A note on Merle Collins's novel The Colour of Forgetting
West Indies novels are often notable for their formal inventiveness. This fits with the history of the islands. Colonial outposts of feral capitalism during the era of slavery, populated mostly by the descendants of Africans transposed by force from their natal lands, and subsequently abandoned to the tender mercies of globalization and neo-liberalism (another form of feral capitalism), they have long suffered under the despotism of other people’s definitions. The people on the islands find that authority from afar has never served them well.
Conventional forms are Eurocentric and exploitative. West Indians have been forced by history to define themselves, to create themselves; it is an ongoing project. But in the process they have given the world some profoundly influential thinkers. To name a couple: Eric Williams of Trinidad who wrote the monumental Capitalism and Slavery turned Western economic history on its head by suggesting that the Industrial Revolution had less to do with British technical invention than with the capital raised off the backs of slaves; and Frantz Fanon of Martinique whose Wretched of the Earth revolutionized the way we think about oppression and the social construction of the self. But the list of writers and thinkers and their influence is far out of proportion to the geographic size of the island archipelago between Florida and Venezuela. Nothing inspires the mind as much as figuring out how to escape someone else’s categories.
Today I want to write about a 1995 novel called The Colour of Forgetting by Grenadian novelist Merle Collins. It’s a uniquely inventive novel that fits the West Indian mold, that is, it fits no mold. On an obvious level, it is a multi-generational novel that covers the history of Grenada1 (called the island of Paz in the text) from slavery to the period after the American invasion in October, 1983. It focuses on a family named Malheureuse, descendants of a French colonist who murdered a slave named John Bull, then had children with slave women. The Malheureuse family thus inherits the blood of both murderer and victim, European colonist and slave. This admixture, through the generations, causes “confusion,” confusion being an oft-repeated thematic tag. "The Malheureuse blood pass on to the slave women generation that Boss-man Malheureuse breed. To John Bull nation. Mixture in the blood of the story." Collins's characters, the Malheureuse descendants, suffer a malign pattern of self-defeat, brother betraying brother, because of this forked filiation, which comes down through the generations as fate. "It is a hard thing to accept that it happen, but is like we is working against weself from time." The family itself becomes a metonym for the people of the West Indies.
The Colour of Forgetting has a ghost of a plot, not the thrumming, desire-driven, single character conventional plot, but the little story of a boy named William, nicknamed Thunder because of his abnormal fear of, well, thunder. In the first chapter of the novel, Thunder’s mother takes him to see a local seer/healer/madwoman named Carib who says not to worry. The boy will be the saving of his people as long as his mother takes care to instill in him the Malheureuse story, the ancestral murder and the fusion of blood. This motivates the chapters to follow, the telling of the story.
You could only help by telling him everything you know. But is all right…. Mightn’t even be in your time, Mamag, but you will know. He going to be all right. Walk back with him over the Malheureuse story.
At the end of the book, Thunder is no longer afraid of thunder, but he has failed to become the hero that was predicted. Saving a people divided against itself by history by people who are themselves divided and confused is perhaps an endless project. Yet his story is the story of the story, as it were, the reason for writing the book.
Thunder, as I say, is the ghost of a plot, a plot in lieu of a plot; the author does not want to foist a conventional and simplistic ideation onto the complex problem of identity as it is being worked out on the islands — the accent of narrative focus moves from person to person through time and history as each character struggles for release from the cycle of confusion. Instead of a conventional plot, Collins deploys a more poetic conceit (she is also a poet), what I call narrative nodes of interest. For example, the main struggle within the Malheureuse family over generations is over land. Land is significant in the West Indies in a unique way. Before emancipation, slaves often were allowed their own gardens on the plantations, so-called provision grounds, where they could grow food to augment their rations and make a little money at Sunday markets. But these small plots grew to have an importance out of proportion to their size, and after emancipation, freed slaves longing for a piece of their own land settled on these very small properties. A wily second generation Malheureuse (remember he is half white) manages to secure a 15-acre tract that he then subdivides for his children. Then the children struggle amongst themselves over these split up inheritances. Later, with the advent of first Marxist economics under a revolutionary government, then in the era of neo-liberalism, they have a struggle with outside forces trying to take away their small plots. Thus this patch of land becomes a second metonym, signifying a desire the freed slaves felt but which is always (even today) being denied them.
