Amy Wilentz is the author of “The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier,” and “Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti,” which won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award for memoir.
The Caribbean is a place of strange allure. Most Americans and Europeans think of it today as a collection of pristine beaches, sprawling resorts, palm trees, coconuts, rum drinks, pliant hotel staffs, gorgeous coral reefs, snorkels and tans. But as historians and Caribbean specialists know, this vision of the island basin is sanitized, diluted and abridged.
The real West Indies, as Joshua Jelly-Schapiro shows us in his new book, is — or was, at least — violent, harsh, and full of struggle and pain.
This is the place where globalization began. From the moment the ignorant but rapacious white man “discovered” the Caribbean, he began transforming it into a place where races mixed and where entire peoples were eradicated on the one hand, while, on the other, a new type of person with an intercontinental gene pool and complicated cultural backgrounds and connections was generated.
In a wild romp through the basin, Jelly-Schapiro shows us what this has brought forth, which is still, remarkably, a world largely unknown except to its intimates. Throughout, Jelly-Schapiro acknowledges his debt to the swashbuckling British adventurer and travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor. Like Leigh Fermor’s famous “The Traveller’s Tree,” which was published in 1950, “Island People” offers readers a grand and kaleidoscopic tour of nearly every significant island in the Caribbean.
Sure, the most famous of the islands have burnished reputations in the wider world, but do we really know them?
Jelly-Schapiro’s tour is perhaps strongest on Jamaica, where he begins the book. His visits there are framed by the idea of Brand Jamaica, a kind of liberal civic attempt by the government to craft a palatable framework through which raucous Jamaica might be sold to outsiders.
But what constitutes Brand Jamaica? Is it Rastafarianism and ganga? Is it drug trafficking and violence along Kingston’s Spanish Town Road, nicknamed Killsome by the reggae singer Peter Tosh? Is it the elegant, British-educated elite? Possibly it is a combination of all these, Jelly-Schapiro argues.
One nice thing about the book is Jelly-Schapiro’s sensitivity about his outsider status. When his time with Countryman, an old buddy of Bob Marley’s, begins to veer toward stereotype, Jelly-Schapiro writes in an aside that “sitting there with these avid pilgrims and their penniless oracle was tricky. Who, as the song goes, was zooming who? . . . The imaginary Noble Savage has always hovered. But the bearing of our host . . . abounded with the proud will to perform, and create a public self that one grows used to encountering here.”
Not the noble savage but the performative self, that’s Brand Jamaica (and Brand Caribbean, as well), Jelly-Schapiro says. But can the country’s political elite sanitize and monetize it? No they cannot, is his conclusion.
Real Jamaica, as opposed to Brand Jamaica, remains as elusive as the true character of Marley. Jelly-Schapiro takes us all over Jamaica as he tries to pin down this protean personality, dead now for almost four decades, a man who took his place on the world stage, so enormous was his authenticity and the force of his self-portrayal. Jelly-Schapiro finds traces of Marley all over Jamaica, understandably, since Marley was and is Brand Jamaica.
But he also points out that the same equalizing force that reduces Marley to “Bob” throughout Jamaica, and that transforms the great thinker and writer C.L.R. James into “a nerdy guy in a coat who used big words” in his native Trinidad, tends simultaneously to enlarge and dramatize the average Caribbean man.
Jelly-Schapiro attributes this operatic quality of the Caribbean to “this New World Place where everyone was making it up as they went along.” Others, among them Graham Greene, who wrote “The Comedians,” one of the great novels about Duvalier’s Haiti, attribute these undeniable theatrical qualities of behavior to a desire — born of oppression and struggle — to hide one’s true motives and character from all who are not one’s intimates. To guard one’s secret self, in other words, from slavemasters in the old days, and today from government lackeys, international aid workers, outsiders, reporters, et al.
