Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Ventriloquist's Tale by Pauline Melville

Maya Jaggi (The Guardian, 1/1/10) notes that "the imaginative power to inhabit others' lives, and ventriloquise voices, nourished Melville's early life as an actor and stand-up comic." Her pre-school years in the 1940s were spent in the colony of British Guiana. Her father was "mixed-race Guyanese, part South American Indian, African and Scottish", and her mother came from a "big working-class family" in south London. They had met in Cuba while her mother was on a break from working on the Canadian railways. The family (she has two sisters) moved to south London in the early 1950s, when she was "five or six". Her father, who worked for a sugar company, fell ill with tuberculosis, spending long spells in a sanatorium. Melville had TB as a teenager. "I hadn't known my father had it; in England it was a great disgrace, to do with poverty and immigrants."

She spent time with relatives in Guyana's Rupununi savanna, a remote region near the Brazilian border peopled mainly by Wapisiana Indians, where her part-Indian ancestors were well-off cattle ranchers. The Ventriloquist's Tale (1997) was partly a riposte to Evelyn Waugh, whose travels in British Guiana in 1933 fed A Handful of Dust. In an afterword in 2007 to Waugh's travelogue Ninety-Two Days, Melville recalled her indignation at his scorn for the "nauseating hospitality of savages" – one of whom saved his life. Waugh mentions a Mr Melville, of white Jamaican-Scottish ancestry, who settled down with two Wapisiana sisters as wives, and had 10 children. Waugh's diaries also refer to a "dotty bastard nephew, son of John Melville by his three-quarter sister." That hint of incest among her forebears lies at the heart of the novel. She recently spent years compiling a Wapichan dictionary with a cousin, aware of "how extraordinary the translations are – the word for snack is 'liar', because it lies to your stomach that you're full. It's being overwhelmed by English, and is likely to die out."

Barzotto and Bonnici analyzed the novel, with special focus on transculturation. They appear to incorrectly associate the narrator with Wifreda, rather than Sonny (the Prologue reveals that the narrator handles narration for the whole novel). They summarized the action of a story that takes place in 1919:

The story describes the life of Chofy McKinnon. Chofy is a poor farmer, aged forty, resigned to his monotonous life and marriage. When he goes to Georgetown with his old aunt Wifreda, who needs an eye operation, he meets Rosa Mendelson, an English scholar who is doing research on Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), a British writer who visited British Guyana in 1933. Rosa is delighted to learn that Chofy’s aunt had met Waugh, and she is even more pleased when she realizes she can combine her literary research with a satisfying sexual relationship with the passionate Chofy. Differences in culture and background, however, prevent Rosa and Chofy from achieving intellectual as well as sexual harmony.

The second part of the story is told in a non-chronological way because it is a flashback by Wifreda’s stream of consciousness while recovering from her eye surgery. In fact, Wifreda is becoming blind, superstitiously attributed to Beatrice’s curse because the former has discovered her incestuous relationship with her brother.

Auntie Wifreda starts to remember her past life in the Waronawa region, and everything that happened in her Indian village. Wifreda is Zuna’s daughter. Maba and Zuna are full sisters and they are married to the same white man: Alexander McKinnon, a lean and energetic blue-eyed Scotsman in his 30s. McKinnon arrives in the Indian village via Jamaica where he was raised. On the way he feels ill and is abandoned by the Indians in the middle of the forest.
He finds the Wapisiana river village and Maba takes care of him, teaches him the Wapisiana language, and marries him. Photography is his great passion and pastime.

McKinnon married Maba and later Zuna, her sister. After having many children (Danny, Beatrice, Alice, Freddie from Maba, Wifreda from Zuna) they still cohabited in a peaceful way since McKinnon appreciated that wild style of life. Beatrice and Danny, sister and brother respectively, had an incestuous relationship and an autistic baby was born (Sonny). They ran away from the tribe and after being found they were separated forever. She went to Canada and he married a Brazilian girl. The baby was left to Wifreda and one day he mysteriously disappeared.

After more than two decades, McKinnon decides to leave the village and returns to Scotland. He abandons his wives and the children. Later on, it is said that he married a Scotswoman and ‘reshaped’ his European personality to erase his previous life among Amerindians. Wifreda continues to live with her husband and children and raising people’s children in her husband’s
village. Chofoye returns to his wife after seeing his son, Bla-Bla, killed by a bomb explosion in an accident caused by the American who were invading the territory for oil. After that, all the McKinnons fly back to the Rupununi. Auntie Wifreda recovers her sight. In the meantime, Rosa returns to England and feels terrible without Chofy beside her. Life in the Rupununi goes to normality again.

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