The stranger is a revolutionary leader escaping from certain death in a Francophone Caribbean state that has suffered a counter-coup aided by the big state to the north. As a leading member of a small communist party in the imagined state of Cuyuna, Roy McKenzie, has the dangerous task of hiding the escaped Etienne and then getting him off the island to be picked up by a passing Polish ship. McKenzie, a lawyer, a light brown man of elite background, radicalised by his wartime experiences, has to acknowledge that his party’s roots among the black working class are very shallow, and that his only hope of helping Etienne is to turn to his friends among the very elite he is supposedly committed to destroy. When he involves his oldest friend, Carl Brandt, and the woman who becomes his lover, in his mission, he sets in train a sequence of events that test the boundaries of the personal and the political in the deepest and most tragic ways.
Set in a colonial Caribbean country in the post-war years, Stranger at the Gate has the narrative drive of a Hemingway novel, the ominous sense of fate of classical Greek tragedy, a sensuous appreciation of a landscape, domestic interiors and food that draws on Hearne’s own Jamaica, and an acute, if indulgent, portrayal of the white and light-brown landed and commercial elite.
When Hearne’s novel was first published it was heavily criticised by Caribbean radicals for its evasive politics. Reading Stranger at the Gate over 60 years later, those reservations must still apply, but the passing of time allows us to see what a fine handler of character, structurer of narrative and fine writer of prose John Hearne was; and his portrayal of the Caribbean upper-class – at least in its own self-perceptions – is unrivalled, and still pertinent, since this is a class that has scarcely gone away.
The cover of Stranger at the Gate features Ralph Campbell's, Gully (oil on canvas, 1951). Courtesy of the University of the West Indies Library, Mona, Jamaica.