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Anancy in the Great House: Ways of Reading West Indian Fiction.

In his foreword to Anancy in the Great House: Ways of Reading West Indian Fiction, Houston A. Baker, Jr. calls attention to the richness of Anancy, spider-hero of the Akans, spinner of yarns, and trickster figure of West Indian and Afro-American folktales, as a metaphor for the critic of marginal spaces spinning fine webs of signification. Anancy is one of two cultural icons dominating Joyce Jonas's critical discourse; the other is the plantation Great House. In the post-Columbian Caribbean they are binary opposites, emblems of the exploiter and the exploited, Prospero and Caliban, Europe and Africa. In her illuminating Caribbean-centered text, Jonas decodes the cultural values of Great House and Anancy to bring them more into line with the creative vision of two major Caribbean novelists in our time, Wilson Harris and George Lamming.

The Great House, as colonial authority, is the source of binary oppositions: black/white, capital/labor, technology/nature, and male/female. Anancy, as Caribbean artist, is a deconstructive energy that "resists the House-folk polarizations of an exploitative capitalist system, asserting instead relationships, mutuality, dialogue" (3). Jonas uses anthropological concepts of liminality to describe the hybrid place and space that the Caribbean artist creates and occupies as author and reader of the Great House text. In this context the artist is trickster and shaman, and the formal strategies of deconstruction are "anancy-strategies" of transformation and reconstruction that reapportion the value of margins in relation to the Great House as cultural icon.

In three essays, Jonas draws thematic parallels between three of Lamming's novels and three of Harris's, pairing these very different writers in new and exciting ways. Despite her extensive use of the discourses of symbolic anthropology, the critical discourse remains rooted in the cultural specifics of the Caribbean. Jonas employs the cultural iconography articulated by the writers themselves to deconstruct the symbolic systems at the heart of the novels selected. For example, she shows that the discourse of Lamming's House-folk plantation model, so richly articulated in In the Castle of My Skin (1970), permeates Harris's novels, and she uses the discourse of Harris's Anancy as shaman/trickster/creator to deconstruct Lamming's novels. This critical enterprise is mediated by the use of symbolic anthropology in a way that links the creative insights of the Caribbean writer to those of the metropolitan scholar in a common quest to decipher the codes that differentiate and bind human communities.

"Beyond the Great House," the first essay, pairs Lamming's Season of Adventure (1979) with Harris's The Whole Armour (1962). The basis of Jonas's comparison is the texts' common relationship to the literal and metaphoric topography of "the plantation landscape" (9). Both writers use the "House-folk" plantation model to deconstruct and criticize dominant conditions; they "invert the extant social structures so that the center of sacredness located formerly in the Great House is now relocated among the houseless folk" (8). The boundaries of the House are transformed into the threshold of a new world. Lamming and Harris are cast as "edgemen," prototypical West Indian artists constructing an alternative reality at the margins of society. Jonas makes explicit use of the insights of symbolic anthropologists, among them Victor Turner, Mary Douglas, Arnold van Gennep, and Claude Levi-Strauss, in her reading of the House-folk model in both novels.

In her second essay, "Clowns and Carnival," the House-folk model is a metonym for the polarizations of colonialism and its oppressive authoritarian structures -- history, language, and religion. Jonas fleshes out the thematic parallels between Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin and Harris's Genesis of the Clowns (1977). The artist as creator and mediator of self-knowledge is the subject of discourse in both novels: "As the clown is to the king, so the Anancy-spirit of the folk (artist) is to the House of authoritarian premise" (84). In a close reading of both texts, Jonas demonstrates that the House and its surrounding plantation are subject to the "ironic questioning" and "merciles|s~ parodying" of the two artist-readers (4).

The third essay, "The Controlling I-Eye," compares Lamming's Natives of My Person (1972) with Harris's Palace of the Peacock (1960). Since "both novels give prominent place to a silent yet signifying feminine Other" (89), Jonas changes her critical vocabulary to link feminist discourse to those of class exploitation and destruction of the environment in her discussion of these two novels of conquest and plunder. The I-Eye is male and female, phallus and womb, material and spiritual, colonizer and colonized. Conceptually, these issues are explicit in the allegorical configurations of both Natives and Palace. Jonas uses the critical terminology of such critics as Helene Cixous and Annette Kolodny to clarify and expand the discourse of imperial conquest in the two novels. This shift in critical perspective calls attention to the arbitrariness of highly selective symptomatic readings of the literary text. The issue of the relationship of feminism to decolonization raised in "The Controlling I-Eye" is equally important to decoding the values of House and Anancy in Lamming's Season of Adventure and Harris's The Whole Armour; both writers give prominent place and voice to the signifying feminine Other at the sacred/dangerous boundaries of the masculine House.

Anancy in the Great House is a valuable and welcome addition to the growing body of literary criticism that recognizes the cultural distinctness of modern Caribbean writing and also its paradigmatic value to dominant discourses in Europe and North America. However, I take issue with the prescriptive bent of some of Jonas's conclusions and with the scantiness of her recognition of the scholarly contributions of others to her critical discourse. Her bibliography is commendable, but there is little documentation of how the critical vocabulary of Michael Gilkes, Sandra Drake, Hena Maes-Jelinek, Kenneth Ramchand, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Gordon Rohlehr, and even Lamming (in The Pleasures of Exile) informs her work. Brathwaite's powerfully conceptualized Contradictory Omens and R. M. Lacovia's Caribbean Aesthetics: A Prolegomenon are groundbreaking publications by Caribbean critics on the cultural iconography of the House-folk plantation model and the spider/shaman/trickster, yet neither is referenced.

Likewise, in her contusion Jonas trivializes the foundational efforts of Caribbean critics to situate the Caribbean novel historically, geographically, and politically. This devaluation of the relationship between writing and historical place is misguided. Locating Caribbean writers in their historical contexts clarifies and enriches an ongoing dialogue between the aims of art and the claims of history in the artistic consciousness of the postcolonial Caribbean. The multifaceted relationship between writing and place is as important to our understanding of the region's unfolding creative genius as is Jonas's anthropological approach. To argue, as Jonas does, that Lamming's creative vision is circumscribed rather than deepened by black-white polarizations in Barbados, while racial conflicts among Europeans, Indians, Africans, and Native Americans in Guyana have had the reverse effect on Harris, is to misrepresent these writers' complex relation to territory and inheritance.
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Author:Paquet, Sandra Pouchet
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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