Updated: Mar 28, 2021
One of the last works by George Steiner (1929-2020), the brilliant literary critic, essayist, philosopher, novelist, and educator, was My Unwritten Books, about ideas he never expanded into books because he was either emotionally or intellectually incapable. Now towards the end he explored them and his reasons for avoiding them, as essays.
Steiner ranged widely. He touches on, for instance, the gnawing, conflicted envy of a talented man who compares himself with others who are far greater. I am reminded Salieri's feelings towards Mozart in Amadeus. Other forays delve into the possibility of expanding universal literacy to include mathematics, music, architecture and biology; the failures of Zionism; the theology of unbelief. In one essay he recalls his seduction by a Black woman, musing all the while on of love-making in other languages, Basque or Russian, as opposed to Finnish or Korean - as a Trini would put it: learning a foreign language with a foreign tongue in your mouth.
Like an ant treading in the footsteps of a dinosaur I am inspired to recall a few stories I wish I'd explored when I was a journalist, that I might, in Samuel Beckett's words: "Try again. Fail again. Fail better."
One was the story of the One Man Building. It was offered to me - I was the Express features editor - by a sub-editor named D. I should have written it, but D. was known as an expert marksman with low-flying birds, i.e. vulnerable young women, and so possessed a skill with anecdote. The tale he pitched was of a man who built a two-storied building somewhere in East Port of Spain without the assistance of a single other person, not a mason or an electrician, neither a joiner nor a plumber, because he was so fed-up with the fecklessness of his friends and family.
Perhaps I recall that story because it is so opposed to my own experience, in which anything worthwhile that I've achieved has been with other people. The works of which I am most proud, the movie PAN Our Music Odyssey, and the now available Illustrated Story of Pan, Second Edition, could never have been completed without a little (actually, a lot of) help from my friends. Sadly, I discovered nothing else about the One Man Building, because the story was never written, other than D.'s telling anecdote:
One day, when our solitary builder was working high up on a ladder, maybe on the second floor or even the roof, his hammer slipped out of his hand and fell to the ground below. Just as a man was passing by and saw what had happened. The passerby picked up the tool, climbed up to the builder and returned it to him. Our solitary builder thanked the good Samaritan and waited until he'd descended the ladder and walked off. Then he threw the hammer back down. He descended to earth, grabbed the tool and carried it back up the ladder.
He didn't want to appear rude or seem ungrateful but even more he wanted to construct this building without anyone's help.
One event I'd have enjoyed reporting took place the Saturday after a quiet Friday during which our criminals had taken a rest. No one had been brutally murdered, no late-night taxidriver or wealthy profligate robbed at gunpoint. Then, come Saturday, while reporters were scraping the bottom of the news barrel for something to report, the Catholic Cathedral across from the newspaper double booked two funerals whose parties accordingly arrived at the same time, each claiming precedence over the other.
Blinded by grief perhaps, or maybe impatient to put the old fart under the ground once and for all, mourners began arguing more stridently as to who was in the right, and soon they set upon one another. The scuffle progressed, the coffins were overturned and corpses tumbled on to the ground.
The story written by a reporter from the sports desk was matter-of-fact, as if such events happened every weekend and was really nothing to write home about. After all, no one died or was even seriously injured. Back then the philosophy of the paper was: If it bleeds, it leads. But I'd have relished the opportunity to narrate that miraculous visitation of the absurd, which called to my mind an anonymously-written nonsense poem that I'd have attributed to Theophilus Philip (1926-60) aka The Mighty Spoiler, our poet of the illogical, had the poem not been composed in nineteenth-century England:
One fine day in the middle of the night, Two dead men got up to fight. Back-to-back they faced one another, Drew their swords and shot each other. One was blind and the other couldn't see, So they chose a dummy for a referee. A blind man went to see fair play, A dumb man went to shout "hooray!"
Then there was the cricket match between two teams of blind men. The story was also written by someone from the sports desk, who dutifully gave the scores, listed who bowled out who, who scored how many runs, and which team one. Nowhere, however, was the question asked, far less answered: how do blind men play cricket?
Those were all entertainments, of course. I enjoyed and was even proud of Trini eccentricity. The one story I most regret never having pursued promised that by the truckload. It was of one Manfred Moolchand, who recounted an startling incident in a letter to the Trinidad Guardian in 1991, the same year I became a journalist. The letter was so quirky it bordered on delusional, or maybe Moolchand was a writer possessing the wit and prosody of a great satirist, or both simultaneously.
