Duane Allicock’s Thoughts on The Man Who Ran Away by Alfred H. Mendes

Published in 2006 by The University of the West Indies Press. Edited by Michèle Levy.

While reading this short story collection, I couldn’t help but come away with the sense that, had Alfred Mendes existed during a time without such fierce intellectual competition, his name and talent would have stood a greater chance of being sufficiently acknowledged and lauded. Alas, coming of age and into your own in a period when you occupied the same space with a figure such as C. L. R. James, all but guaranteed that you would always be relegated to the shadows cast by the glare which reflected off that West Indian luminary.

Include the names of a few other younger, but very promising authors, such as Lamming, Naipaul and even Selvon, who would eventually become internationally acclaimed, and you begin to realize why the name Alfred H. Mendes continues to receive honourable, but never effusive mention in the West Indian canon. Which is a shame, because what was discovered while reviewing the work of this Trinidadian writer of Portuguese descent, is that the man not only crafted eloquent literature, but articulate West Indian literature. In the end, there’s just that indefinable ‘something’ that results in some brands becoming ubiquitous, while causing others to remain so obscure, that when you do mention them, people get that ‘eureka moment’ and mutter, “Oh yeah, I’d forgotten about that…”

Like many authors of his generation, Mendes continued to mine a timeframe during an era about which he felt passionate, and for him, the tales told remained rooted in the decades of the 1920s and 30s, a preference which is of such great significance, that it is included in the work’s title. The title story is the first in the collection, and sets the tone for what, essentially could be an exploration of what a familiar Trinidadian song writer referred to as our “Old Time Days”. While the Nappy Mayers composition carried more than a whiff of rosy-eyed nostalgia, Mendes’ depiction cannot be charged with attempting to gloss over any of our lesser desirable qualities.

His portrayal of Trinidadian society in eleven of the twelve stories which span these years, maintains an appreciation for the complications inherent in a society as multiethnic and multicultural as ours, and the limited impact that a century had had on modifying the prevailing attitudes of the members of a society connected by the colonial experience. This observation is not meant to imply that all the reader should expect is thinly veiled, heavy handed rhetoric, clothed in a literary facade; far from it. A writer as competent as Mendes operates with subtler brush strokes, and introduces realistic characters, many of whom are memorable and would perhaps even be familiar to someone who may have grown up during this time. The persons are, in spite of class, ethnicity or gender, often shown to be products of their era, with their attitudes and assorted prejudices to their fellow Trinidadian informed and haunted by this shared colonial experience.

Of the stories themselves, I will say that Mendes, who had a self-avowed passion for describing the natural beauty of our West Indian environment, renders it with aplomb, in none more so than the stories “Malvina’s Nennen”, and “Colour”, the sole inclusion whose setting is not in based in Trinidad. I’ll also admit that although most of the characters are fairly well drawn, there are moments where the stories that they inhabit left me unsatisfied, and with a distinct sense that, like the content of many a popular music album, they were included to make up the numbers. There is even an instance where I found the plot and climax of an earlier offering being essentially plagiarized. Not even the brevity of the repeated tale could redeem it for me, and that final shortcoming, brevity, is what brings me to my major grouse with this collection.

I will readily acknowledge that it is the quality, and not necessarily the quantity of words used which can make a story not merely resonate with a reader, but elevate it to the level of the truly memorable. Yet, I will also go on record and state that Mr. Mendes handicapped himself with some of the shorter inclusions in this collection. However, on those occasions when he gave his muse free reign to roam wherever it pleased, the compositions, though lengthy, are really something to behold, and likely to elicit the most emotionally charged reaction from the reader.

What may irritate the Tobagonian who reads this collection though, is that although the subtitle does specifically acknowledge Trinidad as the setting of choice, for some inexplicable reason, he also chose to make Grenada the setting of his final story, a decision which might be interpreted as an affront to our sister isle.

Although editor Michèle Levy, readily recommends this work by Mendes as a useful “text for university literature courses”, I’m once more left with the impression of the author’s abilities not simply being under marketed, but undervalued. Admittedly, he may be regarded as a torchbearer whose light shines less brilliantly than the authors mentioned earlier, but confining him to the stuffy setting of a class filled with English undergrads may expose him to a fresh round of ridicule and apathy which might very likely cause him to ‘turn over in his grave’.

I’ve often found that the only way that an artist like Mendes becomes more recognizable, is to sell his strengths to a wider readership, rather than a niche clientele. Often times a connoisseur, maybe even an influential one, will come along and pay top dollar for an obscure collection because of the very flaws which provide it with its unique character. With that awareness in mind, permit me to offer that person looking for a new vintage of literary wine to sample, something from one of the lesser known vinters, a Mr. Alfred Mendes. Now, some of what you taste you’re going to love, others you’ll wish you had more of, and some you’ll simply spit out. Just remember though, that when everyone else is gushing over the finer points of their Cabernet Naipauls, and their Pinot Lammings, you can take delight in having tasted something not only unique, but equally well aged.

Duane Allicock hails from the island of Trinidad and lives for reading, cycling and running; in that order. When not pursuing any of these passions, he prefers to immerse himself in listening to music, or the silence of the Mount Saint Benedict monastery, pondering on life’s humorous ironies.

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