The maxim goes that we’re all six degrees of separation away from everyone else on the planet. From what I’ve discovered so far during this project to read a book from every sovereign state in the world, I’d say it’s less than that. Although I’m still lacking suggestions for several countries (see the list for any gaps you can help fill in, or any nations you can add more suggestions to), I’ve been amazed by the number of connections to far-flung places that have emerged in my own network of friends.
In the case of the small South American country of Suriname, the lead came through one of my boyfriend’s friends, who studied with him at film school. His family is Surinamese and so getting a recommendation for a book from there was simply a matter of a quick Facebook message across the Atlantic.
As it turned out, there was one author and one novel that stood head and shoulders above the rest. Published in 1987, Cynthia McLeod’s The Cost of Sugar is still the country’s bestselling book both at home and abroad. It sold 100,000 copies when it first came out – no mean feat in Suriname where, as McLeod explains in her introduction, any title selling more than 5,000 copies is considered a hit. Clearly, I had to see what all the fuss was about.
Spanning 14 years in the 18th century, the novel explores life in the former Dutch colony in the days when sugar and slavery were the nation’s driving forces. The story is told through the eyes of half-sisters Elza and Sarith, daughters of wealthy Jewish plantation owners who live through a period of extreme personal and political turbulence as tumbling markets and the growing band of escaped slaves, or ‘bush-negroes’, hiding in the jungle begin to challenge the status quo.
Discrimination is a key theme and the spark that ignites many of the most explosive episodes in the plot. In addition to highlighting the extreme racial prejudices – both between masters and slaves and between gentiles and the Jewish community that originally settled the colony – McLeod reflects the rife misogyny of the period, with many of her bright female characters confined to frivolous, ineffectual lives because of their sex. Her particular talent is showing the blind spots that exist in otherwise decent characters – Rutger, Elza’s husband, for example, is progressive when it comes to racial issues but sees no problem with exacting a promise from his intended that she ‘will not be a jealous wife’ and will turn a blind eye to his infidelities.
Inevitably, the most extreme instances of injustice and discrimination concern the black slaves. Pulling no punches when it comes to descriptions of the barbaric punishments devised to keep them in check – punishments which increase in cruelty and frequency as insurrection grows – McLeod conjures a memorable picture of the atrocities of the slave trade. She brings this home through a series of personal stories, many of which are extremely gripping and moving – the death of elderly Ashana after Sarith orders her to be flogged in a fit of pique even had me blinking back the tears.
Now and then, the shifts in perspective between the wide cast of characters feel a little abrupt. In addition, McCleod’s understandable sympathy for the plight of the slaves occasionally leads to some questionable statements about the uniformly moral and good nature of the bush-negroes living in the jungle.
All in all, though, this is a powerful evocation of key moment in South America’s history. Tracing the chain of guilt that leads from the slaves on the plantation right to the luxury mansions along the canals in Amsterdam, McLeod emphasises the ties that link us across the world. We are all much closer than we think.
The Cost of Sugar by Cynthia McLeod, translated from the Dutch by Gerald R Mettam (HopeRoad, 2011)