The Loyal Blacks
by Ellen Gibson Wilson
Putnam, 464 pp., $9.95
Song of Protest
by Pablo Neruda, translated by Miguel Algarin
Morrow, 118 pp., $5.95
In 1786, four hundred Londoners left for the rich but disease-ridden port of Sierra Leone to start a West African settlement. Most of them were black; they were followed six years later by a thousand more colonizers, who had relocated in Canada as slaves freed by the British during the War of Independence. The Sierra Leone settlement was governed by an English trading company, which was both paternalistic and accommodating; it made persistent efforts to extract taxes from the subsistence farmers and also to show the profitability of free black labor. Wilson gives an extraordinarily full sense of the ex-slaves’ lives in both Canada and Africa. They were sturdily American in their protests against unjust authority; they did not adopt tribal or pre-Christian institutions but applied themselves to transplanting apple trees and importing cheese. The intrigues of the Canadian whites (who disliked losing cheap labor), the City financiers, and the on-the-spot administrators of the settlement are reconstructed with admirable scholarship and energy. An unusually interesting account of one episode during a crucial period in both black and white North American history.
Neruda—diplomat, Chilean senator, and candidate for the Chilean presidency in 1970—became famous in the early decades of this century for dark and despairing poems, often with exotic surrealist settings, lamenting the decay of civilization and human love. His sense of estrangement, however, was broken at the time of the Spanish Civil War when he turned communist, spoke for the dispossessed, and saw worldly misery more and more in political terms. Song of Protest, his last installment in this vein—he died in 1973, just after Allende fell—castigates the capitalist exploitation of Latin America, attends “to the pain / of those who suffer: they are my pains,” celebrates “the blood of dead peasants” and the revolutionaries in the Sierra Maestra.
This is a thoroughly programmatic little volume, moving in its agitprop way, but lacking in the subtlety, grace, and mystery that made Neruda a great poet. Here “the wicked perpetuate themselves” through the “bullets and money in Washington,” Venezuela’s Betancourt learns “English in order to obey orders,” and the building of the Panama Canal is viewed as a mortal desecration; “little sister, they cut / your figure as if it were cheese / and then ate and left you / like a gnawed olive pit.” Neruda’s vision of a new day, of “dignity born out of fighting,” of a world where “the cruel and the bad are gone forever” has the power of all noble aspirations—but in these poems the historical reasoning behind it seems simplistic. (Notice in this section does not preclude review of these books in later issues.)
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