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Thursday, November 23, 2006

Site Update - "Live Chat" Now Available !!


Hey Everyone,This is just a brief note to inform everyone that we have now created a new chat room (a special thanks to Gav !!) which we hope you will all use ... For those of you who are unfamilar with chat rooms, it is a great way to meet people from around the world by having a "real time" conversation with them... You can talk about all sorts of various subjects or simpy view the online discussion... I would like to invite all of you to use this feature which I believe is a great way to connect with people from around the world...Thanks again to Gav as this would not have been possible without his hard work and dedication...Sincerely,JonoThe Mittelholzer Foundationhttp://www.mittelholzer.org

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Saturday, September 23, 2006

You can’t go home again



By Jeremy Taylor

Illustrious Exile, by Andrew 0. Lindsay (Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 1-84523-028-0, 390 pp)

Farming and debauchery must be tiring occupations. By 1786, Robert Burns was doubly tired, being well practised at both. And there were other burdens:

a scandalous pregnancy an irate father, a public denunciation by the Calvinists. Bums’s instinct was to do what many of his compatriots had done: shake the dust of Scotland off his feet and head for the West Indies.

He took a job as a book-keeper on a sugar plantation in Jamaica. To raise passage money, he published a collection of little verses he had scribbled during his limited free time.

As it turned out, Bums and Jamaica were spared the plea­sure of each other’s company. The book of verses (Poems Chief­ly in the Scottish Dialect, 1786) did far better than expected. No longer in need of a new life in the Indies, Burns proceeded to Edinburgh to become a celebrity.

Andrew Lindsay’s remarkable novel is a “what if?” story. What if Burns had really gone to Jamaica? How would a poetic, romantic, late eighteenth-century Scottish sensibility respond to life on a Caribbean sugar plantation? Would Burns adapt, desensitise himself and pick up the lash with rest of them? If not, how long could he possibly last? And what sort of verse would this most celebrated of Scottish bards write in the Caribbean?

In Illustrious Exile, Lindsay has constructed an alternative life for Burns. The poet sails for Jamaica, works on the plan­tation, creates a scandal, moves on to another plantation in Demerara, and eventually escapes from the system altogether, trekking far into the interior of what is now Guyana with an Amenndian woman carrying his child.

To tell this story, Lindsay uses a well-tried device for link­ing past with present. Two hundred years after Burns’s death in 1797, his “journals” are “discovered” in the Guyanese hin­terland where he died, and the events, thoughts, and feelings of his Caribbean years are revealed.

The real Robert Burns, as we know, was an instinctive radical, an anti-Calvinist, a supporter of the French and American revolutions, and a merciless satirist of establishment pomposity and pretension. He also (to put it mildly) knew how to have a good time. The character who

emerges in these fictional “journals” is neither monogamous nor sober, but he is not the professional roisterer of fond Scottish memory either. At the start of the book, he is a little uneasy at being a “Negro-driver”; by the end, he has made a comprehensive personal rejection of the system and all its implications. In the final pages, there is a sense that he has moved beyond the state of exile shared initially by everyone in the Caribbean except the Amerindian peoples, and has in a sense “come home”.

At first Bums has no grasp of the power he has as a white man, or the way he is expected to exercise it. He even thinks he can dig his own garden. He wants to see slaves as human beings, he wants to be liked by them, he recoils from violence and is disgusted by a slave auction. He is besotted by his house servant Adah, and is soon treating her in every way as a wife and equal, basking in the warmth and tenderness he re­ceives in return. He even begins to argue with the plantation owner about the legitimacy of the system that supports them. The man is an obvious troublemaker.

Dimly, he senses his own complicity:


Never before in my life have I witnessed so much MISERY as in these last few days, and what makes it much worse to bear is the realisation that I have actively assisted in the process of imposing it. I have not been honest with myself.
. . My hot­headed eagerness to leave Scotland overwhelmed completely whatever scruples I possessed. Even more reprehensibly, I consoled myself with the foolish notion that there might be some way of combining slavery with my principles . . . like a fool I have ignored the fact that [the slaves on the estate] do not belong here. God forgive me.


