Academic journal article ARIEL

To Become So Very Welsh: Denis Williams' the Third Temptation and the Effacement of Afro-Caribbean Identity

Academic journal article ARIEL

To Become So Very Welsh: Denis Williams' the Third Temptation and the Effacement of Afro-Caribbean Identity

Article excerpt

This essay resituates Denis Williams' underexplored second novel, The Third Temptation, in terms of racial and colonial violence. Published in 1968, the largely forgotten novel, a highly experimental musing on identity that shares much in common with the Nouveau Roman movement, is seldom addressed in terms of postcolonial or Caribbean literature, in part because all the major characters are white Europeans and the novel is set in Wales. My essay suggests that the novels absence of black identity functions as a critique of Welsh colonialism, evidenced in the text by both Williams' personal experiences in Wales and repeated, veiled images of Welsh missionary William Hughes, who worked exhaustively to convert African children into Welsh Christians. I suggest that the experimental collapse of subjectivity in the novel is designed to mirror the process by which Hughes attempted to efface African identity. Turning to a history of Hughes' Congo Institute--as well as Williams' own struggle to reconcile his role as a European artist with his Afro-Caribbean roots--I demonstrate how the novel's experimentation with perspective is enacted to examine Wales' often-overlooked involvement in colonial oppression.

Keywords: Denis Williams, Caribbean, Wales, colonialism, experimental literature

Except for a few brief publications, there has been almost no critical attention directed at the work of Denis Williams--an underappreciated and largely forgotten Guyanese painter, archeologist, and writer. This is especially true in regard to his two innovative novels, the semi-biographical Other Leopards (1963) and the overtly experimental The Third Temptation (1968). Like his fictions, the trajectory of Williams' career is multifaceted and disorienting and resists easy classification. Born in Georgetown, Williams studied painting in London in the 1950s as a protege of Wyndham Lewis and achieved acclaim for his experimentation with Modernist forms and racial identity, most notably for his Human World series. Williams, however, resented being labeled and marketed as a "Negro Artist" (Cambridge 115) and, in 1957, left Europe to reside in Africa, where he taught art courses in Sudan, Nigeria, and Uganda. There, he developed an interest in archeology, to which he devoted his career; shortly thereafter, he returned to Georgetown. While Williams is most known and respected for his painting and archaeological work, his fictions have mostly faded into obscurity.

Williams' interdisciplinary background and disparate interests led him to fuse, rethink, and sometimes appropriate cross-cultural literary forms in decidedly innovative ways. In this sense, like the fiction of his countryman Wilson Harris, Williams' fiction is explicitly experimental. This is evident in The Third Temptation, a dense, innovative examination of narrative perspective that, surprisingly, takes after Alain Robbe-Grillet and the French Nouveau Roman movement. The novel is rife with repetitions and extended, hyper-detailed descriptions of inanimate objects. It lacks a single narrator; the narrative's vantage point shifts, frequently and exhaustively, between minor and major characters: a constable, a pregnant woman, a dead man, and an accident victim, among others, all exchange narrative responsibility. The novel's plot, however, is relatively simple. Set in Wales and centered on an affair between a wealthy businessman and his employee's wife, the novel's central character is a middle-aged, white European named Joss Banks. Joss is an unapologetic misogynist struggling with the effects of aging on his virility and status: he has recently retired from his printing press and his wife, Bid, has just left him. The central motif of the novel is thus domestic trauma. Bid has left Joss because she is unable to cope with the death of her ex-husband--Joss' former employee--who took his life as a result of her affair with Joss. The suicide, depicted in the opening scene of the novel, festers like an open wound and, in fact, much of the action of the novel revolves around it: the plot of the novel, as such, focuses largely on Joss and his friend Sean's conversations about their failing relationships and Bid's ex-husband's suicide. …

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