Magazine article The Spectator

'Island People: The Caribbean and the World', by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Island People: The Caribbean and the World', by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro - Review

Article excerpt

'Short of writing a thesis in many volumes,' Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote in his preface to The Traveller's Tree, 'only a haphazard, almost a picaresque, approach can suggest the peculiar mood and tempo of the Caribbean and the turbulent past from which they spring.'

Island People, Joshua Jelly-Schapiro's first book, is an academic picaresque. This unlikely hybrid might be the ideal vehicle for a trip around the 'American lake'; the Caribbean's cultures and peoples are also hybrids, legacies of unlikely crossings.

The masters, slaves, indentured labourers and merchant middlemen of the Caribbean were the first truly modern societies, drawn and dragged to a hellish paradise solely to serve a global economy. Since independence, their descendants have continued to serve and suffer for it, by making the modern Middle Passage as musicians, cocaine mules and migrant workers, or staying on their islands, indentured to tourism as barmen, maids and taxi drivers.

Island People, like its subject, is expansive and disorderly, a jumble of languages and nations with alternating moods of poetry and violence. It is written as a travelogue: from Jamaica, Cuba and Puerto Rico, the collective home of 90 per cent of the Caribbean islands' population, then down the curve of the Antilles to Trinidad, off the coast of Venezuela. But the narrative suffers shifts of mood and tempo akin to those of inter-island ferry services in the low season.

There are three Jelly-Schapiros: a postcolonial academic, a gonzo tourist and an anthropological essayist. The first plagiarises the ideas of C.L.R James, the second plagiarises the style of Geoff Dyer, and the third often plagiarises Jelly-Schapiro himself by recycling his numerous essays, some of which were published as long ago as 2010. You never know who will lead your tour group on which island, or when the bus will plunge off the coast road onto a rough track, or whether you will find Edward Said or a cartoon Rasta at the end of it.

The best of this trio, the anthropological essayist, is at home in the 'exultant immodesty' of Havana. His unpicking of the weave of slavery, race, religion and music that make cubanidad (Cuban-ness) is educated, his recombination of these threads skilful. His assessment of the decaying Castro regime is fair, too. While Jamaicans sleep behind 'concertina wire and Rottweilers', the Habaneros 'snoozed calmly behind nothing but ferns'. Yet Cubans are still prisoners, afflicted by 'ennui' and shortages of everything apart from 'time and nice weather'. …

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