As he struggles to reconcile his public role with his private sympathies, Bums furtively reads Equiano (seditious stuff), ponders the root causes of white hatred for Africans, and de­cides to marry Adah and take her home to Scotland, where he will work with the abolitionists.

This fantasy is derailed when a prim Scottish lady arrives on the estate in pursuit of her errant husband. Burns seduces her with passionate poems, suddenly aware of all the Europe­an refinements that he misses and of which Adah will never be capable. Forced to fight a ludicrous duel with the homed husband, Burns is charged with murder and smuggled out to

Demerara. So much for Adah.

The Demerara plantation is hotter and more brutal than the Jamaican one, more highly charged with discontent and rebellion, and Burns is even more of a misfit. For a while he manages to run things on more liberal lines, but they always revert. Alarming portents occur. Allardyce, the plantation boss, is killed by a monstrous spider; koker men are swal­lowed whole by a thirty-foot anaconda. Again Burns prepares to return to Scotland, but is detained this time by the prospect of an expedition to the Upper Potaro (that old Guiana magic), and by the appearance of a beautiful Arawak woman, Yinta, with whom he falls instantly in love.


Until today, I had thought of the Guianas as a blank page in the history books
a vast tract of land unknown to man since the beginning of time. Today I realise that deep in these lonely tracts of eternal desolation there may lie secrets older than Europe; older than the Pharoahs; older than history itself. . . El Dorado, which I had always considered entirely a fable, was sought here by Ralegh. What strange things might there be, hidden in these terrible, dark, dripping forests?


No progress is made with Yinta, on the other hand, until Burns manages to write her a poem in Arawak, after which she becomes his perfect muse and companion till he dies. (Poets, take note.)

Bums’s education is continued by a conveniently well-read slave from Saint-Domingue, Ambrose. The poet’s bur­geoning idealism (“Men should be brothers”) is countered by Ambrose’s realism: “White men will never relinquish the power.. . They own the land; the factories; the ships and the warehouses. They legislate; administer justice; write the his­tory books; own the newspapers and the printing presses. . .“ Ambrose’s advice is to look to the example of Toussaint, not Wilberforce.


You assume, though you may not realise
it, that equality means black people resembling white ones so closely that no difference remains, except for the colour of their skin. We must become like them. But does this not also beg the question that the ways of the white man are superior? Does it not deny us the dignity of a culture and an identity to call our own? Would I ask you to adopt the habits of Negroes?


“I hadn’t thought of that,” replies Bums. Not surprisingly: hardly anyone thinks of it even now. Schemes for improving other people always depend on
them becoming more like us. Again Bums finds himself weighed in the balance and found wanting. “Until this moment,” he reflects, “I had thought my­self absolved from guilt by virtue of the fact that I genuinely hated slavery, treated Negroes with courtesy and respect, and in Ambrose had found a true and valued friend. But I had wronged Adah, and now, it seemed, I had to face up to the culpability in myself.”

The arrival of a new estate manager even worse than the spider’s victim forces the issue for Burns. He takes off with Yinta - the first non-exile he has met in the Caribbean - on an exhausting two-month trek across the Essequibo, up the Mazaruni and the Potaro, and far beyond Kaieteur to Yinta’s home ground, and his own death.


Andrew Lindsay is himself Scottish, dividing his time “between Fife and Guyana” according to the publisher’s blurb. Mercifully, he does not make Burns write his journals in Scottish dialect, which would have made for a daunting read. In fact, Burns hardly sounds very Scottish in prose, though several of the poems use the dialect, constructed or reconstructed by Lindsay to echo po­ems that the real Burns wrote.

There is a hard lesson here for anyone eager to impose their own cultural and economic needs on an unwilling people.


