LLOYD KING Gives a Thumbs Up to Ramcharitar’s The Island Quintet
We are in Kali Yug, the age of Kali, the worst of the four great cosmic epochs, according to ancient Hinduism. It is what the ancient Greeks called The Iron Age, the age when property and wealth alone will confer rank and corruption will be the universal means of subsistence. Raymond Ramcharitar’s The Island Quintet seems to be written in the spirit of the age of Kali, the age of the Abject, about an island whose dominant ethos depends on putting your hands in the air, On being “afrikan”, the background against which his alienated Asiatic characters function. It is in this context that the stories address their issues and pose the question: in what way and how successfully can the private will of the self-contained individual assert itself in an uninviting environment? If society is a net in which we are caught, in what sense can the emotionally and socially classless individual survive and preserve the sovereignty of the psyche as a source of meaning, once life is conceived of as an egocentric drama?
These questions assume a particular poignancy because the Asiatic characters do not lean on the familiar Asiatic bulwarks of traditional religious and caste typologies. They are secular Westernized types. Jeremy Taylor in a review of the novel of another Asiatic, suggests that you sense Naipaul’s shadow and that the local Indo world at ground level is characterized as one of entrapment and isolation, and defined by gossip, envy quarrelling and brutality. Only in one of the stories are we given a glimpse into this world which has transported itself to New York, and is proposed as the nightmare from which the protagonist will seek to escape. What is mostly explored where again Naipaul led the way is the interaction of asiatics with the ‘white’ world , whether local or foreign . For example the final and longest story is called Froude’s Arrow, and cannot but call up the furore caused by a quote from the travel book by James Anthony Froude whose subtitle was “The Bow of Ulysses”. The stories also stage a frontal attack on one of the myths of West Indian literature, the myth of the two sexes. The stories also address another myth, the myth that massa day done.
The first story, ‘The Artist dies’, set in London and on the Island establishes the tone of the collection. Here the narrator seeks to offer insight into the life of another Asiatic he calls the Artist. The capital letter signals from the word go that the narrator has made a judgement about this person to which his narrative will seek to persuade us. An early scene illustrates the way in which Ramcharitar can establish a motif. In London the artist introduces him to two weirdo English types calling him Chonilal. The narrator then gives his proper name. We then get the following: “But that’s noh what he called ya” Niamh said, brushing away tendrils of red hair from her face with long white fingers…
“You don’t think I told him my real name do you? It was just a one night stand,” I said.
What this exchange signals is that the narrator has attitude and is no respector of the English and it prepares us for the way he will expose the machinations of the whites back on the island. Secondly it establishes the anal motif which will define the artist and his bitter relationship with the island’s artistic world dominated by a sort of white mafia. In order to demonstrate the artist’s ability the narrator describes two of his exhibitions. The first one is a direct response to the fact that the artist lost his lover to a black man, Bain:
“The central painting was of a muscular black man kneeling before a woman-sized Barbie doll, his head bowed and his arm reaching up, caressing a single strand of her blonde hair. The man’s genital region is flat, in the manner of a doll’s pubic region, while the dolls genitals were displayed. The other paintings depicted scenes of the man in sexual positions with the doll…with different moaning sounds coming from the speakers below the paintings. The edges of the paintings were lined with small prints of an ape dressed in a tuxedo with a collar made of blonde hair.”
Bain, whose skin is “a dark burnished brown” then strikes back in a review: “It would seem the preoccupation with morbidity has given way to an effeminate hysteria. He has delved into his low barbarian soul to come up with these images of his deepest fear and desire: to admit his longing for whiteness and his impotence before the power of true manhood.”
How should a reader respond to this scene? A first response is that the exhibition or its description is a display of stereotypical racist feelings. But what of the review? Is it any the less stereotypical, the view of the Asiatic as less endowed, more feminine looking and so on? Apart from this, there is the sense that the two characters are projecting onto each other as true manhood is assessed in relation to a white woman. Moreover the artist is being self destructive because the barbie doll stands for his ex-lover who also happens to be his employer. The reader may also be struck by the fact that the combination of ape-like figure and blonde hair might call up a memory of Walcott’s Dream on Monkey Mountain. What strikes me as well as I consider the relation between the artist’s image and the review is that the artist’s presentation is almost always more memorable than any commentary once it has a certain energy, no matter how much we object to it . Those who rail against Naipaul know this well.
The second exhibition of the Artist, this time organized as an act of loyalty by the narrator (the artist had helped to get him a scholarship which assured him of a secure career), is again fulsomely described: “a series of pillars, the first of hardened mud, the second stone, the third raw stone, the fourth bronze…the last made of fibre optic cables. On top of each was a fist-sized portion of human excrement. The title was ‘The Ascent of Man’. One may remark first of all that in psychoanalytic theory, excrement and gold are identical. The imagery is brilliant. On the one hand it may be seen to reflect the artist’s anal obsessions; on another level the progression from mud to wood may be looked at as architectural motifs of the ascent of his Asiatic community, and its obsession with money, its crown of turds a moral comment on the nature of his community’s achievement. Then there is a second exhibit, a sculpture called “The muse inspires the Island Artist”. This “comprised a detailed mask of a woman’s face with a raven black wig set on a body made of steel pipe and iron straps. Around the waist was a strap-on dildo and one of the hands held onto a leather strap which was attached to the neck of a male figure painted onto canvas. The figure was on all fours, wearing a bondage mask made of the island flag. The postmodernist dehumanization of the figure with its masochistic overtones offer a vision of the perception of life on the island, as daring as any portrayal in a Minshall band. The artist proves himself to be an Artist with the two exhibits being read in tandem. No one is spared. This is the Kali Yug vision accompanied by the narrator’s final sentence: This life is nothing but a sport and a pastime; when we wake we remember nothing. If the narrator’s impulse in telling this story is to vindicate someone in whose value as an artist he believed in but what the story asks and does not and cannot answer concerns the value of the creative impulse in the midst of the degradation of social life. At least that is my view. However what I wanted to convey is the extent to which Ramcharitar challenges the reader and is willing to set the cat among the pigeons. The stories both invite and resist a superficial reading.
