[Caribbean Literature]

The Wine of Astonishment and Polyrhythm

Part One: Rhythms of Colony and Empire

David P. Lichtenstein '99, Brown University, Contributing Editor, Caribbean Web

In evoking the village of Bonasse, the Spiritual Baptist church, and its struggles for spiritual survival, Earl Lovelace taps into the notion of polyrhythm. In The Wine of Astonishment, Lovelace focuses in on the voice as means of of representing the rhythms of the village and its oppressors. He uses dialogue and narration in dialect in order to allow the village's inhabitants to speak for themselves, to recreate the sense of community felt by all.

Through the representation of the voices of certain characters, the reader witneses the clash between colony and imperial power. Although not very often, the reader does hear the voice of the empire, of the powerful. Characters like Prince (the head of the police force) and even Ivan Morton (the black government official who grew up in the village), who callously dismisses the police breakup of the church meeting with "Well, I suppose you have to carry out your duty," (68) represent the voice of power and privilege, with their repression and ignorance of the suffering of the villagers. More subtly, the voice of the empire comes out in British songs sung by the villagers, such as:

Rule Britannia
Britannia rules the waves
Britons never never never
shall be slaves. (30)

Though they take on new meaning with the irony inherent in the villagers repeating them, nonetheless these songs provide an interesting counterpoint to other songs the villagers sing (see below), which Lovelace also represents. In order to make more apparent the status distinctions that divided the villagers and their oppressors, Lovelace must thus represent, though minimally, the voice of those who would keep the villagers down.

But predominantly the reader hears the voice of the village, of the colony, of the oppressed. First and most prominently, the narrator of the story, Eva (husband of Bee), speaks in Lovelace's version of Trinidadian dialect. Thus very literally, and right from the start, the voice of the village can be heard in a form more true to its nature, unfiltered by the proper English of the colonizer. But the choice of Eva as narrator amplifies the voice of the community in another way. Since Eva tells the entire story, either as her own account or a repetition of another's story that she overhears, all dialogue must pass through the filter of her voice. Thus the powerful voice of Prince (aptly chosen symbol of empire) loses some of its sway thanks to her narration:

Prince move back a step as if to see Bolo better, and now with his mouth push up and his face frown up and his head bend down like a bull a little, "None of your business," he say. (68)

Here Eva's comical comparison of Prince to a bull slightly defuses the impact of his stern words. Thus Lovelace mitigates even the speech of the empire with the rhythms of the colony.

The addition of hymns or work songs to several passages of the novel signals another means of representing the voice of the village. These serve as a foil for British songs like the one above. Lacking the irony of the daughter culture mimicking the empire in that example, they serve a more positive end. These hymns point a form of release for the suffering of the villagers:

I never get weary yet
I never get weary yet
Forty long years I work in the field
And I never get weary yet.(66)

Furthermore, these songs tie the villagers to their slave ancestors, who probably originated such hymns as they worked in the fields on sugar plantations. For both slaves and their descendants (the villagers) the work songs represent a subtle but crucial form of resistance, in the face of nearly crushing oppression.

Lovelace writes in the voice of the village in one other important way. He recreates a church meeting, and attempts to give it as much fire and spirit as a real meeting might have contained. Through his dramatic representation of the call and response of preacher (Bee) and congregation, the reader hears the defiant, spirited voice of the community in its finest moment. The reader thus has a better idea of why the practice of religion is so important to the villagers, as well as an image of the community at an uplifted, even happy moment -- scenes not always readily available in a community such as Bonasse.

Lovelace's writing seems then to privilege the voice of the colony, the marginalized voice. In truth, with his literal representation of their speech in several examples, he does bring a formerly peripheral group to a sort of central position. However, a close reading reveals an undercutting of even this center, as the rhythm of the colony turns out not to be a single one but a multitude of conflicting rhythms coming together.


Lovelace, Earl. The Wine of Astonishment. Oxford: Heinemann, 1982.

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