What has been done to these people constitutes an act of vast criminality; an act so monstrous and terrible that
it defies belief. How can a society that prides itself on its benevolence and its superior culture allow itself tobe so inextricably bound up with nay, founded upon! such suffering, cruelty and indignity?. . . What I have witnessed is so uniquely horrible and vile that generations of my countrymen in years to come will look back upon it in shame and self-loathing. Slavery cannot be undone. We have sown the seed, and the fearful harvest thereof shall be as bitter ashes in our guilty mouths.


But the book is not only about a white exile’s anger and guilt. Bums makes his final trek into the interior as a hunted man, a “murderer” and a “traitor”, having surrendered every last trace of his previous life and comfort (except his journals, of course) to be with Yinta, the Amerindian. Lindsay invests this personal journey with echoes of a more universal pro­cess: the exile or expatriate groping for a new grounding and a new source of being. The book suggests that exile can be left behind, that the Amerindian peoples represent a source, and that there are rites of passage for those rare individuals and societies that want to cut away cultural impositions and ar­rive at some sort of Caribbean authenticity •


The Robert Burns who emerges in these fictional “journals” is

neither monogamous nor sober, but he is not the professional

roisterer of fond Scottish memory either



Posted by jebratt :: Saturday, September 23, 2006 :: 4 comments

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You can’t go home again

You can’t go home again

By Jeremy Taylor

Illustrious Exile, by Andrew 0. Lindsay (Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 1-84523-028-0, 390 pp)

Farming and debauchery must be tiring occupations. By 1786, Robert Burns was doubly tired, being well practised at both. And there were other burdens:

a scandalous pregnancy an irate father, a public denunciation by the Calvinists. Bums’s instinct was to do what many of his compatriots had done: shake the dust of Scotland off his feet and head for the West Indies.

He took a job as a book-keeper on a sugar plantation in Jamaica. To raise passage money, he published a collection of little verses he had scribbled during his limited free time.

As it turned out, Bums and Jamaica were spared the plea­sure of each other’s company. The book of verses (Poems Chief­ly in the Scottish Dialect, 1786) did far better than expected. No longer in need of a new life in the Indies, Burns proceeded to Edinburgh to become a celebrity.

Andrew Lindsay’s remarkable novel is a “what if?” story. What if Burns had really gone to Jamaica? How would a poetic, romantic, late eighteenth-century Scottish sensibility respond to life on a Caribbean sugar plantation? Would Burns adapt, desensitise himself and pick up the lash with rest of them? If not, how long could he possibly last? And what sort of verse would this most celebrated of Scottish bards write in the Caribbean?

In Illustrious Exile, Lindsay has constructed an alternative life for Burns. The poet sails for Jamaica, works on the plan­tation, creates a scandal, moves on to another plantation in Demerara, and eventually escapes from the system altogether, trekking far into the interior of what is now Guyana with an Amenndian woman carrying his child.

To tell this story, Lindsay uses a well-tried device for link­ing past with present. Two hundred years after Burns’s death in 1797, his “journals” are “discovered” in the Guyanese hin­terland where he died, and the events, thoughts, and feelings of his Caribbean years are revealed.

The real Robert Burns, as we know, was an instinctive radical, an anti-Calvinist, a supporter of the French and American revolutions, and a merciless satirist of establishment pomposity and pretension. He also (to put it mildly) knew how to have a good time. The character who

emerges in these fictional “journals” is neither monogamous nor sober, but he is not the professional roisterer of fond Scottish memory either. At the start of the book, he is a little uneasy at being a “Negro-driver”; by the end, he has made a comprehensive personal rejection of the system and all its implications. In the final pages, there is a sense that he has moved beyond the state of exile shared initially by everyone in the Caribbean except the Amerindian peoples, and has in a sense “come home”.

At first Bums has no grasp of the power he has as a white man, or the way he is expected to exercise it. He even thinks he can dig his own garden. He wants to see slaves as human beings, he wants to be liked by them, he recoils from violence and is disgusted by a slave auction. He is besotted by his house servant Adah, and is soon treating her in every way as a wife and equal, basking in the warmth and tenderness he re­ceives in return. He even begins to argue with the plantation owner about the legitimacy of the system that supports them. The man is an obvious troublemaker.

