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Gavin Weald has been sleepwalking through life. One year ago, a flood ravaged his home in Trinidad. Since then, Gavin has rebuilt the house, but his family remains shattered. His wife and son are gone, and Gavin alone must raise his sixyearold daughter, Océan, who is still suffering from the effects of posttraumatic stress disorder. Therapy helped initially, but the arrival of the rainy season revives her terrors in fullforce.
As a young man, Gavin loved the sea. He and a friend scraped their money together to purchase an abandoned Danish sailboat named Romany. Together, they spent years happily exploring the Caribbean. Then Gavin met Claire, who didn’t enjoy sailing. After they married, there was “no time for boats any more . . . for racing, nights gazing at the stars” (p. 13). Gavin started a family, worked his way up to “No. 3 in the company” (p. 10), and planned to sell Romany until the flood changed everything. Now, Claire has left them and nothing can reassure Océan that the waters won’t rise again. Tired of pretending that life can go back to normal, Gavin makes an impulsive decision to return to the sea and heal them both.
It’s been well over a year since Gavin has even been on board Romany. He’s gotten fat, his hands have gone soft, and he’s unsure if he’ll be able to navigate the boat solo. But his dog, Suzy, is an old hand at sailing, and her presence fortifies him. Soon, Gavin “takes his mobile phone out from his back pocket and tosses it over his shoulder” (p. 36) as he steers them all out to sea.
Gavin has told no one about this impromptu voyage. His employers, Océan’s school, and Claire’s mother will all soon discover their absence, but for now, Gavin is unwilling to articulateeven to himselfwhere he hopes they will go or why he has chosen to keep their departure a secret. The trio sails west, and Gavin takes to calling Océan “Starbuck.” He tells her the story of Captain Ahab and his furious pursuit of the Great White Whale. In simple terms, Gavin explains, “Starbuck felt it wasn’t wise to fight nature. I think Moby Dick represented God, you know, or nature” (p. 175).
As they travel as far as Romany can take them, Gavin and Océan are dazzled by nature’s beauty, ferocity, and relentless indifference again and again. Yet, they also witness the depredations that humankind has wrought in return: beaches and waters littered with garbage, sea life eradicated by oil spills, and ecosystems destroyed by tourism and nonnative species.
In her followup to the Orange Prize Finalist The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, Monique Roffey brilliantly casts one family’s tragedy within a larger context of global trends and politics. Eloquent and wise, Archipelago is the deeply moving chronicle of a father and daughter’s journey to come to terms with their many losses and finally reawaken to life.
Monique Roffey was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and educated in the United Kingdom. Her novel The White Woman on the Green Bicycle was an Orange Prize finalist.
In the acknowledgements, you write that in 2008, your “brother’s home in Perserverance, Maraval, Trinidad was badly flooded,” and that this was Archipelago’s “starting point.” (p. 359). What story did you set out to tell? How did Gavin’s journey change once you began writing it?
When my brother’s home was flooded in 2008, I knew it had to do with climate change and that I would write about it. The question washow? I did not want to write a preachy ecothriller or bigmessage environmental novel. I think it’s a hard subject to write about without being too earnest. I came to the idea of the voyage a year later. I decided that I would not write about the flood itself. I would write about a man who survives the flood and what he does next, which is to go see his backyard and the rest of the world. Gavin’s journey unfolded as I travelledit designed itself. It was very much a piece of work which stayed in “in progress” for a long time. I had a route and I followed it.
You traveled from Trinidad to the Galapagos following the same route as Gavin. Did you feel that tracing his journey was necessary to tell his story? What elements did you transpose from your expedition to his?
