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Black Fauns by Alfred Mendes. London. 1935. Duckworth. 328 pages. hardcover.

 

black faunsFROM THE PUBLISHER - 

 

ALFRED MENDES was born in Trinidad in 1897. Mendes’ creative writing belongs to ‘The Beacon’ period of Caribbean literature, which launched the early novels of the English-speaking Caribbean in the 1920s and 1930s. His first novel PITCH LAKE was published in 1934 and his second BLACK FAUNS followed a year later. In the capital of a Caribbean island, the BLACK FAUNS - Mamitz, Martha, Estelle, Christophine, Ma Christine, Miriam and Ethelrida - wash clothes for a living in the intimacy of their barrack yard. It is the 1930s. In two facing rows of rooms, each room a habitation, and separated by the expanse of communal yard, the women are quarrelsome, supportive and reflective, tender and fierce with one another. Memories and bitterness are green. Ma Christine with her obeah and speechifying about her dead husband; Miriam, the objective level-headed philosopher voraciously learned in her insights of the world; Etheirida, bristling with fire; Mamitz, secret but smart and ruthless in her determination to survive; and Martha, in fear of her shadow concealing deep springs of passion and love. It is Martha’s love affairs, first with Estelle, and then with Snakey, Ma Christine’s son, which finally lead to murder and the destruction of the yard community.

 

 

 

 

 

Mendes AlfredAlfred Hubert Mendes (18 November 1897-1991), novelist and short-story writer, was a leading member of the 1930s ‘Beacon group’ of writers (named after the literary magazine The Beacon) in Trinidad that included Albert Gomes, C. L. R. James and Ralph de Boissière. Mendes is best known as the author of two novels - PITCH LAKE (1934) and BLACK FAUNS (1935) - and for his short stories written during the 1920s and 1930s. He was ‘one of the first West Indian writers to set the pattern of emigration in the face of the lack of publishing houses and the small reading public in the West Indies.’ Born in Trinidad the eldest of six children in a Portuguese Creole family, Mendes was educated in Port of Spain until 1912, then at the age of 15 went to continue his studies in the United Kingdom. His hopes of going on to university there were interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. After briefly returning to Trinidad in 1915, against his father’s wishes he joined the Merchants' Contingents of Trinidad - whose purpose was to enroll and transport to England young men who wished to serve in the war ‘for King and Country’ - and sailed back to Britain. He served in the 1st Rifle Brigade, and fought for two years in Flanders, along the Belgian Front, and was awarded a Military Medal for distinguishing himself on the battlefield. Towards the end of the war, he accidentally inhaled the poisonous gas used as a weapon by the German army, and was sent back to Britain to recover. Mendes returned to Trinidad in 1919, and worked in his wealthy father's provisions business, while spending his spare time writing poetry and fiction, and in establishing contact with other writers, artists and scholars. In 1933 he went to New York, remaining there until 1940. While in the USA he joined literary salons and associated with writers including Richard Wright, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, William Saroyan, Benjamin Appel, Tom Wolfe, Malcolm Lowry and Ford Madox Ford. He went back to Trinidad again in 1940. Together with C. L. R. James, Mendes produced two issues of a pioneering literary magazine called Trinidad (Christmas 1929 and Easter 1930). Several of his stories appeared in The Beacon, the journal edited by Albert Gomes from March 1931 until November 1933. Mendes was quoted as saying in 1972: ‘James and I departed from the convention in the selection of our material, in the choice of a strange way of life, in the use of a new dialect. And these departures are still with our Caribbean successors.’ In all Mendes published about 60 short stories in magazines and journals in Trinidad, New York, London and Paris. His first novel Pitch Lake appeared in 1934, with an introduction by Aldous Huxley, and was followed by BLACK FAUNS in 1935. Both novels are significant in the history of literature from the Caribbean region and are landmarks in the establishment of social realism in the West Indian novel. In 1940, Mendes abandoned writing and worked in Trinidad's civil service, becoming General Manager of the Port Services Department. He was one of the foundering members of the United Front, a party with socialist leanings that participated in the 1946 general elections. After his retirement in 1972, he lived in Mallorca and Gran Canaria and ultimately settled in Barbados. In 1972 he was awarded an honorary D. Litt. by the University of the West Indies for his contribution to the development of West Indian literature. He began writing his autobiography in 1975 and his unfinished drafts were edited by Michèle Levy and published in 2002 by the University of the West Indies Press as THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ALFRED H. MENDES 1897-1991. Mendes and his wife Ellen both died in 1991 in Barbados and are buried together there in Christ Church Cemetery. Mendes married in October 1919, and had a son, Alfred John, the following year. His first wife, Jessie Rodriguez, died of pneumonia after only two years of marriage. A second marriage, a year later, ended in divorce in 1938. His third wife was Ellen Perachini, mother of his last two sons, Peter and Stephen. He is the grandfather of film director Sam Mendes.

 

 

 

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