DUPPY CONQUEROR. By Ferdinand Dennis. 346pp. Flamingo. Pounds 16.99. - 0 00 225596 0.
The twentieth century is a foreign place for most contemporary black British writers. The likes of Fred D'Aguiar, Caryl Phillips and David Dabydeen excavate the archives looking for evidence of a pre-Windrush black presence, using sources as diverse as Georgian tobacconists' cards and the paintings of Joseph Turner. Their historical revivifications starkly oppose the recent gush of urban, hardboiled fiction produced by, among others, Victor Headley and Q. With their modish boo-yacka patter, their ballistic stylistics, these paperbacks try to mainline the energies and clamour more usually tapped by the style press.
Neither an archaeologist nor a historical amnesiac obsessed with reproducing the perpetual "now" of pop culture, Ferdinand Dennis's work has been overlooked by critics and readers alike. This is a pity, for both his extensive journalism and his two earlier novels, The Sleepless Summer (1989) and The Last Blues Dance (1996), deal with an older generation of Caribbean immigrants, whose narratives, stoical and unpolemical, rarely find expression in contemporary black fiction. A balladeer of the sad cafe, Dennis has a geographical imagination which is more likely to home in on provincial Pentecostal churches and run-down working men's pubs than metropolitan wine bars or the latest cool dance venue. Pensive recessives people his work - middle-aged West Indians who, thwarted in love, chafed by poverty, and homesick for islands with which they no longer have anything in common, hobble through their declining years, adrift and alone.
Marshall Sarjeant, the hero of Dennis's new novel, Duppy Conqueror, is also snagged by an abiding loneliness and a sense of personal failure. He grew up in Paradise, Jamaica, knowing that his family's economic and physical health would be blighted for as long as the curse cast on them by one of their white forebears remained unlifted. Instructed to travel to Africa to conquer this deforming ghost, or "duppy", he goes via England where he spends the Second World War as a member of the West Indies Volunteer Force. His quest is endlessly deferred, as he fritters away his time boozing, gambling and womanizing, before establishing a seedy nightclub in London. Finally, in 1961, increasingly broody and distrait, he leaves for Africa where he sets up a school and marries a lustrous watermaid, Kaya. Respectability does not entail repose; his wife dies prematurely while the nation descends into civil war and anarchy. Finally, after half a lifetime spent abroad, he returns to Paradise determined to confront the familial demons head-on.
This very ambitious novel is nothing less than a history of the twentieth century, seen though Afro-Caribbean spectacles. Marshall, traverses the black diaspora becoming imbricated, personally or through friends, with Back To Africa shipping schemes, post-war mass West Indian emigration to England, and the decolonization movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Duppy Conqueror is thronged with hustlers and ideologues, based not so very loosely on the likes of Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah, Peter Rachman and Enoch Powell. They lend an associative frisson that helps to obscure Dennis's rather skimpy characterization, with its recourse to stock figures - fervent revolutionaries corrupted by power, ne'er-do-well comic foils, black women who function as either redemptive lodestars or voracious man-eaters. Marshall himself is emotionally elusive. The anomie from which he suffers is asserted rather than demonstrated. As he skitters across nations and continents, his interior life is neglected - his restlessness appears a mere pretext for the author to spool through another decade of Commonwealth political upheaval.
Despite these caveats, and the fact that Dennis's subdued, almost courteous prose style is unsuited to narrating Marshall's tussles with Paradise's sorcerous past, the novel is persistently readable. Framed as a postcolonial picaresque, it has a hurtling energy which raises it above Dennis's previous work. Finally, and most importantly, Duppy Conqueror brims with humour and low comedy. It is a pleasing change from the wilfully ponderous treatment of historical memory and diasporic identity in much contemporary postcolonial fiction.