Uncle Brother – A Novel

Barbara Lalla’s 2014 novel, Uncle Brother, published by The University of the West Indies Press, is a wise, culturally faithful and very funny tribute to heroism and loving personal sacrifice in family life. This third novel focuses on the subtle and not-so-subtle cultural and historical richness of the people of the Caribbean Island of Trinidad. Her first two novels, Cascade and Arch of Fire, focused on her native Jamaica, where she grew up, studied, and fell in love with a gifted young Trinidadian also at UWI in Mona. Her subsequent decades in Trinidad, where she lives, teaches and writes, have made possible this faithful and brilliant tribute that begins in the 19th century and ends in 2010, a decade into the twenty-first.

The book’s central character of “Nathan” found inspiration in a real person from a bustling rural town in southern Trinidad. Nathan is the fictional main “author” of his family’s story, put together from a treasure trove of notes and documents in English, including one in French and one in Hindi he has written or collected and saved through eight decades. Members of his family and friends also contribute their memories to the story. Both sides of the precocious Nathan’s family came from India in the 19th century when they were brought to Trinidad as indentured labourers after slavery from Africa had been “abolished.” The complexity of feelings produced by this continental uprooting is just one aspect of the history of Trinidad’s people that Lalla presents with great sensitivity and insight.

The scope of the story has enabled talented, perceptive, and poetically memorable reflections on both intensely personal and broader 21st century political issues. It describes the struggles of the folk on a small, multi-cultural, “multi-continental” island to endure a final century of colonial government and later govern themselves during over half a century of self-government after independence from Britain on 1 August, 1962.

One unforgettable example: Nathan’s 12-year-old sister, Judith, who often helped her mother in her “vegetable” garden, asks him about the descriptions of beautiful gardens by great English authors he has given her to read: “How could karaile and pumpkin and all the other things that grew in a garden like Ma’s be pretty?” Nathan soon after took her on a journey to Port of Spain to see the Royal Botanical Gardens. Judith reflects: “It made him still more godlike in my eyes, for although he had not made the garden he had placed me in it however briefly and it in me forever… ”

The story includes playful and often hilarious dialogue in Trinidad “English,” a combination of English and Creole French with the languages of other cultures, like Spanish, Hindi and Amerindian that have interacted over the centuries since Columbus arrived in 1498. A massive 12,000-entry testimony to the seductive pull of Trini-talk is Dictionary of the English Creole of Trinidad and Tobago by Canadian editor Lise Winer who has devoted many years to collecting and referencing a language that makes English itself richer.

This inspiring, captivating story is also a thriller that includes some violence and, toward the end, some vitally important suspense. It is a wonderful, mature tour-de-force by a sophisticated story-teller that combines many laugh-out-loud moments with a complex worldview and a deep understanding of the human psyche.

 

 

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Defending a Masterpiece

I have noticed over the years a shrinking of the best classics in English and French on Brampton’s library shelves. This has concerned me because I have slowly come to appreciate some of the truly great books and authors in the history of literature.
The most inspiring source of my literary “dabbling” in the past two decades has been Eleanor Wachtel’s amazing literary interviews on CBC Radio in her Sunday afternoon program, Writers and Company. She is, I think, the best literary interviewer on the Planet.
What took me by surprise in May was the shrinking of of the library’s adult French section. This is because I was looking for Madame Bovary in French, as a result of Wachtel’s interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard, the brilliant Norwegian, who described Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary as his “favourite book of all time.”
I wanted to borrow the original French version. (I thought I would respect the years Flaubert put in to meticulously completing, in 1857, his first and most famous novel that changed literature forever.)
The librarian could not find the adult French section. I located it by accident in June.
She did check on the computer and said Madame Bovary was not in any of the library branches of this city of over half a million people.
And I’m shocked that Wikipedia’s article on Brampton does not even contain the word, “French.”
I, an anglophone of French/English/Irish descent raised in Montreal, with no “axe” to grind, am saddened to see this, and to find that nowhere in any Brampton’s eight libraries did a version of this first modern novel ever written exist in French.
So I requested it in French and waited until May 23 when it was delivered from the library in Acton, Ontario, population 9500, now amalgamated into the Town of Halton Hills.
French is not my first language and I spent the first three weeks getting through Thierry Laget’s brilliant preface, while listing listing the many words I had to look up. Then I noticed that, having been borrowed from another district, it was not renewable. I brought the book back on its due date and was again helped wonderfully by the person who served me. She renewed it on her own initiative for a week.
The Brampton Library has agreed to add more true classics like this to their shelves.
You can purchase the book and support Toronto’s Librairie Mosaïque  here.
This unique, deep, and shining masterpiece should be widely available across Canada and the world.
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I now own the Thierry Laget paperback edition and will treasure it always.

Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin, a brilliant author of science fiction and what I might call exploratory, inspirationally prescriptive fantasy for every age died on January 22nd. As an author, she was committed to finding new ways in which we humans might make a better, healthier society. I know that I read some of her early books, borrowed from the library, aloud to my four children in the early eighties: probably some of the Catwings series, suitable for ages “4 to 8,” and this title, The Tombs of Atuan, from her Wizard of Earthsea  series chimes a distant bell in my vague memory of those times.

A couple of CBC podcasts paid tribute to her in January, and I was excited (in listening to an address she gave at the National Book Awards in 2014 featured on The Sunday Edition on January 28th) to learn Le Guin’s deep commitment to righting the wrongs of present day society.

Here are excerpts from her talk:

Hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and who can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being…

Developing written material to suit (publishers’) sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profits and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing and authorship…

We live in capitalism; its power seems inescapable. So did the Divine Right of Kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings… and very often in our art: the art of words.

(At the end of my career) I don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river.

… the name for our beautiful reward is not profit; its name is Freedom!

In 1993 Le Guin was interviewed by the superb Eleanor Wachtel  on the CBC program, Writers and Company. Wachtel is perhaps the best literary interviewer on the planet.

Iceland

We visited Iceland for 10 days in July. Above are a few photos I selected to send to my granddaughter who is 3 going on 7 and intensely involved in our holiday. Did you see a volcano? A geyser? A waterfall? A glacier? Are there trolls there?

She asked her preschool teacher to show her where Iceland was on the globe. Think her mother put her up to that… My first encounter with a map happened at the front of a class of kids I didn’t know – 3rd grade in a new school… But that is to digress…

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Politics is pretty depressing these days. Envy that infectious child-like innocence.

Donald Quixote and Sancho Trudeau

img_1643 Credit: Dewet on Flickr Creative Commons: Attribution/Share-Alike

Miguel Cervantes, in a brilliant, caustic reaction to the addiction in Spain in the early 17th Century to a huge crop of silly, chivalrous romances, published Don Quixote de la Mancha (Part 1 in 1605 and Part 2 in 1615). It is considered by some authorities as one of the first, and possibly the very best, novels ever written. Cervantes had a keen nose for farcical BS.

The knight-errant, Don Quixote, having read way too many such trashy stories, loses his mind and decides to take issue with almost anything he encounters in the desolate flatland of Spain called La Mancha. Suffering constantly from delusions of grandeur and hallucinatory visions, he sets off to right all imaginary, unchivalrous wrongs, accompanied by a tired old horse, Rocinante, having persuaded a humble neighbouring farmer, Sancho Panza, to be his squire.

As a Canadian surveying the political scene in February 2017, the comic analogy described in the above photo has burrowed rapidly into my consciousness. Where the metaphor breaks down a little:

Sancho Panza possesses a sharp, entertaining sense of burlesque, whereas “Sancho” Trudeau is comparatively dull-witted and a trifle narcissistic.

But, does the darkness of the surroundings ever work…