One way to grasp that intelect


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Category: Profiles 31 Jan 10

When I told Anna that I wanted to interview her father, Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, I had no idea what I wanted to ask him. So when he told me, at the opening ceremony at University of the West Indies, St Augustine Campus, where they were honouring him, to “go away and have a sandwich or something,” while he figured out if, how and when he would sit down with me to an interview, I meekly did as I was told. I didn’t tell Anna this, but what I wanted to do was sit at his feet on a strip of sand, while he painted or wrote, a film, poem, essay or play, and absorb him as one would sunlight. There is no other way one can grasp that Herculean intellect. I didn’t feel equal to doing a literary analysis of his hefty volumes of plays, and poetry (22 of each), not even ‘The Bounty,” which I loved, and “Omeros,” which got him his Nobel (endlessly astonishing.) How did this poet, who wrote “I’m just a red nigger who love the sea; I had a sound colonial education; I have Dutch, nigger and English in me, and either I’m nobody or I’m a nation,” have the gall to rewrite Homer’s Odyssey, for God’s sake?

How did he set it in his, these inchoate new world islands, dots on the world map, inhabited by people of four continents whose memory of language, culture was as lost as a precious photograph maliciously dropped in water, bleeding colour, blurring lines, fading to white, leaving a nothingness? Yet, that’s his life work. I wanted to gather some of that huge ebullience. Is there such a thing as laughter that starts in a razor-sharp brain, and like a tornado gathers momentum, eventually erupting in a full-bodied belly laugh. I saw that laughter when, years ago, he was directing a Dream on Monkey Mountain with his actors in the old Fire Station building which housed the Trinidad Theatre Workshop; at a cooler fete around the Savannah (a man who draws from the people, unlike Naipaul, though he can’t stand either the writer or the comparison).

In that laughter was gathered up all of the affection of the “excavation” of our buried language he’s been doing all in all his work, all his life. When I did sit down with him in his suite at the Hyatt, in mid-January, there was a quiet in him I hadn’t seen before, even something tremulous (odd in a man who always reminded me of a virile bellowing lion who wrote tenderly in the night) that is reflected in his latest volume of poetry, “White Egrets,” to be published in April. An extract: “Now he acquired/authority from pain:/you could hear his breath/and the littlest gesture he made was profoundly tired.” There was loss in his face and his new poems. He was 80. He was struggling with diabetes. Many friends had died. His twin brother had died the year before; His sister had just died the week before. There must have been the residual bitter after-taste at having to pull out of standing for Oxford’s chair of Poetry, despite being vindicated. His rival, Ruth Padel, admitted that she publicised charges that he had sexually harassed a former student (and herself resigned in eight days.)

Naturally, I asked him what he thought about his nemesis, fellow Nobel Laureate VS Naipaul, who shreds these islands as fast as Walcott reassembles the fragments, who despite being born here, distances himself from these islands, as much as Walcott draws from them. “I was waiting for this,” he said, wincing. He didn’t like the comparison, but it was inevitable, between the two finest living writers in English, one born here, the other an “honorary” Trinidadian. I reminded him that he’d written a poem on Naipaul.

In “Mongoose” he’d written: “I have been bitten; I must avoid infection”
Or else I’ll be as dead as Naipaul’s fiction” each stabbing phrase is poison.

Since he has made that snaring style a prison

The plots are forced, the prose sedate and silly

The anti-hero is a prick named Willie

Who lacks the conflict of a Waugh or Lawrence

And whines with his creator's self-abhorrence.

He says now:

“His (VS Naipaul’s) nastiness has increased with time. Worse, he has used it to strengthen his career. I can only have contempt for that. I don’t want to bring a judgment on his work. Comparisons are inevitable, not necessary.” Instead, he wants the newer generation of writers to “look for something of one’s own” and says since he’s come home he’s acknowledged something he’s known for a long time: “People don’t give Trinidad a break- Including Trinis, and part of the deal is a jubilant self-contempt.” And here I saw Walcott shed every bit of his crustacean exterior (and he can be as dismissive, as intimidating as Naipaul, even more commanding). The heartbreaking crack in his voice, in that weathered face in which I saw both sunlight and loss, was unexpected, and I thought then to be around him is to witness a kind of immortality that only the great achieve. 

He said: “I was on the waterfront and watched the ferry coming in. It was beautiful, the sea, the sunset, the docks. These are ‘touristy’ things, but to me these are beautiful experiences. “I haven’t been in this part of Port-of-Spain, and for me it’s elation. The scenes you see have the ebullience of life. I don’t think any of us as writers has fulfilled what Trinidad is, and maybe it’s too late for some of us to do it. “Maybe your generation should not begin from self-condemning, self-ridiculing. Naipaul has spent his time laughing at people. It’s got nothing to do with the profundity of literature or the reality of the pitch of the life here.” He’d said in his Nobel speech: “Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole.” Walcott is still reassembling, piece by piece, these islands, his and ours.



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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur