friends were there already, Mistress Thomas and her fifteenth child, the boy who had fits, the boy who could say nothing. The truck picked up speed going down the hill, and the boy’s face was transfigured with joy from the rush of air, the billowing palms, the dancing light on the sea.
Then Mistress Thomas rapped on the back window of the truck, which jolted to a stop. She threw her legs over—she did not need our help—and watched her son slowly clamber out, as if he were doing it for the first time. His face was still shining with wonder. The truck started up again, we waved; they waved back and turned away. The road dipped, and we never saw them again.