Michael NiblettThe Caribbean Novel Since 1945: Cultural Practice, Form, and the Nation-State. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012. vii + 260 pp. (Cloth US$60.00)

In: New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids
Raphael Dalleo Department of English, Florida Atlantic University Boca Raton FL 33431, U.S.A.

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The Caribbean Novel Since 1945 is a sharp and provocative study of Caribbean fiction from the second half of the twentieth century. Michael Niblett challenges what he sees as the postcolonial studies-inspired “orthodoxy of postnationalism” (p. 13) and “hostility toward totalities” (p. 13), deploying instead a methodology that is unashamed of its aspirations to offer a cognitive map of “the relationship between national transformation and literary form” in the Caribbean (p. 4). Instead of celebrating the dissolution of borders as liberating, Niblett urges us to keep in mind the “massively uneven integration of the Caribbean into the world market, simultaneously driving many of its nation-states into crisis” (p. 14). His book thus emerges as an important contribution to rethinking Caribbean writing in the context of ongoing international inequalities that threaten to undermine the critical purchase of a nostalgic return to anticolonial nationalism or a premature celebration of its surmounting.

Niblett insists that the nation remains a key site for organizing resistance to imperial capitalism, even as he readily and productively leaps beyond borders in his own approach to show parallels between Anglophone, Francophone, and Hispanic Caribbean writing. Considering these language groups separately might lead to a sense that their national developments are so different as to be almost incomparable: most of the Anglophone islands became independent in the two decades after 1962, while the Francophone and Hispanic Caribbean includes nations established in the nineteenth century and islands that are still not independent today. But the “world-systems standpoint” (p. 14) Niblett adopts allows him to read these divergent national histories as part of a larger narrative of transformations in global capitalism. From this standpoint, the “anticipation of collective renewal” in novels of the 1950s by Martinicans Édouard Glissant and Joseph Zobel parallels that of Trinidadian Sam Selvon’s work of the same period, even if the optimism in the French island “hinged less on prospective independence than on departmentalization, which many regarded as a stepping-stone to greater freedom” (p. 55). Similarly, this comparative approach lets Niblett see an ideology of consumption depicted in novels by Luis Rafael Sánchez, Earl Lovelace, and Patrick Chamoiseau.

The parallels Niblett identifies are not only in terms of the kinds of worlds these novels depict; the main premise of his book is that the experiments, crises, and innovations in literary form that we see in Caribbean fiction come from socioeconomic causes. Magical realism, yard fiction of the 1930s, appropriations or deconstructions of the epic—all are read as literary responses to the social world. Or to put it in Niblett’s terms, these formal devices are “translating social reality into” the “logic” of the literary field (p. 37). Niblett engages especially with Fredric Jameson’s idea of national allegory and Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of the field to develop his methodology. This approach allows Niblett to point to “utopian” impulses in Caribbean fiction, particularly in the way novels attempt to imagine alternatives to the isolated individualism or privatization that undergirds imperial economics. Thinking about the relationship of Caribbean writing to the nation as this sort of mediated engagement allows The Caribbean Novel Since 1945 to draw into the story writers like Wilson Harris and Erna Brodber, whose extreme stylization and resistance to mimeticism can lead to their sidelining as aestheticist rather than socially conscious writers. Niblett’s argument that Harris’s experiments with point of view speak to social transformations taking place in Guyana during the 1950s and 1960s is especially nuanced and convincing.

Tracing the ways that the literary field “translates” the social into its own language allows Niblett to provide excellent insights, while lending his readings political urgency. One notable example comes in his argument that “the crisis of political representation … finds its literary corollary in a crisis of aesthetic representation” (p. 25). But Niblett doesn’t leave us in a postcolonial abyss in which representation (either political or aesthetic) is deemed impossible or a silencing of the subaltern; instead, he sees in the work of Harris, Lovelace, and Glissant “that their interrogation of literary representation should not be confused with its endless deconstruction” (p. 125). By extension, Niblett concludes that these novels also teach that while some nationalist forms of political representation have led to elite appropriations, the novels of Lovelace, for example, show that “the problem is not representation or nationalism as such but the specific forms they have taken in Trinidad” (p. 125). These novels, in Niblett’s reading, push us not to reject representation and nationalism but to imagine alternative forms that are more open to internal difference and self-aware of the pitfalls of totalization. This attention to literature’s utopian impulses and alternative aspirations makes The Caribbean Novel Since 1945 an important work for thinking not only about Caribbean literature but also about Caribbean politics more generally.

At the same time, one limitation of Niblett’s methodology is that, in focusing so much on the way literature reflects or is influenced by social forces, the book is less concerned with the question of whether these imaginings have actually reflected back on and affected the society around them. A more materialist—or more precisely, dialectical—way of thinking about the relationship of literature to the social might look at more examples like the one that opens the book, where Niblett mentions how the 1946 overthrow of the president in Haiti was inspired by surrealism. Without more examples like this of literature entering the world around it, it can be hard to see how the close readings of the political imaginaries in these novels translate in the other direction, from literature back to the outside world.

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