Thursday, July 20, 2017

An Original Trini To The Bone

...a novel of grace, beauty, love and, yes, light Book review: 'Light Falling On Bamboo'

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LATEST NOVEL: Lawrence Scott's latest novel, Light Falling On Bamboo. —Photo: Jermaine Cruickshank

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To create a fictional character today out of a real-life, and famous, 19th-century person requires a certain amount of bravery, a vivid imagination and not a little literary flair.

Readers of Trinidadian novelist Lawrence Scott's latest novel, Light Falling On Bamboo, will be delighted to learn that he brings all three of these qualities to bear in his latest work with excellent results.

The central character is Michel Jean Cazabon, the 19th century Trinidad artist whose works have appeared in that mecca of world art in Paris, the Louvre.

Cazabon, Lawrence makes clear from the outset, is a French Creole and it might surprise some modern-day Trinidadians to learn that the then British colonial rulers of Trinidad didn't regard Trinidad's original French Creoles much above African slaves and against whom there were discriminatory laws:

 "Let them (French Creoles) know their place with the blacks of their race. Let them not sit this side of the ferry from San Fernando to Port of Spain. Let them sit apart. Sit at the back of the church. Let them not go abroad at night on the streets without carrying lanterns. Let them not carry sticks. Let them be beaten, knowing that their race, no better than the niggers, can only labour and produce under the whip."

Such was the law until 1829.

The novel begins with Cazabon, among other family members, at the deathbed of his mother, Rose Debonne Cazaboin, long separated from her husband, Francois Cazabon.

At this point, Michel Jean Cazabon has long been to boarding school in England, has been to France to learn to paint, has married a French woman and fathered two children, a boy and a girl. His wife and children remain in France, where the revolution has already got the French agog with liberty, equality and fraternity.

Such notions are not entirely unfamiliar in Trinidad. Even on her deathbed, Mrs Cazabon, a fiercely independent woman, tells her son "if we're to be a people, a free people...there's more to liberty than labour in the fields. Ideas...beauty."

With the declaration of emancipation by Britain in 1834, the former slaves soon abandoned the plantations to try and eke out a living on their own. This is soon to be followed by the importation of Indian indentured labourers.

Cazabon's life is complicated by the fact that his half-sister, Josie (daughter of a former African slave) and he have had a long and at times passionate relationship that started in their childhood. "Their hearts were one. They vowed to love each other over the rest of their lives..."

Now, back home from France as a newly-married man, Cazabon finds himself still enraptured by memories of his close relationship with Josie, who lives with her mother, Ernestine, in the yard of the Cazabon family home.

And back home Cazabon soon finds himself longing "to walk the streets again, the English Governor's Woodford grid which has slowly grown since the fire of 1808 and which has anglicized the Spanish port, subdued the French town, changing the delightfully named rue des Trois Chandelles...to Duncan Street, La Place to George Street and rue de Herrara to Henry Street..."

A chance encounter with James Wildman, cousin to the current English Governor, Lord Harris, leads to Cazabon being commissioned by the Governor to do a series of paintings of Governor House and its surroundings. A similar encounter with Hardin Burnley, owner of the large Orange Grove estate, results in a similar commission.

It also leads to Cazabon having a sexual encounter with Augusta, a very attractive young mulatto woman who is resident at Orange Grove.

There are also several stunning passages in which Scott describes the Trinidad landscape, which Cazabon loves, apparently attempting to achieve with words what Cazabon has accomplished with paint and oils.

On a hunting expedition with the Governor in the forest, Scott writes: "Through a break in the tall silk-cotton trees there was a shaft of light and they glimpsed their destination, the table mountain, Tamana, rising sharply above them. They were out of the cocoa estates and into the Mora forests with tall silk-cotton, bois canots and the majestic ballatata, its crimson leaves fallen the ground...."

Near the sea, Scott writes: "Light, which was not real light, but a gradual visibility, rolled in with the gentle morning sea hardly breaking on the beach leaving a ruffle of lace skirting the shore that was gathered up on an embroidered hand. Above, the sky began to be tinged\with an increasing light, throwing rose tints upon the white cirrus clouds."

Cazabon will eventually return to Paris to be with his wife, daughter and very ill son, Louis Michel who will eventually follow in his father's footsteps as a painter in his own right.

Although Cazabon is determined to have his family join him in Trinidad, he eventually returns without them. Eventually, they will join him and begin a life together in this tropical isle. At one point they will move to French-speaking Martinique but the constant lure of Trinidad soon brings him and his family back to the land of his birth.

What Scott in effect paints in prose about the life and times of Jean Michael Cazabon is that of an original Trini-to-the-bone. It's an enthralling portrait of the man, the people and the island he loves.