[Caribbean Literature]

Juxtaposition of Tales in Cambridge

Part Four of The Double and the Center

David P. Lichtenstein '99, Brown University, Contributing Editor, Caribbean Web

Whereas V.S. Naipaul uses doubles (in The Enigma of Arrival) and foils to ultimately place himself at the center of the text, Caryl Phillips attempts to challenge the notion of center altogether. In his novel Cambridge, Phillips creates both structural and thematic doubles, and by their very interplay, by their contradictions, they admit no room for an all-encompassing center. Phillips' only portrayals of the center appear shadowy and distant, or with their credibilty undermined even as he presents them.

Much of the doubling occurs in the structure of the novel. The tales of Emily, the young Englishwoman traveling to the West Indies to look over her father's estate, and Cambridge, the enslaved, then liberated and educated, then recaptured African brought to Emily's father's estate, fill the majority of the text. Emily and Cambridge at first glance seem binary opposites -- she the white, rich, daughter of a colonial British family; he the poor, black African slave. But on closer examination they actually share a great many qualities -- both are well-educated, both disapprove of the immorality they perceive around them, both have made a tragedy-marked journey to the West Indies, and both occupy a subordinate position in society, Emily due to her status as a female and Cambridge to his as black and enslaved. Just as Phillips sets up these two as potential opposites only to knock down such dividing walls, so too does he deal with their unique experiences and perspectives. For each deals with an "other", the opposite race. And in this opposite race each finds theft, immorality, deception, images of cannibalism, wanton sexuality, etc. In the end, with both races painted as the "other", that term begins to lose its destructive power -- just as the notion of the "center" to that other will also begin to lose its sway in this narrative. Emily describes how the environment of the West Indies could melt away these distinctions:

Does he [Father] have no conception of what would claim us all in the tropics were we to slip an inch below the surface of respectability? In these climes all is possible.

Though Emily perhaps meant to refer to the ill influence of the blacks on the whites (or the perception of the West Indies as prone to moral degeneration thanks to slavery), her words essentially note the capacity of all sides for evil, and prophetically claim that both sides will behave immorally without due restraint on the island. Indeed, her mention of the "surface of respectability" implies that the seemingly moral and proper behavior of the colonizer is just that -- a surface, masking the evil tendencies lurking underneath.

Both of these characters belong in some way to the periphery, to a lower status in the patriarchal white-dominated society. They call attention to those who were silenced, to voices not generally taken into account (in standard history texts), as Emily describes in a recollected experience with Father:

Papa I have buried feelings. She listened as her voice unspooled in silence. Feelings locked deep inside of me, hopes that demand that I must not abandon them...lowering her eyes she fell into a gloomy study (4).

In addition, as many Postcolonial texts do, both Cambridge and Emily in some way reference or "write back" to the traditional center. Phillips makes this literal with Emily's somewhat critical letters to her father or Cambridge's efforts in speaking out against the cruel practices of the manager Mr. Brown. Though Mr. Brown represents one icon of the center, more apt representations include the anonymouse narrator of the newspaper account of Brown's death. This voice, which should synthesize the conflicting stories the reader has already heard from Cambridge and Emily, quite obviously privileges the white colonial power by calling Cambridge "insane" and making such comments as:

The negroes on this property had been for a long time in the habit of pilfering, and in many instances Mr. Brown had discovered the pilferers (offenders) which caused him to be disliked, and determined one among them...to undertake his destruction (171).

Phillips undermines the credibility of this testament by placing it directly after Cambridge's story, which not only compels the reader to sympathize with Cambridge but brings certain details (was the murder weapon Mr. Brown's crop or Cambridge's copper skimmer?) from the two accounts in direct conflict. Thus Phillips finds another way to discredit the supposed center, by casting doubt on its power to objectively construct a murder story -- foreshadowing his general attack on privileged and fictional constructions of history.

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