The Scent of the Past

Wayne Brown, The Scent of the Past: Stories and Remembrances (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2011); 381 pages; ISBN: 9781845231538 (paperback).

• May 2013

The Scent of the Past, a collection of prose by Wayne Brown, comprises many of the more significant pieces from his two earlier collections, The Child of the Sea (1989) and Landscape with Heron (2000), but also includes three later, hitherto uncollected pieces. All three collections are subtitled “Stories and Remembrances.” Identifying them simply as “short stories” would have been unlikely to raise any eyebrows. In any event, the distinction between “story” and “remembrance” is not always clear cut, and perhaps it was not meant to be. The blurring may be part of the interest the pieces as a whole stimulate. They may invite us to rethink our conventional differentiation between fact and fiction and the nature of the truth of each mode.

These “stories and remembrances” first appeared in Brown’s weekly newspaper column published in Trinidad, Jamaica, and Guyana. While many of the columns were outspoken, arresting opinion pieces of the expected kind, on topical issues of Trinidadian, Caribbean, and international interest, many ranged widely and originally beyond the conventional opinion piece of critical comment, including, for instance, book reviews or essays on writers, when Brown was moved to praise a book or a writer. Most of the pieces (perhaps all) that demand the label “short story” are not about invented people and events, nor are they the kind of writing one might say is fiction built on real-life persons and events. They are altogether factual, but Brown has “imagined” the facts, has represented them in such an imaginative and verbally felicitous way that they take on the life and truth of fiction. They become what he was fond of calling, in conversation, “factions.”

The book comes to a definitive, climactic close with “The Toco Band,” a story that underscores the strengths and idiosyncrasies of Brown’s craft, the personality of his prose. The impact of it is all the greater if we know that the opening episode is an account of the near-fatal heart attack he suffered when, with a female friend, he went sailing on his boat (he was a passionate, skilled yachtsman) in Kingston harbor. The mannered strategy of referring to himself as “the man” and to the friend as “the woman,” no doubt designed to obviate any suggestion of sentimentality or appeal to pity, actually and cleverly helps to signal the sense of crisis. The pain and increasing awareness of the likelihood of his dying are sharpened for the reader by the precise, unhurried details, complete with technical terms, of handling the boat and instructing the woman how to help him get it back to shore:

 

They were near now, and he pressed the starter with his big toe and was relieved when the diesel racketed into life. “Okay, stand by!” he called; and he watched her get up, dusting her bottom, and free the tail of the halyard, and unwrap all but the last twist from the cleat. Then she stood there, holding it and looking from him to the clubhouse, and back at him. (373)

The episode on the boat is followed by his telling of his experience of the consequent bypass surgery and the first few days of the postoperation period in a Havana hospital. The facts are carefully selected to suit the artistic aims of the story. For instance, we are not told how he came to have the procedure done in Havana rather than in Kingston or, for that matter, Port of Spain. We are told nothing about the surgeon. The only hospital functionary whom we see or hear is a female orderly, who appears, what with the language barrier, as a somewhat comically frightening figure, at one and the same time representing the danger and threatening uncertainty of the surgery and providing comic relief.

The story ends on a “high,” a note of serious, life-affirming joy that balances and is heightened by the pain and the sense of death that it assuages.

One of his daughters travels from England to visit him in hospital. She brings with her compact discs of music that she hopes will cheer him, including calypsos. But the focus of his nerves is on his pain and discomfort. Not to offend or disappoint her, he says he’ll hear something by Lord Kitchener. But when she plays Kitch’s “The Toco Band,” something wonderful happens, and the tears that well up in his eyes, which he does not wish her to see, come from the deepest level of his feelings, signifying both the “pain such as he had never experienced” (378) and “the shining reality of Trinidad [that] had entered his soul” (379).

