Tristes tropiques

By Jonathan Ali

The Island Quintet: A Sequence, by Raymond Ramcharitar
Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 978-184-523-0753, 217 pp

Reading Raymond Ramcharitar’s first published work of fiction, it’s hard not be struck by a sense of déjà vu. Throughout the 1990s and the early part of the last decade, Ramcharitar was a journalist for both the Trinidad Guardian and Express newspapers, and also a contributor to the Trinidad and Tobago Review. As a critic of the arts and culture, he brought a refreshing intelligence and often engaging style to his writing, at a time when both were in serious decline in the press. (That decline, at least where the arts is concerned, has continued merrily on its way.)

Something else that Ramcharitar brought to his journalism, and the source of the feelings of déjà vu, was a confrontational, controversial, suffer-no-fools approach. To say he never gave praise where he thought it wasn’t due is to give new meaning to the word understatement. Walking out in the middle of a theatrical performance became something of a trademark; one mutual colleague dubbed him Raymond Uncharitable. Crucially, it seemed he went out of his way to insult and offend, and eventually cemented his bête noire status when he parted ways — acrimoniously, by all accounts — with the publications he used to write for.

Yet where the journalist’s career ended, the writer’s was just beginning. Not long after he left the press he wrote a critique of it, Breaking the News (2005), a book that — though flawed by what the reader might perceive as the author’s own biases — had considerable merit. He then published a collection of poetry, American Fall (2007), and edited another. Now comes The Island Quintet, a collection of stories, with two lengthy pieces sandwiching three shorter ones.

The book is subtitled “A Sequence”. This works to an extent, thematically. The epigraph, from Thomas Pynchon, concerns the metropolitan exploitation of colonies or former colonies, and three of the stories explicitly deal with this idea. Deepening the idea of exploitation is the theme of sodomy, which features in one way or another in every story. Otherwise, the stories are connected by the fact that they all take place in more or less a uniform time-period (the very recent past), and are either wholly or partially set in a lightly fictionalised Trinidad. Also, and perhaps most tellingly, all of the stories except one feature male, Indo-Trinidadian narrators who are either journalists or former journalists.

In the first story of the collection, the quasi-noirish “The Artist Dies”, the unnamed narrator relates the tale of a controversial artist — like the narrator, an Indo-Trinidadian, and dubbed by the narrator as “the Artist” without any apparent irony — who apparently oversteps his societal bounds and is murdered as a result. Much of the story is told in summary, with the narrator telling rather than showing, as when he compares a painter by the name of Balthazar Bouvier with the Artist:

Bouvier’s work was obsessed with nationalism and . . . bore the marks of great effort; the lines of his thought were traceable, and the finished ideas lacked the effortless ease the Artist . . . brought to his own work . . . In the Artist’s work, there was an instinctual awareness of the moving and expanding present which was removing depth from human experience

Fine analysis for an art review, perhaps, but not what one is looking for in fiction.

If Balthazar Bouvier suggests the name of a certain Trinidadian artist, that’s because the character is quite obviously based on said artist. This unsubtle wordplay is a hallmark of “The Artist Dies”, and moreso the last, and longest, story in the collection, “Froude’s Arrow”. To some degree a fictional take on what Ramcharitar wrote about in Breaking the News, this story looks at the relationship between a number of characters — in particular, the journalist narrator and a fellow journalist by the name of J.A. Froude — leading up to and during a time of seismic political and social change during the mid-1990s in Trinidad. Froude writes a newspaper column, to which he gets critical responses from one J.J. Thomas. This, of course, is an echo of historical events: the black Trinidadian philologist John Jacob Thomas in 1889 published Froudacity, a rebuttal to the English travel writer James Anthony Froude’s criticisms of the West Indies.

As in “The Artist Dies”, much of “Froude’s Arrow” is given over to long passages of explicative narrative, telling us things that we should be shown instead. The narrator passes judgement on his characters rather than letting them speak for themselves. In many cases, the characters are thinly fictionalised versions of Trinidadian and expatriate writers and journalists, publishers, academics, and artists. One character, an Englishman who writes for Economy magazine, has the name Kurtz, while a magazine publisher speaks “in a British accent that seemed rehearsed, its pattern coming from a stock character in a dinner theatre play in a small town in the Home Counties.” The reader is given little room to manoeuvre, and time and again The Island Quintet feels like its own study guide.

The other three stories in the book, shorter and more focused, work better. “The Blonde in the Garbo Dress”, about white metropolitan visitors to a tropical tourist paradise corrupting the natives and being corrupted by them, employs alternating narrators, one local, the other foreign. At first they are distinct and separate; slowly, they become mirror images of each other, and finally are almost impossible to tell apart.

“New York Story”, with the rather absurd premise of its framing narrative — a man plans an assignation with a prostitute on the night before his wedding, only to end up trapped in a hotel room during a snow storm with a transvestite who is also a psychology student, and who agrees to listen to the man’s life story — does not start promisingly. The story within the story, however, of the man’s journey from his stultifying, nullifying island life to the United States in search of better things, is engaging and at times even poignant in its honest delineation of the immigrant experience. And the way the protagonist achieves success — the tale has, unusually, a sort-of happy ending — while it stretches credulity somewhat, is amusing.

The shortest piece in the collection is “The Abduction of Sita”. This story — which, like “The Blonde in the Garbo Dress”, employs alternating narrators — seems the most calculated to shock, with its combination of homoeroticism and Hinduism, and the somewhat unconvincing claim made by one of the narrators that Rama, hero of the holy epic the Ramayana, might be gay.

There is much to admire in The Island Quintet (it was shortlisted for a regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize earlier this year). The writing is strong, and Ramcharitar’s intellect cannot be denied. His unwillingness to shy away from engaging thorny issues that affect the Trinidadian (and Caribbean) here and now is commendable, even if his tone is often dark, even disturbing, and his conclusions usually despairing. If only there were more of a generosity of spirit towards the characters that people these tales. Everybody has their reasons, however malevolent they may be. Yet in Ramcharitar’s fictional world, evil has no motivation; people are the way they are without explanation, or a quirk of character to at least make them compelling. If he can deign to be more empathetic, Ramcharitar may write a very good book.


The Caribbean Review of Books, May 2010

Jonathan Ali is a freelance writer and the editorial director of the trinidad+tobago film festival.