Winkler Takes Us to School

Anthony Winkler, God Carlos (New York: Akashic Books, 2012); 215 pages; ISBN: 9781617751394 (paperback)

Anthony Winkler, The Family Mansion (New York: Akashic Books, 2013); 256 pages; ISBN: 9781617751660 (paperback)

• November 2013

In God Carlos and The Family Mansion, Anthony Winkler takes on the complex task of telling the history of Jamaica, a country captured by the Spanish in 1492, with the coming of Christopher Columbus. Within fifty years of Columbus’s arrival, the Spanish eradicated the indigenous population and began the importation of African slaves to fulfill the colonizers’ labor needs. The English took the island from the Spanish in 1655 and escalated the importation of Africans to work the sugar plantations.

Though Winkler chooses to cover the two periods of occupation in separate texts—the Spanish occupation in God Carlos, and in The Family Mansion, Jamaica under British rule—both stories are so similar in tone, feel, and force that they could easily be chapters of a larger narrative. Thus, the reader is able to see with spellbinding clarity the similarities between the two occupying forces and the ambitions that drove them to the disastrous ends that were a result of their colonial rule. In one passage Winkler lays bare the absurd ideologies that could easily have informed many of the gruesome decisions of colonial ruler:

 

“You mean to tell me, you sailed all the way from Spain to this godforsaken Island for no other reason but sightseeing?”

“No senor,” he whispered as though he told a shameful secret, “I do have another reason, I am seeking a legacy. I would like some part of this new land to be named after me.

. . . “Everything in this island already has an Indian name. But we pay no attention to it. They call it one thing and we call it another.”

“And whose name prevails?”

“The one who has the writing iron and gunpowder.” (God Carlos, 135)

Here we see the mindset of the European with little or no reputation in his country who comes to the Caribbean to seek a legacy. It did not matter to him that the place was already populated and all the parts of the country already named. He has no reservations in reformatting the landscape as one would reformat a computer hard drive, deleting any hint of the indigenous population as if they never existed, then, with impunity, renaming the landscape and rewriting the history, and enforcing the travesty with violence.

These bold and unflinching narratives lay stark and bare before us the story of our history with all its sordid and filthy absurdities. From a slave complaining of a loss of status because his master is not flogging him enough, to the constant raping and pillaging by the Europeans without any thought or expectation of retribution or consequences, the inhumanity represented in Winkler’s novels remind us that the cruelty of slavery lacked all semblance of reason.

In God Carlos we meet the filthy Spanish seaman Carlos, little more than a vagrant, originating from a place a little more than a pig sty. He is able to transform his sense of self into that of a God because he takes his nickname seriously and misunderstands the reassurance of his atheist captain when he comments, “So if someone calls you God Carlos, it is not a bad thing. You might as well be God, since there is no other” (GC, 59).

Carlos uses his power and freedom to impose his delusional ideals on the welcoming, hospitable inhabitants of the Caribbean, with all the diseased and brutal consequences.

In The Family Mansion we meet the incompetent and worthless Englishman Hartley, the product of a background similarly decadent to that of Carlos. Armed with nothing but his penis, his ignorance, and a bored ineptitude, he sees himself as lord and master of a large plantation, wantonly raping as he goes, though he is managing slaves with a keener intelligence and a greater knowledge than his own. But he is validated and empowered by a system that allows him to impose with impunity his own diseased savagery on the slaves, just as Carlos did on the natives—operating without a sense of decency or justice and empowered by the force of arms and cruelty of the society that spawned him.

This is evident in a conversation between Hartley and the overseer, who wishes to enact punishment in advance:

 

“One thing that stops them [the slaves] is fear. Fear of what we do to them. I think it’s time to hang another head.” . . .

 “That’s what I’ll do. I’ll hang a head today. . . . I’ll have it put where everyone going to the fields can see it.”

“But how do you know anyone will do anything that deserves the death penalty?”

“Here the death penalty is not deserved, it’s applied. And I’m the one who applies it.” (The Family Mansion, 175)

The overseer makes it clear to Hartley that there is no need to treat the slaves with justice or decency. He is free to make up the laws as he saw fit and has the power and authority to enforce the cruelty without fear of reprimand from anywhere.

