Rastaman vibration: Roger Mais

Annie Paul on Brother Man, by Roger Mais, originally published in the Caribbean Review of Books

Roger Mais

Brother Man by Roger Mais (Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN1-4050-6296-7, 184 pp)

 

It’s interesting to read Brother Man today, when Rastas and things Rastafarian have acquired such cultural charisma that their image, carried abroad by stars such as Bob Marley and other dreadlocked musicians, is now routinely used to advertise Jamaica as a tourist destination. Brother Man — recently reissued by Macmillan (the original publishers of many of Mais’s books) to mark its 50th anniversary — was the first Jamaican novel to portray a Rastafarian protagonist in positive terms. Writing in the early 1950s, a mere 50 years ago, Roger Mais captured the way Rastas were viewed then:

The leading newspapers played up the angle that a community of bearded men in their midst, formed together into a secret cult, was a menace to public safety.

People began writing letters to the press. All bearded men should be placed behind barbed wire. They should be publicly washed (?) and shaved! They should be banished to Africa. They should be sterilised. They should be publicly flogged. They became identified with a certain political party. They should be denied the vote. They were, in fact, potential rapists and murderers all.

In contemporary Jamaica, on the other hand, Rastas have come to represent an odd kind of respectability. Rasta values, bolstered by ital cuisine and a certain fastidious refusal of the latest trends and crazes, are perceived to be wholesome, old-fashioned, and desirable in the world of bling we live in today. Their music, once considered noisy and objectionable, now appears melodic and mellifluous, in comparison with the cacophony of dancehall — today’s reggae.

A highly stylised morality play of sorts, Brother Man depicts the forces of good and evil in combat. John Powers — a.k.a. Brother Man, or Bra’ Man — is a Christ-like Rasta cobbler with a gift for healing, by turns revered and despised by the inhabitants of his West Kingston slum neighbourhood. Ranged against him are Bra’ Ambro, the Obeah Man, the deranged Cordelia, and the thuggish Papacita. Some characters, like Bra’ Ambro, remain shadowy, perhaps intentionally. Others are richly developed. The disintegration of Cordelia’s mind, for example, is powerfully and insightfully realised:

When he had gone Cordelia sat down and thought about many things, and for about ten minutes her mind was bright and clear. But little by little her thoughts muddied and clouded again, and things that were straight and simple before seemed blurred and complex.

And Papacita may be the novel’s most intricate character, whose rascality one gradually deduces from his actions and interactions with Girlie and others.

Some of the best writing in the book in fact occurs in the scenes between Girlie and Papacita, capturing the quarrelsome passion between them, her jealousy and his lust, culminating in an episode of violent sexual struggle between two untamed creatures, a kind of consensual rape. It is utterly convincing when Girlie, after savagely biting Papacita’s bottom lip, ejaculates: “Hurt me like that — hurt me — Love me and hurt me! Hurt me hard!” The very fact that Mais, writing in 1954 in conservative Jamaica, chose to focus on the thin edge between sexual pleasure and pain is noteworthy.

Likewise, it’s also remarkable how gender-sensitive Mais is. In their sexual contest, Girlie is no pushover, and it takes all Papacita’s strength to make her submit to him. And then of course one has to remember the fact that she wanted to submit. It is not at all clear that he could have forced her against her will. In the end, her will prevails over his. That Mais is an equal opportunity writer is also evident in the sheer number of central female characters in the book, some good, some bad, none indifferently portrayed. And women, equally as men, are given the opportunity to “see” the light, as represented by Bra’ Man.

Some do and some don’t. In the mob scene towards the end of the novel, Mais describes the “reeking wave of humanity” surging over Bra’ Man:

He raised his arms again, tried to address them. A woman shouldered her way to the front of the crowd, a half-brick in her gnarled fist.
As he raised his hands, she flung the brick. It caught him a glancing blow on the side of the head.
As he pitched and fell he put his hand to the side of his head. It came away covered with blood . . .
A great blood-thirsty cry went up from the crowd.
Like a pack of wolves they surged in upon him. . . .
The reeking wave of humanity surged over and over him, fighting each other to get at him, like a jackal-pack, when one of them is down . . .
When they had mauled him to the satisfaction of their lust, they voided on him and fouled him. A woman showed them how.

