Ralph (Anthony Charles) de Boissière Biography
Ralph de Boissière comments:
Nationality: Australian. Born: Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, 1907; moved to Australia, 1947; became citizen, 1970. Education: Queen's Royal College, Port-of-Spain, 1916-22. Career: Accounts clerk, 1927-28, and salesman, Standard Brands, 1929-39, both Trinidad; clerk, Trinidad Clay Products, 1940-47; auto assembler, General Motors-Holden, 1948, cost clerk in car repair shops, 1949-55, freelance writer, 1955-60, and statistical clerk, Gas and Fuel Corporation, 1960-80, all in Melbourne. Agent: Reinhard Sander, Department of Black Studies, Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts 01002, U.S.A.
Crown Jewel. Melbourne, Australasian Book Society, 1952; London, Allison and Busby, 1981.
Rum and Coca-Cola. Melbourne, Australasian Book Society, 1956;London, Allison and Busby, 1984.
No Saddles for Kangaroos. Sydney, Australasian Book Society, 1964.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Booze and the Goberdaw" and "The Woman on the Pavement," inFrom Trinidad, edited by Reinhard Sander. New York, Africana, 1979.
Calypso Isle, music by the author (produced Melbourne, 1955).
The National Library of Australia.
The Trinidad Awakening: West Indian Literature of the 1930s by Reinhard Sander, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1988.
I began writing Crown Jewel in 1935. As I am a slow writer who has rarely had much time to write I was still at it when the uprising took place in the oilfields of south Trinidad on 19 June 1937. I saw I was writing the wrong novel. The oil workers had lighted a torch to signal the breaking of the first bonds of colonialism, bonds which we novelists, short story writers, poets and artists who made up The Beacon group (after the name of the now-defunct magazine) had dared to dream would fall before our hatred of foreign masters and our urge to independence. A salesman at the time, I had come to know much of the oilfield area. From two of the important activists in the uprising I got important inside information on its origins, and I began again, discarding much of what I had already written.
I come from one of the best-known French-Creole families, families which, in days long gone, when cocoa was king, had been the real rulers of this British colonial outpost. But with 19 June 1937 my detestation of colonialism, simmering from childhood, and crudely expressed in a few short stories, now became clearly defined.
The second novel of the trilogy, Rum and Coca-Cola, deals with the war years when tens of thousands of American soldiers and civilians were building military bases on the island. The American military had in effect become our rulers. There is not the same tension as in Crown Jewel because everyone had a job and many had two. The conflicts were of a more subtle sort—the breaking down of British prestige, the mockery of former British might, under American occupation.
The third book of the trilogy, Homeless in Paradise (not yet published), covers the approach to Independence in 1962 and its immediate aftermath.
Readers sometimes want to know who was the real-life basis for such and such a character. It is both unwise and impossible to say because I am continually adding to and subtracting from people I have known and, what is more, putting myself into them as characters. The characters may have some resemblance to certain originals, that is all. It is in important crises that people truly reveal themselves: for the most part of our everyday lives we exhibit aspects of character that give only superficial insights into what we are made of. I chose a Black servant girl, Cassie, as one of the main figures in Crown Jewel because in Trinidad her class were the most oppressed, ill-paid, and despised among Blacks. In all of us there is potential of one kind or another, but I am thinking particularly of the potential of the human spirit to achieve greatness, something unsuspected by the individual until he or she is flung by events into a crucial situation which demands the utmost. Cassie has that potential. It made her a leader when the time came. There was no such woman as Cassie, but the point is, there could have been. In other more stable parts of the world there are fewer possibilities for the appearance of such characters because the social conflicts are not extreme or the time for their resolution is not ripe. This is evident in my third novel, No Saddles for Kangaroos, set largely in an automobile factory in Melbourne during the years of the Korean war; here I am dealing with different people at a different historical time.
In technology we have taken great leaps forward, but morally we lag far behind these attainments—which sometimes even threaten to destroy us. But under the surface of life there is always some urge, some movement to rise out of the mire, and it is this movement the writer should try to grasp, this spiritual strength that has to be encouraged. While a writer may profit greatly by displaying the potential for evil he fails if he does not also indicate the potential for creativity as well. The world does not need more hatred, gore, and contempt for life—especially now. It needs belief in the powers of ordinary people to achieve.
No Saddles for Kangaroos is based on experiences I and others had in the early 1950s. Those experiences, those times could produce a novel full of drama. But I find myself unable to write about other, quieter times in Australia because I wasn't born and schooled in that country. At the same time I am a West Indian who has become partly Australian without knowing it. Australia is in my blood, but home is still Trinidad, a home I intuitively, instinctively, emotionally understand as I do not understand Australia.
