On a Novel by Caryl Phillips

[by Jerry Ward, Jr.]

Toni Morrison’s Beloved deftly exposes the psychology of enslavement in North America, but it is Dessa Rose by Sherley Anne Williams that succeeds best in exposing the narratological features of a female slave’s “story,” namely the verbal strategies she uses to impede the extent to which her story (herstory versus history) can be stolen. Caryl Phillips, however, ought to be valued as much as Williams and Morrison from the angle of post-colonial witnessing. In his novel Cambridge, he “films” the tragic irony of the metanarrative of the enslaver and the enslaved, bringing to fiction what Hegel brought to philosophy.

Morrison, Williams, and Phillips inscribe the space of slavery in the so-called New World.  That space, or actually what is a remembered space-time continuum, also includes time-management in Margaret Walker’s Jubilee and Gayl Jones’s Corregidora. Walker and Jones sharpen views of how novels on slavery overflow generic boundaries and conventions; their novels are glosses on the phenomenology of slavery in human histories, the spectacle of shared responsibility regarding the multi-layered “Other” in the production of identity riddles, paradoxes, and dilemmas. We gaze on the “Other” as an ancient entity that has newly migrated from Chaos to Reality. And our gaze establishes proof that we are looking at nothing.

Phillips’s special contribution to the mimesis of the absurdly absent is his excellence in dealing with dialogic imagination. He enables language to penetrate slavery’s dark shadows.

Phillips is meticulous in recovering 19th century British English in several registers throughout the linked parts of Cambridge: 1) Emily Cartwright’s journal of her visit to her father’s West Indian plantation is a travelogue that doubles as both a treatise on animal nature and as a “blind” confessional memoir regarding abolitionist yearnings; 2) the slave Cambridge’s autobiographical justification of revenge, so resonant of Equiano’s narrative and Nat Turner’s disputed confession; 3) the feature story by an unnamed journalist which details Cambridge’s murder of “a person by the name of Brown.” One must guess that Brown, the overseer of the estate which belonged to Emily’s father is the father of the bastard to which the very proper Emily gives birth. Thus, the newspaper story is a public deposition for the enlightenment of colonial slave-owners. The narrator’s Prologue and Epilogue frame the white female and black and white male gendering of story.

Phillips uses his excellent mimetic skills to reveal the twisted psychology and ethics of the always already fallen world made by the enslaved and the enslavers. Cambridge is one of the finest examples of the purpose that post-colonial fictions serve.

Jerry Ward, Jr.
December 15, 2014