Coaxing Out Notes

Earl Lovelace, Is Just a Movie (London: Faber and Faber, 2011); 353 pages; ISBN 978-0571255672 (paper).

• August 2011

Earl Lovelace hands over narration of Is Just a Movie to kaisonian/poet King Kala, one of several Lovelace alter-egos to take the stage in the author’s first novel since his Commonwealth Prizewinner Salt. King Kala’s opening verse, brandished in the style of the traditional Trinidadian masquerade character Midnight Robber, establishes him as “recorder” and “revealer.” King Kala is Lovelace on a mission: “I show people who they really is. I show them they bigger and more grand, that they have more heart and guts and stones than what people give them credit for. I show them what nobody else show them” (17–18).

King Kala steps away from center stage early in the novel, much as a good emcee in a calypso tent opens a show but then makes way for the headliner and features to come. Chapter 2, “Starring Sonnyboy,” introduces us to the eponymous character who holds the spotlight for much of the novel, his song always interplaying with other lives, with community, and with nation: Sonnyboy Apparicio leads us to people, events, and themes that are the drumbeat of this complex, often musical work. In fact, structurally Movie is arranged like the face of a tenor steel pan: full character portraits and intriguing subplots laid out like elegantly curved notes in blooming rings within a wider circle of story.

Sonnyboy’s struggle is that of the apparition: to be seen fully. “Faced with the prospect of being marooned in his own oblivion” (9), he engineers his arrest as one of the leaders of the 1970 Black Power Movement, but after serving the sentence for his crime of “revolution,” returns home to less than a hero’s welcome. “Sonnyboy find the open arms he expected closed to him” (77). Still, Sonnyboy is a joiner, casting his lot, over the course of a lifetime, with local hustlers, the National Party, the Black Power Movement, the National Party (a second time), the iron section of a steelband (on Carnival Monday), the Hard Wuk Party, the Africanist movement—all this in his battle to confront the vagaries of day-to-day life and wrestle with big-ticket questions of meaning, striving to make a place in the world.

It is almost inevitable then that Sonnyboy Apparicio was born in Lavantille and raised in Cascadu. Lavantille: birthplace of the steel pan; symbol and reality of the nation’s worst poverty and crime; a celebrated locale and a neglected people; Lavantille, described in a King Kala calypso: “Imagine, if you will, the conditions of people on top this hill / People whose offerings make us see / our common humanity / Give us the pan, give us the mas’ / We leave them in the labasse to catch their arse” (227). Cascadu: fictional town that shares its name with the colloquial pronunciation of a storied fish—cascadura—that, once eaten, ensures ultimate Trinidadian-ness to the consumer, to return home regardless of where one travels. These map appropriate territory for Lovelace—son of the land, witness to his nation’s struggle for independence and its post-independence growing pains: subjects always at the core of the Lovelace oeuvre.

Yes, Is Just a Movie is a return to familiar Lovelace ground. With a wink and a nod, characters and images (Constable Aguillera; John de John; Carabon Cacao Estate; a bird in a cage; a labor strike; crucifix-like postures) reappear from previous works that established Lovelace in the Caribbean literary canon. As Lovelace returns to Lavantille and Cascadu, to familiar ground, he returns to themes that have been at the fore of five previous novels, from his 1965 debut novel While Gods are Falling through 1997’s Salt. Also, Lovelace employs a fulcrum here that some might consider a footnote to Trinidadian history—the Black Power Movement and unrest of the 1970s. Lovelace/King Kala reflect on this revisiting, describing a tepid reception in the calypso tent after the end of the Black Power Movement: “The crowd no longer wanted to hear my songs. They sit quiet enough while I am singing, and continue their forbidding silence when I am done”(15). Lest questions arise as to whether Lovelace doubts his crowd, or why he chants refrains sung in previous works, Lovelace takes the issue head on, not leaving speculation to reviewers or academics:

 

Somewhere in pounding to find the lost note, Lance had begun to hear a note that as yet hadn’t made a sound. And what he was doing now was trying to get not the note he had lost but the note behind that note, a note unsounded and sacred and surprising and potential—to get that note to sound. (40–41)

Therefore, yes: reexamine the vexing complexity of democratic process in a nation less than fifty years old; analyze grass-roots efforts, philosophical debates, the shortcomings and the derailments; highlight the hope and potential; commemorate Sonnyboy’s struggle as that of a post-independence Trinidadian Everyman.

