John Hearne: two worlds in the blood

James Ferguson wonders if a new edition of John Hearne’s novel Voices Under the Window will revive the reputation of this pioneering Jamaican writer

John Hearne. Photography courtesy Peter Ferguson

John Hearne almost suffered the fate most writers dread most: oblivion. Although he died as recently as 1994, his works quickly became unavailable and his reputation faded just as rapidly. In his perceptive introduction to a new edition of Voices Under the Window, poet Kwame Dawes points out that Hearne, “sadly, proves that it is quite possible for a writer of significant ability and accomplishment to go out of print and be virtually forgotten.”

Hearne, a Jamaican novelist and playwright, is not the only 20th-century Caribbean writer to have disappeared from view. The work of his contemporary Roger Mais was out of print for some years before being resurrected last year, while that of the prolific and tortured Guyanese author Edgar Mittelholzer remains hard to find. Others who have fallen into obscurity include Geoffrey Drayton of Barbados, and Ralph de Boissière and Alfred Mendes of Trinidad.

Now, is it just coincidence that all of the above were white- or pale-skinned individuals? Perhaps so. But another interpretation might be that in the post-Black Power Caribbean of the 1970s onwards, “white” authors were somehow less saleable than others, their perceived position in a critically colour-conscious region working against them.

Hearne also faced the secondary obstacle of writing about the pale-skinned middle-class world from which he himself originated. While Mais and authors such as Orlando Patterson appealed to a prevailing interest in urban poverty and resistance with novels of ghetto life and Rastafarianism, Hearne tended to stick to the more genteel world of professional suburbia — and may well have alienated readers, critics, and publishers by seeming to turn his back on what many saw as the great political issues of race and social injustice.

Whether or not this was the case, the theme of race and colour is self-consciously centre stage in Voices Under the Window, first published fifty years ago and now reissued by Peepal Tree Press. Its protagonist, Mark Lattimer, is a pale-skinned Jamaican politician who, with his mistress and friend, are caught up in a riot in Kingston. (This is a clear reference to the 1930s unrest that played a pivotal role in the move towards political independence and social reform.) In the course of the riot, Lattimer is attacked by a nameless man with a machete and mortally wounded. The rest of the book deals with his dying — in an airless shack while the rioting continues outside — and the way in which he relives key episodes in his life.

On one level, the novel is highly autobiographical, and many of its episodes — a privileged Jamaica childhood, the wartime experience of flying bomber missions, life in London — relate directly to Hearne’s own experiences. These vignettes form the narrative backbone of the novel and explain Lattimer’s personality. But there is also a broader, more complex theme concerning colour and society. In a sense, Hearne, through Lattimer, is asking whether a pale-skinned Jamaican can fully fit into the difficult and dangerous process of social change that will empower the black majority.

Lattimer’s life also mirrors that of another famous light-skinned Jamaican political leader: Norman Manley. And, in this sense, the answer to the question is affirmative, since Manley was instrumental, despite or because of his colour, in moving the island towards independence and democracy. In Hearne’s stricken character, then, we can see a sort of allegorised version of Manley’s political struggle and the painful birth of modern Jamaican society.

But this perhaps makes the novel sound too ponderous and pretentious. In fact, it is neither, but rather an economical and atmospheric piece of fiction that deals with some very serious issues in an entirely accessible way. Lattimer, for instance, is no one-dimensional cardboard cut-out. He is a complex, ambiguous figure, a drinker and adulterer, far from a saint, and yet someone who through experience comes to understand his own beliefs and purpose in life. From a well-to-do background, he finally realises that his role is to join the fight for social emancipation, to bridge the gulf between the white minority and the black majority in a personal way.

As it did for many, the sense that the individual must commit himself to some greater aspiration occurs during the Second World War, when courage and self-sacrifice, as well as the death of a friend, make Lattimer question his life. A meeting with a Czech communist in London also pushes Lattimer towards an understanding that his own African heritage, although a relatively small part of his outward appearance, provides a common cause with the disenfranchised masses. The Czech Hancko sees in Lattimer, as a pale-skinned individual with African ancestry, a figure who can mediate between two diametrically opposed worlds:

It’s only a question of taking sides. Every time history becomes urgent and a little sick, as it is now, a man has to pick a side. Especially men like you who carry both your worlds within you, in your blood.

 

Lattimer takes this advice to heart, and soon we see him fighting with a racist sailor in a London pub who has insulted some black youths. “Start with me, then”, he says, “I’m a good nigger to start on.”

But for all the apparent ideological force of Lattimer’s conversion to the cause, some doubts and ambiguities remain. Is he merely using political commitment as his own way of expiating the guilt of being born privileged? And on an emotional level, he feels that he is a failure, a sham who has always abused the people who loved him most. All this turmoil fills the mind of the dying man as he lies in a stifling room in downtown Kingston knowing that help will arrive too late.

Perhaps the greatest ambiguity lies in the arbitrary, meaningless nature of the attack itself, committed as Lattimer is trying to help a black boy caught up in the rioting. Does the assault have some existential significance, or is it merely a stupid accident of fortune? One might see in the lingering death a sort of sacrifice, but it is hard to make sense of it as anything other than a random and cruel event.

And that is precisely what makes this such a fine novel, because it does not preach or present us with a neatly coherent account of a man exemplifying a political process or period. Instead, it leaves us moved by the abrupt and absurd nature of Lattimer’s demise, and intrigued by the very human story of an imperfect individual with great weaknesses and considerable strengths. In its almost painfully self-conscious ambiguity, it is subtle and open-ended — and this may partly explain why Hearne’s literary star, unfashionable in a world of political certainties and strongly held convictions, briefly faded before being revived in this new edition.