By BC Pires
Apart from the relatively small number of discerning people who actually read—the ones who keep their books on shelves, not tables— books remain, at best, mystifying to the Trini. Scratch the surface and that mystification is revealed as a veneer covering suspicion and hostility: “That vagrant fella went to CIC but he read too mucha book and went orf”.
But, somewhere deep inside, Trinis know books are worthwhile; if only because the Bible is a book. Somehow, despite their fear of books and reading—which is a fear of retrospection, self-analysis and the truth—somewhere, somehow, without understanding them at all, Trinidadians understand books are important.
So when someone does something they think is important—keeps a grocery or law firm or bank open for 100 years, or arrives from China or India or Syria, or is elected to high office or put behind bars—they intuit that a book should be written about that person or event.
In the last 22 years, I have been approached many times to write or ghost-write such books. Most, I turn down out of hand. Why would anyone, least of all, me, want their name associated with shop-keeping? Even on an almost grand scale? Tescos, in the UK, could be the subject of a book, perhaps, but not HiLo, Maraval. The offers I entertained got nowhere because the prospective publishers were astonished by my proposed fee; which reveals the deep Trini contempt for writing, as an art, books, as a form, and themselves, as citizens.
There are noticeable exceptions, of course, such as the Judy Raymond-written series on important female artists such as jeweller Barbara Jardine and designer Meiling, but, largely speaking, quasi-biographical Trini books are crap. Scan the local books shelves in bookstores in Port of Spain and you will find many examples—almost as many as there are titles—of books that should not have been written at all, but were, and badly, about people who should not be remembered at all, but were, by their offspring, to whom they were as gods; worthless books “commemorating” people who really should be swiftly forgotten, if they should have been noticed at all in the first place.
Manikin, The Art & Architecture of Anthony C Lewis may be the exception to the rule that such books are not worth reading by anyone other than the direct family (who, of course, already know the story).
Manikin begins with the solid premise that the story of Trinidad’s first architect is a genuinely important one; and Manikin moves on successfully from there because the story is surprisingly well told. Though no professional writer was hired to write or edit the text, it is very strong. The book was begun by the late Lewis himself and he wrote very well. (The strongest parts of the book are those written by him, for various publications or for himself; consider his piece for Bim.) Lewis’s eldest son, Brian, and architect Geoffrey MacLean, appear to have taken over the job of finishing the text. For whatever reason, they kept the language spare and, as a result, strong. There is no waffling, no plundering of the thesaurus for synonyms of “great”. Lewis’ story is told simply, directly and with as few words as possible. So told, the story itself reveals the greatness of Lewis’ achievement. To their credit, the family does not try to cover up Lewis’ human failures; indeed, the most touching part of the story comes from the revelation of the last years of his life, spent speechless after a stroke.
The book, though aimed at the coffee table— this is the reality of publishing in Trinidad—is very well planned. Gerry & Alice Besson of Paria Publishing, probably Trinidad’s most knowledgeable publishers in the field—their coffee table books earn a place on shelves—are acknowledged and one suspects their influence in the inclusion of a battery of sidebars crammed with factual information that properly places Lewis’ work—and his philosophy—in its historical context.
For me, though, even if there were no text, the book would be powerful. Lewis had as much potential as an artist as he realised as an architect. Most of the watercolours included in the book were done when he began painting in semi-retirement; they show a talent that was not wasted because of Lewis’ work as an architect—but one that really should have been developed.
Lewis’ watercolour of the Chase Manhattan bank building, showing a perspective of Port of Spain’s Broadway, the lighthouse and Independence Square South could have earned him a job on any of today’s leading graphic novel series, from Watchmen (made into a film) to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Hauntingly beautiful, it qualifies as art, though made in the workmanlike course of architectural practice. For that alone, to me, the book was worth doing. But the real test of a book is whether it is worth having. I read Manikin in one sitting, from cover to cover.
And loved it.
—Manikin is published by acla: works. 220pp.