Detours through the Infernal Paradise

Supriya M. Nair, Pathologies of Paradise: Caribbean Detours (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013); 236 pages; ISBN: 978-0813935188 (paperback)

• November 2015

In an article in the travel section of the British newspaper the Guardian in February 2014, Gavin McOwan reviewed his stay at Jakes Hotel in the Treasure Beach area of Jamaica. The review is a self-consciously liberal reflection on the tourist experience, keen to emphasize that the author is far removed from the mass-market entertainments of the package holiday. This “boutique hotel . . . might cultivate a shabby-chic vibe and have supermodels and New York hipsters lounging around its beachside pool,” claims McOwan, “but it is firmly rooted in the local community.” Waxing lyrical about dining al fresco on an organic farm and sipping “a mango bellini at sunset, under a full moon, beneath the very tree the fruit was picked,” McOwan indulges a form of paradise discourse. For sure, the imagery he deploys is different from that which surrounds the promotion of mass tourist destinations in the Caribbean—sun, sea, sand, and sex—but he nonetheless draws on certain paradisiacal motifs that have been attached to the region since the time of Columbus, not least that of the prelapsarian idyll of the bountiful garden. All is not quite well in the garden, however. In the final paragraph of his review, McOwan admits that there was something about Jamaica that did not sit well with him: “Jamaica is great fun and there was a lot I loved about the country, but there’s a post-colonial air to it which is opaque and difficult to define (certainly on a two-week holiday) that feels quite heavy at times. I felt it in the places I stayed or visited; everywhere, that is, except Jakes, which felt like a microcosm of how you’d like modern Jamaica to be, as both a country and a destination.”1 Startling in its combination of political naiveté and the casual assumption of superiority (“how you’d like modern Jamaica to be”), McOwan’s ultimate ambivalence towards Jamaica as a result of its “heavy,” “post-colonial air” recalls the tendency within colonial discourse to construe the Caribbean as simultaneously Edenic and infernal.

It is precisely this discursive coupling of paradise and hell that Supriya Nair interrogates in her Pathologies of Paradise: Caribbean Detours. She is not interested in reiterating a critique of these stereotypes, which by now have been thoroughly deconstructed within postcolonial studies; rather, her aim is to use this critique as a jumping-off point for a series of explorations into how anglophone Caribbean authors have explored, negotiated, and contested the paradise-hell coupling in representing and imaginatively refiguring the historical and social experience of the region. Nair is especially attentive to the dialectical movement between paradise and pathology as this plays out in the work of such writers as V. S. Naipaul, Jamaica Kincaid, Shani Mootoo, Nalo Hopkinson, and Junot Díaz. She shows how critiques of Edenic images of the Caribbean can issue in antiparadisiacal tropes that must in turn be subject to critique if they are not merely to confirm imperialist pronouncements of “cursed” or “blighted” cultures. As Nair puts it, “While I do not want to dismiss the anti-affirmative character of anglophone Caribbean fiction, it need not have the last word. Against the overdone presentations of the Caribbean as irrevocably carnivalesque and fluidly errant, the memory of lived trauma that one finds in the literature is a necessary negation. . . . But to end there would repeat the risks that I believe lie in the paradise-hell coupling and congeal a history of suffering” (18–19).

Pathologies of Paradise comprises five main chapters, each of which takes up this movement between paradise and pathology in the context of exploring a different set of key interrelated themes and images in Caribbean literature. Thus, chapter 1 interrogates the twinned poles of the plantation and the garden (including both the English country garden, which played an important role in colonial ideology, and the provision grounds or plots of the enslaved and the indentured). Nair examines how writers such as Naipaul, Mootoo, and Harold Sonny Ladoo have remapped the landscapes upon which their ancestors labored, excavating violent histories and unearthing repressed memories. Despite the bitter history of cultivation in the region, notes Nair, “neither the beauty of the natural environment of the Caribbean nor the very real pleasure in gardening is ever lost” (48). The chapter contains original, convincing readings of Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival (1987) and Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night (1996), as well as a useful discussion of some versions of the pastoral in Caribbean fiction (although Nair’s conception of ecocriticism—that it focuses on only writing that consciously promotes forms of environmental protection—is surprisingly narrow and misguided).

In her next chapter, “Toxic Domesticity, Curative Kinship,” Nair moves on to literary representations of the home as a site of trauma but also of security. Drawing on a wide array of novels and poetry, she shows how Caribbean authors have sought to “stage national and diasporic tensions in domestic sites and within family circles, which are both dysfunctional and nurturing spaces” (76). The chapter offers some perceptive readings of work by Lorna Goodison, Easton Lee, Kincaid, Mootoo, and Naipaul, although overall the critical framework here feels very familiar. This is well-trodden ground, which might have benefitted from an increased dose of the more materialist emphases found elsewhere in the book, with greater consideration of how capitalist imperialism has unfolded through the restructuring of gender and familial relations in its efforts to secure rising streams of unpaid work in the service of accumulation. A more rigorous periodization of the texts under discussion in relation to the historical moments to which they correspond would have raised some interesting questions around literary form that might have complemented Nair’s close reading. How, for example, might we read Kincaid’s and Mootoo’s texts in relation to the remaking of gender relations under neoliberalism?

The chapters that follow on from this are each in their own way more arresting affairs. The discussion in chapter 3 of Shiva and V. S. Naipaul’s accounts of, respectively, the Jonestown massacre and the Michael X killings neatly probes the complex sociopolitical critiques the pair elaborate, with Nair providing a nuanced reading of the elder Naipaul’s problematic and disturbing novel Guerrillas (1975). The analysis of magical realism in the subsequent chapter is similarly compelling, particularly the discussion of Nalo Hopkinson’s work. The final chapter, which explores how Naipaul, Louise Bennett, Andrea Levy, and Zadie Smith, among others, “sharpen their exposures of social dysfunction and leaven their critiques through humour” (19), is perhaps the most theoretically and geographically wide-ranging in the volume. Moving out from the Caribbean to consider writers from the larger black diaspora, Nair offers a highly suggestive discussion of postcolonial humor, black comedy, and the grotesque as a literary mode.

Overall, this is an impressive piece of scholarship: extensive in scope, well argued, and full of fantastically rich and supple readings of Caribbean fiction and poetry. It offers original insights not only into a striking selection of texts but also into some of the key tropes in the Caribbean canon: the plantation and the garden, contagion and healing, violence and carnival laughter, and, of course, paradise and pathology.

 

Michael Niblett is a research fellow at the Yesu Persaud Centre for Caribbean Studies at the University of Warwick. He is the author of The Caribbean Novel since 1945 (University Press of Mississippi, 2012) and coeditor of Perspectives on the ‘Other America’: Comparative Approaches to Caribbean and Latin American Culture (Rodopi, 2009).

1 Gavin McOwan, “Pass the Dutchie: Farm-to-Table Dining in Jamaica,” Guardian, 21 February 2014.