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.

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

I originally posted this with Don Lambodar name mistakenly written as Don Lorenzo. So sorry!