on 17 February 1999
n a bookjacket blurb for the British edition, Salman Rushdie describes Melville as "a beguiling new voice....one of the few genuinely original writers to emerge in recent years." High praise. The Ventriloquist's Tale opens and closes with addresses by a mysterious, third person ventriloquist/narrator, representing the old Amerindian culture of myth and magic of southern Guyana, a narrator who indicates that he is not the hero of the book because, as he tells the reader, "Your heroes and heroines are slaves to time.... They've forgotten how to be playful and have no appetite for adventure."
As the narrator unfolds the stories of the McKinnon family, half Scottish and half Wapisiana, we see illustrated in their lives the conflicts (and occasional melding) of their ancient ways with western science, religion, and exploitation. The narrator and, one understands, the author come down strongly on the side of the ancients, as the Amerindian characters enchant, amuse, and play with us while they show us their struggle with European intruders, including, at one point, Evelyn Waugh in search of inspiration. We laugh with them, even as they face privation and hardship, and see with their eyes how ridiculously arrogant and ignorant the intruders are because the intruders do not see that "everyday life...[is] an illusion behind which [lies] the unchanging reality of dream and myth."
Melville, is, thankfully, not one of the Magic Realists, nor is she a satirist. By presenting the taboo subject of incest realistically as a primary plot line, she emotionally involves the reader--after all, who, among us westerners, is not instinctively repelled by the idea--yet we like the characters involved, we are intrigued by the old beliefs that the eclipse of the sun by the moon is itself an incestuous act, and we understand how limiting it is to reduce eclipses and relationships solely to equations and to write research papers on the structural elements of myth. We see that Father Napier is driven mad because he believes "these [Indians] think entirely in the concrete....[They] have no word for sin, virtue, mercy, kindness, truth..." And we appreciate and rejoice in the brilliance of the Indians in "divining what you would like to hear and saying it, so you can never be really sure what we think....Ventriloquism at its zenith." A fascinating and unusual novel!
Pauline Melville’s first novel is set in Guyana, the only English speaking country in South America, famous for its rum, gold, lush rainforest and rich folklore. From the garden city of Georgetown to the endless savannahs of the Rupununi, her colorful tale weaves its way from past to present, mixing illicit relationships of various sorts with religion, politics and Kanaima, the black magic of vengeance.
While some of the stories of incest, adultery, and the sinful urges of a Catholic priest may make some readers squirm, Melville’s storytelling weaves a magical web drawing it all together, and although some of the narrative is in Creolese (the Guyanese vernacular) it should be quite easy for non-Guyanese to follow along.
The central theme links the forbidden love between a brother and sister to ancient legends of the origin of solar eclipses, and most of the story takes place in the south of Guyana among the Amerindian villages there. The parts of the story set in modern Georgetown are not half as colorful, their purpose being to link past and present, add a bit of humor, and also provide a little more shock value.
Tying it all together is an academic researcher who comes to Guyana to trace the path of celebrated novelist Evelyn Waugh, but finds much more than she bargained for.
This is a provocative story, based on actual legends, set in a real geographical location, and for the most part the author is spot-on in her portrayal of the characters depicted.
on 23 February 2014
Set in the South American country of Guyana during the first and last years of the 20th century, the Ventriloquist’s tale is a novel about the clashing of cultures, miscegenation, lust, ambition, incest and the attempt to convert the people of Guyana to the word of the Lord.
The modern story is about Chofy McKinnon an Ameridian of the people of Wapisiana. While on a trip to the capital, Georgetown, Chofy encounters an Englishwoman Rosa Mendelson and falls in love with her instantly. Rosa is in Guyana to research the novelist’s Evelyn Waugh visit to Guyana in the nineteen thirties. They begin a torrid affair with Rosa unaware that Chofy is already married with a young child.
The story of the early decades of the twentieth century revolves around the Scotsman Alexander McKinnon who having rejected the Church and his father an Archdeacon he builds a life in Waronawa with two Wapisiana wives, (who are sisters, Zuna and Maba). His son Danny and his daughter Beatrice are drawn to each other and ultimately fall in love. Into this cultural mix enters Jesuit missionary Father Napier.
It would seem the mid-nineties that incest was a favourite subject for female authors. In my quest to read all the short-listed books of the Orange Prize for Fiction, (now called the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction) this is the third book in the seventeen I have read so far where incest is a major theme. I worry that author’s are using incest to gain attention. Rightly or wrongly it appears to mirror Hollywood in its rush to make a film about someone with a disability or a film about the Holocaust to guarantee an Oscar nomination.