I still feel that I should have tracked him down to chat of his adventures, maybe even accompany him along the route he'd taken on the day he had his strange encounter. I might have glimpsed into a Quixotic bookishness that was similar to my own yet so different it might have landed from an alternative universe. Maybe, I thought last week, it wasn't too late to do what I should have thirty years ago. After all, as Hegel pointed out, Minerva's owl flies at dusk.
So I headed South last Wednesday, a bleak and drizzly day, guided from Debe to Siparia through villages by a friend from the era before I became a journalist, when she lived in Penal and giants may well have roamed the land. Our quest was Ackbar Village - a place where Manfred had a remarkable encounter off Siparia Old Road. "I eh go Siparia in years," said my guide before she called her sister-in-law for directions.
There was no Ackbar Village, just an Ackbar Trace, which turned out to be a narrow road through a neighbourhood of gigantic, brightly-painted houses but no mosque, as Manfred had seen, just one imposing kutya or domestic Hindu temple, which stood in an sprawling compound beside a mansion so large it could have been the home for a giant.
Rajwantee Bullock, curator of the nearby Mud House Museum, explained that the trace, which had actually long graduated to road status, was indeed once upon a time a village settled by Hindu and Muslim jahaji bhai – that is, immigrants who came from India aboard the same ship.
Maybe, I thought, the Mud House Museum might provide material for a story. Sadly, it had been recently leepayed (i.e. plastered with mud) so I could not be given a tour. So no Mud House Museum either.
Rajwantee directed us to the nearest mosque some way down the road. Its dome was of bulbous strips of green plastic, like huge, inflated grocery bags. That could not have been the mosque encountered by Manfred so all in all, my trip south, for all the green beauty of rural Trinidad, bore no fruit. Instead, I must present his original letter to the editor:
A STRANGE ENCOUNTER ON A COUNTRY SCROLL by MANFRED MOOLCHAND
"It has been my wont, for several years past, to traverse the remote regions of this country, for the specific purpose of inhaling the clean rustic airs, and viewing the peasantry engaged in their ancient occupations, also to refresh my mind by looking closely at birdlife.
"Recently, aried with a stout staff, a wallet in which reposed several pieces of bread and cheese, a bottle of water and two books, one being Froissart's Chronicles, the other a volume of Rebali' Gargantua and Pantagruel, I strode south, past several villages, to an area I had visited years before.
"Climbing a wooded hill, I reached the top and glanced down at a village I knew lay there.
"From amidst the houses had risen a structure that had me gaping, so struck was I by its sudden symmetry and milk-white colour. It was an oriental dome, a minature of the one gracing the Taj Mahal. Only a most skilled artist could have laid such flowing lines. From my zoological memories, I recalled the beautiful nests of certain wasps. If one were placed pointing upwards and painted white, it would like like that dome.
"On questioning a youth harvesting rice in a nearby valley, I learned that some religious structure was graced by the dome, and I assumed it was a mosque. The village was called Ackbar Trace, and branched from Siparia Old Road.
"It being noontime, I went down to the flatlands, and sighting a leafy hogplum tree, went to its shade and found before me a deep river. Addressing my wallet, I ate lunch, then began reading Rabelais, engrossed in the description of how the hero, in his search for the oracle of the bottle, had met on the sea a great sea-monster, which he slew with great arrows.
Pentagruel fights the sea-monster by Gustave Doré, 1783.
"Then I saw approaching an individual of lofty stature and surly visage, carrying a staff and driving a heard of buffaloes. He stopped and looked intently at me, then in a harsh voice tole me to get out.
"Amazed at his hostile tone, I rose and told him politely that I was simply resting, to which he replied that he did not care, and that he hated all strangers, and if I did not cross the river at once he would crack my head. Saying this, he twirled a six-foot length of what I perceived to be fire-hardened Poui.
"Descending the steep bank, I found the river to have about 12 feet of water, and I had to swim across. Looking back, I saw my oppressor laughing in obvious delight. He hurled my copy of Rabelais over the river, for I had forgotten it. Then he shouted to me that he was Giolla Dacker, the hard Ghili. Then he and his herd of buffaloes vanished into thin air.
"Truly I never wanted to write this, but I had to."