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A remarkable imagined portrait of Cazabon
Sunday, November 11, 2012
Light Falling on Bamboo
Author: Lawrence Scott
Published by Tindal Street Press, 2012
“Don’t forget where you’ve come from. Don’t forget the ideas of freedom that have carried us this far,” Michel Jean Cazabon’s mother urges her favourite son from her deathbed. Cazabon, who has returned to his birthplace, Trinidad, after eight years of artistic apprenticeship and training in Europe, will find this final wish to be complex and fragmented, like so much else in his life. He is drawn repeatedly to the stunning natural beauty of his homeland, and captivated by the noble elegance of those who have toiled in its fields.
Despite the pleasures of being an artist in his natural domain, he is soon reminded that island life goes hand in hand with its own specific set of perils. Temptations, including the form of his childhood playmate Josie, beckon in Cazabon’s moments of weakness, even as he fondly awaits the arrival of his French wife and children on Trinidadian shores. As a painter and a son of the plantation class, he finds himself divided in more ways than he wishes to be, quickly learning that no creative muse comes without a past story.
Lawrence Scott, a prize-winning Trinidad and Tobago author whose fiction has been long-listed for the Whitbread and Booker prizes, is the author of the novels Witchbroom (shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize—Best First Book, in 1993), Aelred’s Sin (winner, Commonwealth Writers’ Prize—Best Book in Canada and the Caribbean, in 1999) and Night Calypso (shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize—Best Book in Canada and the Caribbean, in 2005), and the short story collection Ballad for the New World. Scott also edited the book Golconda—Our Voices, Our Lives, based on a public history project about Golconda, a former sugar estate in south Trinidad.
Scott’s latest novel is nothing less than remarkable, blending in ambitious detail the real life of one of Trinidad’s founding artistic figures, with a fictional account of what his most personal moments might have resembled. An intimate biography of the actual Michel Jean Cazabon is not a matter of public record, as the author himself remarks in his historical notes. Light Falling on Bamboo would probably read as seedy conjecture in the hands of a writer less sensitive to character development. The reverse is true here: one is given a portrait of Cazabon as he might plausibly have been. The reader leans towards believing, rather than discrediting, the artistic licences that Scott himself has taken—what emerges is the study of a complex, haunted figure.
Divisions run through the novel, which begins in 1840s Trinidad and spans more than five decades. These ruptures are not simply evident in Cazabon’s conflicts, but echo throughout the structure of Trinidadian society. While crossing the greens on his way to the Governor’s residence, Cazabon muses that “he could have been somewhere in Hertfordshire,” so strong are the parallels of the local atmosphere with that of a British pastoral scene. Money is described as the province of power; those who possess it are the white landowners and dignitaries for whom Cazabon is commissioned to paint epic vistas. These members of the elite ruling class continue to consider themselves superior to the former slaves who built the plantation empires. As Cazabon himself admits with deep guilt, the slave trade is at the heart of his family’s financial success too—a success he tries to distance himself from with dedication to his art.
Light Falling on Bamboo presents Cazabon’s Trinidad with vivid imagery; each description is ornate, infused with the colours the artist favoured in his famous pieces. Michel Jean’s earliest daydreams in the novel revolve around painting, evoked by events as routine as a carriage ride through Port-of-Spain, where “he noticed the light on water and on the surrounding hills changing all the time from lemon to subdued white, plain greys and blues, the piercing fire of the sun lighting up the greens and ochres. He longed to paint.”
It is painting that keeps Cazabon’s demons at bay; it is painting that cements his purpose as a human being, caught as he is between rapidly changing worlds. As he reflects to Governor “Ping” Harris in an intense conversation, “The people have made this landscape…I mostly paint out the hardship and keep the dignity. Not that I am blind to what has happened here.”
No aspect of Scott’s prose feels blinkered: in the writer’s imagined portrayal of a luminary artist, the reader is given one of the finest examples of art reflecting what is best about nature, and vice versa. This is a multi-layered, sympathetic characterisation of Cazabon as an artist, husband, son, and as a figure who fully embodies both tragedy and triumph at different phases of his life. It is impossible to term Light Falling on Bamboo a biography, but one imagines that Cazabon himself would have been pleased with the result.
Lawrence Scott will read from Light Falling on Bamboo at Paper Based, The Normandie, St Ann’s, on November 24 at 4.30 pm.