Chatto & Windus, London 1992
Translated into Dutch, German, French
Vintage (paperback) UK
Simon & Schuster USA
Inspired by The Tempest, Indigo traces the scars of colonialism across continents, family blood-lines and three centuries.
Rich, sensual and magical in its use of myths and farytales Indigo explores the intertwined histories of the Everard family and the imaginary Caribbean island where Ariel, Caliban, and his mother, the healer and dyer of indigo, Sycorax once lived.
A PDF of Derek Walcott's hand-written introduction can be read here.
‘An extraordinary imaginative achievement’
- Times Literary Supplement
‘Indigo explores the nature of power, the human cost of Empire and the theme of dislocation…vivid, gripping, intelligent.’
- The Independent on Sunday
‘A complex and glittering book’
- The Times
‘Her prose has never been so lyrical, as she yokes Shakespearean references, colonial history and her own sensual experience of the Caribbean with a powerful myth-making.’
- The Independent
Patrick Parrinder 'Nation and Novel: The English Novel from its Origins to the Present Day' (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) pp 186 - 198.
READ AN EXTRACT
Indigo - Enfant - Béate, 1700-
SYCORAX SITS HUNCHED under the earth, her head fallen sideways, face up, on to her knees which her hands clasp; her mouth - what is left of her mouth - gapes open in the direction of the ground above. She’s a floury heap of bones and those bones are wormeaten. Once a femur or a forearm would have played a pure note if you’d used one for a pipe, but the pieces would whistle harsh and offkey now from the holes bored into them by the efficient mandibles of her companions in the vertical grave, the cenote where they placed her after the battle, during the truce.
Her long death has barely begun, however, for she can still hear the prayers of those who come to bring garlands of pink and white hibiscus and poui flowers and golden allamanda and nectar-laden frangipani, as well as the gnarled soursop and the smooth-skinned mango. They push a tack into the bark of the saman tree and make a wish, they whisper their pleas to the spirit inhering in the tree, as they imagine, rightly (though Sycorax has no power, nor ever had, except in dreaming).
The sea breeze blows in Enfant-Béate and turns the tropical heat to balm of an evening, it stirs the jade-like waxy foliage above the elephantine trunk and picks up these entreaties made by islanders who come here with their offerings: the tack or nail, made of tin or brass or iron or copper, supplied by the goods store at sharp expense, one of the manufactures that are sent from the mother country in return for sugar. They drive one into the bark as they utter the wish, which has been properly formulated, with the conventional phrases of worship and respect so that the loa deep inside the tree will not take offence and will grant what they wish. They know the formulae, thev have been transmitted from generation to generation down the years. But even so, only someone with greater powers who enjoys intimacy with the loas’ can assure the efficaciousness of their prayers.
They remember that the guardians of the tree run back through time to the one who only sang and never spoke who used to keepvigil by the tree, where the sorceress Sycorax (but they have forgotten her name) lies deep with her grave goods. To her daughter who came sometimes to weep silently and only opened her mouth to sing tonelessly after… well, after many things the details of which are best forgotten.
Beyond them they can see other mighty divinities, Jesusmary-
andallthesaints Peterandpau1, Mathewmarklukeandjohn. Theysometimes fancy they pick up the voices of the past, answering their prayers, and after presenting their gifts of flowers and fruit, they come away filled with hope that the great loas have agreed to grant whatever they were being implored to do.
The slaves pressing their tintacks into the tree whisper-
- their love of a man, their love of a woman
- their love of a child
- their hopes of reprieve from punishment
- their thanks for surviving punishment
- their fear of being burned alive on a barbecue like the young slave who ran away last week and was caught and tried and sentenced to death by this method
- their terror of having a foot chopped off for stealing (some of them have been stealing)
- their trust that their little boy will recover from the quartan fever.
Some women ask for:
a fertile womb (they also ask for a barren womb sometimes).
Many pray, on the death of the master:
- that the new one may not be worse.
They imagine torments more atrocious for the bakkra (which is what the bosses are called) than they have themselves received at the order of mistresses who wear bonnets and corsets and use the civilised manners of Liverpool or Birmingham or London -
They think of their children’s warm squirming bodies and entreat that as they grow up they will not be hurt as they have been -They beg to be protected against partings, disease, death and sorrow -
They also ask to send the ball singing over the Stockade at Flinders -
And Sycorax hears them, her teeth chatter and through her wasted lips there comes a sigh -
Over and over she utters her lament:
- Oh airs and winds, you bring me stories from the living, rustle of leaves and heave of branches, you speak to me of pain, and you, streaming magma from the belly of Adesangé and cold rivers too spouting from down below, you swollen sea where Manjiku glides, and you, shining pale moon, and you, oh bright sun of the zenith and green glittering star, HEAR ME! I once governed you (for so she thinks) and you did as I wanted, you let me deliver Dule, my wonder, my child, a hero to our people, from death by water, I healed the barren and the sick and granted the silly dreams of lovers, and much other magic besides, so HEAR ME NOW, now that I only hear groans and Dulé hobbles on slit ankles as he rails and Ariel is captive again and croons over Roukoubé and does not speak. Turn back your currents in their course, the stiff breeze and the gentle wind, pull back the tide and send the sun, the moon, and the stars spinning in the churn of the heavens - so that we can return to the timebefore this time.
- I would know then, once back in those days before everything changed, that my power is of little weight and not worth using. I would abjure my art then and there, leave off cursing, leave off binding fast and loose with spells.
But the soft messages in the air still come to her and flick around the bones of her long-vanished ears, for she cannot set limits on her powers, neither then nor now. Only the faithful who pray to her and draw on her strength can do that. She cannot abjure, give up, control the force by which she is possessed. On her own, she cannot stop the churn from tumbling round and round.
But she overestimates herself, and she does not know better than to blame herself. She and the island have become one; its hopes come to her in the wind bending the palm fronds on the beach, making the halyards sing against the masts in the bay, in the tree frogs’ piping, the rattle of the fleshy leaves of the saman.
She breathes her lament into the earth filling her mouth, saying over and over, for the habit of power has made her take the past on her shoulders, ‘If I could return to that time, I would no longer change men into beasts as I did, and then find myself unable to change them back into men.’
The isle is full of noises.