One has to admire this as a first novel as it does master all the story elements within the book and intelligently weaves humour into what is a novel about difficult themes. The Guyanese born author paints a technically efficient painting of her country of birth but does lack a passion that the reader needs in a book like this.
The Ventriloquist’s Tale is an enjoyable book about the cultural clashes between the third world and white Europeans. The novel steps between the real and fantastical, the factual and the mythology of the people of Waronawa. However, the third person omniscient narrator feels dispassionate and distant and this results in the reader having trouble connecting or empathizing with the characters. At times I felt I was reading an article from the National Geographic and though articles from that monthly magazine are thoroughly enjoyable they don’t belong in a novel.
First Line - "Spite impels me to relate that my biographer, the noted Brazilian Senhor Marrio Andrade, got it wrong when he consigned me to the skies in such a slapdash and cavalier manner."
Memorable Line - "Animals was people like we. No difference between us. Then one day this man cut a bow and arrow and shot a deer for meat. he dragged it through the bushes and roasted it. Where the blood fell, all the plants shrank back and accused him of murder."
Number of Pages - 357
Sex Scenes - Yes and graphic
Profanity - Yes
Genre - fiction
Googling the author I found immediately the answer to one question that I had about this novel. Pauline Melville was born in Guyana which explains her depth and breadth of knowledge of the country and its diverse population.
This story engages the reader on so many different levels: inter-racial differences, dislocations of individuals living in culturally-diverse places and situations, Christian faith and cultural belief systems, encyclopaedic information about everyday life in rural and urban Guyana, the strains between educated/advanced societies and indigenous/native communities, historical awareness of Evelyn Waugh's visit to, and feelings about, British Guyana and the people he met (no surprises there!), the ethnic and cultural differences between indigenous populations, the relevance of western science to an understanding cultural myths, the diversity and colour of Guyanese flora and fauna, local foods, traditional healing contrasted with Western medicine, gender differences and societal expectations, US attitudes to Latin America, inter-generational differences, ethnological /anthropological issues and critiques, a love story and, of course, "incest shocker".
To be honest, the latter is so well signposted that anyone likely to be shocked and/or disgusted could have stopped reading well before their sensibilities became damaged. Having completed the book I feel sorry that the readers who were not able to read it all or who read it and only saw the issue of incest from a Western, Judo-Christian perspective had missed such a lot. I only hope that they will seek out some of Melville's other work.
Melville fleetingly introduces a Czech anthropologist, Wormoald - a very non-Czech sounding name, who specialises in comparative mythology and, in particular, researches into incest motifs in Amerindian cultures. John Thieme has taken this to be based upon Claude Levi-Strauss (how did we manage without Google?). Wormoal admits that his knowledge about Amerindian culture is a means of colonial power and that "information is the new gold".
Half way through the book I had to stop myself from reading too quickly, to go back over paragraphs to savour their layered descriptions. Melville handles the many strands of her story expertly and it is difficult to believe that this is only her second book after a collection of short stories, Shape-Shifter (1990), winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award in 1997. The author is also very good at integrating the details about Amerindian life, customs and beliefs into her text without impressing us, at that time, with her vast knowledge. Only later, looking back, does one realise the breadth of her canvass, her attention to detail and unfailing ability to move back and forth in time.
My one negative comment is that I felt that the incidents in Canada were a diversion from her otherwise well-focussed story which did not really add anything to the narrative. Other than that the characters, of all ethnicities and backgrounds, were beautifully realised and the combination of humour and tragedy was deftly balanced.
On the second page of the novel the narrator's grandmother gives her opinion that all writing is fiction "Even writing that purports to be factual, that puts down the dates of a man's birth and the date of his death, is some sort of fabrication. Do you think that a man's life is slung between two dates like a hammock? Slung in the middle of history with no visible means of support?" This is a view of life that, now that I am nearer the latter date than the former, will remain with me.
The author has, excuse the Amerindian analogy, many strings top her bow - film and TV actor, stand-up comedian, rock cabaret artist, political activist and lexicographer, recently compiling a Wapichan dictionary with a cousin - which explains the gaps between her books; as well as Shape-Shifter and The Ventriloquist's Tale she has written The Migration of Gods (1998) and Eating Air (2009) and has received a number of Awards and Prizes for her work.
The book, published in 1997, also has one of the most arresting jacket covers that I have seen. Congratulations to William Webb, the designer, and Luiz Gonzalez Palma, the photographer.
on 24 October 1999
This is a sensitive tale, well told, that will enthral and reward. It is the story of an Amerindian family in British Guyana. The bulk of the novel, Part Two, is set in the early 1900s in Rupununi or the southern savannah near Brazil. Alexander McKinnon, a wandering Scot ("blue eyes meant ignorance"), at the turn of the century, moves south along the Essequibo River until illness and accident cause him to settle among the Wapisiana. He marries two sisters, Maba and Zuna, and builds a settlement that becomes a village. Pursuing many enterprises that fail he finally "settled into the traditions of the Wapisiana people. He spoke nothing but Wapisiana as nobody around him knew any English" (page 98). Melville is an amazingly insightful writer. She has fallen in love with the rivers and rainforests of Guyana and is able to make the reader feel the environment in all its varied beauty. She is also successful in conveying the complexities of Amerindian life, values and perceptions. When an English Catholic priest arrives in the McKinnon's homestead, he entertains them to a Mozart sonata on his violin, but they see him as a giant grasshopper. Father Napier settles in the area and over the next 14 years establishes 22 mission stations. The older of the McKinnon children, Danny, Beatrice and Wifreda are followed by the "ventriloquist" as their lives progress over the century. When their father sends them to the distant capital, Georgetown, to be schooled and learn English, they miss their forest and grasslands so much that they devise a secret means of tolerating being away: She convinced herself and them that they were Wapisiana spies. One morning after prayers she grabbed them to explain in Wapisiana that they were all on a special mission and had been sent there to learn the secrets of an enemy camp. Their task was to learn about the coastlanders and report back to the Rupununi. They would have to be brave and careful because they were in hostile territory (page 138). When the children returned to Rupununi, after first feeling odd, they quickly fit back in as if they had never left. It is easier for Danny than the sisters. "Somehow Danny had managed to slide through his schooling without being touched too much by it" (page 158). A cameo role is reserved for Evelyn Waugh, the British novelist who visited the Rupununi in the 1930s. While there, Wifreda had told him what had happened in 1919 at the time of a solar eclipse. Amerindian mythology relates that during a solar eclipse a brother and sister may give full expression to their love. Danny and Beatrice in a surprising manner end up as lovers. The novel then becomes pre-occupied with what actually happened to the siblings. Their adventures and closeness to nature allow Melville to display her superlative skill at describing creeks and rivers, paths through the forest, mountains, fishing and hunting, sleeping in hammocks and watching the moon and stars, the all prevailing myths. Parts One and Three of the novel are set in modern Guyana, mainly in Georgetown. Another generation of McKinnons, Chofy, leaves Rupununi to take his aunt Wifreda, now in her eighties, for a cataract operation. He stays and finds work in a library shelving books. There he meets Rosa Mendelson who has come to do research on Evelyn Waugh "from a post-colonial perspective". Chofy is intensely excited by her and she responds to his enthusiasm. Their affair and its meanders is told with great ingenuity and splendour on both sides. This novel is not a satire, though it is often humorous. Melville identifies with her Amerindian characters and wishes to convey the many-faceted reality of their lives. If any characters are stereotyped it is the Czech anthropologist, the American exploration workers, and perhaps the English priest, though he becomes so central to her tale that his demise is comprehensible. But then disaster is ever present in Melville's Guyana. For Chofy it lies in the anthropologist blabbing about the meaning of his name. I personally was confused by Chico, the narrator and his prologue. But if you are too, after finishing the epilogue go back and re-read the first chapter and perhaps then a new synthesis will occur?
on 17 August 2012
The introduction to this novel is weak. I think it is supposed to be mysterious and intriguing; instead, it is just confusing, and does not at first seem to link to the rest of the novel at all. Although the link is later made explicit, I'm not convinced it works.
The plot does get more interesting as we flashback to the past, where a brother and sister have an incestuous relationship that shocks their village.
A slow and steady read, worth picking up to pass the time.
on 25 April 2002
i cannot believe such books, authors, stories could be so interesting. It is the first novel by Pauline Melville I had read and could not put it down.I would recommend this book to anyone who's open-minded about other cultures and races.....brilliant
on 27 September 1999
This book was highly recpommended to me by a Guyanese friend but it was quite let down. The characters are flat, you can't really get involved with them, you don't CARE about them. No plot whatsoever. I suppose all this goes to make it a supeb literery novel, since she does write well and with authority but honestly, I prefer too lose myself in a good story, I want to love the characters so much I can't bear to part with them at the end! And please, no more novels about incest!