Dimly, he senses his own complicity:


Never before in my life have I witnessed so much MISERY as in these last few days, and what makes it much worse to bear is the realisation that I have actively assisted in the process of imposing it. I have not been honest with myself.
. . My hot­headed eagerness to leave Scotland overwhelmed completely whatever scruples I possessed. Even more reprehensibly, I consoled myself with the foolish notion that there might be some way of combining slavery with my principles . . . like a fool I have ignored the fact that [the slaves on the estate] do not belong here. God forgive me.


As he struggles to reconcile his public role with his private sympathies, Bums furtively reads Equiano (seditious stuff), ponders the root causes of white hatred for Africans, and de­cides to marry Adah and take her home to Scotland, where he will work with the abolitionists.

This fantasy is derailed when a prim Scottish lady arrives on the estate in pursuit of her errant husband. Burns seduces her with passionate poems, suddenly aware of all the Europe­an refinements that he misses and of which Adah will never be capable. Forced to fight a ludicrous duel with the homed husband, Burns is charged with murder and smuggled out to

Demerara. So much for Adah.

The Demerara plantation is hotter and more brutal than the Jamaican one, more highly charged with discontent and rebellion, and Burns is even more of a misfit. For a while he manages to run things on more liberal lines, but they always revert. Alarming portents occur. Allardyce, the plantation boss, is killed by a monstrous spider; koker men are swal­lowed whole by a thirty-foot anaconda. Again Burns prepares to return to Scotland, but is detained this time by the prospect of an expedition to the Upper Potaro (that old Guiana magic), and by the appearance of a beautiful Arawak woman, Yinta, with whom he falls instantly in love.


Until today, I had thought of the Guianas as a blank page in the history books
a vast tract of land unknown to man since the beginning of time. Today I realise that deep in these lonely tracts of eternal desolation there may lie secrets older than Europe; older than the Pharoahs; older than history itself. . . El Dorado, which I had always considered entirely a fable, was sought here by Ralegh. What strange things might there be, hidden in these terrible, dark, dripping forests?


No progress is made with Yinta, on the other hand, until Burns manages to write her a poem in Arawak, after which she becomes his perfect muse and companion till he dies. (Poets, take note.)

Bums’s education is continued by a conveniently well-read slave from Saint-Domingue, Ambrose. The poet’s bur­geoning idealism (“Men should be brothers”) is countered by Ambrose’s realism: “White men will never relinquish the power.. . They own the land; the factories; the ships and the warehouses. They legislate; administer justice; write the his­tory books; own the newspapers and the printing presses. . .“ Ambrose’s advice is to look to the example of Toussaint, not Wilberforce.


You assume, though you may not realise
it, that equality means black people resembling white ones so closely that no difference remains, except for the colour of their skin. We must become like them. But does this not also beg the question that the ways of the white man are superior? Does it not deny us the dignity of a culture and an identity to call our own? Would I ask you to adopt the habits of Negroes?


“I hadn’t thought of that,” replies Bums. Not surprisingly: hardly anyone thinks of it even now. Schemes for improving other people always depend on
them becoming more like us. Again Bums finds himself weighed in the balance and found wanting. “Until this moment,” he reflects, “I had thought my­self absolved from guilt by virtue of the fact that I genuinely hated slavery, treated Negroes with courtesy and respect, and in Ambrose had found a true and valued friend. But I had wronged Adah, and now, it seemed, I had to face up to the culpability in myself.”

The arrival of a new estate manager even worse than the spider’s victim forces the issue for Burns. He takes off with Yinta - the first non-exile he has met in the Caribbean - on an exhausting two-month trek across the Essequibo, up the Mazaruni and the Potaro, and far beyond Kaieteur to Yinta’s home ground, and his own death.