Sonnyboy’s fight-get-knocked-down-get-up-fight-again approach, born from his childhood in Lavantille, leaves him as an adult vacillating between laying blame on the powers that be or on some collective failure of the community. “Sonnyboy found himself telling of the first time his father went on the road with the steelpan he had tuned and was attacked by the police, of his own astonishment and outrage as he watched the people unable or unwilling or afraid to retaliate” (54). His lifelong motto, “I not fucking taking that,” is softened and strengthened by his Sweetie-Mary’s reminder, “Doh let them make you stop loving” (109). Sonnyboy’s courtship of Sweetie-Mary, their marriage, their partnership, not only offer balance and hope but also provide some of Movie’s most endearing passages:

 

As he walked, all the music he had known flooded his brain, his being and he started to whistle. He wanted to whistle love songs that would expose his feelings, but the tunes he found himself whistling were tunes played by the steelbands on Carnival Monday when the city was a stage and symphony, thick with music, overflowing with love . . . [,] and when he got to Sweetie’s he whistled ‘With a Song in My heart,’ the tune that Ebonites mash up town with, when he, Sonnyboy, was a barebacked fella in the steelband, beating the iron, tasting the music, sweat flowing down his face, feeling the heat and the strain of his arms and the sweetness of belonging, and by his side big hard men who have no fear. (118)

Permitting a moment’s self-indulgence, I confess that I wanted a new collection of short stories from Lovelace, to follow 1988’s A Brief Conversion and Other Stories. In saying so, however, I must admit that Movie also provides just that: individual chapters that stand as separate gems, each precisely faceted; most notably “Pan,” “Franklyn Batting,” “Claude’s Belonging,” and “Sweetie-Mary.” In 2006, when “Franklyn Batting” was published in the Trinidad Express, a friend called from “home” and read the entire story to me over the phone—Lovelace music spanning seas, his breathtaking prose a serenade from afar.

Given an existing body of writing that transforms the overlooked into the spectacular, what notes are left to be coaxed in this new novel? Arguably, Movie addresses the issue of race more fully than previous Lovelace works. Indo-Trinidadian players are more complexly woven into the narrative. For example, Manik, an Indian man and a contemporary of King Kala, struggles with the simple question of how to play cricket with his neighbors, and later with how and on what terms he can participate in the Black Power Struggle or in Carnival. The question of whether the races can weave community (mirrored in an interracial marriage) or are destined always to compete for limited resources (talking heads battle over who should represent Trinidad as a beauty queen or in sports, even who can play mas’): salient indeed for a Trinidad where government and politics remain fractured along racial lines.

In the final acts of Movie, Lovelace turns to elements of the fantastic and begs the question, Can anything short of miracle and magic and spirit bring healing winds and cleansing rains? Yet Lovelace—like Sonnyboy, Sweetie-Mary, King Kala, and most of the features in this kaiso tent—refuses to give up. Each alter-ego in his or her own way—through politics, cultural traditions, religion, family and romance, community—never abandons the cause. Lovelace stands in solidarity, champions the efforts, and persists in a quest for the “new music” that will bring salvation.

 

Anton Nimblett, a Trinidadian who lives and writes in Brooklyn, is the author of Sections of an Orange (Peepal Tree Press, 2009). His fiction appears in the award-winning anthology Our Caribbean, as well as in several literary journals, and his poetry is included in the APLA anthology War Diaries. Anton has worked extensively with the Caribbean Cultural Theatre and curated the 2009–10 season of its Poets and Passion literary series.

 

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