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Pauline Melville Biography

stories world amerindian collection

Nationality: Guyanese. Born: Guyana, 1948. Awards: Whitbread First Novel Award, 1997. Agent: c/o St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10010, U.S.A.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

The Ventriloquist's Tale. London, Bloomsbury, 1997.

Short Stories

Shape Shifter: Stories. New York, Pantheon, 1990.

The Migration of Ghosts. London, Bloomsbury, 1998.

Other

Contributor, In Our Nature: Stories of Wilderness, edited by Donna Seaman. New York, DK Publishing, 2000.

* * *

A Guyanese author of mixed European and Amerindian ancestry, Pauline Melville has emerged in the last few years as a leading Caribbean writer, and one of the most accomplished talents on the modern literary scene. Shape-shifter, her first collection of stories, revealed the impressive extent of her abilities, and subsequent works have confirmed her previous achievement. A professional actress in Europe before making it as a published writer, Melville has a cosmopolitan knowledge of both the Old and the New Worlds, and her fiction informs her experiences with her own mixed cultural heritage, Western philosophy nudging shoulders with Amerindian creation myths and the resulting blend touched with a sardonic, iconoclastic wit.

Shape-shifter, her award-winning debut collection of stories, displays the variety and range of her writing. Moving from her native Guyana to Europe and the United States, Melville's stories describe the experiences of her various exiles and misfits in a highly individual way. Her title reflects not only the metamorphoses of her characters, but the constant switching of time frames, narrative styles, and devices by which they are presented. As so often in Melville's fiction, the real and surreal blend seamlessly into one, the everyday world of Western notional "reality" overtaken by an eerie dream (or nightmare) universe in which the limbs and souls of her creations take on new and disturbing life. Throughout the collection, Melville impresses with her wry, detached humor and her impatience with the sacred cows of literature and philosophy.

Her novel The Ventriloquist's Tale returns to Guyana and concerns itself with the mixed-race Mackinnon family, offspring of Scottish and Wapisiana Amerindian parents, who live in tribal fashion in a remote area of the country. Chofoye Mackinnon's journey to the city, his love affair with Western literary researcher Rosa Mendelson, and his eventual return to wife and family is intercut with flashbacks describing the incestuous relationship of Sonny Mackinnon and his sister, and the collision of the Wapisiana culture with that of various intruding whites. This, at least, is the most obvious aspect of the novel. But what the West considers to be real is regarded by the Amerindian as no more than a mask, a waking dream. Behind the screen of everyday life lies the true reality of the spirit-world, of dream and myth and magic. The Ventriloquist's Tale reflects this other reality in its many layers, the incest of Sonny and Violet mirrored in the cosmic Wapisiana myth that sets a pattern for the stars. This is the essence of an Amerindian world that eludes all efforts of the invading whites and their constant obsession to enclose, measure, and evaluate. Just as the Mackinnon patriarch was overtaken by the Wapisiana lifestyle now accepted by his descendants, so the efforts of those other cultural colonizers—the Catholic priest; the anthropologist; the novelist Evelyn Waugh, who appears in a cameo role—are doomed to failure. The Mackinnons and the Wapisiana people absorb these incursions and shrug them off, holding to their own way of life. In a single novel Melville manages to condense a portrayal of Guyana with its incredibly rich blend of cultures and lifestyles, a memorable picture of the Wapisiana people and their beliefs, the interplay of striking individual characters, and a view of Amerindian cosmology and the spirit-world. This she achieves with a narrative style that avoids solemn stereotypes and finds room at every stage for humor, self-mockery, and irreverence. All the same, there is no doubting the seriousness of her insights, and The Ventriloquist's Tale shows Melville to be as formidable a novelist as she is a writer of shorter fiction.

Her latest collection of stories, The Migration of Ghosts, follows on from Shape-shifter in having a thematic base to its stories. This time the central thread is death and afterlife, and like the earlier collection the action switches from Guyana to London and various parts of Europe. Melville's mastery of narrative and dialogue is little short of breath-taking; she presents with equal conviction the risqué conversation of workers in a London pub and the somber thoughts of a financier in "The Sparkling Bitch." Once again the daylight world is indissolubly blended with the world beyond. A ghostly President visits scenes of his triumph and humiliation, finally falling asleep on his (apparently riderless) horse. An aging Spanish widow, recalling her dead husband, breaks into dance in the duende, the moment "when a ghost suddenly appears and vanishes and the world is re-born." An escaped Guyanese murderess (reincarnated as a goddess?) drowns a crooked businessman in the river his chemicals have polluted. Melville moves easily from the deadpan humor of "The Parrot and Descartes," where Western philosophy is ridiculed alongside Guyanese creation myths, to the harrowing account of a friend's death from cancer in "Lucifer's Shank," where she comments on the Amerindian belief that "the real self is revealed only in death." The title story follows an Englishman and his Guyanese Indian wife on their travels through Europe, and presents the many connections and differences between their own cultures and those they meet. An infinitely varied and skilful collection, The Migration of Ghosts confirms Melville as a leading writer of the new millennium, and gives the promise of future achievement.

Geoff Sadler

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