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Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Trinidad & Tobago Guardian Online
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Creole epic stands tall
From the Gates of Aksum, the latest work by local historian and publisher Jerry Besson, combines the passions and interests of a lifetime in a creole epic of tropical rococo grace and gargantuan reach.
Aksum reaches back beyond antiquity to the “antediluvian” period; it meanders through the myths of Judaeo-Christianity, bouncing Moses and King Solomon en route, passes through the Temple in Jerusalem, heads deep into Africa and Prester John’s kingdom to backtrack to Ethiopia, Europe of the Crusades, 11th-century Brittany and then across the Atlantic to Haiti, St Lucia, Trinidad and Venezuela of the late 18th and early 19th century.
The book’s catholic temporal span is matched by a true coscomel of genres (historic fantasy, thriller, quest) and themes: mathematical metaphysics and humanity’s fascination with the infinite; the creolisation of Enlightenment concepts; the role of both the church and Freemasonry in shaping early creole societies; the liberation of the New World from the Old, and the eternal search for the truth and wisdom which will redeem humanity.
As if this wasn’t enough (and reading this 445-pager is reminiscent of the 15-course breakfasts downed by early planters) there’s all the usual and unusual stuff about the human condition and its vagaries we’d expect from a novel half its length.
As a rough guide to where reading Aksum will take you, think Indiana Jones meets Alejo Carpentier, CLR James of Black Jacobins vintage, Malory’s Morte D’Arthur and Gabriel Garcia Marquez at his baroque best.
By now you may be overwhelmed, but Besson, while delighting in teasing his readers at times, is not an unrelenting author and everything in his magnus opus is crystallised both symbolically and narratively in the central icon of the mythical polyhedron, around which the plot is constructed and ultimately unravelled.
The polyhedron, “a crystal-like object…formed from tcham…a golden glass found in the centre of meteors,” embodies “the keys to the comprehension of an infinity of infinities,” displacing both the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail, from the discourses of redemption and future.
Its purpose is “to provide a cosmic intelligence which in a far-off future aided by the scientific achievements of that time provide the mechanisms for shaping a common humanity and the ultimate goal of man’s destiny…to be in harmony with the Name of God.”
We know from his earlier foray into fiction (The Voice in the Govi) that Besson is capable of creating unforgettable characters, and Aksum comes with its own cast of mystics, mendicants, poisoners, chevaliers, crusaders, conspirators, kabbalists, Freemasons, republicans, revolutionaries and many more.
But not since the novels of Alejo Carpentier (notably In the Kingdom of This World and Explosion in a Cathedral) has a Caribbean novelist resurrected so many historical figures and given them a second life.
Alongside the fictional heroic father and son de Gurvands, creoles of Breton extraction, the papal spy Fr Magneval, ambitious Creole Freemason Vincent Patrice, and the ethereal European Prince Idelfonso, we’re introduced to Francisco de Miranda and Simon Bolivar (heroes of South American liberation), Victor Hugues, Black Jacobin scourge of the Caribbean, Julien Fedon leader of the first Grenadian Revolution and leading players in Trinidad’s colonial history: Spanish Governor Chacon and the British Thomas Picton and Sir Ralph Abercromby.
With the grandiose design of transporting the polyhedron from its hidden refuge in a Breton chateau to a place in the New World on the same ten degrees north latitude as its original hiding place in Aksum, we see that Besson has established Trinidad as the site of a new legend: “This island wore the halo of legend, where prodigious events might take place, if, it indeed became the axis mundi, the next navel of the world, for another 2,300 years.”
However, there’s an ambiguity about Besson’s historical Trinidad, which foreshadows the problems we’re facing today. Prince Idelfonso may idealise La Trinite: “Surely one of the ‘Fortunate Isles,’ as told by Ptolemy. Utopia, the ideal and imaginary nation. Literally like no other place. Pardes, paradise, the ancient narrative re-told by Thomas More of Paradise Lost, and of John Milton, long lost, now regained. A Place in waiting, surely, on the wheel of history.”
But juxtaposed with this romanticism is the reality of early 19th-century anarchic and lawless Trinidad, which sounds entirely familiar: “Everybody a law unto themselves. Everybody with their own laws; Spanish law, French law, Republican law, Catholic law, English law; for every season a law. There has never been a colony with so many lawyers.”
Idelfonso’s admonition close to the conclusion, rings just as true of Trinidad in 2013: “This fair land, La Trinite, must not be Paradise Lost. John Milton must not have the last word. Lucifer’s hordes must be forever chained…La Trinite must not become Pandaemonium, the High Capital of Satan, the capital of Hell!”
Locally we may now have to revise our estimation of Gerard “Jerry” Besson. His passion for history and folklore, which has been at the axis of Paria Publishing, has metamorphosed into something rich and strange, an historical imaginary of a formative era in the development of the modern Caribbean.
Occasionally his rococo floridity becomes excessive (“Black into grey, slimy streaks of muddy sand burbled up the hot breath of the mangrove’s rot, held hostage gigantic Amazonian driftwood, exposed marooned flotsam, entertained diverse crustaceans, comatose algae, evaporating Portuguese men-of-war, tufts of sullen metallic green seaweed, and was pockmarked, beneath the hammer of noon, with innumerable holes of various sizes from which millions of crabs sought egress in a frenzy for survival beneath the watchful shadows of swift, low-flying egrets.”). Yet the exuberance and hyperbole of the language match the derring-do of the cloak-and-dagger action.
From the Gates of Aksum can viably claim a place in the emerging Caribbean canon as a Creole epic. Its canvas is vast; its cast of characters drawn from many histories; its episodes and events of both heroic and despicable proportions. Ironically Aksum gives the lie to a Nobel laureate of these parts and long-established elder of the Caribbean canon, who once caustically commented that nothing had ever happened in the Caribbean.
Besson will do a reading from the book on October 19 at Paper Based Bookstore, The Normandie, Nook Avenue, St Ann’s.
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