Caryl Phillips
Caryl Phillips; drawing by David Levine

Frantz Fanon, Martiniquan psychiatrist and interpreter of the black condition, used to recall the advice of one of his teachers: “Whenever you hear anyone abuse the Jews, pay attention, because he is talking about you.”1 Taking these words to heart, Caryl Phillips, in his new novel The Nature of Blood, follows a winding path through space and time to connect the ages-old persecution of the Jews of Europe with the sufferings of people of African descent. The result is a somber but powerful work of fiction, bolder in conception and more accomplished in execution than anything Phillips has done thus far.

Phillips is a Briton, but he also belongs to the African diaspora, with family connections that go back to the Caribbean and, beyond the Caribbean, to West Africa. (One cannot fail to remark that the three sources of this genealogy are also the apexes of Britain’s triangular transatlantic slave trade.) Some of his fiction falls into what we can call Caribbean literature, some does not; but behind all of it looms the dark history of slavery and its consequences.

Over the course of three centuries the slave trade shipped some eleven million unwilling people from Africa to the New World—the greatest forced population movement that we know of before our own century. Two fifths of them went to the plantations of the West Indies, which made up what Gordon K. Lewis calls “the hard-core area of slavery in the Americas.”2 By comparison, the English-speaking North American mainland received only 5 percent.

Britain (as well as Spain, France, and Holland) transported Africans to the Caribbean to work its colonial plantations, sending out its own people, many of them undesirables or misfits, to oversee their labor. Planter society became notorious for its dissoluteness, its indolence, its philistinism, and its snobbishness—a snobbishness that turned on money and on race. It left behind a legacy of racial prejudice based on minute gradations of skin pigmentation. “The West Indian…divided people into the white, fusty, musty, dusty, tea, coffee, cocoa, light black, black, dark black,” writes V.S. Naipaul in The Middle Passage, quoting a familiar Caribbean color-litany (Phillips re-quotes it in his book The Final Passage).3

Out of plantation practice and the rationale that sustained it, there grew a corpus of colonial lore about black mentality and the black body that we can properly call racist. The Trinidadian historian Eric Williams may go too far in claiming that, far from slavery being born from racism, racism itself was a consequence of slavery—nineteenth-century European ethnography and racial science would make their own huge contribution to the theory of racism—but Williams is certainly right to point to the Americas, and the West Indies in particular, as a forcing-bed for racist thought.4 In that sense, as the West wrestles today with its racist inheritance, it continues to live in the long shadow of slavery.

The slave ships sailing to the New World bore the first wave of the African diaspora. Then, as the sugar-based economies of the islands began to falter in the early nineteenth century, and as the European powers emancipated their slaves, that wave was succeeded by a second, more complex set of migrations that continues into the present: from one island to another; from the islands to the American mainland; from the islands to the former metropolitan (“mother”) countries; from the islands to Africa; and from America or Europe or Africa back to the islands. (The spectacular migrations of Cubans and Haitians to the mainland during recent years have obscured the fact that shifts of population have long been a feature of Caribbean demography.)

It is against this historical background of unsettledness and unsettlement, of Eurafrican hybridity and minutely fractured racial consciousness, of incomplete independence and ambivalence about models to follow in the future (“Eventually, the masters left, in a kind of way,” writes the Antiguan novelist Jamaica Kincaid; “eventually, the slaves were freed, in a kind of way”5 ), that the preoccupations of many of the great Caribbean writers of our age, including Aimé Césaire, V.S. Naipaul, and Derek Walcott, need to be seen, as well as the fictional project of the younger Caryl Phillips, which at first focused, with a mixture of nostalgia and exasperation, on island life, but has subsequently come to follow a much more British, and even European, direction.

Phillips was born in 1958 on the tiny island of St. Kitts (population 45,000) but was taken to Britain as a child. St. Kitts was then, and still is, a typical migration society, its economy depending on remittances sent home by the labor it exports. Phillips calls such islands “Third Worlds within the Third World.”6

Britain of the 1960s was rife with anti-black feeling; in 1962 legislation with a transparently racist basis was passed to make immigration from the ex-colonies more difficult. In an autobiographical essay, Phillips has described the contradictions of growing up “feeling British, while being constantly told in many subtle and unsubtle ways that I did not belong.”7 His first novel, The Final Passage (1985)—for an unsettled West Indian the title reverberates with irony—draws upon the immigrant’s multifarious experience of cold-shouldering behavior, subtle and unsubtle, conscious and unconscious, on the part of the natives. Of a white social worker, for instance:


When she talked to Leila in that high Scots voice, she always swallowed either just before or just after the word coloured, as if ashamed of it…. [The word] always got caught just beneath the centre of her tongue and created more saliva than the rest of the words in the sentence put together.

