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A STATE OF INDEPENDENCE by Caryl Phillips (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $13.95; 158 pp.)

July 06, 1986|Richard Eder

From the time he lands in St. Kitts, the Caribbean island he left 20 years earlier for a scholarship in Britain, Bertram Francis is assaulted by the heat.

He feels it at every moment and in every movement--this native, returned from what was to have been a brilliant future but turned out to be two decades of improvisation in London's West Indian slums.

Now it is independence-eve in St. Kitts. Bertram is back, not as the successful lawyer and future judge that scholarship boys hoped to become in the old days of the Queen, but with a little money and vague hopes of finding a place.

But he sweats all the time. He changes his clothes continually, pulling them out of the two English suitcases that take up half the floor space in his mother's hut on the outskirts of the capital. His anti-perspirant is flooded out.

It is the sign of a larger estrangement. In Caryl Phillips' acrid and touching novel, the message is both: "You can't go home again" and "You have nowhere else to go." Independence is a party, and a shift of the colonial axis from Britain to the United States. What remains on these Caribbean microdots is a bleak constant.

There is nowhere to seek a fortune, neither at home nor abroad. There is no frontier, or big city; merely a cramped economy with dying sugar mills, a few luxury hotels for the tourists, shadowy administrative facilities made available to shadowy foreign businessmen, and the women in print dresses who sit all morning in a dead marketplace with their tiny piles of wares.

It is a somber message, but "A State of Independence" is far from a somber book. For the most part, Bertram's adventures in attempting a return that resists him are told with dry comedy. Phillips, who comes from St. Kitts and lives in London, adorns a harsh judgment with the gentlest of lampoons. It is calypso, if you like: a moral played out with a lilting absence of moralism.

Bertram left St. Kitts under a halo, having won the prize examination at his village school. The examination scene, told in flashback, is a wondrously colonial affair. A dozen papers arrive in a sealed packet from London; three hours later, a dozen futures are mailed to London to be judged and returned.

Even as he sits there writing, Bertram is visibly set apart from his best friend, Jackson Clayton, who is affable, a prize cricket-player and an indifferent student. And when he wins and goes off, it is clear that nothing will ever be the same between him and his friend.

Nothing is the same, and it is the book's hinge. Studying law in London was simply the token pigeonhole provided for blacks from the islands. If it meant a job once, when the empire was in bloom, it means very little now that the empire has withered. Bertram drifts off from his studies; Clayton, on the other hand, uses his cricket and his affability to make connections, go into politics and flourish.

And so, Bertram comes home counting on his friend, now deputy prime minister as well as minister of agriculture, lands, housing, labor and tourism. But things are not that simple. Bertram is an ebullient miscalculation bobbing in a sea of frigid calculations.

Times have changed, as Clayton makes brutally clear when Bertram finally manages to see him in his lavish office. Surely, Bertram ventures, his London background and his connections will let him "make a contribution" in the new St. Kitts.

London counts for nothing, Clayton tells him. St. Kitts' metropolis is Miami now, along with the money and deals that trickle down from it. As for connections, he intimates with considerable pleasure; none of the deals are for Bertram. There are not, after all, that many to go around.

And there is the old resentment. Bertram's old girlfriend, Patsy, explains it to him. She had favored him over Clayton in the pre-scholarship days.

"I don't see why that can't just fall into the past now. What is done is done," Bertram protests. This is too simple; the author is setting him up for Patsy's reply. But the reply is worth it.

"You really feel so?" said Patsy. "Nothing in this place ever truly falls into the past. It's all here in the present, for we're too small a country to have a past."

Patsy, aging, disillusioned yet welcoming in her skeptical way, provides a lot of the book's life. Neither the theme, the story nor the relationships are particularly new; and toward the end, matters become decidedly forced.

But for much of the time, Phillips provides a singular freshness through the delicacy with which he handles his characters and their feelings. There is an intriguing balance of intimacy and distance. It is as if, as he introduces us to them, he were introducing himself to them as well.

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