In the Castle of My Skin
Karen Lord on George Lamming’s debut novel
The CRB’s “Circa” column is an experiment in literary time travel: classic books of Caribbean literature reviewed by writers of the present, as though they were transported back to the time of original publication, and are unaware of the books’ subsequent reputation or their authors’ later careers.
Dust jacket of the first edition of In the Castle of My Skin, with an illustration by Denis Williams; from the H.D. Carberry Collection of Caribbean Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago Library, Special Collections and University Archives. Posted at Flickr under a Creative Commons license
George Lamming has achieved what few in Barbados would have thought possible. His finely written novel In the Castle of My Skin elevates our common speech to poetry and our common lives to literature, infusing it all with a gentle humour that allows the reader to “laugh off the licks.” It is a bildungsroman in the usual style, centred on a village boy growing up amid riots, war, and immigration in Barbados, but companioned with the story of a people moving from infancy and dependence to maturity and self-determination. In the Castle of My Skin promises to be a true classic, a tale for now and for the future.
Innocence and ambition are both on display. Parents strive and invest the fruits of their labour in their children, hoping that the next generation may go further and rise higher than their ancestors. However, they do so in a society where the raw material for material success is scarce and zealously hoarded. Education is available, but it is so carefully curated that it functions more as indoctrination than information. Nor is every young success-story a saviour to the community. The lesson of Orwell’s Animal Farm is strongly present here: erstwhile leaders of the revolution are often tempted to mimic the behaviour of their old masters.
Parts of this book are almost indulgently dense. The surreal nightmares of old Pa and the inchoate philosophising of the young boys contain much that contributes to a wider understanding of the characters and their lives, but they are delivered in a manner more suited to poetry or monologue. Less literary, but perhaps kinder to the average reader, is the warmly sincere celebration of the best of the old-time days: the trees before they were cut down, the train line before it was torn up, and the village community before it was broken apart.
There are key moments which prick hard and remove any illusion of mere nostalgia. The memories of Panama and the promise of America remind us that our needs and ambitions have often exceeded the limits of our shores. Schoolboys trying to make sense of kings and queens and colonies are in poignant harmony with adults struggling to understand strikes and wars. Hardest of all to bear is the image of the old woman, a former slave, dismissed and disbelieved as her society resorts to collective amnesia to cope with their tragic past. And yet she is the lynchpin of the book, the raison d’être of our presence and our purpose.
One hundred years hence, or even less, what injustices and atrocities will we be taught to forget? What new myths will we repeat to ourselves? Will there be new empires for our loyalties, new Americas for our yearnings, new Panamas for our earnings? Or will we remain as we have been for so long, two hundred to three hundred thousand souls with big dreams on a small rock? Will we be left stranded, waiting for a train that will never come?
There is a curious sense of isolation to the book. Jamaica is as distant as London, Trinidadians are as alien as Englishmen. The empty horizon does not lie, and the land is the only truth that can be depended on. The nameless man who tells us this story of his boyhood is in a similar state of hard borders, locked up by fate or choice in the castle of his skin, unknowable by outsiders, but constantly observing what lies beyond the battlements. He describes politics as an incomprehensible game that he would hate to be part of, because he has a fear of being responsible for and accountable to hundreds of people. An observer, then, but not an actor. His friend Trumper, newly returned from America and filled with the wisdom of expanded worldview, tells him that he is the kind of person who will always get hurt, because he cannot cope with life. This castle isolates, but it cannot protect.
But is Trumper right to condemn his friend to such intense vulnerability? So much in the novel speaks to the inevitability of pain, whether we are wise or foolish, old or young, engaged or disengaged, in power or beholden. The rich landlord, the aspiring middle class and the poor villagers all have moments where their position is shown to be precarious. There are no safe harbours. The small rock that was once well guarded by forts has no answer for regional riots, German torpedoes, and the edicts of the United Nations. Self-determination is not simply a right, it is a necessity, and one that has been forced upon us. The schoolboy must grow up and make a man of himself. Our small territories must wake up and “start seeing about getting an empire.” If we wait and hope that the choice will be made for us, we may pass into a situation where all choices are taken from us, rather like Trumper’s tale of twice-engaged Jon — sitting in a tree, watching two churches, waiting and hoping that a groom with his name and face would magically appear at the right altar.
Lamming has given us a timely retrospective of the radical changes of the last two decades, in the guise of a roman à clef. Do not be distracted by the poetic prose and flights of philosophy. This is a pointed and political novel. The leaders and would-be leaders of this country and this region should consider seriously Lamming’s musings on the end of Empire, and what it entails for villagers such as you and I. For we West Indians are all villagers, shaken from the stultifying stability of the feudal model into a brave new world in the style of Huxley rather than Shakespeare. Whether that world shall be for our uplifting or our undoing remains to be seen, but our vastly expanded electorate now has a hand, however small, in its making.
Change comes like a flood, and we can either cling to the roof of the crumbling old house as it is swept away, or work to find some other way to withstand or navigate the waters.
The Caribbean Review of Books, August 2016
Karen Lord is the award-winning Barbadian author of Redemption in Indigo, The Best of All Possible Worlds, and The Galaxy Game, and editor of the anthology New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean.