If you read only one novel by a Caribbean author this is the one to go for. Raw, vibrant, and moving, this realistic slice of Trinidad yard culture, and the central role of carnival within that culture, is a relatively unknown gem of international literature. Although the speech and some of the narrative are written in local dialect it is by no means impenetrable and gives a real flavour of the rhythm and patterns of shanty life, a world where hope of escape or improvement ranges from slight to zero. Life is unforgiving and constant hardship forces its citizens to seize whatever opportunities arise, and at whatever cost. The Dragon Can't Dance strays into similar territory to the earlier novels of V S Naipaul about life in the slums of Port of Spain. However, the characters in Lovelace's novel are more rounded than those in the works of the British-Trinidadian author, and there is certainly greater sympathy towards their plight than in the more comical depiction of slum life by the slightly haughty Naipaul. Clothilda, the yard queen, Philo, the successful calypsonian, Sylvia, the young temptress, Fisheye, the angry pugilistic rebel, Paraig and his wife Dolly, the solitary, isolated Indians and Aldrick, reflective and confused about his role in life; all real human beings, believable and sympathetic, people whose behaviour is explainable and understandable in the context of lives blighted by powerlessness and poverty, and it is these intertwined lives around which the story revolves. There is a plot including a staged anti-police riot, but these play a secondary role to the central dilemma of the novel, and that facing slums dwellers throughout the world: whether to fight back or to sell out. In the Dragon Can't Dance we see characters making their personal choice. Sadly, thirty years on from the publication of this novel, the situation in Trinidad's notorious Laventille shanty - where this novel was probably based -has become considerably worse.
How can I praise this novel? If you have seen the film 'City of God' or read Gil Scott Herons 'The Vulture' you will have some idea of its structure. Yes! It is a great novel!! Earl Lovelace has empathy for all of his characters.. each character however much you would prefer to dislike them, is shown with depth and humanity. That their paths cross is what makes this such a fine read! The evocation and rhythm of trinidadian language is sublime.. "Dangerous woman youthfulness" for instance!!! Not only this but the authors handling of time approaches the genius of Ralph Ellison (esp. chapter 3 - "The Dragon") Above all this IS A PLEASURE TO READ. There are hidden depths to this novel.. For Calypso neophytes don't forget to listen to the music!! You will be repaid many times over!
The main character in this novel is not really Aldrick, who plays the dragon, or Fish-eye the "bad-john", or anyone else, but the district of Calvary Hill itself. Earl Lovelace introduces us to a range of different characters who live in Calvary Hill, a poor district on the edge of Port-of-Spain, and we follow them through the years as the neighbourhood changes and the characters are caught between embracing the new and regretting the loss of the old.
Carnival plays a major role in the novel. I heard Earl Lovelace speak about this at Bim Literary Festival in Barbados recently and he said "Carnival is welcoming people into a space, holding up the idea of "all ah we is one" even if it's not always the case in reality. In music we're all the same, we're all human." In this novel he does a great job of exploring this, exposing the cracks in the community for the rest of the year and showing how they are temporarily put aside for carnival. But as things change, even in carnival itself there is division, as some want to get corporate sponsorship and "clean up" carnival, while others want it to retain its traditional, untamed revelry.
Lovelace has tremendous compassion for all his characters and develops them all fully. Although he is compassionate, he is not sentimental, and shows their faults as well, such as their exclusion of the Indian character Pariag. Novels without a focus on a strong central character can sometimes feel a little disjointed, but this one doesn't. I cared about all of the characters, and cared about the fate of Calvary Hill too, as all the characters fight to preserve it in their own very different ways.
Normally there's something about a book that I don't like, but this one really is hard to find fault with. It's a tremendous literary achievement, a moving depiction of a community, and I can wholeheartedly recommend it. Five stars.
Brilliant book - and now with the West Indies firmly and finally up there in the literary firmament with the Booker Prize win, it's time to celebrate some of the fathers of the literary golden age. I'd never read Earl Lovelace before but this was stunning - total evocation of a place and time, with a universal human theme of striving against failure (or perhaps failing to strive . . . ). Huge echoes of Things Fall Apart - and that's a deserved compliment.
Earl Lovelace is an excellent author. Dragon Can't Dance is one of the best books I've read this year. The characters are lively and jump out of the page and for anyone who has been to the Carribbean in the build up for Carnival, this will evoke many good memories! He creates music in his language that captures from the beginning to the end.
Written as it is spoken, The Dragon Can't Dance is a comprehensive and interesting glimpse of slumlife in Africa. Love, friendships and village interactions are the focus, rather than a straightforward beggining, middle and end story, the stories are woven delicately into each other.. like a dragon's costume.