By Vincent Carretta,
a professor of English at the University of Maryland and the author of "Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man"
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
By Caryl Phillips
Knopf. 235 pp. $24.95
Readers familiar with Caryl Phillips's award-winning novels know how skillfully he combines fiction and history to convey the complex nature of racial, national and personal identities in modern Britain. As the title of his new book indicates, people of African descent -- whether immigrants to England, born there or brought there against their will -- have always been perceived as foreigners by their countrymen and even themselves. The subtitle of the British edition, "Three English Lives," underscores the paradox: In this triptych of fictionalized biographies, Phillips's characters remain strangers in a strange land, alienated from their countrymen by circumstance and racism, as well as by their own behavior.
"Doctor Johnson's Watch" tells of Francis Barber, the Jamaican-born slave brought to England and given to the literary giant Samuel Johnson in 1752. Interweaving flashbacks and historical context, the unnamed narrator, a minor member of Johnson's circle, sets out after Johnson's death to interview Barber for a piece he is writing for the Gentlemen's Magazine. The childless Johnson had raised Barber as if he were his own son, giving him his freedom, seeing to his education, blessing his marriage to an Englishwoman, granting him a very generous pension and making him his heir. But the narrator finds Barber dying in a rural hospital for the poor, having fallen victim to his own spendthrift ways. The reader learns that Barber may have fallen victim as well to the less obvious effects of racism, even when that racism is the unconscious variety expressed by the well-meaning narrator, who likens Barber's child to "a slumbering animal."
Bigotry is more overt in "Made in Wales," the story of the rapid rise and fall of the biracial boxer Randy Turpin, who briefly became middleweight champion of the world when he beat Sugar Ray Robinson in 1951. For the most part Phillips uses an omniscient third-person voice to tell the sad tale of how quickly Turpin descended into debt and despair, abandoned by his friends, ending his life by shooting his youngest child and committing suicide. Phillips's technique, unfortunately, distances the reader from the subject's consciousness until the last few pages, when the voices of Turpin's surviving mixed-race children are heard. In effect, Turpin is resurrected through them.
"Northern Lights" is the most poignant and complex of the stories. Its protagonist, David Oluwale, reaches Leeds in 1949 as a stowaway from Nigeria, a bright and ambitious 18-year-old seeking to achieve his dream of becoming an engineer. His dream quickly turns into a nightmare in the face of xenophobic racism in the Midlands. Condemned to low-paying jobs and harassed by the police, Oluwale is eventually sentenced to eight years in a mental institution, where abuse and drugs take their toll on the once optimistic and sociable immigrant. Back on the streets of Leeds, he stubbornly refuses to leave his adopted city, despite relentless efforts to drive him out. After years of persecution, he drowns under suspicious circumstances. The investigation into his death marks a turning point in Britain's official awareness of the legal and social status of its black population. Phillips brilliantly conveys the complexity of Oluwale's motivations and the mystery of his death by reconstructing his life through the voices of witnesses.
Elegiac in subject and tone though they are, the stories of Phillips's "foreigners" ultimately offer hope as well as suffering and death. Samuel Johnson, as well as Barber's wife and family, represent an alternative to racism, as do Turpin's Welsh wife and their children. Even "Northern Lights" ends on a symbolically triumphant note. An unidentified narrator visiting Oluwale's hilltop pauper's grave concludes: "You have achieved a summit, David. Climbed to the top of a hill, and from here you can look down. You are still in Leeds. Forever in Leeds."