The horror of the scene immediately evokes today the blood-soaked, brutalised body of Jesus in the blockbuster film The Passion of the Christ.

Brother Man and Mais’s other novels (The Hills Were Joyful Together and Black Lightning) have received much attention over the years. A wide range of notables have written about Mais, from Norman Manley to Kamau Brathwaite to Kenneth Ramchand, most of whom have variously expanded on the virtues of his prose. One who didn’t was his close friend and fellow writer John Hearne. Writing in Jamaica Journal in 1989, 35 years after Mais’s death, Hearne pondered his “persistence”. “How significant a writer is he? To what extent is he a sociological rather than a literary phenomenon?” asked Hearne.

Describing Mais as “perhaps the most genuinely anarchistic man” he had ever met, Hearne went on to rue the fact that “for a writer” he not only owned very few books, he was also uninterested in seeing plays or visiting museums. Such cultural experiences, according to Hearne, were absolutely essential to “that cultivated sensibility that is central to any artist’s development and mastery of material. Roger Mais simply did not know enough and what he knew was not digested.”

As unkind as this assessment seems, it also reveals a lot about both Hearne and Mais, and the writing profession in general. Rereading Brother Man in preparation for this review, I wondered who and what the influences on Mais would have been. Interesting, then, to learn that Mais was a relatively “uncultivated”, indeed “uncultured”, man by middle-class Jamaican standards, or indeed English ones, the model for Jamaica’s upper classes. His grasp of writing would have been intuitive rather than literary, akin in some respects to the painted or carved outpourings of a similar group in Jamaican visual art, the so-called “Intuitives”. Many of these artists also portray biblically inflected, sometimes apocalyptic visions of the forces of good and evil, their graphic delineation bold and innovative. Mais painted too, but in a surprisingly delicate and stylised manner, quite unlike the rough, robust prose of Brother Man.

Hearne’s criticism of Mais as a writer raises a series of questions. Hearne was possessed himself of the “cultivated sensibility” he believed essential for good writing; why have his own novels not persisted to the present? Are they victims of changed sensibilities in contemporary Jamaica, or are they intrinsically weak literary creations, too fixed in a distant time and space in ways that do not allow their successful resurrection today? Are they just literary fashion victims, or is there something in the current cultural landscape that has rendered their onetime appeal null and void? Is there not something to be gained also by revisiting the best of Hearne’s writing, to wrestle with the reasons why his novels have faded away while, according to him, as he almost grudgingly admits towards the end of his review of Listen, the Wind, the posthumous collection of Mais’s short stories, “Mais persists because of a knobbed and rugged purity of purpose to which no successor has yet been found, in Jamaica at least, and perhaps in the whole Anglophone Caribbean.”

This is not to say that Brother Man has unequivocally “stood the test of time”, as is claimed in the blurb on this new edition’s back cover. The author’s representation of conversational dialogue stinks. There is no other way to put it. Mais, with few examples to follow, chose to reproduce the Jamaican vernacular in a quaint African-Americanised dialect of his own making. If you choose to suspend your disbelief, as I did (surely people in Jamaica didn’t talk like this during the 50s!), you can get beyond what Hearne referred to as the “distressing blend” of language used by characters in Brother Man, and appreciate the novel for its strengths. There’s a lesson here for contemporary Caribbean writers as well — to consider the problem of linguistic representation seriously before they “fix” their characters’ speech in lingo that feels dated with the passing of a few years.

Aside from this, Brother Man seems curiously current, from the protagonist’s greeting of “Peace and love” — still so common today from the lips of Rastas — to the scene in which Bra’ Man comes upon Girlie playing patience, and after helping her by suggesting a couple of strategic moves she can make with her cards, urges her to have both patience and courage in dealing with her personal problems. With its unfortunate but conventional depiction of obeah as a negative force, and its stilted speech, Brother Man stops short of being a book for all seasons; it is, however, a narrative well worth engaging with, from one of the most interesting literary figures the Caribbean has produced.

 

Reproduced with permission from the Caribbean Review of Books (CRB), August 2004. Copyright Media & Editorial Projects Ltd (MEP) and the CRB.