Trinidad has always used humour as its weapon of choice. Whether because of the vagaries of its history, or the political or social scandals of the day, Trinidad laughs at itself and everyone else. Pecong, mamaguy, V. S. Naipaul's Miguel Street or Mr. Biswas, the satire of the Mighty Sparrow. Trinidad laughs. Hence the English-speaking world has inherited the inimitable calypso.
Jamaica has reggae, a music whose very beat reflects rebelliousness, contrariness. Jamaica's reflex is to strike out against injustice not just at home, but wherever it is perceived to be.
And so Andrea's Levy's voice, coming as it does from a writer of Jamaican ancestry, adds a surprising twist to the dismal and outwardly protesting view with which Jamaicans have traditionally regarded history, without ever diminishing the horror and culpability of slavery. The Long Song is not a book for the squeamish, who cling to what is currently considered politically correct. "But you paint an untruth," the character Dublin Hilton says when he sees a portrait artist misrepresenting the landscape he paints. It is at this level of landscape that Levy insists upon the truth. In an almost bawdy tone, the book reveals the everyday interactions between master and slave, what they each said and did, and most of all what they really thought when they were saying and doing.
The Long Song is a wickedly funny parody of life at Amity sugar cane plantation in Jamaica, in the years leading up to and just after emancipation of July 31, 1838. It is in many ways a comedy of manners on life in the great house, taking equal shots at despicable masters in all their evil, arrogance and pretentiousness, and their luckless slaves, who survive them through a combination of sly ingenuity, effective obsequiousness and hypocrisy, sabotage and resilient perversity.
On the surface, Levy's tale is of a torrid romance between the indomitable mulatto slave, Miss July, and her master, a spiritual contortionist, Robert Goodwin. Set at a time of unique turbulence in a colonial landscape on the verge of collapse, it is told in an effective mixture of hilariously Monty Pythonesque humour, combined with Upstairs/Downstairs social comment and magical realism thrown in here and there. The net result is a novel that won't let the reader go.
But beneath its surface lurks the deeper reality of an abhorrently violent social system, the likes of which the world had never seen, one in which Molly, the cook, through the years of the book, goes about her chores with only one seeing eye, the other having had its light kicked out by the well-shod foot of a former mistress. It's a world in which Caroline, Amity's new mistress, avoids the reality of her dungeon of torture as easily as she manages to offset the smell of her slaves by use of a lilac-tinctured handkerchief.
Levy's careful research sets her vivid tale against a historical backdrop that, though it appears to be no more than a stage set, stealthily and indelibly etches itself onto the reader's heart and mind. This is a book that can bestir the sediment of painful truths that many a conscious mind has conveniently let go. In the guise of the historic novel, for us the story quickens; in its human day-to-dayness, the readers come to recognize the possibilities of themselves as actors. Suddenly its horrors seem that much harsher, and Jamaican survival a tangible and astonishing victory.
Levy tells this tale through the voice of the self-taught July. Readers have no doubt this storyteller omits what she wishes, has wonderfully entertaining moments of kinship with Miss Malaprop and seasons what we read with drama, exaggeration and bias, as she sees fit. To balance this, Levy uses the device of July's once-abandoned, newly reunited son, now a printer, who acts as July's mentor and editor. With July's survival kit of defiance, rebelliousness, resourcefulness and ingenuity, stubborn and contrary, above all totally perverse, like the legendary Jamaican spider Anansi, she makes it through her life's calamitous journey to tell her story.
Perhaps July's voice is the sound of Jamaica's national character, and July, speaking to us from the past, reveals who Jamaicans are today.
Rachel Manley is a daughter of former Jamaican prime minister Michael Manley. She won the Governor-General's Award in 1997 for her memoir Drumblair: Memories of a Jamaican Childhood.