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The Undiscovered Country

Andre Bagoo

(Peepal Tree Press, 2020)

Review by Onyekachi Wambu


The title of Andre Bagoo’s collection of essays is taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, signifying the undiscovered country of the afterlife from where no travellers return. Bagoo, however, is very much concerned with the here and now. As usual with essays, his explorations centre on his multiple preoccupations and interests (obsessions?) – which take us back to him, and his own internal, undiscovered and unexcavated states. 

There is the undiscovered country of his sexuality as a gay, mixed African and Indian Trinidadian; the conscious and unconscious influences that shaped him and his literary and aesthetic sensibilities; the deeply entrenched existential challenges facing post-colonial Trinidad and his own place in such a landscape; and finally, there is the notion of experiment to uncover a language and form worthy of hanging these uncharted territorial experiences on. 

Bagoo’s responses, always witty and original, range from traditional academic essays to poetry, flights of artistic expression and epigrammatic outbursts to playing the role of psychological detective in probing suspicions of the closeted characters of key literary and political personalities (poet Langston Hughes, prime minister Eric Williams), or the source of V.S. Naipaul’s phobia of ‘half-made’ societies, Trinidad in particular. He also reflects on stylistic and thematic evolution in the works of poetic heroes, Thom Gunn and Derek Walcott.

Some essays are more successful than others; each nevertheless adds a piece of the jigsaw in capturing Bagoo’s own awakening, and his attempts to imagine and construct counter-narratives within a socially conservative society (despite the annual bacchanal of Carnival) that ultimately enable him to calibrate hidden complex emotions, in order to breathe. 

The longest sustained essay, ‘The Free Colony’ is a panoramic journey from Columbus to Brexit, with Bagoo reimagining a future for Trinidad’s independence and republic. Borrowing the tools of the historian, he identifies a Janus-faced Empire that loudly aspired to liberty, freedom and individual rights with its eyes open on the reality of slavery, imperialism and colonisation. These tensions were sometimes expressed in the relationship between the colonies and the metropole, with the reluctance of the latter to fully allow any representation of the interests of the former for fear of the metropole itself being overwhelmed. Ultimately, reviewing the parliamentary records, this tension was part of the calculus for the American War of Independence. 

Rather than admit the interests of the colonies (planters, or later the enslaved) in the metropole, Bagoo argues that independence always ended as the default option, even for many unviable societies such as Trinidad. Echoing Naipaul’s ‘half-made’ thesis, he points to a number of examples (sodomy laws, the 1990 coup attempt and aftermath, and so on) proving the description of a Free Republic as more slogan than reality, with dangerous consequences. Given that London’s Privy Council continues as the final court of appeal, Bagoo insists that integration into the metropole rather than independence should have been sought. 

Controversial! And naïve. Bagoo himself admits that the kind of British xenophobia and fear of (being on) the periphery that led to Brexit (and the American revolution before) means that this was never an option. But by even exploring this option it seems that Bagoo really yearns for that lost world – an imperial enterprise in which his Asian and African parents were brought together, and which provided a language, parliamentary system and cultural sensibility which are elegantly encapsulated and grappled within this collection. 

C.L.R. James (barely mentioned here by Bagoo) understood that contrary to accepting the colony or neo-colony, work and time is needed to fashion something new from a baleful inheritance.