Nicely apposite to “The Toco Band,” in that they help to shape the book poignantly, are the two stories that open the collection, “The Child of the Sea” and “A Lion in Winter.” Both, in different ways, sound the note of death and its ever-presence, with the idea of the creeping inevitability of death developed more hauntingly, and disturbingly, in the more substantial, multifaceted “A Lion in Winter.” Through irregular, infrequent, sporadic meetings with Wilfred Douglas—the grumpy, cantankerous, proudly independent lion in the winter of his years, who dies at eighty-eight, having refused to “go gentle into that good night”—Brown is drawn to ponder on “our transition from this enchanted world of sights and sounds into the stone blind, silently howling void beyond” (25). In the process of trying to understand “old Wilfred,” Brown is led to making seemingly prescient observations about his own eventual death: “Now, I have to say I am pretty fed up of the new evangelists, the long-lifers with their anti-smoking zeal. I do not share their illusion of living forever, intend to be ill, not well, when I die, and as for the timing of the latter, I certainly have no desire to hang around past the stage where I can still pick up myself on a Sunday morning and take the Lisa our for a sail” (24).

When we recall “A Lion in Winter” as we read “The Toco Band,” the effect of the juxtaposition is all the more trenchant if we then consider that Brown died at sixty-five, not long after the near-fatal heart attack from which he had, for all practical purposes, recovered; he died from a quite different but also deadly disease, lung cancer.

“Old Wilfred” is just one of the many unforgettable characters whom Brown leaves with us. One of Brown’s strengths is his bringing to life the distinctiveness of individuals, the force of personality, and, as he writes in relation to Wilfred, the idea that “character can prevail, though Time and the world hurl their increasing barbs at it” (25). A special dimension of interest in his representation of persons is that the reader is drawn into the writer’s own self-questioning and tentative adjustments in his reactions to the personalities he seeks to define. This feature brings nuance to the portrayals and generates an interest in the challenge of understanding other people, an interest that itself becomes a subject of the writing.

A related, major theme of the collection is that of personal relationships, particularly of the man-woman kind and in affairs of the heart, whether within or outside of marriage. At one end of the spectrum are two stories that celebrate a radiant feeling, on the part of the male narrator-protagonist, of having found the perfect soul-mate, of having found that elusive fulfillment, whose name, he realizes at the end of “Landscape with Heron,” is Happiness. The companion story is, significantly enough, titled “The Name of Happiness.” Interestingly, these stories do not recount a lived, day-to-day relationship. The radiant happiness exists only in fleeting, and even missed, encounters with the other and in the memory of these moments. Indeed, in “Landscape with Heron” the protagonist sees the woman only once, and fleetingly. So the radiance may be to some degree idealistic.

At the other end of the spectrum are stories such as “The Navel of the World,” “For Auld Lang Syne,” “The End of the Road,” and “The Scent of the Past.” These depict different kinds and contexts of disharmony, hurt, and grief in relationships. They are all, in their different ways, disturbing. For example, “The Navel of the World” is a study of the somewhat enigmatic Jackie, “dark, tallish, long-necked, curly-headed,” curiously without any steady romantic attachment (207). When she eventually slashes her wrists, in an attempt at suicide, we learn with the narrator of how at twelve she had stumbled upon her father (“a paunchy, sour-faced red guy” [213]) “and watched in silence while, on an old couch in the garage [he] curtly butt-fucked their Scottish neighbours’ red-haired, prepubescent and quite naked daughter,” (218) who was her friend. The “curtly” is an inspired choice of adverb.

The collection takes on other themes as well, such as the genius of poetic imagination in supposedly lesser forms of art (“The Make-Up Girl”); the death of a beloved dog, a dog of character (“Cissy the Doberman”); memory, which, as the book’s title suggests, runs through the collection both as theme and as structuring instrument; and Trinidadians’ feelings, at certain times, about the socioeconomic condition of their country and the impulse or need to leave it in search of a better life, facing the problematic lure of the American dream (“A Place to Leave,” “The Flight North,” “Another Time, Another Place”).