Another point I wish to make is the extent Ramcharitar tries to organize his stories so that there are no loose ends. Consider the opening sentences of The New York Story: “He’d decided to use the Pierre on 54 Street, for no other reason than that he’d read it in a book- a Ludlum novel or something like that. He wasn’t altogether sure why or if discretion was required.” As the story progresses we learn the startling reason why the narrator was in that hotel, how his mind is shaped by popular American pulp culture, as a substitute for the grassroots Indian culture he is fleeing from and what are the consequences, at once comic and horrifying for the staid reader. The Colos, the crude semi-literate Indos from back home are like the depraved rednecks in the movie Deliverance. What we are shown is the terrible vulnerability of those who flee the Island where they feel they do not fit and also the comfort zones of traditional ways. Seeking their degree of freedom they are trapped in another net. What Ramcharitar’s island has posed for many asiatics is the question of belonging. To belong, after all, is to accept the tacit codes of the people you live with, the only way to have a secure habitation and a name. Thus the Artist in the first story keeps calling the narrator by Indian names, which turn out in the end to be his names. He cannot acknowledge his name and identity except by projection.
But what Ramcharitar also shows in this first story is that his strong point is in the depiction of the sinister, of depraved degraded characters. There’s the Blonde in the Garbo Dress, the American wife of a racist local white who is seduced into making porn movies on the tourist island he takes her to. It is a curious narrative about how the narrator is also seduced against his will to a sort of fellow feeling for the very people he had scorned as a result of getting an under-aged girl he had described as a red bitch pregnant. Then there is perhaps the most sinister of the stories The Abduction of Sita which features a drunken homosexual, a sadistic bisexual medic and a pathetic black beauty. They establish Ramcharitar as a master of the erotics of displeasure.
The final story is challenging in a different way. It has a strong political charge and is long, in fact a novella. The title suggests the nature of the challenge: Froude’s Arrow and as usual the narrative takes the reader to the very edge of the bearable. We anticipate a thesis novella. And so it is. There are two phases. In the first phase, the narrator, an asiatic, is a journalist who gets to attend functions where he can observe diplomats and government officials and foreign whites who pander to the Establishment. Froude, an off-white islander is also a journalist, and like the narrator, one with a waspish tongue. The narrator brands the locals and Froude the white foreigners. Based on the other stories, we anticipate the exploration of a peculiar relationship between the two. They are insiders who are outsiders in a debased Afro-disiac power structure with ideological support provided by strategic foreign whites, one of whom is a man called Kurtz. In the process a few venerable media power brokers come in for some stick. Their true positions are exposed when they lead a campaign against the Asiatic government on what is represented as the spurious grounds that the government is attacking press freedom. All of this clearly points to events outside the narrative, but any assessment of its validity should be based solely on the internal structure of the story. Its fictional persuasiveness is what counts and in my view it had to depend on the role that Froude is made to play in the narrative. The reason is this: if an asiatic launches an attack on what he depicts as a debased Africanist network, who is to say that he is not straightforwardly paranoid?
In fact this is the essential flaw in the story. At a crucial moment Froude disappears only to turn up later to validate the narrator’s view of a sinister conspiracy. At first the Froude character had seemed promising. He represents the better side of the old creole consensus, who have preserved a clear sighted view of the national possibilities which had been compromised by certain aspects of Black Power ideology incarnated in the figure of a nativist painter called Mojombo Cojo. We are told of a newspaper debate between Froude and a mysterious JJ Thomas recalling the author of Froudacity. However the summary account of this modern day debate is frankly disappointing and tells us nothing. And when later on we learn Froude’s liberal family history, it unfortunately reads like a fairy tale. Even the fact that Froude is a homosexual and has a thing for the narrator seems curiously irrelevant.
On the other hand, it could be argued that the story would be stronger without Froude or with Froude as a minor character like the American Ambassador or perhaps even the narrator’s wife, a Dutch diplomat. It would then raise interesting and relevant issues and fit in with a theme which comes up in some of the other stories, namely the obsessive need in Asiatics to associate with white women as a way of escaping the Afro-disiac world and even the Indo-disiac world. Is it a metaphor of something we have missed? What we cannot miss at present is the collusion between an ostensible Afro government and a Canadian.
To sum up, I give a thumbs up to Raymond Ramcharitar’s Island Quartet, whatever my reservations about the last story and believe we are in the presence of a serious and talented writer.