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Ralph de Boissière's Crown Jewel and Rum and Coca-Cola, both published without much remark four decades ago in Australia, were rightly reissued in the 1980s and received with justified acclaim. They remain relevant because they give an unrivaled portrayal of two moments in Trinidad's recent past which are still very much alive in shaping its present. De Boissière's third novel, No Saddles for Kangaroos, deals with Cold-War politics in the Australian trade union movement, but it lacks the social inwardness and the shaping coherence that his own personal vantage point, as a white creole in a society moving towards black majority rule, gives his two Trinidadian novels.
Crown Jewel depicts Trinidadian society in the years between 1935 and 1937 when the black working class briefly threw aside the middle-class leaders who had diverted its power to their own ends and, through a series of bitter strikes and demonstrations began the process which led to universal suffrage, and political independence. Rum and Coca-Cola is set just before the end of World War II when the dollars from the American military presence changed Trinidad from a neglected and quasi-feudal British colony into a competitive market economy in which "we is all sharks, the stronger feedin' on the weaker." Both forces remain alive in Trinidadian society, the unfinished revolts of 1937 and 1970, and the individualistic consumer materialism which was fueled by the oil boom. Now that the boom has gone and social tensions rise, de Boissière's novels seem more relevant than ever.
Both novels are, in a Caribbean context, rare and largely successful attempts to create fictional models which give a panoramic view of their society. They give not merely a static or descriptive background against which characters perform, but a dynamic image of society created by the actions and social relationships of the characters. And, particularly in Crown Jewel, de Boissière shows individuals who are aware that it is they who make history.
There are limitations, both social and fictional in origin, to de Boissière's portrayal of his society. His portrayal of the Indian role in the social conflicts is inadequate and stereotyped, a consequence perhaps both of ignorance and his concern with coming to terms with his own denied black ancestry, which leads to the exclusion of the more significant relationship between people of African and Indian origin. De Boissière also has a naturalistic concern with narrative plausibility which condemns him to providing each of the major characters with some link of blood, service, or mutual acquaintance. This gives an image of Trinidad as a much more comfortable though quarreling social family than is, I think, intended by the overt picture of class warfare.
However, while most critics have agreed that Crown Jewel gives a detailed and vigorous social and historical portrayal of Trinidad, some have felt that its attempts at the development of a coherent literary design are undermined by its commitment to documentary realism. In fact, its relationship to historical reality is of a different kind. If one compares the fictional character of Le Maitre, the black trade union leader, with the historical person of "Buzz" Butler on whom it is based, one sees not the pursuit of topical detail but the simplification of the character in response to the needs of the novel's shaping pattern. Thus Le Maitre becomes a character of massive moral certainty and clear historical consciousness as a touchstone against which to measure the confused and tentative leanings of the three central intermediary characters towards the black working class.
It is de Boissière's concern with the moral choices facing this group, in particular the character of André de Coudray, like the author an idealistic and socially concerned French Creole, which shapes the novel. And because de Boissière is refreshingly honest in his recognition that de Coudray's commitment involved the destruction of his comfortably privileged world without any guarantee of a place in the new, he is convincing in making de Coudray's journey towards self-knowledge, social responsibility, and cultural pride an image for that of the whole society.
As befitting his perception of the individualism that the power of the American dollar stimulated in Trinidadian society, Rum and Coca-Cola places much greater emphasis on the inner lives of its major characters. In this period moral commitment is not so much a question of social action but of the attempt to stay true to one's perceptions of what one is and to principles which are being swept aside in a society engaged in a competitive struggle for survival, money and power.
In this novel the issue of choice is focused on the triangular relationship of three characters confused about who they are and how they should act in a Trinidad which denies their ideals. Fred Collingwood, a principled black working-class socialist is doomed because of his "moral strength in all its beauty" and he destroys the relationship with Marie, the woman he most loves, because he displaces his desire to change society onto her and in the process destroys her sense of worth. Indra, the part-Indian girl from a lower-middle-class family, struggles against a "terrible division of spirit" which affects her social and racial sensibilities. Even though she makes a commitment to the working-class movement she still feels cut off, "doomed at this time to a lonely pursuit of the dust they raised in their forward marching." But it is the character of Marie, trapped by the lightness of her color into believing that she can escape into whiteness, which provides the novel's tragic focus. Of the three main characters, she is the one to benefit most materially from the war-time boom, but her unremitting efforts to escape from her past of poverty and casual prostitution are made at the expense of her inner self. Her fate is tragic because she sees herself engaged in a battle for individual self-hood, but in the process becomes separated from what she most truly is and disintegrates as a personality.
Yet Rum and Coca-Cola does not succumb to pessimism. Indra's cry, "O my God! But what am I capable of" is agonized, but the possibilities of moral choice and the issues of human capacity remain central to de Boissière's vision. He sees Trinidad moving in a direction which he detests, but when he has Fred reflect on what has occurred, he shows him capable of taking something positive from it. He sees a society which is not yet free, but one in which old colonial illusions have been destroyed. "Now that walls had falled, what lay exposed was a life of untrustworthy promises, treachery by those you trusted, servility …" And in this process of laying bare, Fred sees the generation of a new disabused awareness and "ideas which could be weapons."
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