A dog eat dog world: a reading of Anthony C. Winkler's The Annihilation of Fish and Other Stories.
The collection The Annihilation of Fish and Other Stories, published a few years before Dog War and Crocodile although most of the stories were in fact written more recently, (10) is in many ways thematically consistent with the larger body of his work. (11) Again, all the stories are either set in Jamaica or are about Jamaicans--indeed, all but one have a Jamaican protagonist. Some themes in these twenty stories are familiar. In reading the opening story "Preliminary Report" one may have a sense of deja vu: reminiscent of the novel The Duppy, spirits of the dead (though American this time in contrast to Jamaican duppy shopkeeper Baps in the novel) feature as key characters as Winkler questions established Judaeo-Christian assumptions of the hereafter. The story is a policeman's report of an accident in rural Jamaica where an American tourist killed by a speeding truck comes back to life; he and his companion, who appears from nowhere and also turns out to be immortal, are horrified by the Jamaicans' concepts of God, death, heaven, hellfire and damnation. God for these strange foreigners is humble, unassuming, gentle, everloving, and ever-forgiving--reminding one of the peenywally God which Baps has difficulty getting used to in The Duppy. ("Preliminary Report" is also reminiscent of Naipaul's story "The Night Watchman's Occurrence Book" in the use of the device of an earnest logging of an unusual occurrence, but works less successfully, and may be the weakest story in the collection.)
Similarly the story "Unconventionality," like The Duppy and Crocodile, explores the distortions of Roman Catholic morality: a respectable couple struggles with a sinful weakness--the wife cannot fall asleep unless she fondles her husband's genitals. Condemned by the local priest to a hellish fate if such a practice is not stopped, the couple endures many sleepless nights, until the priest dies in a motor vehicle accident and is replaced by a new priest who "declare[s] the Church to be fully supportive of wifely testicle holding, so long as the testicles were unhanded by said lawful wife an hour before she took Communion, to show respect for the Eucharist" (27). Readers unfamiliar with Winkler's novels may be shocked (or delighted) by this irreverence, but for his habitual followers this offering is standard fare.
The stubborn fisherman Baba in "The Man Who Knew the Price of All Fish" may be familiar as a character type to those who have read The Painted Canoe, Winkler's first published novel; in fact, Winkler has stated that Baba was the germ of Zachariah, that novel's main protagonist. (12) Baba's story, based on a fisherman whom Winkler knew as a child, was written much earlier than the others in this collection, and though well written and well constructed, it lacks the ease of telling that Winkler later develops, evident in the other stories presented here. However this story, like The Painted Canoe, Crocodile, and, most of all, Winkler's most popular novel The Lunatic, gives a sensitive and insightful portrait of a member of the struggling, dispossessed black majority. "Baba was a black man with no past. He had nothing ahead of him. He had nothing behind him ... He was a black man with no past and no future" (114).
And again, as in his novels (especially The Lunatic and Yacht Race), in this collection we observe that Winkler continues his assault on the exploitative and pretentious Jamaican middle and upper classes. In "A Sign of the Times" the middle-class professionals Mr. and Mrs. Rawlston think themselves superior to their "lazy brute" (30), insubordinate subordinates, that "worthless generation, bred like so many flies during the socialist rot of the 1970s" (29); in "The Interpreter" the urgent need of the "rich cattle-breeder" Gabriel to feel superior to the 'butu' rabble which surrounds him becomes ludicrous when he decides to employ the services of an interpreter in his day-to-day operations, as an index of his elevated status (59). In "The Thief" the Pentecostal minister Hemlyn treats his garden boy Joseph with condescension, nearly as much as the prosperous solicitor Peter treats his garden boy Sylvester in "The Happy Days of Dog Eat Dog." Of these stories "The Thief' is the most moving: like The Lunatic, it wryly juxtaposes the perceived vulnerability of the upper classes with the real vulnerability of the underprivileged majority surrounding them.
In his autobiographical work Going Home to Teach, Winkler spoke of his discomfiture as a migrant in the USA--hence his decision to go home to Jamaica to teach after many years abroad. Many of the stories in this collection deal with Jamaican migrants to the USA, most of whom, like the protagonist Precious in Dog War, are unhappy, some of whom, again like Precious, return to Jamaica. "Absentee Ownership of Cows" is one of the more hilarious of these migrant stories. Alfred Hutchins, an elderly, lonely Jamaican widower living in Georgia (where Winkler himself resides) keeps getting letters from A. Cow in Jamaica requesting politely that he return to the island to "release [it] from despicable absentee ownership and [to correct] unsatisfactory past treatment" (35). Finally Alfred can take this cow harassment no more and returns home. On arrival he says to his dead wife, with whom he has been having frequent conversations, "You know, Thelma, de cow was right. Jamaica give us life. We give our strength, our children to America. And what we give to Jamaica? Our old bones." He dies that very night. Winkler's own desire to give more than old bones to Jamaica was revealed in Going Home, his account of the year he spent in Jamaica working at a teacher training college. When Winkler and his wife went home in 1975 the intention was to stay permanently. However a combination of factors mitigated against this, and Winkler, defeated in one sense, defiant in another, returned to the USA in 1976; and he has stayed there ever since. In a number of his writings, however, Winkler has expressed the desire to return to 'Mummy' (his homeland) when he dies, (13) reminding one of Alfred's last words in "Absentee Ownership": "Mummy, I come home. I sorry I ever leave you. Forgive me" (41).
In Going Home, and again in Trust the Darkness, as well as in Dog War, America is depicted as a demented place, with demented people (the string of wacky landladies that Winkler encounters in California, described in Trust the Darkness, attests to this fact), and a place that drives one mad; as Winkler has stated elsewhere, "Odd things always seem to be popping about me in the United States, and I must periodically run home to Jamaica for a taste of normalcy." (14) In Dog War, Precious is amazed and disgusted by the American anthropomorphic excesses witnessed in the Florida household for which she is housekeeper: she is used to a dog being treated as a dog, not as a human being; back home in Jamaica, dogs are given sensible dog-appropriate names such as "White Dog" or "Red Dog," certainly not frivolous self-indulgent ones like "Riccardo." The theme of American oddness/madness is echoed in this collection. In "The Big Picture," a delightful satirization of a Jamaican's culture shock in a strange land, the migrant Chester struggles to understand how to 'play the game' American-style in order to keep his job. Similarly, Alfred in "Absentee Ownership" is frustrated by the alien American culture: "He did not trust Americans. He did not understand them" (36); "Among Jamaicans, Mr Hutchins could draw clean breath and speak his mind freely, knowing that the contraband smuggled deep within the immigrant's heart--that America was a demented land--was shared and understood as well as any axiom of Euclidean geometry" (37). He declares, "If I live to be a hundred, I'll never understand dese American people" (38).
Winkler, of course, has in his novels never restricted madness to his migrant characters--Aloysius, the Jamaican madman in The Lunatic, is surely the most compelling character Winkler has created to date, and his fellow madman Truck in Crocodile is also endearingly memorable--and here in these stories, also, wackiness is a characteristic shared by some of his Jamaican-based characters, notably the protagonists Gabriel and Alvin in the stories "The Interpreter" and "The Riddle" respectively. Meanwhile, Horace and Matilda Leyland, the Jamaican migrant protagonists in the story "The Dog," may be based in America, but their pronounced eccentricities are ascribed less to their foreign environment than to their Jamaican upbringing. Nevertheless the most unequivocal expressions of madness in these stories are among those Jamaican migrants to America who have evidently been unable to "periodically run home to Jamaica for a taste of normalcy." If Alfred's conversations with his dead wife in "Absentee Ownership" are questionable, his belief that he has received letters from a cow back home in Jamaica is a confirmatory sign of madness, as is the belief of fellow migrant Ancel in "The Trip to Paris" that his dead wife has accompanied him on their long-dreamed-of holiday. In these two stories, the loneliness of the migrant in an alien environment contributes to mental disintegration. That theme is repeated in the title story "The Annihilation of Fish" (15) where the migrant's madness is given fullest expression: Fish, an elderly Jamaican living in a seedy California rooming house, fights a hard, lonely migrant life by wrestling with the Devil, and was previously only excused from a lobotomy at a mental institution in Queens on condition that he "(a) never fight the Devil in a public place, and (b) always have a referee on hand to officiate his private fights with the Devil" (156). Fish, we recognize, is not the only mad person in this story: his American friend Poinsettia is equally mad, and the sanity of their landlady Mrs Muldoon is at least suspect. But perhaps the dementia of America has contaminated Fish.
