What we go do?
By Anton Nimblett
Near Open Water: Stories, by Keith Jardim
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 9781845231880, 161 pp)
Keith Jardim. Photography by Norma Connolly, courtesy the author
Near Open Water upends any shallow notion of what should be expected from a book of short fiction by a Caribbean author — even one fronted by an inviting watercolour seascape. Yes, in each of these twelve stories set in the Caribbean — all but two in Jardim’s native Trinidad and Tobago — characters interact with the sea as lens and mirror, even as foil. Yes, flora and fauna abound — Jardim employs ecology and environment as vivid metaphors. But dry season reigns: the earth is scarred, foliage is sere, dust blows, and brush fires smoke the hills. While vultures soar, hummingbirds are dying. So even though we will get a taste of rum and fete, we must remember what the opening story, “In the Atlantic Field”, teaches: “Something terrible has happened, is going to happen.”
In the book’s title story, which appears last, Jardim’s narrator — himself a writer — is holed up in a remote house on Trinidad’s north coast, at work on a manuscript while the homeowners are away. Trouble arrives by sea, interrupting his daily routine of exploring landscape, seascape, and self. As in most of the collection’s stories, this modern Trinidad is at once lavish and ugly, captivating and forbidding. There is a posh house, complete with a pair of boats at its private jetty; two-hundred-year-old artifacts, unearthed; a high-tech alarm system and specially trained dog; and the ever-present foreboding of crime. Jardim crafts fine suspense as we walk paths the narrator walks, perhaps just a step ahead, until the promise becomes manifest.
Though this plot is propelled by danger, the story has a notable focus on the exacting enterprise of writing. The narrator conducts an ongoing conversation of sorts with a former girlfriend via (imagined) letters that comment on his journal entries.
Your Caribbean ecological lament is dishonest, yet truth escapes somehow. Isn’t that just how things are? Like water, truth gets into the most unlikely of places at the oddest of times. In dreams; when you cry in your sleep and wake to hear [the guard dog] trotting around as she waits for what will inevitably come from the sea … Shall we return to the sea? … Or do we go to bed, rise early tomorrow, and begin writing about us?
More than self-conscious reflection, these epistles — with their introspective critiques — invite careful analysis of the story, and the collection as a whole, especially when factoring in the specificity and skill of Jardim’s prose. His stories are precisely structured, his language fluid, and no word seems accidental. One can, almost at random, open to passages as taut and striking as this:
The dry season had come. The days were hazed, grey-blue water colours drifting across the sky. The squared glints of light on the city buildings below him were like sections of scalpel blades: white light, white heat: the sense of everything being stripped away, exposed.
These stories do read more like exposé than travel guide or love letter. Perhaps Jardim speaks to some sense of cultural (un)awareness, asking, as his character Nello does, “if anybody know what really going on in this island.” Perhaps Jardim writes as post-millennial kaisonian in a literary tent, upholding the kaiso tradition of social commentary — though we read, “this is a small island, boy, and the future not looking too hot. Party and Carnival don’t solve everything.” (A familiar chorus from one camp of cultural critics.) Later, in “The White People Maid”, the Midnight Robber, a traditional masquerade character, makes a powerful appearance, his classic “robber talk” echoing concerns about the nation’s woes, and offering a macabre history lesson:
And when the Europeans and them start to fight … fill up the sea with bodies of black and white men — and all their blood! … What a carnival of corpses became the Caribbean Sea! A rainbow of black and white and red, for all to see! — the lovely and most distinguished colours of our national flag!
To be clear, these stories, far more than heady musings, are grounded in the elements of story, and the human condition. Relationships — parent with son, grandparents with grandson, lovers, spouses, coworkers — explore moments when change hangs in the balance, and examine space where secrets tip and spill over into awareness. Yet always the interpersonal walks hand-in-hand with wider issues of nation, society, race, and almost always politics/corruption/crime — crime that runs the gamut from a drugstore stick-up to rape; from drug-smuggling and money-laundering to rogue militia home invasions; and from a car theft ring to murder. Each illegality seems linked to another: “You could work your way from parliament down, across, and back up — through every level of society — and find people looking for trouble.” Yes, “All of we is one in this Trinidad when it come to corruption.”
Understandable, therefore, when Jardim appears to back off with two short-shorts — “In the Cage” and “Kanaima, Late Afternoon” — that seem unconnected to modern woes. Their abstraction, like spaces of rest, contrasts with more representative drawings elsewhere in the book. Upon review, though, they read as parables, and connect to “The Jaguar”, to “A Landscape Far from Home”, and to the title story. What or who is the Kanaima in one story’s title is left unexplained.
I am not familiar with Kanaima or jaguar lore in Trinidad, but found references connecting it to Guyana (among other places), where “A Landscape Far from Home” is set. The Kanaima — Wilson Harris published a short story with that title in 1964 — is a violent spirit on a quest to wreak vengeance, which inhabits or morphs into the body of a jaguar. Jardim enlists the image of the jaguar repeatedly, and in very deliberate ways, posing the questions: whence Kanaima, and what role will it play in time?
Other questions surface too — about race and class, for example. Jardim writes intentionally from the purview of upper-class white Trinidadians, but he effectively includes “every level of society” — also writing believably in the voice of an Afro-Trinidadian housekeeper (“White People Maid”) and a custodian in a boys’ home (“Fire in the City”). What does it mean that the black voices speak more directly and clearly to the ills of the country? Is there an objective in opening the collection with “In the Atlantic Field”, where a young white boy writes on the beach, “I am the first person here”, and a gas-station attendant with hair “like pieces of rope … red, violent eyes” violates the boy’s mother? Jardim’s writing is too careful, too sophisticated for easy answers to — or easy dismissal of — these questions.
Above all, Near Open Water — with its interpersonal tales, its sustained metaphors, and its sharp lens — raises questions, big questions. “What we go do, Nello, what we go do?” Jardim answers one question clearly: he affirms the writer’s role as social commentator, lodestone, kaisonian. Still, I’m left wondering whether these stories — blaring alarms — are from a man who no longer loves his country at all, or — to quote the book’s epigraph from Jean Rhys — “not in this moment.”
Anton Nimblett is a Trinidadian living and writing in Brooklyn. He is the author of a book of short stories, Sections of an Orange (2009), and his fiction is included in the anthology Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles (2008), edited by Thomas Glave.