A second narrative node is a running character named Carib, a sybil-like female, who may or may not be descended from the island’s original indigenous inhabitants. Actually, there are three women named Carib, mother, daughter, and granddaughter, who fulfill a continous social role parallel to the generations of the Malheureuse family. Carib wanders over the island, uttering enigmatic prophecies. She is a seeress and something of a healer, though some people seem to think she is just crazy. Hers is a prophecy of blood. “Blood in the north, blood come in the south, and the blue crying red in between.” Blood, red, and blue are colour patterns that run through the book. The prophecy itself is a meme repeated over and over. It encapsulates the island’s history beginning with the mass suicide of the Caribs (blood in the north) and ending with the overthrow of the revolutionary Bishop government and the American invasion (blood in the south). In between is the murder of John Bull, the slave.
Afterwards, the story go that while John Bull getting licks Papa God blue sky open all of a sudden and the rain come down. But where he lie down there in the dust with the red on his face is like the rain making the red more thick instead of washing it away. Like the blue was crying red.
The climax of the novel, which is not part of a plot, is a fantastically incantatory chapter — part fugue, part prayer — devoted to Carib walking the island in the night, visiting the old plantation slave pens, like Stations of the Cross, watching and listening for the spirits of the dead.
I wonder if I will hear them tonight? Those footstep that not walking. I does hear them floating, you know. And the howling. And you know they say some footstep is people that can’t find their body. Is true? But how could be true? Worrying about the body, even on the other side? Oh, they want to put here to rest. To satisfy the mind of who there and who coming? So coming back to look for a toe. And a finger. But is OK if they still don’t find it? Oh, it will help if we remember? Well, sprinkle holy water. We will sprinkle some rum. Some cane juice. Some remembrance. Some peace. Forgotten and consoled.
“Forgotten and consoled” is another of the book’s memes. Indeed, through Carib, the novel sets itself up as an exercise in memory and self-healing through recollecting and retelling the stories of the past (the massacre of the Caribs and the dire fate of slaves). At the end of the novel the process of telling the story and remembering the dead is ongoing. Conventional closure (often a sentimental escape) is wanting. In fact the very end of the novel reaches beyond the novel genre into the epic when an undersea volcano between Grenada (Paz in the novel) and Carriacou (Eden in the novel) rumbles truculently beneath a boat carrying passengers between the islands. A baby on the boat dies inexplicably, as if to say that beyond the merely human and the historical, the ancient powers require their ancient sacrifices still.
The third narrative node is the structural repetition of foundational murder. The novel opens with Carib channeling a party of Caribs who fling themselves over a cliff into the sea when they are trapped by French soldiers (this is an actual event in Grenada history). The Malheureuse family story begins with the first Malheureuse bludgeoning a slave named John Bull to death. This slave murder is doubled structurally in the back story when William/Thunder’s father tells the story of his family and a slave ancestor named Ned flogged to death for stealing a sheep. These murders haunt the people of the book like Original Sin, not the least, as I have said, because the blood of both victims and murders are mixed in the generations that follow. How can you form a clear self identity when you are both the thing you hate and the victim, slaver and enslaved?
This is a profound issue, the issue of identity and filiation. It is human nature to want to know who you are and where you come from, and to take pride in that ancestry. Yet fantasies of racial purity and eminent forebears always conceal anxiety. Freud fantasized that civilization begins with murder of a father. The Bible has Cain murdering Abel. Augustine invented Original Sin. But for the people of the Caribbean the issue has a particular resonance founded on the historical singularity of slavery. The murders in The Colour of Forgetting are symbolic of the violent birth of the entire Euro-Atlantic project: kill the indigenes, replace them with Africans, then rape and kill the Africans. As I say, the people of the West Indies are still trying to think their way out of that hot mess.
The Colour of Forgetting is a narrative experiment in imagining possible solutions by retelling the story. Perhaps telling the story, again and again, is the solution. I find the book breathtakingly ingenious in its ability to concentrate and combine the elemental complexity of Caribbean existence in a couple of hundred pages — 500 years of political and economic history, social history, folklore, the lives of individual humans, the immense suffering of a people. The compression comes through structure and repetition. You don’t see this at first, not until you start to note and count the recursions and track the sources of the patterns.