So, in many ways Winkler is regurgitating old themes in this collection of stories. Yet, there is a lot which is very new about them, even when familiar themes are being re-worked. There is a sadness in these stories that lingers long after the laughter has ceased. While "Absentee Ownership" and "The Trip to Paris" are among the most delightful stories in this collection, the loneliness of the migrant widowers Alfred and Ancel, not their wackiness, is what one remembers. Ancel's story is particularly poignant: work pressures have long prevented him from giving his wife her heart's desire: a trip to Paris. Finally, after many years and many cancelled trips, he forces the space in his hectic work schedule; but it is too late. In "Hard Woman," Winkler shows the other side of alienation in a foreign culture: Elizabeth, an American woman living in Jamaica, is not understood by the locals, and dies in isolation.
"The Story of the Fifth Boy" is the saddest in the collection. The narrator, identifying himself as the fifth boy in a group of childhood friends, tells the story of another boy in the group, Bruce, an outsider not only in terms of both color and culture (he is white Canadian) but also in terms of sensitivity: his unintended killing of a petchary on one of their birdshooting treks through the countryside distresses him deeply, inexplicably to his friends: "Hush up 'bout it! ... Killing bird is what we bird shooters do" (17). The event plunges him into despair and he eventually commits suicide. The story is about a coming of age, about Jamaican male codes of macho conduct ("During the sad service, I think all of us bird-shooting boys felt like crying ... but we held ourselves back. I don't know why, but that's just the way Jamaican boys are. They just don't cry" ), about misfits in society ("A quiet boy, Bruce acted most of the time as if he had blundered into the wrong life and couldn't find his way out" ), about people--like the hard woman Elizabeth, like Alfred, Ancel, Chester--alienated in a foreign culture. This, then, is the real fifth boy--the one on the margins. In a quiet, subdued tone, Winkler's narrator relates the story of the fifth boy that has been relegated to memory and reveals the profound lingering effect that this suicide has had on him even fifty years later.
Death features prominently in these stories. It is a theme or subtheme in the majority, and lurks in the background in most of the others. As indicated above, a protagonist or a protagonist's loved one (or close friend) dies or has died in the stories "Preliminary Report," "The Story of the Fifth Boy," "Absentee Ownership of Cows," "The Chance," "Hard Woman," "The Trip to Paris" and "The Annihilation of Fish." The threat of imminent mortality appears in "The Dog," "New Banana," "Dawn Song" and "The New Headmaster"; in "Unconventionality" it is the fear of an afterlife of hellfire that produces a dilemma for the testicle-clutching Mrs Higgins and her husband. In "The Thief," the protagonist shoots and kills a praedial larcenist.
"The Thief" is one of the darkest stories in this collection. Hemlyn Owen discovers that his half-acre crop of tomato plants has been stripped bare of fruit. "Like most cultivators, Hemlyn had a bottomless hatred for thieves who committed praedial larceny. Joseph, his workman, felt exactly the same way ... [his wife] spoke in exactly the same hot-blooded vein. No death, disease or suffering would be vile or painful enough punishment for the tomato thief to suit her" (126). The district constable, who is also a cultivator, agrees. "Killed without suffering is too quick for a thief. Anybody who would thief somebody else's crop is not a man. Him is a dog" (126).
To the reader unfamiliar with the Jamaican psychological landscape, such extreme, bloodthirsty desire for vigilante justice--especially on the part of Hemlyn, "a religious man who was an elder in the Pentecostal church" (125), may seem to be an instance of caricature on Winkler's part, but it is not an uncommon occurrence in Jamaica, reflecting on the one hand the violence of the culture, and on the other, the frustration of many Jamaicans with the inefficiencies of the formal processes of law and order--processes which Winkler had hilariously critiqued in The Lunatic. Here, though, Winkler's social commentary seems less caricatured, more true to life, and therefore much more disturbing.
A few weeks later the thief strikes again, and Hemlyn and Joseph, with Hyacinth's support, decide to grow more tomatoes as bait. When the crop is ready they lie in wait for the thief one night. As predicted, a praedial larcenist appears. Hemlyn shoots the thief.
The gun spat a blinding tongue of fire with a roar that whiplashed off the flanks of the Dry Harbour Mountains in a deafening thunderclap. The figure was blasted off its feet and hurled violently to the ground. "You get him!" Joseph cried. "You get him!" (129)
Only when they approach the dying man does Joseph realize that he knows him. His name is Uriah, and he tells them that this is his first time stealing from this field. There are indications that for a few minutes Hemlyn is affected by this: for example, his voice is "unnaturally shrill" when he tells the thief, "If you never thief from me, me wouldn't shoot you" (130). However Hemlyn decides to leave him out there to die, rationalizing that "by de time we get a doctor, him bound to dead. Plus, dey always say you not supposed to remove evidence" (130).
