Starring Roles of the Living Dead : FLICKERING SHADOWS by Kwadwo Agymah Kamau Coffee House Press. $21.95, 304 pages


It isn't often that dead people are among the liveliest characters in a novel, but this is true of Barbados-born Kwadwo Agymah Kamau's debut, "Flickering Shadows."

The narrator, Cudgoe, whose Caribbean dialect flavors the story, has lived and died several times in the last 300 years. He departs for the spirit world again, at the urging of a policeman's club, in the very first chapter, just before his nameless island nation wins its independence.

Death neither slows Cudgoe down nor shuts him up. He and the rest of the spirits hover around their former community, the Hill, kibitzing among themselves and interfering in minor ways with the affairs of the living.

They can rap a woman on the head and give her a migraine. They can put strange thoughts in a man's brain, unbidden words in his mouth. They can speak to their descendants in dreams, read the minds of the island's corrupt post-colonial rulers and--when circumstances warrant--frighten people by appearing as ghosts.

But the spirits' powers are limited. They can make mistakes, just like the living. And if they interfere too much, they are condemned to be reborn and suffer the human condition directly, with none of the insight they gained temporarily when they were dead.

Thus, the role of the supernatural in "Flickering Shadows" is to make life's hardships and injustices bearable, not to eliminate them. This is all religion can be expected to do in the real world--reflecting the maturity that Kamau, 48, an economist who has lived in the United States since 1977, brings to his first novel, for all its surface charm.

In stark outline, the story is a tragedy. After independence, power passes to Anthony Roachford, who grew up on the Hill but was educated in "Away"--England or, perhaps, the United States. As prime minister, Roachford is all too willing to sell out his former neighbors.

These include Cudgoe's grandson, Cephus, a farmer; his brother-in-law, Boysie, a sailor and union organizer; their wives, Doreen and Inez; their children, Kwame and Kojo; and a large supporting cast of artisans, fishermen and dockworkers. Their roots in the Hill go deep, but they lack the economic and political clout to withstand a hurricane of change.

One of Roachford's cronies, an American missionary, uses hellfire sermons and lavish donations of food and clothing to undermine the Brethren, the native church that has sustained the Hill's residents since the days of sugar-cane slavery. Meanwhile, the missionary's wife, an amateur geologist, finds deposits of bauxite under the Hill.

The government evicts the people to begin strip mining and, when the bauxite runs out, to build a hotel and golf resort. Protesters are hauled off to jail and beaten; the more outspoken are shot. When the parliamentary opposition objects, Roachford declares that a Communist insurgency is in progress, and--presto!--U.S. paratroopers are dropping from the sky, aircraft carriers are anchoring in the bay.

A Hill woman, who happens to be dead, wonders "why these people never even hear about her country until their troops invade it. After all, she learned about their country when she was in school."

But "Flickering Shadows" isn't just a novel of stark outlines. What we remember most about it is what tempers the tragedy--the vitality of the people, the richness of their culture, the bright tropical colors of Kamau's prose.

Though disembodied, Cudgoe can see "the sea glistening like a knife; the rickety wood houses scotch on the side of the mountain like ticks on a dog back . . . the sky bleached light blue, with a few clouds fuzzing out and drifting, looking like if the big spirit just shake out his pillow and the feathers fall out in clumps. . . .

"Cephus eyes taking in everything too, and his ears feel like a steelpan just tune--every sound bouncing off his eardrums crisp, crisp in the stillness of forenoon; the sheep slurping their mash; Leroy hammer going ping! ping! in his tinsmith shop across the pasture, near Mr. Thorne rumshop."

A triumph of the human spirit? Only, Kamau cautions us, if we rightly regard bare survival as a triumph, in a land where even the dead come back to try again.

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