Yet Phillips has also written sensitively about white characters, most notably in the story “Higher Ground” (part of the novel of the same name) and in the novella “Somewhere in England” (in Crossing the River, 1993). In the latter, the central character is an Englishwoman living through World War II in the obscurity of the provinces, coping with a domineering mother, a petty crook of a husband, neighbors who ostracize her when she falls in love with a colored American serviceman, and a social welfare bureaucracy that removes their child from her on the grounds that it is a “GI baby.” In her levelheadedness, loyalty, competence, and independence of mind (she sees through the patriotic war propaganda with which the British are deluged and particularly dislikes “that fat bastard Churchill”), she exemplifies the heroism of daily life at its most muted; but there is a solitariness, a bleakness, an untouchableness to her as well that is a feature of Phillips’s more fully evoked women.

Even the novel Cambridge (1991) is not unsympathetic toward its white central character, opinionated and prejudiced though she may be. Cambridge is set on an island that looks suspiciously like St. Kitts, in the first half of the nineteenth century. Emily Cartwright is sent out from England to report on conditions on her father’s sugar plantation. She records her observations of plantation life in a journal, hoping, on her return to England, to lecture to ladies’ associations, rebutting the antislavery agitators.

Emily starts off with a rosy picture of slave life as “happy [and] hedonistic…, with ample food, much singing and dancing.” As she is absorbed into planter society, she comes to admire what she thinks of as the energy of the plantation managers, and to develop typically colonial nightmares of being cast adrift in “an ocean of negroes.”

After a reckless and sordid affair with one of the managers, however, followed by a stillbirth, her mind begins to unravel. The prim, careful language of her journal loosens up as the structures of control and self-control within her—the embedded patriarchal order—crumble, and by the time the novel ends she is balanced on a knife-edge, between madness on the one hand and a potentially real psychic engagement with the Caribbean on the other.

Cambridge is not a particularly good book—the last sections are schematically plotted and show all the signs of hasty writing—but it does show Phillips, by 1991, extending the compass of oppression to include the white woman, particularly the white daughter figure.

Phillips has written a number of stories set in the slave era, marked—though not in all cases—by a finely judged balance between, on the one hand, linguistic and historical immersion in the period, and, on the other, a retrospective modern awareness of what was at stake.

The best of these pieces is “The Pagan Coast” (in Crossing the River), set in the 1830s. “The Pagan Coast” takes off from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the role of Kurtz being played by a naive house slave, Nash Williams, who is set free by his Southern master on condition that he go to Liberia and preach Christianity to the natives. Nash’s optimistic vision of Liberia (“the beautiful land of my forefathers…the star in the East for the free colored man”) gradually gives way to disillusionment. Missionary work is futile, he finally declares: he discards his Western upbringing, takes three wives, becomes, in effect, an African. His ex-owner, sponsor (via the American Colonization Society), and onetime lover travels to Liberia to reclaim him for civilization, but arrives too late: “Nash Williams is dead,” he is told (the words echoing Conrad’s “Mistah Kurtz—he dead”). Like Kurtz’s trading post, Nash’s upriver mission station is squalid and overgrown, reclaimed by Africa.

The American Colonization Society in effect asks Nash Williams to live out a hypocritical white project in which Africa will take back to her bosom her troublesome New World children. In its vision of Africa as the solution to America’s race problems, the Society comes ironically close to the Pan-Africanism of Edward Wilmot Blyden and Marcus Garvey—both West Indians—who saw the black man as spiritually grounded in Africa and advocated a return to African roots. In “The Cargo Rap” (in Higher Ground, 1989), Phillips satirizes the Pan-Africanist elements in the Black Power movement of the 1960s, unveiling a deadpan sense of humor and a talent for unobtrusive comic mimicry that one would not have suspected from his early novels.


“The Cargo Rap” is the monologue of a young African-American jailed for armed robbery and suffering under a punitive regime of detention. Phillips uses as his starting point the prison letters of the Black Power activist George Jackson, collected as Soledad Brother, but balances admirably between caricature of the prim didacticism of the revolutionary (“I think the African man does not masturbate enough…. Masturbation is safe, quick and can be practised with little danger to self or others”) and compassion for a young man of considerable intellectual passion growing more and more frantic as he sees he may never leave jail alive (“Is there not an attorney who would agree to one day being paid in African crops and fruit?” he writes desperately).