Hemlyn's callousness may be facilitated by his view of Uriah as less than human, a suggestion subtly conveyed by Winkler: when first shot the thief makes "a guttural sound like that of a rutting animal" (130); "the dying man began a hideous gurgling which sounded like no sound that could ever come from a man's throat" (131); there is "loud animal gurgling" (132). For the middle-class Hemlyn, Uriah as a member of the 'butu' class is more animal than man--a dog, perhaps, as the district constable had declared.
Hemlyn's wife Hyacinth is less callous: shaken by his decision that they should simply wait for the thief to die, she fetches towels to pack the wound; however, she soon realizes that the injury is fatal, and when she "hopefully" says "maybe him dead" (130), the hope seems to be to bring to a quick and convenient end not only his discomfiture but her own. However her desire for such a neat resolution is rattled by the garden boy's divulgence:
Finally, Joseph broke the silence. "You know," he mumbled darkly, "me believe is long division make Uriah turn thief ... Me and him go school together. And one time de teacher give us a long division problem, but Uriah couldn't do it. No matter how de teacher beat him and beat him and beat him ... Uriah just couldn't understand long division. Den him stop coming to school. When me see him and ask him what happen, him say long division too hard for him and him can't manage it. Is long division make him turn thief, sah." (131)
Thereafter Hyacinth becomes more distressed; when Uriah dies, she says, "I just wish I didn't know the name of dat thief (132). The naming of Uriah, his rise from anonymity to personhood, the acknowledgement of his humanity in the acknowledgement of his past struggles, has forced Hyacinth to face the tragedy of his death. Hemlyn is more resistant, but when Joseph repeats Uriah's history he breaks: "Hemlyn stared at Joseph, then without warning he stopped in his tracks, abruptly crumpled to his knees and burst into a loud, ghastly wailing" (133).
It is a dog-eat-dog world--a theme that Winkler returns to more than once in this collection. In the story "The Dog," the hardworking migrant Matilda declares:
Her Jamaican childhood had taught her many lessons, some of which she had jettisoned [over the years]. But one central belief she had kept constantly in her heart: life was an untrustworthy, ill-tempered dog. It would bite at the slightest provocation. It had its stalking patterns and a streak of viciousness that could erupt without warning. One of its favourite patterns was to create the illusion that everything was going well, lull the unwatchful Jamaican into complacency, and then leap up and tear open his throat. (46)
The middle-aged, comfortably middle-class Alvin in the story "The Riddle" has a similar view of life: "It was a vicious cycle, as bad as dog eat dog, bleak, ugly and depressing" (101). In "Dawn Song", the migrant Maud tells her Jamaica-based niece, "You'll soon find out dat life abroad is not easy. Is dog eat dog" (137).
Perhaps the grimmest, most cynical depiction of this dog-eat-dog reality is in the story "The Happy Days of Dog Eat Dog". For the "prosperous solicitor" (148) Peter, "Bribery is the Jamaican way ... As long as we Jamaicans can bribe one another, we'll be all right. If we ever reach the stage where it's no longer dog eat dog, watch out! That's when the idealogues will take over and the country will be in deep trouble" (150).
Peter asserts that bribery is "a time-honoured Jamaican practice," a "kind of natural protection against socialism and ideology" (152). When he realizes that his attempt to bribe the driving test examiner in order to obtain a driver's license for his overseer Sylvester has failed, he is furious: "Returning to Kingston, Peter announced to his wife that he had made a decision. The socialists were everywhere, and their alien ideology was spreading all over Jamaica. He was now convinced that the happy days of dog eat dog were numbered. It was time for them to migrate to America" (154).
Winkler's cynical depiction of that class of self-seeking, well-to-do Jamaicans who were quick to flee Jamaica because of the threat of socialism in the 1970s recalls similar portrayals in Going Home to Teach. His cynicism does not stop there, however. In the end Sylvester finds another examiner who is more cooperative about accepting a bribe, though it is not a monetary one: Sylvester prostitutes one of his girlfriends to have sex with the examiner, paying her half the money that Peter had given him for the original bribe and cunningly pocketing the balance. Sylvester the underdog, initially presented as a groveling Uncle Tom type, therefore outwits not only his master but the system, thereby proving that the happy days of dog eat dog, even if numbered as Peter has dolefully predicted, are not yet over.