“Another Time, Another Place” is one of the most trenchant, quietly resonant pieces in the book, skillfully working the nexus between personal, domestic, and social-public levels of interest. It tells the story, “a tragedy,” of a hard-working car mechanic and his hard-working, house-minding, occasional laundry-woman, zealous church-worker wife and their four children—a story of essentially futile struggle against socioeconomic circumstances. The author becomes interested in them and gets to know them through his sporadic, sometimes widely spaced visits to their home over many years to have his car repaired. The center of our attention is the eldest child, Lillian, “the one with the glossy skin and the cheekbones, the good body and the straight, pulled-back hair” (145). She is serious-minded, respectable, committed to improving her lot and that of her family: “[She] left school and went and worked with the Water Authority for nine years, and all that time lived at home, warding off suitors and handing her mother her pay cheque at the end of each month, until one day she is casually retrenched—and then migrated illegally, and worked as a maid in Long Island for two more years, until her hope of a Green Card fell through” (164). To arrive at that summary, which comes at the end of the piece, is to appreciate Brown’s subtleties of narrative maneuver.

“Call her—anything. Call her Lillian,” we are told at the beginning of the story (145). Here is an instance of Brown’s characteristic, studiedly “throw-away” approach to the naming of characters. It may seem simply a cute affectation at first, but it curiously serves to imprint the reality of the characters on the reader’s mind. At the end of “Another Time, Another Place,” we read, unexpectedly, “Learn her real name. Her real name is June” (165). She will remain in our memory as Lillian.

Somewhat analogous to Brown’s strategy or trick with naming, and also having the effect of enhancing the actuality of the character by its knowing imprecision, is his fondness for noting or guessing at the person’s age. This latter feature is an aspect of his pervasive, illuminating interest in the effect of time and ageing on the individual’s presence, physical and behavioral. Indeed, the two features, the presentation of name and of age, are also engaging aspects of a particular, enriching dimension of some of the stories, stories such as “Another Time, Another Place,” “The End of the Road,” and “Mr Alcindor.” In these stories, the question of how the author-narrator “reads” a character, the challenges and risks, becomes itself a theme of the story, arousing the reader’s interest in his or her own processes of understanding other people. In these cases, the author becomes, as it were, in passing and by default, a character in the story. So, for instance, our understanding of Lillian’s plight is subtilized and deepened when the author catches himself out in his insensitive misreading of Lillian at a certain juncture of her story. It hits him that he had also been guilty, never mind his general sympathy, of that classist looking-down-on the family that was natural to one in his privileged position: “And [I] saw, in her confusion and dismay, how cruelly I had slighted them all: Lillian, Lillian’s parents, and their predicament” (151).

Then there is Brown’s gift of language, his capacity for the precisely observed, arresting detail, for the inspired choice of word or phrase that sometimes draws an amused smile: “From Arima she’d said she was, the red mouth widening for the middle vowel” (133; “The Flight North”); “[Lillian’s father] worked in your engine or under the car with the uninflected air of someone doing what needed to be done” (146); “I can see [Jackie’s navel] silently and ceaselessly taking to itself the edges of the moistly shining surfeit of flesh around it” (210; “The Navel of the World”); “I soon discovered that he had this way of bringing forth each sentence en masse and then breathing heavily, once, in conclusion: as though for him each essaying of speech was a separate and risky event” (39; “Mr. Alcindor”).

The Scent of the Past complements perfectly the collection of Brown’s poetry, also posthumously published, in On the Coast and Other Poems (2010). The latter brings together the poems in his two previously published volumes, On the Coast and Voyages. Brown had first established himself as a poet before ostensibly turning from poetry to prose. The poems have lost none of their shine, while A Scent of the Past preserves his distinctive prowess at creative prose.

 

Edward Baugh is professor emeritus of English, University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica. His publications on West Indian literature include Derek Walcott: Memory as Vision (1978), Derek Walcott (2006), and Frank Collymore: A Biography (2010). He edited Critics on Caribbean Literature (1978), Walcott’s Selected Poems (2007), and Ian McDonald’s Selected Poems (2008). His two collections of poetry are A Tale from the Rainforest (1988) and It Was the Singing (2000).

 

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