Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Prisoner of Paradise by Romesh Gunesekera

Romesh Gunesekera. The Prisoner of Paradise. Bloomsbury, 2012

This novel of the Colonial English and to a minor extent the French and their colonized subjects takes place on the island of Mauritius in 1825. Lucy, recently orphaned has traveled from England with her Aunt Betty to settle on the island and all the promise of a new start with her aunt and Uncle George who live at the lovely garden estate of Ambleside. Uncle George has been entrusted with Lucy's inheritance, which is intended to be enough to allow her to live independently (married or unmarried) when she comes of age. Uncle George has an official position and sees the island as full of potential for advancement and reward. "...[T]he British victory in 1810 ended ninety years of French vacillation; ...the subsequent treaty of Paris marked the start of a great enterprise where control of the Cape, Ceylon and Mauritius, would ensure that trade with India would be for ever British and noble" (18). Besides the French and the British, the island was the enforced home to an enslaved population of prisoners from Britain's other nearby colonies. Interestingly, the "prisoner" in the title of the novel is singular, but there are many prisoners, literally and metaphorically, in this novel.

In many ways, Prisoner of Paradise resembles E.M. Forester's Passage to India, but with the perspective of the colonized more intimately portrayed. In addition, Gunesekera juxtaposes the condition and status of the colonized, both slave and independent to that of, in this case, British women. The island environment suggests freedom from social constraints of class, rigid behavioral codes, and divisions formed by racial, ethnic, and cultural differences. And yet, the island is full of enslaved prisoners, Lucy and her aunt or at the mercy of the whims of the uncle. And even Uncle George and those who share his power and privilege must adhere to a some vestige of social decorum. Other central characters in the novel include the gifted linguist Don Lambodar and the exiled Prince for whom he is a translator, and the prince's cousin Asoka, all from Sri Lanka. They have their own sense of the barbarity and inscrutability of their Island hosts.

Lucy and her Aunt Betty share much in their view of their location and condition. Betty, coming from an older generation, has a carefully constructed view of her place in the household and working within the confines of an unhappy marriage, has made the most of her situation. She has maintained a kind of control through developing a careful routine and maintaining a standard for her expectations. In addition she has lavished much care on her garden even to the extent of creating a private space where she can be assured of being left to herself. Aunt Betty is strikingly different from her husband in that she treats her servants respectfully, addresses them by name and has provided opportunities for education and personal development. She lives perhaps unconsciously by a code of humanity, rather than by a colonialist's code. George is essentially a slave master, referring to his servants as boy or by other insulting terms. He must flaunt his status and power and is at the same time corrupted by both.

Lucy, was raised in a less restrictive environment and arrives on the island ready and waiting to be experience freedom. Her head is filled with the romantic novels of travel and adventure she grew up reading. From her reading, Lucy has a particular expectation for what the "Orient" has to offer her. She is immediately, though guardedly, taken with Don Lambodar, the handsome and cultivated multi-linguist in the service of the exiled Prince. She and Don Lambodar are a perfect illustration of cross cultural miscommunication. Neither understands the other despite being strongly attracted to one another. While their relationship is not explicitly forbidden, it is on the threshold of impropriety.

Aunt Betty is anxious for Lucy to marry and becomes more anxious as the narrative plays out. Aunt Betty's marriage gradually reveals itself to Lucy as a very unhappy situation--not to be sought after. Aunt Betty's husband, George, at first appears to be a jovial, indulgent husband and uncle, but his character becomes more and more sinister as the novel progresses. There are hints that his interest in Lucy, even as a small child, was more carnal than protective. His tendency toward drunkenness brings out this dangerous side of his character. While the reader senses the precarious situation of the household within the triangle of Betty, George, and Lucy, there is never any indication that Lucy considers herself to be threatened by her uncle's prurient interest in her.

Lucy's mind is on imagining her own freedom and her waxing and waning interest in Don Lambodar as the household's tenuous balance begins to shift toward instability. While she begins to note that things are amiss, she really has no sense of what the troubles might be. Aunt Betty's ability to put appearances and practicality ahead of calling her husband to account of his marital lapses, has lulled George into a false sense of security. In a final hubristic act, George bring his mistress and her daughter into the household to act as a maid. Lucy, thinking that mother and daughter are sisters, brings them into the house when her aunt is not at home. Although Lucy is unaware of their connection to George, Aunt Betty is very much aware of who they are and why they are there. Eulalia, the mother and mistress (and daughter to a respected former slave on the island), shows a lack of respect to Aunt Betty and makes no pretense to playing out her role as housekeeper.

