When does a novel become a work of art? Austin Clarke's latest novel, The Polished Hoe, is that rare creation that soars above the earth to become more than the sum of its parts. Clarke, a poet, novelist, memoirist, and teacher, raised in Barbados and a long time resident of Toronto, has explored the unbreakable, unbearable connection between here and there, present and past¨the universal immigrant's tale¨in complex and engaging ways before, notably in his 1997 novel, The Origin of Waves. But this book is different, a profound work in the literal sense, so that one suspects Clarke, like his central character, has been tirelessly polishing this tale, that this is the story he was truly born to write.
At first The Polished Hoe bears resemblances to The Origin of Waves: a marathon dialogue between people who grew up together, people who share roots, memories and a language peculiar to themselves and their homeland. The time is about fifty years ago. Clarke's instrument of choice is the English language spoken by the governed in a British colony in the Caribbean, and he plays it like a virtuoso. The principal speaker introduces herself as "Mary-Mathilda", or "Tilda. To my mother I was Mary-girl. My names I am christen with are Mary Gertrude Mathilda, but I don't use Gertrude because my maid has the same name. My surname that people 'bout-here uses, is either Paul or Bellfeels, depending who you speak toÓ"
While the rhythm here is formal¨Mary¨Mathilda is making a Statement (in capitals) to the police and she means to get every detail right¨it also embodies the musical colloquialisms of what Clarke calls the Island of Bimshire, in words like "christen", or hyphenations like "'bout-here" that our ears soon grow accustomed to. Mary-Mathilda, a woman of standing in her community, a woman who employs a servant and lives in a plantation Great House, is voluntarily making a Statement about a violent act she has committed. It is her testament, and will be given in her own good time.
As her confession continues, the woman's strength as well as her beauty become more and more evident. First she speaks to a junior Constable and wears him out¨no matter, she goes on speaking even as he drifts off to sleep. But he is just the warm-up act for Sergeant Percy Stuart, a lifelong friend and admirer, who has been avoiding this particular duty, by having a few drinks in the local rum shop. Clarke's book juggles good humour with acts committed in "total darkness" against the backdrop of a darker history. Both Mary's criminal act and her Statement take place in the space of a single night. It's hard not to think of Joycean affinities here; and there is something of the word-struck Irish in Clarke's speakers, burdened by centuries of deprivation and humiliation, something of Joyce in this sprawling tale beginning early one night and ending at dawn in the same North Field where it all began. From the first page, it becomes clear that we could listen to the hypnotic Mary-Mathilda all night. In fact we will.
"Miss Mary", as the Seargeant prefers to address her, zigzags between what happened earlier that evening at seven o'clock, when she deliberately walked from her house along the valley-track and then through the cane fields to the Main House, carrying her obsessively polished hoe, and the time when she was seven or eight years old and was first noticed by the Driver of the plantation, Mr. Bellfeels, who ran a riding-crop over her body "as if it was his hand crawling over my body, and I was naked." Her mother, powerless witness to this scene, looked down at the ground. Mary-Mathilda's patiently polished hoe¨its blade and wood deserving of their meticulous descriptions¨is the very tool she used in the fields as a child. Past and present are therefore fused, but why? Like the aged rum she offers her interrogator, Miss Mary's narrative acts like a slow intoxicant. A dramatic and suspenseful storyteller, she is more than equal to the minister from whose sermons she so liberally quotes.
The relationship between Miss Mary and Mr. Bellfeels, now promoted to manager of the plantation, who has a white wife and family, is well-known in the community, and has produced their successful son Wilberforce, a doctor trained in England. Miss Mary's status is linked to both her possessions¨the selection of drinks she has her maid bring to her visitor from crystal decanters, her cherry and mahogany furniture, the European pictures on her walls¨and from her own towering reputation as a smart village beauty beyond the reach of the local boys who lusted after her. Wilberforce, a source of pride for his mother, seems, puzzlingly, also a focus of her anger, with his worldly talk of the "ironies of life," a phrase she likes to repeat, a motif in the sermon she weaves into the testament of her history and that of her people. Her son is educated, but, like the policeman she invites into her home, has much to learn.
Mystery fuels Clarke's narrative, as Miss Mary, ironically quoting Winston Churchill ("Give we the tools and we will do the rest"), veers between her life and that of her people: an African great-grandmother whose name she barely knows; men beaten or shot for challenging a brutal system; an abused friend who hanged herself from a tamarind tree; a husband, cuckolded by the governor himself, who struck back at the same time as his wife's ground glass poison took effect on the erring governor. The stories are legion, part of the shared humiliation and anger of the island's underclass, who weave them into myths called calypsos so no one forgets. Yet Miss Mary-Mathilda, in her fancy house, with her educated son, seems to have¨with her mother's blessing¨taken the advantages offered to her as the "Outside woman" of the near-white Mr. Bellfeels, and prospered. Nagging questions haunt Clarke's tale: what exactly has this mistress-wife done, and why now, after all these years?
That's what takes all night to uncover. The Sergeant becomes the audience for Miss Mary's corrective history lesson, sharing both in the horror at what has happened in the secret tunnels and passageways of his island and in the personally enlightening meandering memories of his hostess. Some of it he has heard before, but much of the worst he has not believed¨or chosen not to¨and as his knowing friend leads him literally to the matter at hand, her crime, she takes him first to the scenes of crimes of which he knew nothing, what Miss Mary calls the "pageantry of blood" involving everyone in island society, from the highest to the lowest. Yet Clarke makes it clear that these facts aren't what are needed to persuade us that Miss Mary's crime was more than an act of retribution, but her ordained destiny, as a god-fearing woman. "The story itself is the thing. That experience of living through the story." And this is what makes his book so extraordinary, what provides its epic sweep, from the deeply sensual to the factually political, so that we feel it in our every pore. Clarke doesn't merely tell the story; he makes us live through it, as the Sergeant and Miss Mary do on one long moonless night, addressing the crimes that have both kept their fates apart and knit them inexorably together. ˛