Andrew Lindsay is himself Scottish, dividing his time “between Fife and Guyana” according to the publisher’s blurb. Mercifully, he does not make Burns write his journals in Scottish dialect, which would have made for a daunting read. In fact, Burns hardly sounds very Scottish in prose, though several of the poems use the dialect, constructed or reconstructed by Lindsay to echo po­ems that the real Burns wrote.

There is a hard lesson here for anyone eager to impose their own cultural and economic needs on an unwilling people.


What has been done to these people constitutes an act of vast criminality; an act so monstrous and terrible that
it defies belief. How can a society that prides itself on its benevolence and its superior culture allow itself tobe so inextricably bound up with nay, founded upon! such suffering, cruelty and indignity?. . . What I have witnessed is so uniquely horrible and vile that generations of my countrymen in years to come will look back upon it in shame and self-loathing. Slavery cannot be undone. We have sown the seed, and the fearful harvest thereof shall be as bitter ashes in our guilty mouths.


But the book is not only about a white exile’s anger and guilt. Bums makes his final trek into the interior as a hunted man, a “murderer” and a “traitor”, having surrendered every last trace of his previous life and comfort (except his journals, of course) to be with Yinta, the Amerindian. Lindsay invests this personal journey with echoes of a more universal pro­cess: the exile or expatriate groping for a new grounding and a new source of being. The book suggests that exile can be left behind, that the Amerindian peoples represent a source, and that there are rites of passage for those rare individuals and societies that want to cut away cultural impositions and ar­rive at some sort of Caribbean authenticity •


The Robert Burns who emerges in these fictional “journals” is

neither monogamous nor sober, but he is not the professional

roisterer of fond Scottish memory either



Posted by jebratt :: Saturday, September 23, 2006 :: 2 comments

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Sunday, July 30, 2006

Preserving our literary heritage

Preserving our literary heritage

KYK-OVER-AL,
Part One1945 – 1961
By Petamber Persaud

THE makers and custodians of Guyanese Literature were ever conscious of the need to preserve, to enhance and to promote our literary heritage, resulting in numerous literary periodicals gracing various stages of our history.

The makers and custodians of Guyanese Literature were also cognisant of the need to encourage emerging writers and to reward good writing.

What may be the first recorded call for a local literary prize can be found in the second issue of KYK-OVER-AL, June 1946.

The Honorary Secretary of the British Guiana Writers’ Association (BGWA), James W. Smith, at that time suggested the establishment of a literary award via The Leo Medal for poetry, The Webber Medal for fiction and The Clementi Medal for non-fiction and drama.

Of interest too was the call by the President of the BGWA, H. R. Harewood, for a Readers’ Association ‘as a sort of complementary body’ to the writers forum as if to support what Seymour said early in his first editorial of KYK, ‘there’s so much we can do as a people if we can get together more’. So it seemed that the shapers of KYK were catering for every aspect of local literature, a reflection of its success and longevity – 17 long years and 28 expansive issues.
This is by way of leading up to the objectives of KYK which were ‘to forge a Guyanese people, and make them conscious of their intellectual and spiritual possibilities’ and to record ‘the ferment of cultural activity in the West Indies and its impact and influence on life in Guyana’.
To see those objectives more clearly it would be useful to locate KYK in its Caribbean context.
After the Second World War that affected the British dependences in the West Indies, there was a fermentation of a West Indian literature. That movement was given direction by ‘the little review’, a title covering the periodicals of the time including BIM of Barbados edited by Frank Collymore and FOCUS of Jamaica edited by Edna Manley. ‘The little review’ was also labelled the ‘nursery of literature’ for the West Indies. KYK is the only surviving magazine of that period. And there are many reasons for its survival.

One of those reasons could be found in the quality and dedication of the people involved in the production. KYK was published in conjunction with the BGWA, British Guiana Union of Cultural Clubs (BGUCC) and the DFP Advertising Service. Not much is known of DFP and its obvious role in the production of the journal except that it was managed by J. E. Humphrey.
The two other organisations were powerhouses in the development of literature and culture. The BGUCC was formed in 1943 as an umbrella body to some 40 clubs from various parts of the country and consisted of a number of well-respected members of society including N. E. Cameron (President), Mildred Mansfield, C. I. Drayton, A. J. Seymour, E. A. Q. Potter, and Esme Cendrecourt, among others.

