The Polished Hoe
A Novel by Austin C. Clarke
Preface by Marvin X
When I fled to Canada to resist serving in the US army during the Vietnam War in 1967, one of the first persons I met was novelist Austin C. Clarke, then called "Canada's angriest negro." Although angry, he wasn't revolutionary, at least not in the same league with another novelist I soon met through Austin, the Guyanese Jan Carew. I would sometimes marvel at the heated arguments between Austin and Jan as we sat drinking in Austin's favorite bar or at Carew's apartment. Jan was a true blue revolutionary, having lived in Ghana during Kwame Nkrumah's regime, along with Pan African artists such as Tom Feelings, Maya Angelou, and others. Jan would jam Austin for being reactionary and Austin would attack Jan for Marxist idealism.
Even though he was no revolutionary, Austin did assist those of us who were exiled in Canada. In a 1967 interview, he talked about his Bajan roots and the fact that racism was as Canadian as hockey. He told how West Indian women described their trip to Canada to become domestic workers as the Middle Passage. The Barbadian negro was more British than the British, he said, "They see the world through British eyes."
It's been over thirty years since I've seen Austin, so I was happy to see him interviewed about his latest novel The Polished Hoe on the McNeil/Lehrer News Hour. As the interview revealed, Austin is recognized as one of the fathers of modern Canadian literature. The following is a review of his latest novel.
Conflict of colonialism at novel's heart
By LATHA VISWANATHAN
THE POLISHED HOE
By Austin Clarke
Amistad, $24.95; 480 pp.
IN this politically engaged novel, we are reminded that when it comes to colonialism, one never comes to any sort of final understanding. Austin Clarke zooms in on the big question: How does one resolve the pain and social hatred that result from colonialism?
The rambling narrative of love, hate, revenge and oppression deals with the life of a woman, Mary Mathilda, during a 24-hour period in the early 1950s. The setting is the fictional island of Bimshire, a substitute, one presumes, for Barbados, from where the author hails. A No. 1 best seller in Canada, The Polished Hoe has won a string of prizes, including the Giller Prize for best Canadian novel in English.
Clarke balances the exotic setting with the harsh realities of poverty and deprivation and with themes of color and race. The novel offers catharsis through violence. Mary Mathilda has committed a criminal act, and this violence, though tinged with melodrama, has a cleansing effect. She confesses her deed to a policeman, an officer who has been attracted to her since they were children although their love was never consummated.
The novel exposes the contradictions in Mary's character and the part she played in her own victimization. But her lyrical voice is seductive, bright and honest, that of the lone independent woman. She says of Belfeels, the odious plantation manager, "I wasn't so young to know the man fooping me by force was a man of means, and privilege, able to put me in a category which not one of the boys I grew up with, and who, later on as men, were after me, could." Mary tells her tale in her own words, full of linguistic peculiarities.
The musical dialect is itself a form of protest, for it does not mimic the style of the colonial. It is a "legacy of words behind me so people will know. Not that it was wrong. Or was right. I don't want people to see my act in such a simple way. In such black-and-whiteness. But if I don't leave something behind, anybody, anytime ... tomorrow, next year, in the future and in the generations to come ... will only know what happened from word of mouth, and from the Bimshire Daily Herald; and the words from the lips of Village gossip. There won't be nobody [anybody] to tell the pure history of my act."
The sensual details paint a hypnotic setting. "The wind continues pushing itself through the windows, and brings on its breath the smell of flowers, poinsettia, and lady of the night and the strong smell of sugar cane juice from the factory." The lyrical prose makes the book satisfy stylistically, though the shifts in points of view in the beginning confuse till one gets used to the alternating monologues.
One wishes the editors had been more alert to the middle section of the book and had done something to crisp up the dramatic tension and overall pace of the novel.
As Mary ricochets between deceit and rage, her voice remains pitch-perfect. Along with the other indigenous inhabitants of the island, she is impotent to act against the unjust treatment doled out to her. This vulnerability makes her all the more appealing, and we admire the courage it took for her to commit her final act.
She gives Belfeels his sole heir, Wilberforce. She says of her son, "Wilberforce went to the best schools in this Island of Bimshire. Then overseas. He travel[led] to countries like Italy, France, Austria and Europe; and when he return[ed]-back here to this Island, he start[ed] behaving more like a European than somebody born [t]here."
There is a dreaded family secret that provides the final twist at the end. Where do you go and to whom do you turn when secrets contaminate your own personal history, the life you have known? "From the time, way-way back, when Ma, my mother, out of need, sent me while I was still a lil girl, seven or eight, to the Plantation to work in the fields, from that time, I had a cause. And in particular from that day, when the midwife delivered Wilberforce, I have had a cause."
During that long day and night, as her childhood sweetheart listens to her confession, Mary gestures to the wall of family photographs in her home: "My Wall of History," she says. "Or my Wall of Shame."
Latha Viswanathan is a writer living in Houston.