Sylvester as representative of the underprivileged majority is an Anansi figure in his tricksterist ability to manipulate an adverse situation in his favor. Sylvester, however, is also ultimately corrupt. The reader's last impression is of a desolate vista: Jamaica may do well to be rid of Peter and his type, as the detritus of a defunct colonialist class structure, but after they migrate they will leave behind a society warped by corruption (bribable examiners), indiscipline (unqualified drivers), sexual exploitation, and general dissolution.
Peter is painted as a decidedly unlikable character, a familiar approach to those of Winkler's readers who have examined his portrayals of upper-class Jamaicans in his other works. (16) Like the white plantocrats Busha in The Lunatic and Jameson in Going Home to Teach, Peter is snobbish, bigoted, condescending, arrogant, with an inflated sense of entitlement--representative of a class of dog happily used to eating other dogs of a lower class. Unlike Busha, however, whom Winkler paints as perversely lovable, Peter is irredeemable.
Peter is the only protagonist in this collection who, judging from his family history, is probably identifiable as white or brown Jamaican: his paternal grandfather started the successful legal practice Smith and Smith in Kingston which his father inherited and "was intended to be passed on to successive generations of Smiths" (148); and the country's social history demonstrates that such a family background is not likely to belong to a black Jamaican. Nevertheless in this story there is no confirmation of Peter's skin color. In the stories "Unconventionality", "The Thief," "The Cultivator Who Lost His Heart" and "The Riddle" no indication is given of the racial identities of the prosperous protagonists. However, in all the other stories the protagonists are clearly identified as brown or black; and their color (or, in "The Interpreter," racial mix--Gabriel is half-Chinese) is explicitly stated from the outset of each story--sometimes in a way that comes across as intrusive. For example, in the story "A Sign of the Times," the protagonists, the Rawlstons, are introduced in the fourth line of the story as being "in their later middle years, brown, and quite convinced that their way of life was superior..." (29); Alfred Hutchins in "Absentee Ownership of Cows" is introduced in paragraph three as "a stout, elderly brown gentleman whose shuffling absent-mindedness made him seem like a commuter who had mistakenly stepped off at the wrong bus stop" (34); Everard Anderson is introduced in line one of "The Chance" as "a middle-aged black Jamaican" (50); Chester Johnson is introduced in paragraph four of "The Big Picture" as "a little brown man who lived his life at a turtle's pace" (79). Winkler regards these descriptions of skin color as signifiers for the reader of a character type. In an essay appearing in Small Axe, he has said: "It is essential for me in conceptualising a character to know what colour he or she happens to be. The authenticity of the portrayal demands it." (17) And in a personal interview he has asserted that the insertion of such descriptions "jumpstarts the reader." (18) Winkler's sometimes stereotypical views of the packages of characteristics accompanying the Jamaican categories of 'white,' 'brown,' and 'black,' which are often equated with 'upper-class,' 'middle-class,' and 'lower-class,' have been clearly articulated in his novels, as I have explored in detail elsewhere. (19) His distaste for the pretentiousness of the brown middle class is seen especially in The Lunatic and Crocodile. Yet, in many of the stories in this collection Winkler's portrayal of his brown middle-class protagonists is much more tolerant, even affectionate--indicating some modification of his signifiers. (Perhaps, in those few abovementioned stories in which the racial identities of the protagonists are neither stated nor implied, Winkler may be transcending the limitations of any potentially essentialist color branding and indicating that here, other features are more relevant to his exploration of the interplay of human foibles.)
The few unambiguously white characters in this collection are all North American. These other characters are portrayed more sympathetically than is Peter. Although the Chicagoan protagonist Elizabeth in the story "Hard Woman" is viewed as just that--a hard woman--and although this view may be at least partly true (she drives hard bargains in her divorce settlement and her purchase of the property in Trelawny, for example), nevertheless Winkler indicates that she is also at times misunderstood; even when she does display hardness it may sometimes be caused by extenuating circumstances: "She was merely a foreign woman trying to run a business alone in the Jamaican countryside, where she was constantly besieged by begging, trickery and excuses, and severely handicapped by her own dim understanding of the culture" (73). Another Chicagoan, James Kiwaczyk, "a big-boned American of Polish descent" in the story "New Banana" may be annoying, but he is also well-meaning (106), and surely does not deserve his implied fate: being poisoned by the waiter Hopeton Uppinton whom he has been unintentionally goading for years in his annual holidays on the north coast of this island 'paradise.'