Before I shut up, I must add a bit about the language of the text. It’s not English. Of course, Merle Collins speaks impeccable English. But the language of the islands (and each island is slightly different) is distinct from English while sharing many words and some grammatical constructions. It’s not so different from English2 that it’s difficult to read. Instead, the unexpected rhythms, the lexical explosions, and the fresh wit3 of Grenadian speech are a delight and a constant reminder that Caribbean people are not who you think they are, not the collective assumptions of history, but themselves.4
I am not going to insert here a history of Grenada. Well, maybe I will. It was settled by waves of Arawaks and Caribs erupting from the Orinoco delta eons ago. The French arrived in the 1650s and massacred most of the Caribs. The British got the island in the same Treaty of Paris, interestingly enough, that gave them Canada. Since both Canada and Grenada were originally French colonies, their civil and political histories have interesting parallels after the British takeover. In 1974, the island became an independent country. In 1979, there was a bloodless coup, resulting in a Marxist-style government under a youthful charismatic leader named Maurice Bishop. Then in 1979, Bishop was arrested and murdered by members of his own government. And in October, 1983, the Americans swooped in. Merle Collins worked for two years as a researcher in the Bishop government.
Please, let us remember that English itself is a bastard language, descended from a German tribal dialect inflected with borrowings from Norse, Latin, and French, not to mention any number of useful words learned from the natives of the countries the so-called English invaded. Hurricane, for example, is a Carib word from the West Indies.
There is even time for comedy that seems to simply erupt out of the language of the text. There is a delightful meme, a series of conversations between Crapaud (frog) and a monkey. Almost always they say the same thing. Crapaud, “wait a while”; Monkey, “cool breeze.” Near the end of the book, Crapaud, rather foolhardily, hops out onto the road and is flattened by a car.
In my earlier footnote, I alluded to the parallels between Canada and Grenada after the Treaty of Paris in 1763. After she read this, Merle wrote back to me that she found this intriguing, so I expanded in an email:
The Canadian/Grenadian parallels are interesting. In both countries, the British newcomers and civil administration had to deal with a French population already there. The French populations were Catholic, whereas the British were Protestant. So issues of religion, language, and power sharing were fairly urgent in both places. There were even slaves in Canada. The French had had some slaves and the Loyalists who came up from the United States brought slaves with them. The slaves were the biggest difference though. There were by far more people of African descent in Grenada than in Canada, and the civil and criminal laws had to be formed to control them. The slaves and the sugar estates were a vastly more valuable economic engine than anything in Canada at the time (it's intriguing to think that in 1763 Canada was an economic backwater, hardly significant in the grand scheme, while Grenada was a hugely valuable economic powerhouse). I think slavery generally withered away and then was outlawed in Canada mainly because it didn't do much for the economy. But in Grenada, slavery was the economy and it pumped huge amounts of money back into Britain. So the civil authorities mostly just kept the slaves under control and figured out laws for marginalizing the French Catholics and leveraging their estates out from under them. In Canada, again where the economy was not so important, the civil governments were much more accommodating toward the French. In Grenada, the draconian treatment of the French contributed to the Fedon rebellion 20 years after the Treaty of Paris. In Canada, the French didn't rebel until 1838, and that was part of a larger pro-democratic reformist movement shared by many English residents (there was a parallel Anglo rebellion in Upper Canada).
There is another parallel. The Colour of Forgetting, like other West Indian novels I have read, is a national project. Collins is imagining a national story, a story of her people. This is a profound and important undertaking. There was a brief period when Canadians were attempting the same thing, late 1960s and early 1970s. The best novels of that period were books like Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers and Blackout and Prochain Episode by the Hubert Aquin. This was also the period when Stanley Ryerson was writing his Marxist history of Canada and Tony Wilden wrote his Lacanian The Imaginary Canadian. They nailed the peculiar colonial "soul sickness" of Canadian identity, albeit in different modes. I tried to do the same with The Life and Times of Captain N and Elle. But for the most part Canadian writers have acquiesced to the market demands of global capitalism and don't attempt to write big books about themselves anymore. (A hopeful sign is the upsurge of Native Canadians beginning to write about themselves.) This doesn't seem to have happened in the West Indies. The spirit is still alive.