Making the voyage that Gavin makes was a fundamental part of my research for this book. I needed to see it all for myself. There is no way a writer could make this all up. It was important for me to sail west, to turn left out of the archipelago and to see the modern Caribbean islands for myself. I did not know about the collapsing coral stone buildings and the breakdancers in Curacao, or the huge cruise ships which dominate the whole of the ABC islands, or the cocaine and emeralds for sale on the streets of Cartagena, or that the Kuna people in the San Blas islands who still exist as they did 300 years ago. I was also very surprised when I reached the Galapagos to see how few turtles are leftmaybe less than 10,000. The whalers took them all centuries ago, not realizing how old they were and how long they would take to propagate. It was a journey of discovery for me, and then, of course, at the end of it was the earthquake in Sendai, Japan, and a giant wave had passed through the Galapagos. There were things I did not expect to find. The environmental damage was everywhere, in the form of bleached and broken coral caused by temperature change, lionfish, and too much tourism. And, of course, sailing out into open water, out of sight of landwhich is terrifyingwas important. It gave me the perspective that Gavin needed.
Have there been any real life tragedies similar to the fictional mudslide that killed Gavin’s son? Is careless development a big issue in Trinidad?
The mudslide wasn’t fictional. It happened, but no one was killed. A whole neighborhood was destroyed. People were throwing their children over walls. Family pets were washed away and drowned. Many lost their homes in the same flood that hit my brother’s house. I think urban planning is still a rather ad hoc affair in Trinidad and throughout the Caribbean. For instance, there are lots of high rise buildings and office blocks which have gone up recently in downtown Port of Spain which are empty and redundant; there are lots of expensive condos and apartments, tooalso empty. There are rumors of money laundering, and this may be true. Currently there are thirtysix enormous condos in front of our family home standing empty. They took years to build and have now been vacant for years. Everyone questions what this development is really about. So rich men can still buy the right to build whatever they want and whereverand the average man, a man like my brother, often suffers the environmental impact (e.g. densely paved areas which strip the land of trees and contribute to flooding, as well as over crowded roads). On the other hand, it’s true that a handful of very talented modern architects have transformed Port of Spain, especially after it was destroyed by the attempted coup in 1990. The National Library, in the heart of the city, is an example of fine public spending and public architecture.
Hugo Chavez died on March 5, 2013well after you wrote Archipelago, but before it was published in the United States. Are his government’s oil policies hastening the Caribbean’s environmental ruin? Did helike Eric Williams in Trinidadsell out his nation to strengthen his own political power?
I’m not sure if Chavez and his oil are ruining anythingyetas there have been no major leaks at refineries, etc., as far as I know. It’s more his relationship to power that I find difficult. He was a Caribbean communist, friends with Castro and also Trinidad’s exPrime Minister Patrick Manning. He was a selfeducated man of the people who won power and then abused ita common story. Also, there is something about Caribbean leaders that mimics the father/child, master/slave model. Luckily, the age of these longterm leaders is dying. In 2006, I was writing about Patrick Manning and he was voted out of office in 2010. In 2011, I was writing about Hugo Chavez and he is now dead. I think the politics of the Caribbean region today is dynamic and shifting, which is a good thingand also poses challenges for the novelist. If the region’s politics are changing quickly, how do novelists get on board when books take years to write? In some ways the region’s journalists are the unsung literary heroes of the Caribbean.
Over the course of the novel, you refer to both MobyDick and The Old Man and the Sea. Do you think that it’s impossible to writeor readthe story of a journey on the open sea without considering those books? Were there other sea tales that influenced Archipelago?
Yes, I also weave in Joseph Conrad’s The Shadow Line and, of course, Homer’s The Odyssey. Only men have written about the sea, really. I wanted to bring in MobyDick, too, and then half way through, I thought, “OK, now I’m going to be utterly obvious with my stealing,” and just deposited the white whale entirely into my story. I thought, “Everyone will know!” I felt The Odyssey was the book that needs the most attention when writing about a man who takes a sea voyage. But Gavin is no Odysseus. He loves his wife and child and that’s implacable, but he also fails almost every other test. He’s no hero, no macho man. There is a Cyclops and three sirens in this book. But Gavin hurts his hand battling the oneeyed thief, he faints at the sight of blood, and gets seduced by whores in the brothel in Curacao. He is a grieving fat man, very much the antihero. Archipelago is like The Odyssey in reverse. It is an antihero’s quest. And yes, I have enfolded some of the other great sea books into the mix.
Both The White Woman on the Green Bicycle and Archipelago are evidence of your tremendous gift for interweaving personal stories with sociopolitical critiques. What do you believe is the novelist’s role in society today?