The friendly Jelly-Schapiro seems to move quite nicely among the Caribbean people he encounters. People like to talk to him. His riff (that’s what he would call it) on Rastafarianism and its relationship to runaway slaves and black power ends with a conversation he has with an impressive woman who is carrying (and no doubt distributing parcels from) a huge bundle of weed at a Peter Tosh Day celebration in Belmont, Tosh’s birthplace. (Tosh, by the way and in case you didn’t know, was a crucial member of Marley’s band, the Wailers.) When Jelly-Schapiro asks the woman why she’s not worried about the police, since selling marijuana is illegal in Jamaica, she looks at him “hard” and says, “Di music mek it legal.”
Sometimes you get the impression that Jelly-Schapiro’s book was originally conceived as a music travelogue of the Caribbean. Stories of Cuba’s history, for example, tend to veer off on interesting musical tangents. You’re rumbling along learning about different immigrations to Cuba over time and the rise of the sugar industry there, and suddenly (albeit for valid geopolitical and historic reasons), you’re reading about the contradanse, the montuno, the tumbao, the danzon, the bolero, the habanera and the cha-cha-cha.
Jelly-Schapiro knows a great deal about Cuba, and about many aspects of the islands he covers here, and possibly because this book is to be his great work on the subject, he seems to want to include in it everything he knows, not just about Cuba but about most of the other major islands, and a lot of what he knows is about music.
Thus his tangents — which, if written in a leisurely and discursive way, would be eye-opening and exciting — are sometimes stuffed together in great paragraphs of learned information that can quash one’s ability to absorb. Here’s a sentence from a section about Cuba’s rumba music: “The larger rumba complex, like black Cuban culture at large, is perhaps more Congo than anything else. But it contained strong strains of Lucumí and Ganga and Arara polyrhythms, too . . . built around the ‘clave’ spine now shared by most Cuban dance music — a way of organizing sonic time wherein each basic click isn’t equally spaced, as you’d get it with a metronome, but instead follows a more motive flow: two solid hits first, often, followed by three quicker ones (UH-UH, uh-uh-uh).”
However, this confounding musical disquisition is shortly followed by such a fascinating paragraph about the Americanized rumba of Desi Arnaz, the Cuban emigre and co-star of “I Love Lucy,” that you long for more. In “Island People,” you must take the too-much with the too-little, because you emerge from the feast and the famine with a lot of deep satisfactions. So much of the material Jelly-Schapiro has pulled together for this book is interspersed with moments like the brief analysis of Arnaz: small, sparkling windows through which darts of light brighten one’s understanding.
Like a water-colorist of the Victorian era, Jelly-Schapiro gives readers an atmospheric glimpse of each island on which he alights. His portrait of Montserrat in the long aftermath of the late 1990s volcanic eruption is particularly delicate and generous. He stays at Sir George Martin’s house (yes, the Beatles producer had a home here, which is now a genteel auberge — just one of the endless surprises of Jelly-Schapiro’s Caribbean). His driver, a man called La Bumba (also the nickname of his beat-up car), guides him around the largely depopulated island, along with various older women whose honorific is Miss. He meets an archaeologist from Tennessee who for decades has been bagging and labeling the detritus of a destroyed plantation (ruined before the eruption) a few paces down the road from Sir George’s place. He lets La Bumba take him just inside the volcanic no-go zone. He spends an evening at a competition called Montserrat Idol but never learns who won. He ends the lovely section with a visit to a poetry reading at the British high commissioner’s residence, where a teacher named Chadd Cumberbatch recites his own work, including this line: “Tired of smiling . . . with ash on my teeth.” Like so much in the book, the Montserrat chapter is sporadic and inconclusive, but you feel it.
Every 50 years or so there should be a book like this one, in which a passionate, informed, dedicated and adventurous traveler skips from island to island in the bright blue palm-lined bowl and reassesses the contemporary significance of this world-historical outpost of the globe. As V.S. Naipaul says about Trinidad, the Caribbean is “heaven for social scientists.” And for writers and thinkers of all kinds. Sixty years on, Jelly-Schapiro follows Leigh Fermor through the unparalleled world that imperialism, slavery and the sugar plantation imposed, and shows readers once again the value of the visitor’s gaze.
By Joshua Jelly-Schapiro
Knopf. 451 pp. $28.95