The account of a journey - by steamer and aeroplane and sailing ship - through the long island chain of the West Indies, and of the idiosyncraticand highly dissimilar civilisation that have sprung up amonst the Caribean Islands.
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Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) was an intrepid traveler, a heroic soldier, and a writer with a unique prose style. After his stormy schooldays, followed by the walk across Europe to Constantinople that begins in A Time of Gifts (1977) and continues through Between the Woods and the Water (1986), he lived and traveled in the Balkans and the Greek Archipelago. His books Mani (1958) and Roumeli (1966) attest to his deep interest in languages and remote places. In the Second World War he joined the Irish Guards, became a liaison officer in Albania, and fought in Greece and Crete. He was awarded the DSO and OBE. He lived partly in Greece—in the house he designed with his wife, Joan, in an olive grove in the Mani—and partly in Worcestershire. He was knighted in 2004 for his services to literature and to British–Greek relations.
Joshua Jelly-Schapiro is a doctoral student in geography at the University of California, Berkeley. He has written for The Guardian, The Believer, The Nation, Foreign Policy, and The New York Review of Books, among other publications.
The Caribbean as Fermor experienced it in the 1940's was a world of incredible fusions and contradictions that didn't exist anywhere else in the world - the mix of indigenous, African and European cultures, the juxtaposition of American advertisements with ancient cannibal practices, the incredible richness of the natural environment coupled with the decaying state of the colonial cities.
Although Fermor had travelled extensively, he found the West Indies to be unlike anything he could have imagined, and each new experience is a surprise. This book is a pleasure to read, full of excitement and rich sensory experience, as well as beautifully written. Fermor's first view of the islands demonstrates the elegance of his language:
"To port, pale green islands were floating on the water, but the main body of Grande Terre...lay in shadow on the starboard side between us and the dawn. It was just possible to descry the waves of black vegetation and the lakes of mist entangled in the treetops where the country dipped. In the space of a few minutes the sunrise melted from violet into amber, from amber into scarlet, from scarlet into zinc and from zinc into saffron. The dark vegetation became a line of giant, pale green parsley, which hovered a hundred yards away in a fluttering cumulus that nothing appeared to tether to either land or sea."
Language, religion, costume, geography - the author inquires into everything, and because of this natural curiosity, he gets himself into some interesting, and often funny, situations, like being chased around the beach by a blindfolded man with a divining rod. Equally interesting, though, are his descriptions of the specific melding of cultures that has occurred exclusively in these islands:
"The afternoon was baking and shadowless, and the town seemed only with an effort to remain upright among its thoroughfares of dust. It was as empty as a sarcophagus. The French guide-book describes it as a great centre of elegant Creole life in the past, hinting at routs and cavalcades and banquets of unparalleled sumptuousness. Acts of God must have fallen upon it with really purposeful vindictiveness, for not by the most violent manhandling of the imagination could one associate a chandelier or a powdered wig with this collection of hovels. Not even a dog was to be seen. But behind a tall crucifix stood a cemetery of such dimensions - Pere Lachaise and the Campo Santo gone mad...These acres inhabited by the dead, these miniature hails and palaces and opera-houses, were, it occurred to me, the real town, and the houses falling to ruins outside the railings were in the nature of a negligible suburb."
He is generally respectful of the cultures he encounters, and describes the dining habits of cannibals without batting an eyelash:
"The victims were prepared while still alive, by cutting slits down the back and sides into which pimentos and other herbs were stuffed. After being dispatched with a mace, they were trussed to poles and roasted over a medium fire, while the women busied themselves turning and basting, and catching the lard in gourds and calabashes, which they allowed to set and then stored away. They would eagerly lick the sticks where the gravy had fallen. Often the meal was half roasted, and then half boiled. Some of the meat was eaten on the spot, the rest was cut up and smoked and also prudently put by for lean or unpatriotic periods in the future. But there was a symbolical aspect to these banquets. They were considered to seal a military victory, to put it for ever beyond question. De Rochefort reports that a Carib prisoner, while being made ready, would jeer at his captors, saying that, although they would soon be eating him, he had already swallowed so many of their family or tribe, and was so thoroughly nourished on their neighbours and kin, that they would virtually be eating one of their own people. This kind of language would continue until the final blow was delivered. It never failed to exasperate the company, and to cast an atmosphere of dejection over the whole meal."
That is the beauty of this narrative - it is just one tasty morsel after another.
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