Though it played a large part in the creation of Liberia, the real-life American Colonization Society had little success in repatriating freed blacks to Africa. Its greatest opponent was Frederick Douglass, who denounced it as a tool of the slaveholders. “Individuals emigrate, nations never,” he asserted.8

As Douglass made clear in his way, and Phillips makes clear in his, the question is not whether Africa is capable of reabsorbing its children but how and where the African diaspora must see its future. Phillips’s position is more complex than Douglass’s because he comes after (indeed, has participated in) the second wave of the diaspora, and thus knows that neither Africa nor the second countries of birth of the diaspora—principally the impoverished islands of the Caribbean—are capable of providing a home for all its lost children. But both Douglass and Phillips claim a future for themselves “where they are”: in Douglass’s case in the United States, in Phillips’s in a Europe that includes Britain.

This claim is implicit in Phillips’s stories but comes out more clearly—and with less nuance—in his essays. “Black people,” he writes, “who are trapped in a hostile and racist Europe, exiled from a politically and economically unreliable Caribbean, are beginning to gather around themselves the values of survival and resistance that have sustained them on two journeys across the Atlantic, and are now fighting for the right to be part of the future of this continent.”9

The Nature of Blood, Phillips’s new book, is an intricately structured work, four stories of persecution and suffering told in parallel. The one that leaves the most abiding impression is the story of Eva Stern, youngest daughter of a Jewish family in the Germany of the 1930s. Eva’s parents are comfortably off; her doctor father puts up with the humiliations of daily life, refusing to recognize how serious their plight is until it is too late to emigrate. For two years he manages to keep his daughters hidden. Then the juggernaut of the Final Solution starts moving. The family is transported to the camps; Eva alone survives.

In 1945 Eva’s camp is liberated; but for months the inmates continue to inhabit the camp while the occupation authorities process them. Eva annexes one of the huts for herself, turning it into a personal prison where she can hold on to the ghosts from her past.

A kindly British soldier shows an interest in her; she responds to his interest with dogged silence. However, she takes his halfhearted proposal of marriage seriously enough to follow him to England, where she tracks him down to his house in the suburbs. He is already married, he has a child. Alone in a strange country, she suffers a series of mental breakdowns and suicide attempts. Her therapist, chilling but perceptive, diagnoses her problem as a refusal to forget—as mourning without end, a form of loyalty to the dead.

In the psychiatric hospital, Eva is joined by a ghostly figure who has shadowed her across the waters, a girl with a “swathe of red around her mouth.” Though built on memories of a friend who took rat poison to escape the transports, this figure stands in a wider sense for a whole generation whom Eva refuses to leave behind, to forget. “The other girl is looking at me with sadness in her eyes, so I reach over and take first one hand and then the other. Don’t worry, I say. Everything will be fine. Please. Don’t worry.”

The corpus of literature about the camps is by now so vast, and the ground so well covered, that one would think nothing new can be said about their horrors. Yet pages of Eva’s story seem to come straight from hell, striking one with appalling power. Eva herself, drifting haplessly between the brutal reality of camp life and fantasies in which her mother and sister are still with her, kept alive by her care, is a haunting figure: this young woman, far from wanting to be taken care of, seems most deeply to need to gather her family about her and protect them.

When Eva climbs out of the cattle car at the death camp, there is a suffocating smell of burning all around, and the air is full of ash. In Phillips’s universe of interpenetrating historical spheres, the smell, the ash, come not only from the camp furnaces but from St. Mark’s Square in Venice, where three Jewish moneylenders from the nearby town of Portobuffole are being burned alive for (so the allegation against them goes) killing a young Christian boy and using his blood in a devilish Passover ritual.

In Poland, in Eva’s life, the year is 1942; in Venice it is 1480. Incited by wandering Franciscan friars who denounce Jewish usury and exhort Christians to resort instead to the new ecclesiastical loan funds, the Monti di Pietà, there has been a rash of attacks on Jews. The atrocities of St. Mark’s Square mark the peak of these pogroms. After the demise of the worst of the Franciscan agitators, Fra Bernardino of Feltre, the flames of persecution will die down for a while, only to be fanned again by Pope Paul IV, who will command that the Jews of Christendom be confined to ghettos, on the model of the Ghetto Nuovo of Venice, demarcated in 1516. (From Venice the sense of the word ghetto as a quarter where Jews live compulsorily will spread across Italy, and thence into other languages.)

Through this same Venetian ghetto Othello, one-time slave, now professional soldier and commander of the armed forces of Venice, will wander as he explores his new city. The story of Othello, the black ram who offends Venice by tupping the white ewe, is the third of the four narratives of The Nature of Blood; through Venice Othello is tenuously linked to the Jews of Portobuffole, as these Jews are linked via their martyrdom to Eva Stern.