Writers are not politicians: we don’t get elected to do anything for anyone and we are entirely self motivated and willful. We do what we like and if we’re lucky we get read and/or paid. I’m very wary of books like Atlas Shrugged or The Fountain Head, for instance, which carry massive political intent and polemic. I have ideas, sure, but I like to think my readers are very clever and have ideas of their own. We meet together on the pages. You can read one of my books cover to cover or you can stop and put it down; I’m not trying to convert anyone to anything. Writers can be socially influential and we can be critical of government sureand I have been critical of the People’s National Movement in Trinidad. But I think writing is a humble job. At best, a writer can offer an alternative to existence. Shining a mirror is not enough. Saying, “look at this” is not enough. A really great writer saysand here’s something else to think about, toohere is another way to see this.
Who are your favorite writers? Past or present, is there a Caribbean writer whom you feel deserves to be better known?
Harold Sonny Ladoo is my favorite Caribbean author. His novel No Pain like This Body is a masterpiece. Unfortunately, he was murdered in Trinidad in 1973, so he never got to write many books. He was our next Naipaul and deserves to be as widely read internationally as he is in Trinidad. I also like the Martiniquan writer Patrick Chamoiseau. Texaco is an astounding piece of work. Other writers? Oh, off the top of my head: Jean Rhys, V. S. Naipual, Franz Fanon, Aimee Cesaire, Jamaica Kincaid, Earl Lovelace, Mary Shelly, Angela Carter, William Blake, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Daphne Du Maurier, Sylvia Plath, Raymond Carver, Aldous Huxley . . . of course, Herman Melville.
What are you working on now?
Another novel, set on a fictional island in the Caribbean called Sans Amen. There is an attempted revolution which goes badly wrong very quickly. It is a narrative again taken from real life historical events; it is the story of a young boy who is given a father figure and a gun. It is the story of his six days of attempted revolutionand what happened to him next.
- When Gavin first sets out with Océan and Suzy, he imagines that the sea is calling to him. “Jump, she whispers; you’ll find yourself. Jump and meet yourself, come lie in my bed. How he loved the sea as a younger man; the sea was his first mistress, his first woman” (p. 71). Why is the sea usually characterized as female? Why does he believe that sailing to the Galapagos can cure Suzy’s fears?
- Should Gavin have resisted the temptations to sample the cocaine and, later, to have sex with the prostitute at Campo Allegre? How did your opinion of him change over the course of the novel?
- There is a lot of pink in Archipelago: the pink vacation house on Crasqui, the pink slave huts on Bonaire, and the pink asthma inhaler. What parallels is Roffey drawing between these pink things and the new pink walls that surround Gavin’s rebuilt home in Trinidad?
- What did you know about Hugo Chavez before reading Archipelago? Do you agree with Roffey’s portrayal of him?
- The novel criticizes Trinidad’s unregulated development, Venezuela’s rampant oil drilling, and reckless tourist practices throughout the Caribbean as threatening both the area’s natural beauty and the safety of its inhabitants. How well do you feel that Roffey integrated these issues into Gavin and Océan’s story?
- Roffey only gradually reveals that Claire survived the flood that took their infant son’s life. At what point did you realize that she was still alive? How did this realization affect your understanding of the novel’s events?
- Why is it that Phoebe sees the ghost of Romany’s previous owner on her first night, whereas Gavin had never even felt his presence before she came onboard?
- Gavin and Océan talk a lot about MobyDick and the ways in which the white whale is meant to personify nature. How did you read the white whale that appears in Archipelago towards the end of their voyage?
- Did you know that the effects of the 2011 earthquake in Japan were felt in the Galapagos? What does it say that Gavin and Océan must ultimately face another lifethreatening wave?
- The end of Gavin and Océan’s voyage is punctuated by trauma: Phoebe’s departure, Suzy’s death, and the tsunami that threatens the Galapagos. How do these experiences help father and daughter recover from the flood?
- Their voyage helps Gavin to rediscover his love of sailing, yet he releases Romany once they are in the Galapagos. Why?
- In what ways has man’s relationship with nature changed since Melville’s day? How does Archipelago reflect these changes?