Yet Hopeton's extreme response is to much more than being given the silly nickname "New Banana" by the insensitive James, or to a tragic misunderstanding or miscommunication between cultures. It is a violent rebuke to the degradation that he and his class--poor, black--have been subjected to by the white man in this country for generations. The slow-witted James, then, becomes a scapegoat for the ruthless exploitative class represented elsewhere by dog-eat-dog Peter. Again, we see Winkler's grim view of one of the legacies of colonialism: distorted, doomed race/class relations. And again, though such negative views may be familiar to readers of Winkler's books, (20) the pessimism we encounter here is extreme.
In contrast, Winkler is somewhat more sympathetic to another category of well-to-do Jamaican: the self-made individual. Following on his portrait of Precious in Dog War, in a number of the stories--"Absentee Ownership of Cows," "The Dog," "The Chance," "The Big Picture," "The Trip to Paris"--Winkler looks at Jamaican migrants to the USA, usually of humble origins, whose hard work has reaped them rich material rewards, but often at a price. In "The Trip to Paris," Ancel and his wife, "originally from Malvern in the hills of Jamaica," have lived in Atlanta for forty years.
Along the way Ancel had grown rich in the time-honored American way--by selling the best years of his life to Mammon. It was hardly unexpected. Raised in the Malvernian motto "Always striving, always seeking," he had been propelled by this platitude over the years from being a carpenter to a builder to a developer, making him richer and richer with every leap (120).
Ancel pays his price for this American-dream industriousness: the death of his wife before he can fulfil his wife's lifelong dream of a trip to Paris, and Ancel must live with his guilt.
The migrant Everard in "The Chance" has also sold his life to Mammon. "Like many Jamaicans, his whole aim in life was to work hard for material betterment" (51). Everard was a poor country boy with little hope of upward mobility until he got a chance to escape from his hard life in Jamaica by working on a ship, a chance which allowed him to eventually make a prosperous life in America. However, that opportunity came at the expense of someone else: the person who organized the job for Everard on the ship was actually looking for Everard's friend Hector when he saw Everard, but Everard stole his friend's chance. When Everard comes back to Jamaica forty years later for his father's funeral, he finds out by chance that Hector is now a gravedigger. "Dey say everybody get one chance in life, Everard. But me one chance never come" (58). Hector is unaware that it was Everard who stole his chance, but he still harbors great hostility for the man who had promised him the job; indeed, Winkler implies that he may have been the one who later murdered that man. When Everard is leaving the cemetery, Hector assures him that he will "cover up [Everard's] daddy good. No dog will ever dig him up when me done" (57). Perhaps, but the reader is left with the feeling that the true dog in this story is Everard. It is indeed a dog-eat-dog world.
In "The Dog," the black couple Horace and Matilda Leyland have in the forty years in which they have been living in New York moved from being "dirt poor" to rich (43). For the Leylands, the motivation for making money is to prove the success of their migration to America:
All immigrants have the feeling of being players in some global sport watched by a gallery of old teachers, aunts, uncles and cousins, former boyfriends and girlfriends, to say nothing of acquaintances. In this unacknowledged game, the score-keeping was computed not in runs, as in cricket, but in money. And so far the Leylands had a score of twenty million, not out. (44)
But the Leylands are aware that life is an ill-tempered dog that resents success; so much so that when a mega-deal increases their wealth from twenty million to hundreds of millions of dollars, they panic that the dog will inflict some terrible tragedy on their lives. In this Jamaican worldview of a dog-eat-dog world, then, the dog will also eat anyone who rises too high above the level of a dog's life. It is a trait often ascribed to black Jamaicans by themselves, previously explored in detail by Winkler in a number of his novels, and also in the autobiographical Going Home to Teach, where he suggested that petty jealousy on the part of the deputy headmaster at the teacher training college may have made him thwart the efforts of two students to advance themselves by preventing them from sitting the A level exams for which they had spent all year preparing. In Going Home Winkler refers to "the most poisonous axiom in our national theorems: Jamaicans would rather hinder than help their own kind" (Going Home 189), a trait which he attributes to the distortions of colonialism. As he states in his essay in Small Axe, "If there's one thing I know about Jamaica, it is this: climb up on your high horse and someone or something will rudely knock you off. As Jamaicans say, 'The higher monkey climb, the more him tail show'" ("What do Jamaican's Mean" 124).
