October 17, 2012 issue

Book Review

Mendes’ ‘Pitch Lake’ explores
dark depths
Author Alfred Mendes

JAlfred Mendes, Pitch Lake: A Story of Trinidad, London, New Beacon Books, 1980. pp. 352 (First Published in 1934) ISBN 901241 38 5

A review by Frank Birbalsingh

Alfred Mendes’s Pitch Lake: A Story of Trinidad is one of a number of novels that helped to lay a foundation for modern West Indian fiction during the first three decades of the twentieth century. Mendes (1897-1991) came from a well-to-do, Portuguese/Madeiran business family in Trinidad, and was educated by private tutors before attending Queen’s Royal College, and proceeding to England for further studies; but his studies were interrupted by World War One in which he served with distinction. His second novel Black Fauns appeared in 1935.
Pitch Lake provides the most complete fictional account that we have of an English-speaking Caribbean society in which Portuguese form a tiny minority. If, as is likely, the author draws on his own experience in the novel, the time of the action is probably the 1920s and early 30s. The focus of events is on the family of Antonio da Costa, an indentured Portuguese immigrant shopkeeper in San Fernando, in South Trinidad. Antonio could be considered successful since his wife and daughters live in New York and, toward the end of the novel, he sells his shop and leaves Trinidad to join them.
But economic success alone is not what counts in a British Caribbean colony like Trinidad, for it can exacerbate entrenched social and ethnic divisions. For instance, a distinction between creole Portuguese – those born in Trinidad, and Madeirenses – recently arrived immigrants from Madeira, opens a rift between members of the Portuguese Club, and creates two clubs - one for Portuguese creoles, and the other for Madeirenses: “the creoles felt they should not be associating themselves with the shopkeeping class.” The creole club admits lady members and forms a committee to: “black-ball any undesirable, so that the better-class [of Portuguese] is protected.” The trouble is that divisions between the Portuguese themselves occur within pre-existing divisions of race, colour and class: “The Portuguese, of all the white communities on the island, were the most despised: they made themselves too cheap by running the shops on the island and coming into contact with the common coloured people.” Further division simply increases already deeply entrenched social fragmentation.
Yet Pitch Lake is less social history than a dramatic study of the perverse effect of social divisiveness on the mind and spirit of the chief character - Antonio’s younger son - Joe, whose six years of labour devoted to his father’s shop inflict a seemingly ineradicable sense of hurt and humiliation on him. After all, he joined his father’s shop immediately after leaving school, and: “wasted so many years of his life in selling rum and cigarettes to common niggers and coolies who were not fit even to tie his shoe laces.” Joe’s application of derogatory terms to Africans and Indians betrays the perverse depth of his sense of socially engineered humiliation.
After his father sells the shop, Joe collects eight hundred dollars of his savings and heads out to Port of Spain where he lives with his reticent brother Henry and his live-wire wife Myra. Henry tries to get him a job while Myra organises his relationship and eventual engagement to Cora Goveia, a resourceful if far from conventional young Portuguese woman. Fresh opportunity beckons, but is blunted by feelings of isolation and alienation that still hound Joe. At a party: “he [Joe]was out of his element, as a fish must be when he is out of water; or better still, as a worm must be when it is taken from its earth-hole and deposited on the clean table of the scientist.” Such tension and anxiety in the novel’s chief protagonist poison Joe’s will and heighten the dramatic struggle within him.
What heightens the drama most of all are two affairs that Joe has – with Maria, a young black woman in San Fernando, and later with Myra’s Indian maid – Stella - in Port of Spain. Before Joe leaves San Fernando, Maria’s mother – Miss Martha – suggests a more permanent relationship with Maria that causes Joe to erupt: “You’ve got a blasted cheek asking me to marry your daughter. What do you take me for? Go and ask one of those little coloured boy friends of hers to marry her, not a white man.” This later leads to another more embarrassing confrontation with Miss Martha, but it is settled after Joe pays her twenty dollars. Still, Joe has intimate relations once more with Maria before she migrates to Venezuela, and: “his [Joe’s] conscience smote him with hammer-like blows. He felt unclean in every part of his body and mind.” Confusion, anxiety and turmoil continue to build up in Joe.
The affair with Stella is most troubling for him because, by this time, Joe gets a job as salesman in a large firm, and is close to marrying Cora. At work, he is advised by a colleague how to treat customers: “They [customers] lie to you about prices they can buy at outside, so you have to lie too. Here it’s two negatives making a positive, not two wrongs making a right.” Similarly, Joe learns that his married colleague Wrigglesworth has affairs: “ ‘If,’ he [Joe] thought, ‘Wrigglesworth, who is a married man, can go to other women, why can’t I, who am not married, have another woman[Stella]?”
Joe tries to justify his relationship with Stella: “Damn it, Stella was a lucky girl! He had actually done her a favour, yes a favour! For him to be noticing a girl of her colour, her class.” But events spin out of control when Stella becomes pregnant, and Joe’s desperate attempt to arrange an abortion ends in tragedy. The constant churning of pitch black asphalt in the bowels of Trinidad’s pitch lake – the world’s largest natural deposit of asphalt – links Joe firmly to his homeland, and serves as the perfect symbol of the deep distress and inconsolable anguish bred in him by colonial Trinidad.


