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Ralph de Boissiere: Call of the Rainbow, Melbourne, Australia, L.A. Browne, 2007. (360pp.)

Review by Frank Birbalsingh

Call of the Rainbow is the fifth novel and the last in a quartet of novels about Trinidad, the island where the author Ralph de Boissiere, himself of French creole ancestry, was born in 1907. The mere publication of the novel in the author’s one hundredth year, before he died in 2008, in far away Australia where he had settled since 1948, elicits thoughts of mystery or intrigue, adventure, wanderlust, tenacity and zest for life. For de Boissiere is a true adventurer, a literary pioneer who, along with other writers like Herbert DeLisser and Claude McKay of Jamaica, Alfred Mendes and C.L.R. James of Trinidad, and Edgar Mittelholzer of Guyana, laid the foundations of West Indian literature mostly in the first half of the twentieth century. De Boissiere knew Mendes, James and Mittelholzer who lived in Trinidad during World War II, but he did not follow James and Mittelholzer to London where, in the 1950s, West Indian literature bloomed in the hands of authors such as Roger Mais, George Lamming, Samuel Selvon, V.S. Naipaul and Mittelholzer himself.

Call of the Rainbow is set in Trinidad in the decades immediately before and after World War II, when the island was still a British colony afflicted by industrial disturbances and strikes, heralds of an anti-colonial struggle that would eventually lead to Independence in 1962. The novel is driven by a passion for social, economic and political justice, every bit as fierce and uncompromising as in the author’s first novel Crown Jewel published fifty-five years earlier. Nor is this surprising since Crown Jewel considers the identical situation in Trinidad including characters who carry some of the same names as those in the author’s fifth novel, for example, the businessman Joe Elias, trade union leader Ben Le Maitre, the author’s friend Alfred Mendes, and Aurelia Henriques a seamstress whose mixed ethnic middle class identity matches Antonia Reyes of Call of the Rainbow. All this confirms the unbroken integrity of de Boissiere’s single-minded vision, inspired partly by anti-colonial political conviction, and partly by the seemingly indelible imprint on the author’s very soul of Trinidad’s history, culture, language and motley population of Europeans, Africans, Indians, Portuguese and Chinese. While the political aspect of de Boissiere’s vision is undoubtedly behind his fourth novel No Saddles for Kangaroos which deals with economic injustice suffered by white factory workers in Melbourne, Australia, it is the combination of his political conviction and his umbilical link with Trinidad that inspires his most powerful fiction.

If there were second thoughts about structure in the author’s earlier novels which consist of episodes that tend to go on and on like those in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, Call of the Rainbow arouses few such worries. There are still a great many characters in this fifth novel, but their doings share a central focus on the fate of the People’s Party, led by celebrated historian Peter Burman, whose aim is to achieve political liberation for all Trinidadians. Extensive biographical details of Burman’s academic success, political activities and struggle with corruption in his party, not to mention his family problems, all cooperate to build up a tense climax involving a military revolt and threat of national chaos and collapse. Burman’s success in handling this national crisis is expertly linked to reconciliation with his own family and provides a smooth resolution to tension in the novel.

Yet this somber note of political drama rises out of scenes of economic hardships, exploitation and struggle that appear side by side with episodes of racy Trinidadian speech, barbed outbursts of picong and incidents of rib-tickling humor. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from the author’s description of revelers during Carnival, the most popular street festival in Trinidad: “one who had daubed his naked body with soot; another, without pants, in top hat and tails; a buxom woman in an old-time bustle; a youth with a fake sausage as a penis; and all singing a bawdy calypso then popular.” (p.242) This brilliant evocation of Trinidadian local color is de Boissiere’s real forte. In the carnival scene, the improbable mixture of the bizarre with the absurd and the combination of boisterous ebullience with effervescent ribaldry reflect essential aspects of a culture that is uniquely Trinidadian.

But it is surely extraordinary that, after more than half a century’s residence in Australia, de Boissiere could reproduce as fresh and authentic a fictional evocation of Trinidad as in Call of the Rainbow. Equally extraordinary is the fervor of Marxist rhetoric in his work, the lure of a rainbow world free of exploitation and injustice, which neither wilted nor waned over a similar period of time. Thanks to de Boissiere, young West Indians whose only access to important events in their history was through dreary commentaries, can now witness these events in living portraits and the everyday speech and actions of flesh and blood individuals such as Peter Burman (Dr. Eric Williams) and Joe Elias (Albert Gomes).

The portrait of Burman, for example, struggling with nuances of his own reaction to political change is both subtle and moving. In one scene when he fears that his youthful political dreams are in danger of being crushed by harsh reality, Burman observes the crushed wing of a butterfly: “Ideals...” he thought, “and his expression grew dark and distant.”(p.255) It is the kind of political self-examination we used to get from early novels of Doris Lessing in her Communist Party days. No wonder, in his essay “On Writing a Novel”, de Boissiere acknowledges the influence of nineteenth century Russian writers on his fiction; for Lessing too, in Going Home, notices the similarity between societies in British colonies and those in Tsarist Russia which are riddled with feudal inequalities. This is why de Boissiere confesses in his essay just quoted: “Taking a side can hardly be escaped.” The truth is that in Call of the Rainbow de Boissiere handles taking sides in fictional terms better than he has ever done before. A fitting finale to a colorful career!

Frank Birbalsingh is Emertus Professor of English at York University, Toronto, Canada.

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