Since the mid-1960s, Gordon Rohlehr has been an incomparable recorder and analyser of Caribbean literature and culture and their intersection with history and politics. His work on the emergence of Caribbean writing from its colonial shell and his analysis of calypso as the voice of Trinidadian consciousness establishes him as essential to our time as William Hazlitt was to the early 19th century in documenting and characterising the turbulent spirit of his age. Radical, but never willing to compromise his sense of what was fraudulent or power-seeking amongst his fellow travellers, Rohlehr is the best touchstone we have for both what the Caribbean has achieved and of its struggling, neo-colonial fragility in the face of the new imperialism of economic and cultural globalism.
Now – though who knows? – in putting together what he says is his last book, Gordon Rohlehr doffs the costume of the carnival figure of the “Bookman”, the recording Satan of the devil band, who walks with his book in which he writes down the names of the damned. And here we have the clue to the fact that along with the serious analysis of calypso, his summing up of what is essential in the work of Derek Walcott, Earl Lovelace and V.S. Naipaul, and the essays of remembrance for those like Walcott, Lloyd Best, Pat Bishop, Tony Martin and others who have made their earthly exits, there is a devilish humour at work. This comes out particularly in an essay that joyfully demolishes an attempt to characterise the Caribbean in any other than its own terms – as a new Mediterranean, for instance – and the subservience of Trinidad’s rulers to the neo-colonialisms of tourism, visiting American ships and the U.S. embassy. What is often salutary, if uncomfortable, is to be reminded by the long span of Rohlehr’s observations that problems seen as contemporary were being identified by the nation’s calypsonians sixty years ago.
Rohlehr’s voice is always distinctively personal, though the Bookman has rarely revealed much of himself, but in one of the concluding essays he writes about his Guyanese upbringing from the 1940s to the 1960s in a way that is both very funny and sad and gives an understanding of what has shaped his vision.