Tuesday, May 05, 2009

CRC 3: "In the Castle of My Skin"

This is my third book for the Caribbean Reading Challenge.

In The Castle of My Skin by George Lamming, originally published 1953.

This novel is a somewhat fictionalized autobiography which covers the life of the young boy "G." on Barbados from the age of 9 until he leaves the island for Trinidad at the age of 17.  Unlike most autobiographical or semi-autobiographical works, this one does not focus exclusively on the character of G. but moves about freely in its point of view and allows the reader to see the life of Creighton's Village from the perspectives of a number of the village's inhabitants.  Lamming himself describes his narrative intention in an "Introduction" added to the work in 1983:  

The book is crowded with names and people, and although each character is accorded a most vivid presence and force of personality, we are rarely concerned with a prolonged exploration of an individual consciousness.  It is the collective human substance of the Village itself which commands our attention.  The Village, you might say, is the central character.  (p. xxxvi)

Lamming develops a number of themes throughout the novel.  Most obvious, of course, is the childhood and adolescence of G. whom we see at various points during the eight-year span of the work.  We see him (and the other characters, as well) primarily in terms of his relationships with others -- his mother, his close friends, and his teachers and to some extent the other adults of the Village.  We watch, for instance,  as his friendships undergo changes as he and his associates mature and begin to move apart as they pursue different interests and goals; G. himself is one of very few boys chosen to move on into High School and receive much more education than any of his close friends.   Eventually, it is his education which enables him to leave Barbados for Trinidad at the end of the book.

Another major theme in the novel is the nature of the society that exists within the Village; this is a society firmly based on the concept of colonialism.  The village is named after the English "landlord" who owes the property and who has the responsibility for caring for the Village in a variety of ways, and the villagers depend upon and largely trust him to do what he can for them.  But, over the course of the novel (which covers the period roughly from the late 1930s into the mid-1940s), the social and economic situation begins to change.  There are labor movements which spring up that oppose the colonial basis of local society, and there develops a certain amount of hostility on the part of some of the local residents toward the landlord.  A movement begins based on the idea that the residents should own their own land.  By the end of the novel, the situation has drastically changed: the English landlord no longer owns the local land, and the majority of the village's residents discover that they are being defrauded out of the land that was supposed to have become theirs.  Lamming demonstrates that colonialism is a system capable of much evil, but  he also shows that the end of this system can just as easily lead to new evils as some Barbadans turn predator and prey upon their fellows. 

Closely related is the theme of the economic life of the village.  Initially, the villagers are almost entirely dependent on the landlord's plantation for their livelihoods.  As the novel progresses, however, this situation gradually alters as the landlord is unable to maintain the full level of productivity of his holdings.  One clear indicator of this through the course of the work is the decreasing frequency with which local freight trains come to the village to load products from the plantation.  Eventually, the train disappears altogether and the tracks are ripped up and sold for scrap.  Life becomes increasingly harsh and difficult for the villagers.

Another theme of the novel is the connection between the villagers and the natural world.  Their lives are closely bound up with the course of nature; the very beginning of the novel reveals this through the flood that sweeps through the village on G.'s ninth birthday, during considerable damage to the villagers' homes and to some extent to their lives.  It is through G. particularly that we see a constant, pervasive awareness of the natural world in all its multiple manifestations -- beauty, destruction, productivity, and life itself.  This contact with the natural world on the part of the villagers is something else which is lost during the course of the novel.  There is a rich forest filled with mahogany trees adjacent to the town at the beginning of the novel; by the end, the forest is gone, clear-cut and sold off, apparently by the former landlord.

By the end of the novel, it has become apparent why G. feels he has to leave Barbados, not simply because there's no real way he can make much use of his education locally, but because he has become isolated from the world of the Village as that world has itself largely disappeared.  By and large, all of the villagers are experiencing this loss of the life they had known for decades; G. is lucky in that he is one of the few who will be able to escape into a life with greater promise than the Village now holds for its residents.

* * *
A Brief Personal Note:  I initially found this book to be fairly tough going.  It's stylistically dense, and Lamming sometimes carries on single passages to what can only be described as exhausting lengths.  I thought I'd made a mistake in choosing it to read for the Caribbean Reading Challenge.  By the time I'd finished, I'd completely changed my mind.  Make no mistake:  This is not a light or casual reading experience.  But it's more than worth it.  I now understand why this is considered one of the most important books by a Caribbean writer of the 20th century, and I would not have missed the experience of reading it for anything.


Blogger Nguthi Joseph kagechu said...

I read "In the castle of my skin " for A level literature. The book has remained the bigest parable after those those of Jesus of the Bible.

8:42 PM  

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