First published in the Boston Globe 6 February 2011
It’s impossible for me to put into words how much I would not like to take a winter vacation in the Caribbean. I have never had to, but do have fixed ideas of what it would entail, namely: air travel, the company of people in pastel clothing and not enough of it, and an oppressive, even dictatorial atmosphere of relaxation and fun. It would be different, of course, if I had interesting, well-to-do acquaintances with welcoming houses living on those islands and was traveling in the company of a couple of entertaining friends — and it was no later than 1950. Yes, I could bear that; and, indeed, just that very state of affairs may be found in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s richly detailed and ebullient “The Traveller’s Tree: A Journey through the Caribbean Islands,’’ first published in 1950 and now reissued (New York Review Books Classics, paperback, $19.95).
Fermor, born in London in 1915, is now best known for his accounts of walking from Rotterdam to Istanbul in the 1930s in “A Time of Gifts’’ (1977) and “Between the Woods and the Water’’ (1986). At the time of his trip to the Antilles in 1947, however, he was famous for his exploits in occupied Crete during the war, most especially his kidnapping of the German commander, General Kreipe.
“The Traveller’s Tree’’ was Fermor’s first book and, as Joshua Jelly-Schapiro notes in his excellent introduction, it is very much of its time, “brimming with the gratitude for life particular to a European generation that had just buried half its members.’’ Further, it is “suffused with the wondering spirit of an engagé asking after what will become of these New World islands which are passing from Old Europe’s imperial shadow.’’
It is clear to Fermor that American consumerism is going to be a powerful force in the region, signaled most aggressively by “the Coca-Cola plague.’’ (“It becomes the air you breathe, a way of life, an entire civilization — the Coca-Cola age, yoke-fellow of the age of the Atomic Bomb.’’) But, if Fermor is not happy with evidence of an Americanized future, he is also disparaging of certain manifestations of a colonial past, especially British ones. The middle-class British way of life in the Barbados reflects, he says, “the social and intellectual values and prejudices of a Golf Club in Outer London . . . which are not England’s most interesting or precious contributions to world civilization.’’
What he really likes and describes with infectious elation is the riot of diversity and exotic fusion that these islands have individually acquired from their vicissitudinary histories. Hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions of the past have left their furious marks, while side narratives of European history appear everywhere, written in frantic and fantastical hands. In Barbados he finds a ragged community made up of the descendants of the duke of Monmouth’s followers deported from England in the 17th century, and still “in the same humble plight as when they were first herded ashore.’’ In Jamaica he spends a pleasant time with the Maroons still living in the mountains where their ancestors, run-away slaves, had formed their own kingdom, finally acknowledged in a treaty with George II. He likes the way many women in the French Antilles wear costumes that hark back to 18th-century France, and he likes the cathedral in Guadeloupe constructed (he says) out of Meccano (the British equivalent of Erector Set).
He arrives in Haiti and grows exultant: “The sides of the road pullulated with country people chattering, drinking rum, playing cards and throwing dice under the trees. The air was thick with dust, and ringing with incomprehensible and deafening Créole. I felt I might like Haiti.’’ He does, for the most part, paying long and elaborate attention to voodoo and other island cults. His descriptions of what he witnesses are rich, spirited, and filled with curious detail. He attends a cockfight and describes the birds’ handlers filling their mouths with water and pressing “the birds to their lips, sucking and soaking the feathers so that they should cling to the body and afford no hold for the enemy.’’ As it happens, he and his friends find they cannot take the blood and gore and slink away.
Throughout the book he traces each island’s history. Race is a continuing preoccupation for Fermor and, it must be said that by today’s standards, his unabashed laying down of opinion on the racial characteristics of peoples from different parts of Africa and with the various kinds and degrees of black and white mixtures is unseemly. On the other hand, that is the world of the late 1940s, and he is positively reticent in these matters when compared with Lafcadio Hearn, who visited some of the same islands 60 years earlier. But, there again, we really cannot criticize people for writing as our age would have it. Both travelers, in fact, find the varieties of race and racial mixtures part of the exhilarating vividness and dash that so distinguished the islands from Europe.
I don’t know why it has taken me so long to become smitten with Hearn, but it has finally happened. Born in 1850 in Greece, he grew up in Ireland and moved to the United States when he was a young man. After that he had a strange career, impossible to summarize except to say he became a writer, traveled a lot, lived in Cincinnati, Louisiana, Martinique, and, finally, Japan, where he died. The Library of America has devoted a huge volume to his writings ($40) and that is where I turned after polishing off Fermor, specifically to Hearn’s “Two Years in the French West Indies.’’
The years in question were in the late 1880s and his prose, gorgeous and bounteous, reflects the period’s fascination with the exotic — and the macabre. The pages he devotes to the treacherous viper, the fer-de-lance, aroused an exquisite horror in me such as I have not felt since I was a child. His description of St. Pierre, Martinique, “the quaintest, queerest, and the prettiest withal, among West Indian cities,’’ is especially transfixing as the place was completely destroyed by the eruption of Mount Pelée 15 years after he wrote those words. “Is the great volcano dead?’’ he asks, answering “Nobody knows.’’ Except we do, safe in our snowbound fastness, happier than ever that we’re staying at home with this wonderful book.
Katherine A. Powers lives in Cambridge. She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
The Traveller’s Tree – read more articles here