In neither book does Winkler deny Caribbean people have agency, and they often resist, think, fight, and see through the hocus pocus and cruelty that is imposed on them. We also see for the first time the story from the perspective of the Arawak and the slave, as Winkler fleshes out and the characters of the arawaks and slave communities, projecting them fully to the fore from the shadows in which so many other writers have left them. We meet Calliou, the village elder who asserts, “If (Carlos) is a God . . . he will not die even if he is killed” (GC, 178), or Cuffy, the slave who ultimately challenges his master at his own game of dueling. As in all of Winkler’s work, the text is filled with simple and entertaining characters out of whose simplicity emerges the driving force capable of changing their surroundings and conditions.

Winkler does not write history to assign resolutions, but he provides the history in all its complexity. In so doing, the characters and their realities are presented to us through bold, bare stories. He takes us to the heart of the matter and leaves us there to make our way through the dark. These two novels bring to mind a passage from one of Winkler’s earlier interviews:

 

A lot of people have a chance of freedom and dignity. That is very important, especially for Jamaicans. Jamaicans have resilience and a core of bounce-back-ability not found anywhere. We will make it. God made us, this little island. We grow and we change and hopefully get better.1

In these two books, Winkler clearly presents a past that we would not wish to repeat, thereby providing for those who wish to learn from history the opportunity to grow, change, and hopefully get better. History is not for history’s sake; it gives perspective to the present and sets a framework for the future. In these books, Winkler delivers the stark and unrelenting truth, driven by witty and clever simplicity from which we cannot help but learn.

At times the narrative feels like a classic historical novel, with the story and its characters moving seamlessly and believably within their historical setting; at other times it veers into abstract stories of inventions and snippets of history that seem to distract, but in fact, in the larger picture, lend credibility to the setting of the narrative. In the end the narrative creates a sort of hybrid construct that deliberately instructs as much as it entertains.

We gain insight into the roots of the Europeans who came; we see their mindset and we get to understand the essence of their quests. Both English and Spanish see the Caribbean as their birthright and see the natives as exotic servile subjects to be used in their quest to achieve greatness they could never achieve in their mother countries. In the process, both lose their humanity and sense of decency almost as soon as as their feet touch the Caribbean shore.

The stories also give us an insight into the lives of the Arawak’s who lived in these islands first; we get a glimpse of their culture, their intelligence, and their ability to resist, and Winkler gives voice to the slaves who lived under the iron cruelty of masters. Despite a lack of matching resources to defend themselves against the wanton cruelty of their colonizers, both Arawak and African are still able to find the courage, the creativity, and the defiance to plot, fight, and create change.

In God Carlos and The Family Mansion, Anthony Winkler, the master storyteller, has provided us with texts of both narrative quality and historical substance that should find place in the annals of Caribbean literature.

 

Garfield Ellis, who grew up in Jamaica, is a two-time James Michener Fellow to the Caribbean Writers Institute (1992 and 1993) and completed his MFA at the University of Miami. In his varied career, he has worked as a marine engineering officer, placement director of the Caribbean Maritime Institute, and as both the circulation and the operations manager of the Jamaica Observer. He is a two-time winner of the Una Marson prize for adult literature: for his first collection of short stories, Flaming Hearts (1997), and later for the still unpublished novel Till I’m Laid to Rest (2000). He has twice won the Canute A. Brodhurst Prize for fiction (Caribbean Writer, University of Virgin Islands), in 2000 and in 2005, and won the 1990 Heinemann/Lifestyle short story competition. Ellis is the author of four published books: the collections Flaming Hearts and Other Stories and Wake Rasta and Other Stories, and the novels Such as I Have and For Nothing at All. He lives and works in Jamaica.

 


Barrington Salmon, “Anthony Winkler: The Rebel Makes Good,” sx salon 6, August 2011, para. 32, http://small-axe.happyviper.com/sx-salon/interviews/anthony-winkler-the-rebel-makes-good.

 

Related Articles