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The Post-Columbus Syndrome by Fabienne Viala

Reviewed by Jorge Sarasola, University of Sheffield & Università di Bergamo

The Post-Columbus Syndrome: Identities, Cultural Nationalism and Commemorations in the Caribbean, Fabienne Viala. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. £59.99. ISBN: 9781137443748.


In The Post-Columbus Syndrome, Fabienne Viala takes the reader on a tour de force of the Caribbean’s history, politics and art, using the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas as its focal point of analysis. The celebrations in 1992 and their reverberations in the cultural realm are springboards from which to launch a multidirectional, interdisciplinary and translinguistic study of the variations within the collective memory of seven Caribbean countries: Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Guadeloupe, Martinique and Jamaica. While numerous publications discuss the appropriateness of the term ‘discovery’ to describe Columbus’s arrival, the proposed research merit of the book is to go beyond this debate and examine the overlooked commemorations of the 500th anniversary in the Caribbean. Viala fills this gap in the scholarship by examining the strategies behind the incorporation of Columbus into different national discourses, and the subsequent reinterpretation of this past by cultural actors. She argues that the Post-Columbus Syndrome, arising in the 1990s, is a phenomenon which captures how “the collective Caribbean imaginations of today are based on dysfunctional national memories” (3) and that these various nations share the need to remember through the “repeated recycling of heritage with a view to engaging and coping with the present” (3).

           The book’s eights chapters are divided into two different sections. The first and more theoretical strand deals with major Pan-Caribbean theorists of cultural memory: Fernando Ortiz (Ch. 1), Edward Brathwaite (Ch. 2), Edouard Glissant (Ch. 3) and Antonio Benítez-Rojo (Ch. 4). Ortiz develops the notion of transculturation to overcome the limitations of the English term, ‘acculturation’, in an attempt to transform a history of racial tension into one of “positive translations” (22). Whilst he sees Columbus as the initial agent of Caribbean-European interaction in the shape of a “Cuban Odysseus” (24), Brathwaite comments upon Columbus’s arrival from a first-person perspective which could be that of the indigenous Taínos, thus speaking for “his insular people.” (54). Nevertheless, Brathwaite is also critical of the anti-Columbus discourse growing in Jamaica’s reggae and dub poetry scenes, which he sees as “too nationalistic and limiting.” (59). Focusing on Martinique, Columbus becomes a “shifter in the discourse of memory” (79) in Glissant’s view, given that he works as a catalyst for the forgotten collective memory that France attempted to erase in its département d'outre-mer (DOM). Benítez-Rojo’s ‘Feedback Machine of Caribbeaness’ is a useful concept with which to comprehend the recycling of past traumas through ritualistic practices in order to syncretise heterogeneous racial and cultural memories with modified European culture. This first part provides a robust theoretical foundation to collective memory in the Caribbean, while avoiding the common pitfalls of locating Caribbean Studies at the periphery of Latin American, Postcolonial or French Studies; theory is not superimposed from abroad, rather, it erupts from within the Caribbean. Its merit also lies in providing a faithful location of the authors in their specific context, thus explaining some of their motivations and omissions, from the influence that the background of Anglo-Caribbean independences had on Brathwaite, to Glissant’s oversight of the subaltern relation between Martinique and Guadeloupe.

           The second and more stimulating strand engages with the commemorations and protests unleased by the 500th anniversary, as well as with the representations of Columbus in cultural productions from each country. Chapter 5 traces the variations within Hispanic countries: Cuba commemorated the date by funding Antonio Nunez Jimenez’s canoe expedition through the continent which recreated the European ‘discovery’; Puerto Rico celebrated pompously as the political establishment wished to use the occasion to valorise its Hispanic – rather than Anglophone – heritage; and the Dominican Republic glorified Columbus ostentatiously in an act of “hyperbolic monumentalizing” (131) by building ‘Columbus Lighthouse.’ In Jamaica (Ch. 6), the Universal Negro Improvement Association renamed this day as “African day Holocaust” (155). In the French DOMs, Martinique and Guadeloupe (Ch. 7), the anniversary went almost unnoticed in mainstream cultural politics, though it sparked potent cultural debates in other circles, such as the trial of Columbus organized by the Cercle Franz Fanon in 1993. Similarly, Haiti (Ch. 8) did not celebrate at all, yet a statue of Columbus was toppled in 1986 when president Jean-Claude Duvalier fled the country. Uniting these disparate strategies is the fact that, according to Viala, in all cases the countries approach remembrance “according to their national myths” (2).

           The book’s seamless flow through several art forms and genres constitutes one of its greatest merits: the reader engages with Haitian novels, theatre in Martinique, Jamaican dub poetry and performative arts in Puerto Rico, amongst others. Mainstream and counter-hegemonic, canonical and popular cultural expressions illuminate the crucial role played by the figure of Columbus in Caribbean collective memory. For example, whilst Mutabaruka puts him on trial in Jamaica: “i also give you 1000 years/ for each year that black people/ have been sufferin since columbus came here”, the Haitian playwright, Jean Métellus, presents him as a visionary adventurer.

           Another success of the study is to transcend the simplified binary that floods the media every 12th of October: ‘Columbus: hero or villain?’ The author is far less interested in giving a verdict on Columbus than in developing a robust conceptual apparatus that allows the reader to understand the forces behind the manipulation and expression of memory in these countries. By paying meticulous attention to the historical and socio-political context in which each nation celebrated the anniversary, the study persuasively reveals the sheer strength of cultural nationalisms in moulding collective memory. This is a compelling argument, since as the author point outs, the resurgence of this “polytraumatic past” (8) coincides with the end of the Cold War, when a number of supra-national entities threatened the sovereignty of these nation-states. Nevertheless, the study does not fall prey to the common attack levelled at post-colonial scholars where political considerations supervene over all others, such as aesthetic ones. Viala merges a detailed socio-political analysis with specific close readings of artworks – where her analysis of Jamaican dub poetry certainly stands out. Indeed, it is through the power of fictive art that some cultural actors “question the dysfunctions of national memory in the country” (17). Whereas Gert Oostindie criticized the study for relying too much on an artistic analysis rather than on anthropological evidence, I would contend that this book makes an indirect yet convincing plea for the value of the arts to be taken seriously when engaging with history, politics and memory, unfashionable as this may sound to some social scientists.

            In the introduction to the book, the author suggests that responses amongst other South and Central American countries to the 500th anniversary were rather uniform in using this date as a chance to advocate for greater recognition of indigenous visibility and rights. She argues that the Caribbean, on the contrary, “demonstrated a more complex response” (2). I am hesitant to accept this homogenization in the responses of such varied countries without some qualification. In fairness, Viala does specify that she is referring to nations with significant indigenous influence, such as Mexico, Paraguay and Guatemala. Yet even amongst these various countries the motives and reactions may differ significantly. Indeed, most South American nations remember this event under different names, from Chile’s ‘Encuentro de dos Mundos’ to Uruguay’s ‘Día de las Américas’, thus revealing diverse approaches to collective memory. In other words, I would suggest that Viala’s meticulous methodology when analysing the Caribbean could also yield fascinating discoveries if applied to the rest of the Americas. That said, the book’s focus is on the Caribbean and not South America. Ultimately, this piece of scholarship is a landmark interdisciplinary and transnational study of how the Caribbean negotiates its colonial past with its post- and neo-colonial present.