CLEAN, strong prose and an expert's knowledge empower this narrative to bewitch despite the fragmentary nature of the fictions it offers.
These creative stories pull back the curtain — which is to say, the wall- of silence that separates insiders from outsiders — and reveal the secrets of a village in one of Jamaica's seafaring coastal communities. Tony Tame is a master of the different arts and skills required to harvest the seas, and also of the misuse of the ocean in order to fish too abundantly or more simply. He describes the terrible craft of dynamiting for fish, and the deadly (to all) one of using bleach to fish the coral reefs. This latter technique leaves the corals dead and prone to becoming gardens of poisonous algae which then work up the food chain until the large fish bring the poison home to man. Tame says:
It was a real worry with barracuda when they attain great size. There are ways of supposedly testing the wholesomeness of the flesh - like offering it to ants to see if they will eat it and boiling a piece in a pot of water with a silver spoon immersed and seeing if the silver turns black. Different people had various opinions about the efficacy of these methods. Sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn't.
The poison — ciguatera — is particularly unpleasant though not always deadly.
Tame is a champion of irony in his handling of the abuse of the seas and the different fishing methods that promote this mismanagement. He is never preachy or strident, always cool and very, very clear. He writes:
But in the quiet hours of the real dark, the last and most cautious of the survivors poked their much-hunted noses carefully out from the deepest recesses of the caves and tangled weed beds and drifted, wraith-like, over the sea floor to feed on whatever had survived the multiple assaults upon their gradually dying world. You can push the creatures of the sea to near extinction, but they were there in the primordial cradle of life before humanity and will certainly be there after their most efficient and deadly enemy is gone.
Tame describes spear fishing and its other extreme, hunting with the seine net that rips all from before it and brings it to shore. His understanding of the survival needs of man and ocean alike are wonderful to read and lend much interest to this book about the different scams that the characters of the village are involved in: He always presents his case with cool efficiency. Speaking of the net, he says: A beach seine net must be one of the most ancient forms of fishing. Certainly it has a medieval look about it with the power being entirely supplied by the muscles, endurance, and skill of the men who haul it ashore. In some countries they tie donkeys to rotating, capstan-type devices and lead them around in everlasting circles to apply pressure to the ropes that bring this type of net to the beach but that system has never been used in Jamaica.
Tame surmises that Jamaican donkeys are too stubborn to accept this type of work. Tongue-in-cheek and with a refreshing humour, Tame lightens the difficult lessons he is teaching in this beautifully written book. He draws characters that come to life on the page, and speaks with endearing grace of the animal kingdom, the pet dogs who are abused, the fish which are harvested to the point of extinction.
One such character is given a chapter all to himself to show the deep despair that attacks those who try to help the village community. The Charity Man is full of stories of failures that he shares over rum drinks with the village elder, Mr. James, and the visitor to the community, Sonia, an American who would like to develop the area. The Charity Man says:
"You see how tranquil it looks, but underneath it is savage and violent and tough creatures survive and that happens in places like this. It's just the same all over. Nobody gives a damn what happens to these people; businesses exploit them, police rough them up, and so they got to find any way they can to adjust. Let me tell you another little one."
And the Charity Man tells a chicken story of how Arnie, the villager who kept chickens fought off the rats by mixing cement powder with the feed grain so that the rats ended up with "concrete guts" and rolled over dead. Arnie tells this story to a fellow from Nebraska who has a huge chicken enterprise. It is one of the smaller liftings of the curtain that the book offers.
Tame's narrative is sometimes difficult to follow as it unfolds in a fragmentary fashion, always centring back on fishing methods and their effect on the oceans and the fish. His descriptions of the natural world are poignant and sensual. For example, he writes of the kingfish: "Actually they start a little before the sunlight is properly established, when the sun is just a promise and the sea is only a darker — though white-flecked -7 patch than the paler grey-black of the horizon." He describes the winds that define island life as "the Doctor" (the sea breeze) and "the Undertaker" (the land breeze) and weaves them into his tale, constantly keeping an account of the nature of the sea at any given time. Tame is a splendid natural writer. He brings us the world we know so little of and Presents it in context of environmental health and man's survival.
The Village Curtain is a well-written, fully informational journey through the lives of Jamaica's fishermen and the women who care for them. It is an intriguing read, full of spice and bandooloo offerings. Tame knows his subject well and is generous in sharing it with his readers. , Enjoy this book, for it is beautifully wrought.
Tony Tame has been associated with the marine industry since the mid-1960s. His lifelong interest has been the methods used in various types of fishing- and the people who work in this field. After '1970, he became directly involved in the supply and service of equipment to the commercial fishing industry in Jamaica. The Village Curtain is his first book.