In the meantime, as neither slave, nor prisioner, nor British, Don Lambodar finds himself in an uneasy role between his social position of more or less equality with the empowered and his sympathies for the oppressed. They, the enslaved prisoners, seek him out as one with connections and the ability to communicate. But his efforts to speak on behalf of the prisoners is hampered by his inability to understand the minds of those with whom he attempts to negotiate. He no better understands the workings of Lucy's mind than he understands the prejudice and grasping, mean spiritedness of George and his ilk on the island.

This arrival of Eulalia and her daughter, coincides with Don Lambodar's decision to let Lucy know exactly how he feels by letter. At the same time Lucy has decided to treat Don Lambodar more kindly and to try to make up for other times when she has been curt and unfriendly to him. There are hints that George has rashly dealt with Lucy's inheritance. As she counts on her future independence, the freedom that will come with that independence, and her ability to choose or not choose marriage, it becomes apparent to the reader, and possibly the Aunt, that George has done the unthinkable by speculating away Lucy's inheritance. With this storm brewing within the household, a terrible hurricane sweeps across the island, overturning everything: a storm within a storm.

In the end Lucy finds her dreamed of freedom elusive. Don Lambodar, with fewer expectations, perhaps, survives the devastation of the storms, but does not emerge unscarred. Uncle George, having indulged his pride in bringing his mistress into the house that he shares with his wife, finds that pride does not come without a fall. Aunt Betty loses everything in the storm, but she retains her humanity and thwarts a colonial justice that favors the conquering class. She does not forget Don Lambodar nor the attachment she knows that Lucy felt for him.

Aunt Betty's final gesture to Don Lambodar and her tragic triumph over George provide an unexpectedness to the novel's conclusion. There is a point of resistance; the desires for change seem  stronger than the impoverished morality and selfish motivations of those trying to maintain a kind of unnatural status quo. The combination, however, of entrenched power and wealth are apparent, overshadowing the small aberration caused by Betty's final acts. Lucy's dream is not for this world and even Betty's carefully constructed life with her garden and privacy, is untenable.

But Gunesekera does not discourage dreaming nor is his message fatalistic. Mr. Amos, a former slave who purchased his own freedom tells Don Lambodar as he despairs his losses, "To imagine is to embrace, not to escape. ...We cannot forget those we love. They shape our lives for ever, by their absence as much as by their presence" (381). Don Lambodar himself sees hope in the development of the younger non-British Mauritians, in particular, a young servant to Aunt Betty. "Don saw in his stride how the future might be improved, if one had the strength to grasp it. He remembered Lucy praising Muru's eager talents. Perhaps this island could become more than one of cane and hurricanes sooner than he imagined. Perhaps, he could yet effect a change and shift the balance in favor of what is right, not wrong, in the world. Do something that both Lucy and Mr. Amos, despite his present dejection, would approve and applaud" (383).

Of course, we know in hindsight that Don Lambodar or those like him would, if he succeeded at all, be able to make only very small changes. The spectre of the Western imperialism haunts us all even as the balance of power begins to shift.

There are many strengths to Gunesekera's beautifully written novel. The depth and complexity of his characters are perhaps a major strength of Prisoner of Paradise. There is no monolith of colonizer and colonized, and somehow what each character knows about another is different than what another character knows about the same character or what you the reader knows about that character. One character may be blinded by prejudice, another merely by lack of experience, and in other cases it is safer to not know than to know. As with any layered novel, there is much to interpret, and any one interpretation is subject to our own vision and blindness.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Greek and Roman Historians: Information and Misinformation

This book by Michael Grant, published by Routledge in 1995, is more or less written as a catalog of the short comings of the ancient historians. Grant is not necessarily comparing the ancient historians with our modern day historians, but does touch on the differences here and there. Primarily, today's historians are writing document based history and the ancients, while they had access to some documents and inscriptions were not that concerned (according to Grant) with supporting their histories through documentary evidence. Grant looks closely at 12 historians, although drops the names of at least a dozen more in his writing. Sadly, or perhaps just as a matter of fact, we are dependent on a lot of what we know from these writers of the ancient world. And, much of our historic method probably directly descends from their preferences to write about wars and famous men (and a troublesome woman here and there).

I don't know if I find it comforting or not that studying the ancients is really like studying our own modern day selves. Is it terrible that since the dawn of recorded history we really haven't evolved emotionally or psychologically? Or is it comforting?

When I was younger I used to think about the crime that I read about during Shakespeare's time or poverty described by Dickens and comfort myself that the world really wasn't less scary then than it was then, just different scary. But now, I'm not so sure. I guess we will always be wise and foolish, caring and selfish, dangerous and protective.

But back to the historians.