In defiance of the reality of this dog-eat-dog world, and often in defiance of death's shadow, the stories sometimes attempt to come to grips with life's meaning and negotiate a sense of purpose. In "Unconventionality," Thomas wonders if there is life after death, and speculates indignantly, "What had been the point of [his struggles in life] if every particle of him was to wind up in the belly of a worm?" (22). In "The Annihilation of Fish," Fish's friend Poinsettia eventually comes to understand that Fish's fights with the Devil are his motivation for living. In "Dawn Song," a woman living in America returns home to Jamaica for a wedding and is forced to face her aging and her mortality. In "The Chance", as discussed earlier, Everard is forced to confront an unpleasant aspect of his past.
In "The Cultivator Who Lost His Heart," the most allegorical story in this collection, a farmer loses his heart, and so his sense of compassion, and finds himself alienated from his community. The place where the cultivator has lost his heart, and will eventually recover it, is an area called the Land of Look Behind. So perhaps he too, like Everard, must come to terms with his past. Yet Winkler complicates this narrative: before the cultivator finds his heart, he learns to successfully pretend that he has one. He "began a deliberate masquerade. He wept at funerals, pretending grief he did not feel ... He voiced regret over accidents and misfortune, and no one knew that behind his sham of caring he felt nothing ... And in all of these demonstrations no one ... could tell that without a heart he was still haunted by the unchanging, everlasting and persistent nothing and pretending it was something" (94). When he eventually finds his heart, no one can tell the difference between the pretence and the reality. The important thing, Winkler seems to suggest, is in the appearance.
That message is repeated in the story "The Riddle" (which immediately follows "The Cultivator"). The protagonist Alvin, in trying to solve the riddle of why the chicken crossed the road for his young daughter, delves into philosophy and in consequence begins to look at life differently: "It was a vicious cycle, as bad as dog eat dog, bleak, ugly and depressing" (101); "de chicken cross de road to find out if de nothing over here is also over dere" (104). Yet in the end he concludes that "it is better to pretend dat nothing is something dan to believe dat everything is nothing" (104-5).
And earlier in the collection, in "The Interpreter", the message is again similar: "It dawned on him that a man was nothing except how he was seen through the eyes of others. It was a very disturbing thought ... without the respect of his fellow earth walkers, a man was nothing but an airborne thistle in the breeze, unloved, uncherished and unmourned when his days came to an end" (66). These lines bring to mind Winkler's comment in his Small Axe essay on his childhood friend, the fisherman Baba whose story was the germ for "The Man Who Knew the Price of All Fish," and subsequently for The Painted Canoe: "I think of Baba who was here one minute and the next minute was gone, unmourned and unremembered, the few trinkets he'd left behind after a long lifetime as a fisherman swept up by a supposed cousin, until nothing was left behind to mark his presence, not even a footprint." ("What Do Jamaican's Mean" 127). Winkler was deeply affected by Baba's death and seeming erasure, and has written or spoken of it on a number of occasions. (21)
So, Winkler's vision in this collection is a dark one. Underneath the surface layer of wacky outrageousness, the meaninglessness of life is returned to over and over in these stories. The void seen is immense; solutions offered for coping with an awareness of this void are cosmetic. Is there no upliftment offered, is there no full redemption possible? "The Story of the Fifth Boy," as indicated earlier, is one of many that paints a desperate, dark picture of life; yet ultimately it does provide a glimmer of hope, by asserting the necessity of creativity, of recording life, in the midst of this darkness and uncertainty:
Bruce told me one day at school that the world had too many words in it, that thousands of them could be thrown away without any loss. I don't know if that's true. I only know that we are being swept downstream by a relentless river of time. Ahead is a vast ocean of approaching darkness. Behind is the flicker of hazy recollection. We huddle marooned in the present, where life is uncertain and filled with constant death. No longer boys, the four of us have long drifted away from Bruce, the petchary, and that day in August 1955. All that tethers their memory to this moment is this frail string of words. (19-20)
Here, I suggest, lies the essence of this collection. The existence of multiple layers of meaning beneath the surface of humor is nothing new for Winkler. But unlike this author's previous works, these stories leave, after the laughter, lingering impressions of loneliness, homesickness, alienation, yearning, regret, and an awareness of mortality/death and of the meaninglessness of existence--"where life is uncertain and filled with constant death." The collection adds a new dimension to Winkler's writing--a new sensitivity, a new modulation, a new sadness. The string of words may seem frail, but it is actually disturbingly powerful. Perhaps Winkler's message of upliftment, then, is contained in the very act of his creativity: despite the vast ocean of approaching darkness, we resist annihilation, propelled by a celebration of our humanity that comes through a documentation of memory, through laughter, through literature.