Some years ago, in an essay caustically entitled “A Black European Success,” Phillips sketched his own interpretation of Othello. To Phillips, Othello has not inwardly transcended his slavehood and is therefore anxiously preoccupied with showing himself to be as good as his new Venetian masters. “Othello is an alien, socially and culturally. Life for him is a game in which he does not know the rules.”10 It is predictable, says Phillips, that when Desdemona seems to betray him he will resort to violence, for violence is “the first refuge of the desperate.”

There is some conceptual confusion in Phillips’s essay, which veers between treating Othello as a real-life historical person on whom Shakespeare is reporting (“There is no evidence [in the text] of Othello having any black friends, eating any African foods, speaking any other language”), and as a character in a play who is misinterpreted by actors insensitive to the psychic baggage that an ex-slave must bring with him. Now Phillips renders this confusion irrelevant by the expedient of taking over Othello as a character in his own book, where he can make him as socially insecure, and as divorced from his African roots, as he likes.

In principle there is nothing wrong with this recreation of Othello, doomed though it is to produce a figure pettier than Shakespeare’s noble Moor—an Othello Minor. But for reasons that are not clear Phillips does not follow the Othello story through to its calamitous end. The courtship and secret marriage of Othello and Desdemona are given in close and sometimes sensuous detail, but the narrative comes to a halt with the couple installed on the island of Cyprus: no jealousy, no murder, no suicide. Phillips further loads the dice against his Othello by giving him lifelessly prosaic language to speak: “It appeared somewhat shameful to me that a man who had endured many wars and faced much danger should panic on finding himself in unfamiliar streets in an admittedly civilized environment.”

Cyprus provides the link to the fourth and last of the novel’s narratives. The year is 1946; the British, who hold the League of Nations mandate over Palestine, are diverting boatloads of Jewish refugees away from Haifa to transit camps in Cyprus. On the island is a doctor named Stephan Stern, Eva’s uncle, who has since the 1930s been active in Haganah, the armed Jewish underground. (Since Phillips keeps Stern’s underground activities shadowy, it should be said that Phillips’s fictional Stephan Stern has nothing to do with the historical Abraham Stern, leader of the notorious Stern Gang of terrorists.)

Stephan Stern is seen twice: once on Cyprus, and once in the Tel Aviv of the 1980s, where he meets Malka, an Ethiopian Jew, and invites her to a hotel with him. The old man and the young woman spend a chaste night together; the encounter allows Malka a chance to tell the story of her journey to Israel (“When we arrived, and stepped down off the plane, we all kissed the ground. We thanked God for returning us to Zion”), and Stephan an opportunity to hear at first hand about the hardships and prejudice encountered by someone who has ended one diasporic exile only to embark on another.

Over little more than a decade, Phillips has progressed from straightforward linear narration and uncomplicated realism to the complex shuttling of voices and intercutting of narrative lines that we encounter in The Nature of Blood, where there are even moments of postmodernist alienation as a disembodied voice of encyclopedic knowledge interjects itself into the text: “The process of gassing takes place in the following manner….The ash is white and is easily scattered.”

Nevertheless, Phillips has yet to essay a truly large fiction. His first two books were indeed novels as the term is generally understood—prose narratives of a certain length with a single main plot—but since then he has preferred to assemble between the same covers three or four short narratives that may either be closely linked, as in Cambridge, or may have only glancing contact with each other, as in Higher Ground, Crossing the River, and now The Nature of Blood.

One’s first inclination is to take the latter three books as collections of thematically linked novellas. However, Phillips has made vigorous gestures toward claiming a more integrated status for them. He subtitles Higher Ground “a novel in three parts”; in Crossing the River the component narratives are framed by an authorial voice gathering them together as utterances of “my lost children” (in an interview Phillips goes on to call Crossing the River “a novel…fragmentary in form and structure, polyphonic in its voices”11 ); while the prefatory material to The Nature of Blood refers explicitly to the book as a novel.

As a description of the forms Phillips is using, these claims will hardly stand up. But they do point to the way in which he wants his fictions to be read: as imaginative forays into a single body of history, the history of persecution and victimization in the West. Even the early and rather skimpy A State of Independence, set entirely on a Caribbean island and deploying only West Indian characters, is at its heart an exploration of the residue of slavery embedded in states of dependency that have remained constant in the transition from British colonialism to American neocolonialism. Despite the generic and historical diversity of Phillips’s fictions, they constitute a project with a single aim: remembering what the West would like to forget.

This Issue

November 6, 1997