He is deliberate, meticulous, and splendidly disciplined. The stories are perhaps not original in form but they would serve without degradation of any sort as works by a Chekov or a Joyce.
Reviewed by Bob Williams
Chutney Power and Other Stories
by Willi Chen
Interlink Publishing Group, Inc.
2006, ISBN 1-4050-2973-0, $9.95, 168 pages
Willi Chen of Jamaica has been painter, poet and writer of plays and short stories. Chutney Power is his second short story collection. Judy Stone, editor of the series of artists from the Caribbean, writes, “his words [tumble] over themselves in their lavishly sensuous and inventive application to his canvas, vividly conjuring the smells, textures, sounds and flavours of the Trinidad countryside.” This makes him sound like some naïve artist and he is not that at all. He is deliberate, meticulous, and splendidly disciplined. The stories are perhaps not original in form but they would serve without degradation of any sort as works by a Chekov or a Joyce.
The first clue to what Chen is up to – as opposed to the irrelevance that Judy Stone ascribes to him – is the difference between his voice as a narrator and the speech of his characters. Chen is sober and fully responsible, as one would expect from a disciplined and accomplished artist. Here is an example of prose that would fill any writer with pride. Chen describes a pretentious guest to the home of a pretentious hostess.
“At exactly five o’clock, the doorbell rang. Sniffing, Mrs. Gonzalez’s long aquiline nose pierced the transparent beaded curtain as she guided her high silver coiffured head daintily through the jingling sound of her Spanish bracelets. A pair of syrupy eyes, glazed and framed by charcoal, and surrounded by pastes of mascara, greeted the hostess in the large hall. The first guest was a picture of elegance in pink and cream, with one black mole sitting on the cleft of her chin like an overgrown housefly.”
There are few pages and many stories so some of them do not ignite because many of the characters have no character, but Chen more often than not makes the most of the space that he allows himself. When he overcomes space limitations, he takes flight with grace and freedom. He is anxious to embrace as much as possible of the life that he sees about him and he is as happy with a sketch as with a story. This is not all bad but it is, of course, in precisely those works where the lines he draws come together that the pages come to an almost incendiary life. Losers – often women abandoned by their husbands – enjoy a triumph of unassuming righteousness that display a fragrance of lives that are patient and gracious. Many of the stories are set around the Christmas season and Chen has a facility in showing the grandness and the felicities of a time that is especially blessed. There is in fact an attractive showing of better qualities that might make a man a believer in his species. And he never strains or moralizes. All grows naturally from an abundant power of description and what can only describe as a natural happiness of heart.
I find that I cannot be critical even of those stories that do not fully succeed. There is here an abundance that disarms criticism and must be experienced. O, there is a glossary in the back of the book to explain native expressions. A conscientious reader will use the glossary, but it is something one can live without and suffer no ill consequences. This is a valuable book. One should say that one does not read enough writing from the more obscure areas of our world, but this book transcends limitations of this sort. Obviously, recommended.
About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places