A road to nowhere. Immigrants have always been made to feel that they don't belong. Robert Winder journeys through the legacy of the slave trade and the racial confusion it has left behind

The Atlantic Sound

Caryl Phillips <em>Faber & Faber, 352pp, £16.99 </em>

ISBN 0571196209

Where are you from? This inno-cuous question has always been poison-tipped for any immigrant, containing as it does the assumption that you belong elsewhere. The Caribbean-born writer Caryl Phillips tripped over it at a tender age, when the English master at his school decided to play an instructive little game with the origins of his pupils' names. Greenberg, he guessed, must be Jewish; and Mackenzie was bound to be Scottish. "Phillips," he said, turning to the young black boy in the group. "You must be from Wales." Everybody laughed - except Phillips. Narrating the incident years later, he remembered it as one of the most painful moments in his childhood. "I could not participate in a joke that made my identity a source of humour," he wrote. "The truth is that I had no idea where I was from."

It is easy enough to say that Phillips might have allowed himself at least a small chuckle - given that the butt of the joke was surely the folly of the teacher, not the humiliation of the boy. But we probably owe that schoolmaster a small debt of gratitude for sparking in the young Phillips a powerful and enduring interest in questions of racial identity. In an impressive sequence of half a dozen books, he has doggedly circled one of the central subjects of modern times: the racial fracture created by the slave trade, and the confusions it has spawned ever since. His new book, The Atlantic Sound, sees him stride into the heartlands of what is, more or less, a continuing nightmare.

He travels from the West Indies to England as a passenger on a banana boat, reprising with teeth-gritted distaste the voyage he made at the age of six when his parents took him to a new life in London. He visits Liverpool, the colossal nerve centre of the ghastly traffic in human life, wondering at the gulf between the traces of the trade visible on every street and the ignorance visible on every face. He goes to Ghana, where he despairs of the various attempts to create a redemptive African utopia, a sentimental new home for the once-enslaved diaspora. He flies to South Carolina to recall the not-quite-last gasps of anti-Negro bitterness, and to consider the forlorn life of the white judge who helped to tear down the curtains of segregation in the American south. And he concludes with a puzzled visit to an extraordinary African-American Jewish commune in Israel - a bizarre kind of free-at-last kibbutz in the Middle Eastern desert.

He is not concerned merely with the recital of familiar horrors. Instead, he is alert to ironic versions of what represents home. He is impatient with the sentimental Africa-worship of the Americans and West Indians he finds in Ghana. ("Do they not understand? Africa cannot cure. Africa cannot make anybody feel whole. Africa is not a psychiatrist.") And his book reaches a climax of dismay in the case of Mansour, his Ghanaian driver, who has already been deported from Britain as an illegal immigrant but is now dreaming of a trip to America. Phillips's sympathy curdles into outrage when Mansour hints that $5,000 would buy a US visa. "Is he really asking me for money?" he writes. "Mansour, who has not even bothered to apply for a job since returning to Ghana. His country. A democratic country of 18 million people with a diversified economy. Mansour, who has spent all of his time looking for a way to leave. Mansour, African supplicant, who lives off money remitted from abroad by friends. Able-bodied, smart Mansour, presenting himself as a 'third-world' victim."

It is a harsh judgement, and a brave one. It aligns Phillips with those who refuse to ascribe all the ills of the third world to the (undoubted) historic iniquities of the first. Like V S Naipaul, Phillips is no hippie eager to plunge into third-world hero-worship. He doesn't mind admitting that he's a fussy traveller, impatient with slowcoach cab drivers, nervous of dodgy food, brisk with hucksters. He tends to head for smart hotels where you can have a beer by the pool in peace.

The strangest section of the book is a historical reconstruction that follows the fortune of an African trader who comes to Liverpool at the beginning of the 19th century, trying to track down the river launch he paid for but did not receive. It is presumably meant to illuminate the infinite sadnesses and betrayals that have attended relations between white Europeans and black Africans. It is indeed a sad story. But its status is uncertain. Phillips was understandably keen to ballast his modern wanderings with some solid historical truth-telling. But this story seems non- committal, and functions as little more than an introduction to Phillips's own thoughts on the shifty madness of modern Liverpool, still dripping with slavers' gold, yet still in denial, refusing to accept the blame for its own decay.

There is another unlucky side effect. Phillips's fondness for historical documentary infects his own prose with antique flavours. He tends to "survey" menus and "determine" the quickest routes. He "secretes himself" in doorways; his characters are "called away" on business; and he "deems it impolite" to say what he is thinking. He also makes a raft of spectacularly unnecessary decisions: "I decide that I will order another round of drinks . . . I decide that I will not venture out . . . I decide to go for a walk . . . I decide to listen . . . I decide that it is time to move on . . . I decide to take a chance and wander in . . . I decide to seek fresh air." That is only four pages worth. Methinks he doth decide too much.

But these are only surface irritations, and the vigorous ground-swell of Atlantic Sound is deep enough to toss them off. Phillips stalks the reverberations of slavery, one of the great scandals in history, with a level head and a clear eye. Only at the end, when he visits the African-American kibbutz, does his voice crack. His sentences dissolve into a list: "The sounds of Marvin Gaye. The ubiquitous harmonies of black English. Cultural baggage. The United States in the blood of the elders. Confusion in the blood of the children. This closed society." There have been polemical barbs along the way, directed both at the ignorant opulence of racism in Europe and America, and at the victim complexes that prevent Afro-Caribbeans from taking up the reins of their own advancement. But the story ends in bafflement, confusion - almost in despair. "It is futile to walk in the face of history," Phillips writes. But what if history leaves you with nowhere else to go?

Robert Winder, whose reviews appear monthly in the NS, is working on a book about postwar immigration