Misinformation and Disinformation: Getting something wrong by accident is misinformation, getting something wrong on purpose is disinformation. In Grant's chronicle of the short comings, this is the last entry: errors. Yes, in the current rendition of the facts of today, I think we can see pretty clearly that we are presented with plenty of both mis- and disinformation. Is it heavy on the side of disinformation? In the future, which type of error will end up as the history of our time? Possibly no history at all, is we madly convert everything to temporarily viable digital files.

Selectivity: Sorting through the available information and picking out what best suits the agenda of the ancient historian. This takes me to the reason I read this book in the first place. I came across a reference to it as I was looking into the last twenty years of writing (and honestly, the 20 to 40 years preceding--he (Martin Bernal) gets the credit and notoreity, but he wasn't the first)  Martin Bernal's Black Athena. There is nothing about the representation of race in this book, but we know that 19th century and even into the twentieth century, historians, classicists, were keen to literally white wash the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians. They were selective in their sources and biased in their interpretations and I find it shameful and disheartening. Which leads me to Paul Ricoeur and his philosophy of time and history. Very briefly, history changes as time passes. I am not an expert, so I won't dwell on this, but it makes every kind of sense to me. As Michael Grant reiterates, history is written by the victors, by the oligarchy in power. As the victors change, one oligarchy fades into another, the libraries are burnt and rebuilt, the facts and their interpretation shift. We see plenty of that on the campaign trail, in Congress, over the air waves, in our own heads. The more we tell a story, the more we consciously or unconsciously shape it.

Imagination: Grant sees Homer as the great model for both history and literature to the Greek and then Roman writers to follow. (And of course we see Odysseus and his travels everywhere in our own modern day literature.) Herodotus, for instance, left a written record, but he read his histories aloud to an audience. He needed to entertain as well as to inform. Some of our ancients were successfully literary; sometimes a good story was more important than strict adherence to the facts. And of course, some of the facts, so to speak, that Herodotus and his fellow historians incorporated into their histories were passed on as part of an oral tradition.

Michael Grant writes, "One must not ... be over critical of [the ancient historians' errors], because they are only human and it is human to make mistakes. Besides, their sources are not as good as those which are available to modern scholars."

I especially like this sentence, in that it reminds us of our frailties, then and now. But, it is a little harder to excuse our mistakes.

Next chapter, does Michael Grant think we should continue to read the ancient historians? I'm pretty sure he will say yes, if for no other reason than that we can see ourselves so clearly both in realizing their mistakes and learning from the past as they describe it. Whether it is completely accurate or not--it is as they believed it to be and it is as they chose to see it. But more on that later.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Walter Mosely: All I Did Was Shoot My Man

This is a relatively new novel (New American Library, 2012) in Mosley's Leonid McGill Mystery series. McGill has a past full of regrets. He is a private investigator with a criminal past, a father that went missing 44 years earlier, three children, a wife, and a former lover. This novel opens as he waits to make amends for one of his more recent wrongs. On request, he framed an innocent woman, implicating her in a massive theft for which she received a heavy sentence. After doing some work to clear her and earn her an early parole, McGill finds that, mysteriously, the crime continues to follow her and its tentacles are wrapping around McGill, his family, and everyone connected to Zella. As he follows the various threads, he attempts to protect his family from the fall out. On the way, McGill's son Twill is learning the art of investigation, his former lover seeks to win him back, and his father surfaces.

Mosley's characters, like the names he gives them (Leonid, Socrates, Ptolemy, Tolstoy, for instance), carry a lot of weight. They are strong with their hands and their hearts, brilliant, and worldly wise. They have insight into the characters and motives of those they encounter, and their senses are sharpened by the injustices and hardships they've had to survive.

I am not a lover of mysteries, although I know there are good ones out there. I don't want to read a book that I can pretty much follow by reading a sentence here or there on the page--its fat, but there are way more words than necessary. Nothing engages with your brain--ho hum. With Mosley, every word is necessary and every word is a pleasure to read. I'll quote a trio of paragraphs from near the end of the novel:

"I'm a twenty-first century New Yorker and therefore have little time to contemplate race. It's not that racism doesn't exist. Lots of people in New York, and elsewhere, hate becaues of color and gender, religion and national origin. It's just that I rarely worry about those things because there's a real world underneath all that nonsense; a world that demands my attention almost every moment of every day.

"Racism is a luxury in a world where resources are scarce, where economic competition is an armed sport, in a world where even the atmosphere is plotting against you. In an arena like that racism is more a halftime entertainment, a favorite sitcom when the day is done.

"That said, Antoinette was one of the racists. She hated her own people because they didn't see her for what she was. She felt betrayed by black men and then I came along. I brought out a thrill in her heart, and maybe her nether regions. That was all good and well; she was a handsome, brave, and intelligent woman, but I was preoccupied with pain so profound that could barely tell if it was mine alone."

Find a copy at your local library or favorite bookstore.