The following introduction was written to accompany our reprint of Jamaica Kincaid's story "Ovando", first published in 1989. Our rights to present the story have expired, but we hope this introduction encourages you to seek out the story in other venues!
"Ovando" defies mere summary. It is a prose poetry, true crime, horror story with images as vivid as Daniel's dreams and John's visions—very apt for an era that encompasses an exile for one people and the end times for another. The eponymous conquistador is a fantastical creature, a monster that offends in every sense, the demanding guest who will not leave. Its namesake, the historical Nicolás de Ovando, first governor of the West Indies, instituted the system of encomienda in which the indigenous peoples provided labour and goods in exchange for protection by the Spanish colonial powers. Theoretically it was a benign though paternalistic arrangement; in practice it established exploitation and permitted atrocities. One might say that the discourteous guests and their version of encomienda set the tone in the region for the next few centuries.
In the oral tradition, that tone is present as casual, mundane horror. Kei Miller, Jamaican author and poet, once told me a folktale he'd heard spoken and sung. It began in a familiar way: a small farmer, poor and struggling to support his family, discovers that his field is haunted by invisible ghosts. The ghosts see him ploughing, ask him what he is doing, and according to his explanation they send out a rallying call . . .
Big and small, great and tall
Help Mr Solomon till the ground
. . . and in a flash the ground is tilled. This situation continues—the ghosts observe Mr Solomon's actions and query him; Mr Solomon replies and they help him—until the seeds are sown, the crop is weeded, and everything is flourishing when harvest time draws near.
So far so good . . . until the day comes when hunger drives Mr Solomon's wife and children to the field to take a little from the crop, and in his unwisdom he beats them for neglecting to ask permission. When the ghosts ask him what he is doing, he replies truthfully. The ghosts are precise—whatever Mr Solomon does, they mimic until the work is complete—and so they helpfully beat his family to death before his eyes. In shock, he sits and scratches his head. When they ask him about that too, he once more gives a fatal, literal reply, and the ghosts scratch his head for him until only the bloody stump of his neck remains.
This enchantingly gruesome tale is more the rule than the exception. Powys Dewhurst, a filmmaker researching Caribbean folklore, told me recently that our region does not seem to have fairy godmothers and helpful sprites. We have mostly monsters. Some are unconsciously malicious, like those relentlessly obliging ghosts. Their demonstration of how hard work and obedience can change from mindful blessing to mindless curse hints at the presence of a mass grave of African or Carib/Taino slaves on Mr Solomon's ground. Some are consciously evil, like the conquistador Ovando. Both are ultimately destructive. Power, caprice, delusion, and destruction are found at the core of the monstrous.
No wonder the region produces so many cautionary tales where the monster kills but is rarely killed. These tales teach us how to recognise the monster and its methods, and how to avoid encountering it or becoming it. They show us that the monstrous is not an alien quality, but the simple human flaw grotesquely embellished. Few monsters are as dangerous as the failed god, the man who declares superiority but cannot demonstrate it, and Kincaid depicts that monster in all his colours and textures, dissonance and stench.
The narrator of the story, Ovando's beleaguered hostess, begins with welcome and clear-sighted pity and ends in desolation and exhaustion. She does not have the power to evict Ovando or redeem him, or even simply ignore him. He will continue to inflict his presence on her, devalue her, and make her home into a hell. It is a story in the tradition of Ursula Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas," except told from the point of view of the abused innocent.
And that is what makes "Ovando" a true horror story without triumph, respite, or even the mercy of death. There is no superhero Bartolomé de las Casas al rescate (for even the real Las Casas managed only so much and no more). There is only endurance in the face of entrenched, systematic monstrousness. Restricted lives may be made epic with word and song, tragedies can be documented as a lesson for this generation and the next. Survival is the only victory and patience the only virtue, because monsters, especially those of the failed-god variety, are not immortal, and will one day dissolve in their own corruption.
Perhaps then the ghosts of Mr Solomon's ground will gain release from their mandate to labour mindlessly; perhaps then the Caribbean folkloric canon will find space for fairy godmothers, three wishes, and happily ever afters. Perhaps (we hope) Ovando is not the kind of monster who infects others with his rot before falling to pieces, the self-propagating, zombie failed-god, as difficult to shift as any invasive species.