Sir Vidia’s shadow

Jeremy Taylor on A Perfect Pledge, by Rabindranath Maharaj

Rabindranath Maharaj

A Perfect Pledge, by Rabindranath Maharaj (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, ISBN 0-676-97647-6, 407 pp)

 

Reading Rabindranath Maharaj’s third novel, A Perfect Pledge, I felt as if I had fallen into a time warp. The tiny Hindu village in south Trinidad where the book is set seemed so familiar. The family at the centre of the story seemed like old friends. The irascible canecutter father with a head full of dreams, the exasperated wife, the three daughters and one son coming of age. The smallness and the desperate tedium of village life. The stock secondary characters. Even the way the author constantly belittles his characters, down to the way they pronounce words. I felt I had been here many times before, like a recurring dream.

This is not really surprising, since A Perfect Pledge works an already well-ploughed field. One expects to run into Mr Biswas or Ganesh Ramsumair at any moment. This is a world of entrapment and isolation, defined by gossip, envy, quarrelling, and brutality. The author looks on with mocking amusement and a strictly limited amount of sympathy. He allows his characters only one choice: escape or endure.

The book begins with the birth of Jeeves (not a refugee from P.G. Wodehouse: his real name is Jeevan) in the mid 1950s, and ends four hundred pages and a generation later with Jeeves happily married to a girl of his own choice. In between, his mother toils, holds things together, withers away, and dies. Jeeves’s sisters marry and move away, one of them to a promising future in the US. Jeeves himself survives school, gets a job in a cinema, and takes his first fumbling steps into the adult world.

The most cogent of the book’s many themes is the frustration of Jeeves’s father Narpat. Narpat is a domestic tyrant, a philosopher, the begetter of increasingly bizarre projects, and a man of extraordinary stubbornness. Disinherited by a cheating uncle, he has managed to acquire a small piece of land for himself, which he will protect at all costs (“even if I have to die in this field, no one will take it from me”). He rages against easy success and insists on personal independence and freedom, with “no debts. Obligated to no one. Free. Strong. Apart.”

Narpat’s life is a futile quest to impose order on chaos. He expects all the dizzying twists and turns of his existence to fall at last into “an understandable pattern”. He tries single-handedly to revive a dying sugar industry by building his own sugar factory. He resists the encroachment of “Outsiders”, i.e. non-Indians; in one of the book’s most vivid scenes he takes on their leading stickfighter and gets his head buss. He plunges into politics to campaign for the regularisation of farmers’ lands, which he achieves almost by accident.

He winds up a reclusive and embittered old man, raging against the world like a Lear of the canefields. For, unhappily and inexplicably, the world resists improvement: “decay and instability were its natural states. Everything he had fought for was in vain because he was going against the natural order of things; in spite of him, everything would revert to chaos. Progress was a trick, an illusion that encouraged, then shattered hope . . . Chaos, he muttered over and over . . . ”

By the end, Narpat has become an almost tragic figure in his rage and impotence. But apart from him and Jeeves, there is little in the way of action, growth or evolution. Perhaps this is the point: many things in Trinidad have not changed in half a century, and an early 21st-century Narpat would still have plenty to rage about.

But that produces a technical problem which Maharaj does not entirely solve, at least not without adopting the tone and style of early Naipaul: how to convey tedium without becoming tedious. And even then, he tends to miss Naipaul’s conciseness: he becomes a relentless describer, never leaving one telling detail to make a point if he can find a dozen more to extend it. Admirable as much of this Dickensian richness is, it adds to the sense of time-warp.

The result is a text that is stodgier than Maharaj’s previous novels, both of which had greater immediacy. Homer in Flight was set in Canada and dealt with an immigrant situation like Maharaj’s own. The Lagahoo’s Apprentice dealt with a Trinidadian, relocated (like Maharaj) to Canada, making an extended return visit to his homeland, which allowed his creator the sharpness of rediscovery. A Perfect Pledge, by contrast, relies more on memory, without the sharp edge of immediate experience.

Jeeves’s life in the cinema (we leave him working as a projectionist in Arima) is contrasted neatly with the narrow horizons of his home village: the big screen takes him to “vast landscapes with men and women fighting and making love and chasing some dream”. Not literally, though. For both father and son, the key idea seems to be the pledge of the title. For Narpat, that means protecting his land and his home-made sugar factory, and for Jeeves, looking after his father as he slips into illness and craziness. The very last sentence of the book has Jeeves’s new wife realising he is a man who “always kept his word”.

It is this ambivalence about security and risk that makes A Perfect Pledge a dispiriting book. From the first chapter, it is clear that Narpat’s struggle is going to be futile, that stoicism is fatal, and that there is no escape without fragmentation. No real surprises can ensue. The fearsomely complicated world of 21st-century Trinidad still awaits an interpreter.

 

Reproduced with permission from the Caribbean Review of Books (CRB), February 2006. Copyright Media & Editorial Projects Ltd (MEP) and the CRB.