By BC PIRES
EVERY HALF-DECENT writer wants to write a book that will be read; every serious writer wants to write a book that will be properly adjudged important; and every writer would like to make some money; ideally, every writer wants VS Naipaul’s critical appreciation, JK Rowling’s sales, Christopher Hitchens’ cocktail party invitations, Ernest Hemingway’s legend and William Faulkner’s body of work. But none of that matters in the least if the good writer knows he has written a masterpiece. It is too early to tell whether Raymond Ramcharitar’s first published work of fiction will sell but he should rest easy anyway: it is safe to say The Island Quintet is a very good, superbly written and very important book that comes closer to masterpiece than anything produced locally since Earl Loevelace’s Salt.
Even before Ramcharitar’s own prose begins, the writing is extremely good. The quote from Thomas Pynchon sets out clearly the territory Ramcharitar intends to cover: the murky, self-loathing, self-destructive, depths of the colonized soul. Indeed, even from the cover, the ambition of the book is revealed in its name and sub-title: The Island Quintet: A Sequence. (Regretfully that is the one complete failing of the book as defined by the writer’s own terms: it is not a sequence in any sense other than the literal arithmetic that there are five different stories. No two narrators are the same, the geographical and chronological settings change and not one story can be said to have followed on from the other; it might have been more accurate to have named it: The Island Quintet: An Affliction.
Other reviews in the TT Review itself have gone into detail about the stories in the book but a bare bones appraisal would list them as:
(1) The Artist Dies – A gripping noir story so well-written, the reader is forgiven for suspecting it was intended for this year’s Trinidad Noir collection. (It was, however, written years ago, long before Ramcharitar was approached and declined to write a piece for that anthology);
(2) The Blonde in the Garbo Dress – In which Ramcharitar uses a particularly effective device of dual narrators who have, in the end, the same perspective – a point that was missed entirely by the first of TTR’s reviewers of the book, himself a published author; in missing Ramcharitar’s second narrator, the reviewer missed the great strength of the story itself (and its writer’s necessary brilliance): it reveals, plainly, two men who are identical but who would fall to blows over their differences; but one understands that there might be reluctance on the part of one writer to perceive the cleverness of another;
(3) New York Story – A piece many might recognise as based on Ramcharitar’s own New York City experience, as detailed – no, “revealed” is a better word – in the astonishingly honest first person series he wrote for the Sunday Express years ago, in which he lamented, inter alia, being asked to mow lawns. “I!” he wrote, “Who had read Proust!”;
(4) The Abduction of Sita – A dismissal, disturbing as it is summary, of Trinidadian shallowness; and
(5) Froude’s Arrow – The least of the stories, in my view, though the longest and, so far, probably the most critically appreciated one.
The Island Quintet is important because, unlike much that comes out of Trinidad, it is rooted in truth. Ramcharitar also approaches a perhaps unconscious genius in his unhesitating treatment of taboo subjects, like homosexuality (there are many gays and lesbians and one hilarious tranny), as entirely mundane. What takes the book into the outskirts, if not the actual realm, of masterpiece is the undeniability of what Ramcharitar reveals. Every Bible-quoting, latent homo tendency-toting wannabe upper class Trini (and every hypocritical professional) has his pretensions stripped away; this is a book that will be hated most by those about whom it is most revealing.
There is a fair bit of unkindness in the writing but, then again, anyone who has read Ramcharitar’s character-assassinating Breaking the Media, knows that’s par for the Ramcharitar course; and an unconscious reiteration of the very theme of The Island Quintet. Some of the character models are painfully obvious (though, as in Rob Reiner’s spoof documentary, This is Spinal Tap, which every heavy metal band claims as theirs, it is better for one’s own legend to be thought to be the model for a snivelling, pathetic, bitter character than not).
A long way down, critically, from The Island Quintet are two other Trinidadian (or Trindadian-ish) books. The more important, measured from the perspective of its prospective reader, is Book of Brats, a collection of newspaper columns written by paediatrician (and Trinidad Guardian columnist) Dr David Bratt. Book of Brats should definitely not be judged by its cover, title or illustrations, all of which tend towards the tween. The writing inside the book is strong – Bratt writes far superior prose to most of the so-called journalists (or anyone else) writing columns in Trinidadian newspapers. It is a book you dip into and come out of rewarded. The shortcoming of the book is the same as that of the column: constrained to bend every issue to fit the medical mould from which the column is cast, Bratt must package his ideas and philosophy into a different medical box weekly; and so some of our strongest social writing takes the form of columns about worms or breastfeeding. There is a lot of medical worth in the text; but the compassionate, intelligent writing itself is the real strength.
The last of three Trinidadian (or –ish) books is likely to be (or is probably already) the most successful. After Black Rock was picked up as one of the 25 Must Read Books of Summer by Oprah Winfrey, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Amanda Smyth’s competently told, extremely easily read tale of love, lust and family intrigue would sell well. Smyth lives in England but she may be the closest Trinidad will come to JK Rowling. If you judged this book by the cover, you would esteem it greatly: artist Peter Doig’s arresting painting, Grande Riviere, graces same.
BC Pires writes for the Barbados Nation. His flagship column, Thank God It’s Friday, which appeared in Trinidadian newspapers from 1998 to 2008, continues weekly online (along with his almost-daily blog & other writings) at his website www.BCRaw.com