Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon

One-line summary: The hearts, minds, and voices of West Indian immigrants in London in the 1950s.

Published 1956, 126 pages.

Meet Moses, Galahad, Big City, Tolroy, Five Past Twelve, and other West Indians who have come to London in search of the dream. There to face a reality of racial discrimination, poverty, harsh winters, waiting to see what tomorrow brings. This novel both joyful and sad, is an ode to the survival instinct of the modern immigrant.

Cross-posted to bookish, bookshare, and books1001.

As far as I can tell, Sam Selvon was one of those authors who wrote a lot of books that nobody outside a fairly narrow circle within academia read. The Lonely Londoners is out of print; the ancient copy I found at a university library has been in steady circulation, being checked out an average of twice a year for the past ten years, which suggests to me that it's probably most often read for a class in colonial studies or race and immigration or the like.

That's a shame. The Lonely Londoners is a good book, and if it were published today, someone might even make a movie out of it. It's quite short, and quite different, but even if you look at it without considering literary or cultural context (not that that kind of analysis doesn't have its place), it's a poignant, funny, sad look at the lives of the Afro-Caribbean immigrants who began arriving in Britain in large numbers in the 1950s.

The parallels are obvious with immigrant communities today and the uneasy internal and external tensions they experience, but it would be too easy to classify this as a "race book." Selvon clearly had things to say about race and colonialism, but there's nothing didactic about his style. The Lonely Londoners is only loosely a novel; the book cycles through a cast of characters in a series of vignettes. There isn't really a plot to speak of, but it does have a novelistic structure. We are introduced, in the beginning, to Moses, the "main character" inasmuch as there is one:

One grim winter evening, when it had a kind of unrealness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in the blur as if it is not London at all but some strange place on another planet, Moses Aloetta hop on a number 46 bus at the corner of Chepstow Road and Westbourne Grove to go to Waterloo to meet a fellar who was coming from Trinidad on the boat-train.

The entire book is written in patois. It's an interesting choice Selvon made, more one of viewpoint than style. If the book was written in standard English except for the characters' dialog, then their status as outsiders and immigrants and Others would be reinforced even by the author himself, but by having them speak in the same English that the third person narrator uses, the viewpoint of the reader is centered on them, and when later in the book there are a couple of characters who use "proper" English, it's jarring -- they stand out and seem to be alien, speaking strangely. I think Selvon executed this brilliantly.

Every character is impacted by the fact of their skin color and it looms large in their consciousness, but it's not a book about a bunch of people talking about their race and society, it's a book about a bunch of people living it, some more introspectively than others. That's not to say there are no conversations about racism, just that this is not what preoccupies the characters as much as finding a job or "catching a sharp skin" (i.e., scoring).

'All right mister London,' Galahad says, 'you been here for a long time, what you would advise me as a newcomer to do?'

'I would advise you to hustle a passage back home to Trinidad today,' Moses say, 'but I know you would never want to do that. So what I will tell you is this: take it easy. It had a time when I was first here, and when it only had a few West Indians in London, and things used to go good enough. These days, spades all over the place, and every shipload is big news, and the English people don't like the boys come to England to work and live.'

'Why is that?' Galahad ask.

'Well, as far as I could figure, they frighten that we get job in front of them, though that does never happen. The other thing is that they just don't like black people, and don't ask me why, because that is a question that bigger brains than mine trying to find out from way back.'

'Things as bad over here as in America?' Galahad ask.

'That is a point the boys always debating,' Moses say. 'Some say yes, and some say no. The thing is, in America they don't like you, and they tell you so straight, so that you know how you stand. Over here is the old English diplomacy: "thank you sir," and "how do you do" and that sort of thing. In America you see a sign telling you to keep off, but over here you don't see any, but when you go in the hotel or the restaurant they will politely tell you to haul--or else give you the cold treatment.'

Moses is the focal point of the book; he's one of the first immigrants to London from Trinidad, and has unwillingly fallen into the role of mentor to newbies, since now everyone refers new arrivals to him. Thus, everyone in the West Indian immigrant community knows him, and through him, Selvon introduces us to all the other characters: Galahad, Tolroy, Big City, Daniel, Cap (who is a Nigerian, one of the few non-Caribbeans in the book), Tanty, Five Past Twelve, Harris, Bart, Lewis, etc. Most of them are incidental; no one, even Moses, has a real character arc. Yet all together they tell a story of life in London for the black man. (This is perhaps the book's only weakness; women are pretty much just sex. There's only one female character of any significance, and she is mostly a comic foil.) All the stories do weave back together into one narrative thread during a big party in the penultimate portion; each person who has been introduced to us individually throughout the book reappears. This was the "Aha!" moment where I decided that Selvon wasn't just being all "experimental" -- he was playing with expectations and the usual format of a novel, but these seemingly unrelated stories were not, even though they never formed into an overarching plot.

Likewise, Selvon's use of language may seem experimental or indulgent at first, but it's very deliberate and structured. The first paragraph alerts the reader immediately that this book will not be written in standard English, but it's not at all difficult to parse. There are no chapters, just occasional section breaks. As the book goes on, there are places where the creole prose becomes denser and slang words fly about more thickly, culminating in one section, three-quarters in and just before the party scene, in which Selvon describes London and its inhabitants and their lives in a single stream-of-events-and-descriptions sentence that stretches on for nine pages. If that enormous block of text had come earlier in the book, the reader might have been stymied or tempted to put it down, but having read this far, you are used to Selvon's language, and thus prepared, it flows past and you follow it all and it hardly even seems irregular. (Also, he only pulls the nine-page-sentence stunt once.)

The ending leaves us where we began -- with Moses, still in London after ten years, still the heart of the West Indian community and yet still lonely and no further along than when he arrived.

The old Moses, standing on the banks of the Thames. Sometimes he think he see some sort of profound realisation in his life, as if all that happen to him was experience that make him a better man, as if now he could draw apart from any hustling and just sit down and watch other people fight to live. Under the kiff-kiff laughter, behind the ballad and the episode, the what-happening, the summer-is-hearts, he could see a great aimlessness, a great restlessness, swaying movement that leaving you standing in the same spot. As if a forlorn shadow of doom fall on all the spades in the country. As if he could see the black faces bobbing up and down in the millions of white, strained faces, everybody hustling along the Strand, the spades jostling in the crowd, bewildered, hopeless. As if, on the surface, things don't look so bad, but when you go down a little, you bounce up a kind of misery and pathos and a frightening--what? He don't know the right word, but he have the right feeling in his heart. As if the boys laughing, but they only laughing because they fraid to cry, they only laughing because to think so much about everything would be a big calamity--like how he here now, the thoughts so heavy like he unable to move his body.

Moses by the riverbank, has led his people to the promised land but will never enter it himself. Everything in this book could have been literary conceit, but everything Selvon did is deliberate but natural. It's just there for the reader to pick out.

Verdict: Nothing about this book would say "Read me!" to me if I saw it in a bookstore, but I'm glad I did. Sam Selvon put a lot of soul into this overlooked classic. It was entertaining, humorous, sad, and added something to my life by reading it. Not destined to become one of my favorite books, but it will certainly stick in my mind, and if it sounds even a little bit interesting to you, I'd certainly recommend it. It's definitely the sort of book I otherwise would never have encountered that is one of the reasons I started the books1001 community.

This was my eighth assignment for the books1001 challenge.
Tags: books, books1001, literary, reviews

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