Austin Clarke: The Origin of Waves

When I heard of the passing of Barbadian-Canadian writer Austin Clarke, his novel The Origin of Waves, that John the Baptist narrative, immediately came to mind. Why the allusion to John the Baptist? Timmy, the narrator is trudging in the white wilderness of Toronto one bleak Christmas, when among the voices crying out from his past is one that says, “Move out o’ my goddamn way, man!” (p. 24)

This paves the way for a confessional narrative between two long-lost childhood friends, one a man “with a machine beating in place of his heart, and suffering so much pain” (p. 129), the other, a wanderer who once urged his friend to “Swim-out, Swim -Out” (p. 17), now turned pseudo-psychologist who, takes it upon himself to counsel his friend on the healing properties of the capacity to love. 

This uncanny Christmas story takes place in the dark corner of a tavern – yes, there is room at the inn – surrounded by people who have stopped off for a drink in the jollity of the season, some on their way from work after shopping, presents at their feet.  The two elderly Caribbean men take a seat to catch up on their lives and recall and regale ancient staples of their education.

In the course of their conversation, although they still stand in their shoes and wonder, like John Keats’s ‘naughty boy’ who ran away to see the world, they try to fit their observations with translucent meaning.

For Keats is referenced more than once during their conversation, but which vintage Caribbean person does not remember that seminal Stanza IV, from “A Song About Myself” in The West Indian Reader Book 1 about John Keats’s ‘naughty boy’ who found, just as to ‘the north’ to which he went:

That the ground
Was as hard,
That a yard
Was as long,
That a song
Was as merry,
That a cherry
Was as red,
That lead
Was as weighty,
That fourscore
Was as eighty,
That a door was as wooden
As in England-

For the narrator, Timmy, of Austin Clarke’s The Origin of Waves, who is a long way from his original home, Barbados, Little England, bafflement persists, but this bafflement leads to fundamentals that he cannot shake:

  • that he’s only come to appreciate more the “measurements” (p. 20) of his island, Barbados, for all his swimming away from it.
  • that the origin of waves that brought (in waves), the groaning flotsam of the middle passage – blackened pieces of wood – and dropped them around the world, is the substance of his origin; yet all origins are cyclical and interlinked.
  • that not knowing how to swim does not make a person any less brave, worthy, steady and successful a fisherman, proudly responsible for his and her own; blessed are those who attain their pinnacle of achievement even if it comes late, just before death.

And so Austin Clarke’s Christmas story ends with the success of open-heart surgery performed on John’s child, hooked up to a machine at Sick Kids Hospital – a success that Timmy, the narrator had been sceptical about.

John, bearing The Good News, comes to find Timmy, the narrator at the Lake, looking out at an island that is “ugly compared to [his]” (p. 142), but this place is home: a flower floats on the surface of its murky water. Furthermore, the inner tube that they had lost in childhood play on their beach in Barbados, the inner tube that John had urged Timmy (who still cannot swim) to swim out for when they were young, so that they would not lose it, is drifting towards him. As Timmy stoops towards the inner tube, he sights the mirage of an old-time bountiful catch on a Bimshire seashore. And somewhere in the medley of beach-voices of his island community “the old black patched inner tube, shining in the coming light, swirls and comes in, comes in in a rounding movement,” (p. 146).

Austin Clarke’s The Origin of Waves is a churching befitting his illustrious career. So near and yet so far in The Six, it’s a pity I didn’t get to know him. Rest In Peace, Caribbean compatriot and mentor, Rest In Peace.


© Cynthia James – June 2016

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