And perhaps the early story "The Man Who Knew the Price of All Fish" proves it best: the fisherman Baba may have seemed to the boy Winkler to have died unmourned and unremembered, with not even a footprint left behind to mark his presence, but in fact through Winkler's writing, and later rewriting, of his story, Baba's memory has been tethered to this moment, his life has been celebrated and been given meaning, and he has been immortalized.
Contemporary Authors 123. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988. Print.
Robinson-Walcott, Kim. "Funny Sad Stories." Caribbean Review of Books 1 (2004): 20-21. Print.
--. Out of Order! Anthony Winkler and White West Indian Writing. Kingston: U of the West Indies P, 2006. Print.
Winkler, Anthony The Annihilation of Fish and Other Stories. Oxford: Macmillan Education, 2004. Print
--. Going Home to Teach. Kingston: Kingston Publishers, 1995; Oxford: Macmillan Education, 2006. Print.
--. Telephone interview. 21 July 2010.
--. Trust the Darkness: My Life as a Writer. Oxford: Macmillan Education, 2008. Print.
--. "What Do Jamaicans Mean by Ole Negar?" Small Axe 29 (2009): 118127. Print.
UNIVERSITY OF THE WEST INDIES, MONA CAMPUS
(1) Anthony C. Winkler, The Painted Canoe (Kingston: Kingston Publishers, 1983; Oxford: Macmillan Education, 2006). Note: the Macmillan edition states incorrectly that the first edition by Kingston Publishers was published in 1987.
(2) Anthony C. Winkler, The Lunatic (Kingston: Kingston Publishers, 1987; Oxford: Macmillan Education, 2006).
(3) Anthony C. Winkler, The Great Yacht Race (Kingston: Kingston Publishers, 1992; Oxford: Macmillan Education, 2006). Note: the Macmillan edition states incorrectly that the first edition by Kingston Publishers was published in 1988.
(4) Anthony C. Winkler, The Duppy (Kingston: Kingston Publishers, 1997; Oxford: Macmillan Education, 2006).
(5) Anthony C. Winkler, Dog War (Oxford: Macmillan Education, 2006).
(6) Anthony C. Winkler, Crocodile (Oxford: Macmillan Education, 2009).
(7) Anthony C. Winkler, Going Home to Teach (Kingston: Kingston Publishers, 1995; Oxford: Macmillan Education, 2006). Subsequent references are to the first edition.
(8) Anthony C. Winkler, Trust the Darkness: My Life as a Writer (Oxford: Macmillan Education, 2008).
(9) In my book Out of Order: Anthony Winkler and White West Indian Writing (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2006) I analyse Winkler's literary output.
(10) Both Dog War and Crocodile were written in the mid-1990s and sat unpublished for many years before they were finally issued by Macmillan, without major editorial changes, whereas the majority of the stories in Annihilation were written in the period 2000-2003. For this reason I recognize the collection Annihilation, as a whole, as a more recent creative work.
(11) See my review of this collection, "Funny Sad Stories", Caribbean Review of Books 1, no. 2 (August 2004): 20-21. This article is an expansion and development of that earlier brief review.
(12) Winkler has stated this on a number of occasions; most recently, in the essay "What Do Jamaicans Mean by Ole Negar?" Small Axe 29 (July 2009): 118-127.
(13) See, for example, Anthony C. Winkler, "Tony Winkler's Atlanta," Skywritings. July-August 1996, 66.
(14) Contemporary Authors 123 (Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1988), 477.
(15) The story "The Annihilation of Fish" was in 1999 converted into a film of that name starring James Earl Jones as Fish, Lynn Redgrave as Poinsettia, and Margot Kidder as Mrs. Muldoon. It has been screened in independent film festivals. However distribution wrangles have prevented its general release to date.
(16) I explore this subject in some detail in my book Out of Order: Anthony Winkler and White West Indian Writing.
(17) Anthony C. Winkler, "What Do Jamaicans Mean by Ole Negar?" Small Axe 29 (July 2009): 118.
(18) Winkler, telephone conversation with the author, 21 July 2010.
(19) See Robinson-Walcott, Out of Order.
(20) These views are expressed especially compellingly in Going Home to Teach, as I discuss in my book Out of Order.
(21) See, for example, Winkler, Trust the Darkness, 71-73.
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|Publication:||Journal of Caribbean Literatures|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2010|
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