Ganteaume’s side of the story on his one Test match
Andy Ganteaume walks out to bat

Andy Ganteaume, My Story: The Other Side of the Coin, St James, Trinidad and Tobago, Medianet Limited, 2007, pp.170. ISBN 976 95137 9-2

A review by Frank Birbalsingh
My Story: The Other Side of the Coin is the autobiography of Andy Ganteaume, a Trinidadian who was born in 1921 and played cricket (also football), but had a career of only one Test match when he opened the first innings for West Indies in their second Test against England, at Queen’s Park Oval, Trinidad, in February, 1948. Ganteaume scored 112 runs and was then omitted from seven subsequent series - versus India: 1948/49; England: 1950; Australia: 1951/52; India: 1952/53; England: 1953/54; Australia: 1954/55: New Zealand: 1955/56 - until he was selected for the West Indian tour to England in 1957; but he was still not picked in any of the five disastrous Tests in 1957 when West Indies were trounced 3: nil. Thwarted, by foul rather than fair means, Ganteaume was then outshone as a player by a galaxy of new stars – Hunte, Kanhai, Sobers, Collie Smith - although he later became a West Indian selector and manager and is, along with Rodney Redmond of New Zealand, chiefly remembered today for the uniqueness or curiosity of his single Test match career century.
No doubt Ganteaume’s failure to gain regular Test selection and the long gestation period of My Story - nearly sixty years - suggest a desire to get even. But if My Story only expresses a long-nursed sense of grievance, it could be dismissed merely as a rancourous display of pique rather than an anguished cry, de profundis, of protest and righteous indignation against criteria of race, colour and class that flourished in British Caribbean colonies before Independence in the 1960s. My Story’s aim, according to the author, is: “to dispel the perception that I was removed from the West Indian team after making a first appearance Test century because my scoring rate was too slow, and also to give some sense of the period in which sportsmen like me had to operate.” Ganteaume’s grandfather was Indian and his grandmother black (African), and his book exposes West Indian ethnic snobbery and discrimination which is not unlike South African apartheid, but without South Africa’s institutionalised legality and brutishness.
Historically, West Indian cricket insinuated its own racial criteria into class divisions inherited from the English game. Thus, like C.L.R. James, Ganteaume joined the black club of Maple, while Queen’s Park, the club that controlled cricket in Trinidad and Tobago, was reserved for Whites. The President of Queen’s Park, Sir Errol Dos Santos - nicknamed “The Great White Lord” - was also President of the West Indian Cricket Board of Control (WICBC) from 1954 to 1970 when he treated West Indian cricket as his private fiefdom. After democratic change had transformed the membership of Queen’s Park Club, Ganteaume tells Dos Santos: “the time has come when it is no longer acceptable for a private club to run cricket for a country,” and Dos Santos replies by asking slyly if he and his fellow Whites had not done a good job, and by rhetorically inquiring if the M.C.C. – the Marylebone Cricket Club – had not run cricket in England. Dos Santos then: “walked away imperiously after saying: ‘When you fellas mash it [Queen’s Park Club] up, don’t come back to me for help.’” By Dos Santos’s feudalistic and paternalistic standards the new (black) cricket régime at Queen’s Park Club were, in the author’s words, “incapable and presumptuous” to think they could run cricket in Trinidad and Tobago.
Dos Santos’s snobbery/racism explains the dilemma of preparing the Test schedule when England toured West Indies in 1948/49, and George Headley was the most qualified West Indian to lead the team. As Ganteaume puts it, Headley: “had the impediment of being of African descent; ‘the aristocracy’ had to be kept up and the ‘Establishment’ boys had to have their share of the pie. The welfare of West Indies cricket was incidental.” So a plan of shared captaincy was hatched with Headley appointed captain for the first and fourth Tests in Barbados and Jamaica respectively, (white) Stollmeyer for the second in Trinidad, and (white) John Goddard for the third in Guyana. Ironically, injuries and unfitness scotched the plan, ending with Headley as captain in the first Test, Gomez in the second, and Goddard in the third and fourth.
As far as details of his Test appearance are concerned, Ganteaume: “was convinced that ‘the Establishment’ did not want me to play.” He perceives a “devious design” to install (white) Kenny Trestrail as opening batsman in the second Test, and although he is later told by selector Edgar Marsden that he can play, Ganteaume notes Marsden’s: “resentment at having to announce something he didn’t want to happen.” To crown it all, soon after reaching his century, in the midst of his innings, captain Gerry Gomez sends a written message to him and his partner Frank Worrell to: “press on now. We are behind the clock and need to score more quickly.” Soon after that he was out. Ganteaume argues strongly that his 112 in four and a half hours was not unusual compared with other centuries at Queen’s Park Oval, for instance, the 133 in five and three-quarter hours by England’s Jack Robertson, in the same match.
There is much else in My Story: historical sketches, cricket anecdotes and reminiscences, portraits of cricketers and friends, and a profusion of nostalgic photos. Perhaps some readers may be skeptical of the author’s frequent reliance on his own subjective reactions, or personal observations and conversations - oral rather than written evidence. But this evidence is consistent and corroborated by some of the most famous cricketers of the author’s generation, for instance, Everton Weekes who speaks of “atrocities” and “injustices.” It is evidence too conscientiously preserved, candidly displayed, and confidently presented – for instance, a photo of the note sent out by Gomez – to be anything less than totally convincing.



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