Peter Abrahams, This Island Now. Faber and Faber, London 1966.
One welcomes any novel about the present day Caribbean situation. The Caribbean’s precarious sense of being needs the extra anchorage of fictional reality. Peter Abrahams’ latest novel- This Island Now- takes as its point of departure, ‘the reality of the Caribbean.’ It is a ‘political’ novel. The author sketches in the rise, (or decline), to tyranny of a young and determined leader, Josiah. Josiah represents the second generation of leadership that takes over after independence in an ex-colonial territory. Moses, the leader that sprang up in the anti-colonial struggle, the Great Old Man of politics or the Great old Charlatan, or both, has died. The novel begins with the old man’s death, with Josiah’s subtle manipulation of the bureaucratic and political machinery to ensure that he acquires the supreme leadership.
The scenes of the takeover of power read rather like that of a thriller. The people are one-dimensional except perhaps for the civil servant, Stanhope. The politicians remain well observed jottings in a journalist’s notebook. Josiah, the principal political figure, is a shadowy ‘sea-black incorruptible.’ He belongs to the anachronistic nineteenth century novel tradition of the great individual power figure-captain of his impregnable ship, master of his Fate, and of everybody else’s. He bucks big Business and the foreign interests and remains unperturbed-unlike the harassed Castro of Caribbean fact. The Ambassadors who represent Big Business protest but their protests are ineffectual. For the great powers behind the Ambassadors, seem as helpless as the slaughtered Dragon before St. George. The dragon is dumb. And inactive. No guns appear, no counter-revolutionaries train across the border. Except young Andrew Simpson, the disappointed idealist, who, blaming it all on his former hero, Josiah, hides out high in the hills, intending to kill his once beloved President. At the end of the book, the President passes in procession – and young Andrew Simpson weeps over his high powered rifle, weeps for the shot that he had not fired. The shot with ‘which he could have ended so much’. He weeps like ‘a lost child alone on an island over which the long shadows were creeping’.
Yet it is in a sense unfair to quote only from the first or the last chapter of the book. For they are especially bad. They attempt the sort of writing, and the sort of relation of a novelist to his material which calls for a long period of gestation. The sort of writing and the sort of relation to his material that Mr. Abrahams showed in ‘Mine Boy’. This novel was forged out of the flesh and blood of the South African society in which Mr. Abrahams was born and grew to manhood. This Island Now attempts to capture in some of its chapters a quality of relationship with his adopted society- Jamaica- which will only come after the present has been absorbed, has eaten its way lowly into the being of the novelist, has involved him in that special bondage where he feels all the hurt and cruelty that is his reward for committing his heart to a petty part of the earth’s people, the earth’s landscape. Because Mr. Abrahams relationship with his new country has not yet jelled, one finds that where he grasps for power and poetry, he achieves only a mawkishness; where he sets out to give vivid portrayals of his islanders, he does them only a great disservice. He makes them even more unbelievable to their already skeptical eyes.
In his latest book, Peter Abrahams has in fact fallen victim to the novelist’s greatest temptation in the world in which we live today. The temptation to catch the occasion by the tail. To write about the happenings in new countries when the shots still ring on the horizon; when the blood has not yet dried on the Presidential Palace stairs. This can only be done by the kind of novelist who consciously settles for the political thriller. Where the reader is made to accept cardboard stereotypes precisely because the stereotypes are new cut-outs etched in new situations; and where the skill of rapid and penetrating political analysis of new and shifting power relations provides the main compulsion. In fact where plot, action, and perceptive asides (and Mr. Abrahams is very good at these) engage the mind, extend the political geography of the imagination, and manipulate the characters as easy symbols for a different intention.
But if this is his choice, then the novelist must make sure that his political analysis is exact. For if, in the novel proper the individual must be portrayed as the ‘sum totality of his social relationships’, in the political thriller the individual symbols must be manipulated within the sum totality of their political and power relationships. And the failure of THIS ISLAND NOW as a political thriller, the curious ‘unreality’ of the power play, lies in the fact that Mr. Abrahams has omitted the single most important political factor in the Caribbean reality- the omnipresence of the United States, the present omnipotence of its armed might; the tacit division of the world’s spheres of influence between the Soviet Union and the United States. To write about the rise to tyranny of a Josiah, (or of his Hungarian equivalent, for example) without showing how such a rise in itself conditioned by external circumstances, conditioned, circumscribed, and determined by twentieth century power blocs, is as if one wrote an ancient Greek Play without the Fates; the crucifixion scene in a Passion Play without once referring to Pontius Pilate and the realities of Roman Imperial Power. Because we are left without any indication of what impels Josiah, he remains at the end of the book, an enigma wrapped in a mystery which we are not in the least impelled to solve.