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Syl Cheney-Coker: The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar

Magic realism is all too often restricted in its use to Latin American writers like Gabriel García Márquez. However, there are many other examples, from Salman Rushdie to Italo Calvino. Syl Cheney-Coker, in this novel, produces a first-class example which can compare favourably to those of the Latin Americans and others. His novel tells nothing less than a the history of an African town (and the surrounding area) from its early settlement by (black) immigrants to its present-day, post-colonialism under a ruthless and exploitative dictator. But the story is not a conventional historical novel but a magic realism story. Though he focuses on the development of the town, he is far more interested in the magic behind the story – the magic of the people and the magic of the place and his gift is to make this a convincing story but also a beautiful one. The only mystery is why this book is so little known and why it is out of print.

It starts with the present, as a general awaits his execution in a prison for planning a revolution against the current despotic dictator but then soon jumps back to the arrival in Malagueta (the name of the town) of Jeanette Cromantine, wife of a former slave. It then jumps further back to Sulaiman the Nubian (an approximate anagram of which is Alusine Dunbar, the name he later adopts), the half man, half sorcerer who predicts what will happen to Malagueta (good and bad) and influences some of the developments, not least through his magical, though herniated testicles. We follow the birth of Fatmatta, the Bird Woman, who is taken into slavery as a child and, as an old woman, dies on the ship that brings Jeanette Cromantine to Malagueta, though her influence remains, not least through her daughter. And we follow the travails but also the goodness and magic of Jeanette and her husband, Gustavius Martins and his wife Isatu, daughter of Fatmatta, and Thomas Bookerman, leader of the second wave of immigrants. We learn how they set up the settlement, deal with problems, ranging from flood and disease to invasion, how they succumb to English colonisation under the ruthless but insecure Captain Hammerstone and more or less adapt to it, till it is, in turn, replaced.

None of this can begin to explain the beauty of this book, as the past and present, the living and the dead, reality and fantasy intermingle. Generations come and go – even the main characters eventually die and newcomers arrive and some of the magic goes. Cheney-Coker tells of the vanity and uselessness of power, of the ultimate failure of colonisers, of the futility of war, of the power of love, including but by no means limited to sexual love and of how magic is always going to be there, behind the façade that we see.

Publishing history

First published 1990 by Heinemann