No Telephone to Heaven

Themes

Identity

Cliff offers a complex rendering of identity in the novel. The character of Clare Savage is in some sense the embodiment of various conflicting identities—race and class in particular. From her father she has inherited a “white” upper-class, distinctly metropolitan identity, while on the other hand her mother and maternal grandmother represent almost the opposite—a rural working-class, Afro-creole identity. Clare is not so much the product of these familial histories as she is the representation of their collision inside one mind and body. She is all of them at once, not a mixture of the various constituent parts as she details during her interrogation by the leader of the revolutionaries (189-196). While Clare does ultimately choose to forge an identity counter to that of her father, by recognizing her African heritage, she does not attempt to exorcise the part of her self that is the result of her father’s family. Many other characters have conflicting or contradictory identities as well: Christopher and his loyalty to and hatred for his employers would be another good example. He is caught between the need to occupy a subservient identity to keep his job and the need to take care of his grandmother, to play the role of grandson—the two identities, which could be read as conflicting class identities, collide and create a disastrous outcome. Harry/Harriet is also another example of a character with multiple identities, again like Clare, Harry/Harriet does not attempt to become a woman or be fully a man. Instead he recognizes the existence of both genders within him and it is this dual existence that he expresses outwardly to the world with his appearance. It seems then that Cliff conceptualizes identity as an innately plural, as opposed to singular, phenomenon.

History

The history of British colonialism in Jamaica is an important part of the novel, it is sometimes brought to the foreground specifically by Cliff—as in Clare and Harry/Harriet’s discussions—but it is always in the background of the novel, forming in many ways the texture of the ground over which the characters travel. In the end of Abeng, Clare begins to reconsider her place in Jamaican society, the relation between her personal and familial history and the history of colonial class and racial class oppression in Jamaica, then the narrative of No Telephone to Heaven can be seen to carry that process through to a sort of conclusion. Whereas in Abeng, Clare is trying to figure out a way of knowing and understanding history in a way that is not exclusive or oppressive but, in No Telephone to Heaven Clare is trying to figure out a way to act on history—or the result of certain kind of colonial historical progression, which has been slavery, colonization, and subsequent Third World status for Jamaica, as Belinda Edmondson notes (185-186). This is perhaps articulated most powerfully in the revolutionaries doomed attack on the film crew who are making a movie about the Maroons (including Cudjoe and Nanny Granny, two important figures in Afro-creole folklore and Jamaican history). When the revolutionaries attack the crew, they are metaphorically attacking those who would seek to write their history for them and from the outside, the characteristics of the traditions of colonial history and colonial rule. In this final scene, the revolutionaries attack those that control them and their histories from a distant land (America and England) who are challenging their influence. The revolutionaries are trying to free themselves from one version of history, perhaps in order to create another version that meets their needs and the needs of the people of Africa

Migration

Clare travels often in the novel, first with her family she immigrates to the United States and then studies in London before returning to Jamaica. As Clare moves between countries she in some sense recreates the movements of colonialism. Just as goods and people moved from the Caribbean to the US and then on to England, Clare travels between the three countries Instead of staying in England and Europe, however, she eventually returns to Jamaica. But no matter where Clare is, when she is not in Jamaica she is never really at “home.” When she is in England she realizes that the version of London that she learned about in school is far from accurate and this only increases her sense of isolation—a fact highlighted by her friendship with Liz in England, who cannot understand why Clare is so angry about a National Front march (138-140). Clare’s movements, and the historical nature of her trajectory have distinct impact on her search for identity for it is only after she realizes that England is not the paradise that it seem when she was in school that she can return to Jamaica—only after the myth of England as the center of the world is shattered can she realize that Jamaica is in fact the center of her world.

While there are certainly other themes that can be explored, it might be useful to consider that Cliff does not seem to approach any of these themes as distinct but instead they are all presented as related—although at times in a contradictory manner (O’Driscoll 57). Even the three major themes discussed above are not as distinct as they may initially appear—after all Cliff goes to great lengths to highlight how history and identity are connected, and how migration is an historical phenomenon and what impact it has on identity. In a sense the various themes in the novel could be read as always related to colonialism and post-colonialism, for both colonization and decolonization have had far-reaching impacts on the history of each theme addressed in the novel. Cliff seems intent on negotiating the relationship between colonial and post-colonial Jamaica through an exploration of the various ways in which colonization and decolonization have affected the themes of identity or history for instance.


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