The BGWA founded just after the BGUCC was formed consisted of members like H. R. Harewood (President), W. I. Gomes, Seymour, among others. KYK-OVER-AL was established as the organ of the BGWA and mouthpiece of the BGUCC which were very active in cultural spheres of Guyana.

Another reason for the survival of the journal was that it functioned as an outlet and platform for West Indian literature. This can be seen with the publications of the works of Roger Mais, Edward Brathwaite, Aime Cesaire, Frank Collymore, George Lamming, Una Marson, Leopold Sedar Senghor, Philip Sherlock, Derek Walcott, and Harold Telemaque, among others. Within this section will fall the invaluable articles on West Indian literature by Seymour like ‘The Literary Adventure of the West Indies’, ‘The West Indies of the Future and the Writer’ and the ‘KYK-OVER-AL: Anthology of West Indian Poetry’.

The editor and the editorial advisory committee (another positive move) which included Lloyd Searwar and others experimented with various aspects of magazine production. For instance, in reference to timing, the release date was brought forward to ‘less competitive’ months, in reference to size, it was reduced ‘for pockets and sachets’, and the book review section was expanded to include review of art, film and drama.

Seymour also credited his wife, Elma, for her enormous help in advertisement and marketing. Elma was a tower of strength and support to Seymour in his literary and cultural endeavours.
Despite some criticism levelled against the magazine’s lack of critical analysis, the strength of KYK was found in its scope and range in its recording role, publishing some 500 poems, 400 articles, a few short stories, symposia and colloquia, and scores of book reviews.

In poetry, adding to the above list of West Indian poets, is the local impact coming from the pen of Martin Carter, Wilson Harris, Jacqueline De Weever, Edgar Mittelholzer, Edwina Melville, Ian McDonald, Ivan Van Sertima, Milton Williams, among others.

In the field of fiction, there are samplings from Basil Balgobin, J. A. V. Bourne, Jan Carew, Eugene Bartrum, Sheik Sadeek, among others.

While there are only three plays in the 28 issues of the magazine, the articles on drama by N.E. Cameron, Rajkumari Singh, Ruby Samlalsingh, Frank Thomasson, and Sara Veecook are very valuable.

KYK-OVER-AL (see over all), the magazine, was named after the ruined Dutch fort of the same name on a small island near the confluence of the Essequibo, Mazaruni, and Cuyuni Rivers as a watchtower for ‘the expression of an alert people’. KYK went to sleep in 1961 but so good was its intent and so valuable its impact, it was revived in 1984 under the editorship of Seymour and Ian McDonald, moving to newer levels of scholarship.

(Responses to this author telephone (592) 226-0065 or email: oraltradition2002@yahoo.com)Guyanese Literature Update:1. THE GUYANA ANNUAL 2006/2007 is under production; for further information please contact the editor at telephone number and email address listed above.

2. Under preparation by this author is A HANDBOOK OF GUYANESE LITERATURE. Information supplied on any aspect of our literature will be duly acknowledged


(Guyana Chronicle)

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Friday, July 28, 2006

The Speech of Angels (review)

A literary concerto

This is a review of the last published novel by the gifted internationally best-selling Guyanese writer Sharon Maas. We are all anxiously awaiting the appearance of her fourth book. This review was first printed in the Stabroek News, Guyana in January.

Sharon’s wonderful books are available on the internet at Amazon.com.

Enjoy…

Elizabeth

The Speech Of Angels

Sharon Maas (London: HarperCollins, 2003, 422p.ISBN 0-00-712385-X)

Review by F. E. Alleyne

There are writers who, while not natural storytellers, are so skilled at their craft that the story fuses itself into a commendable and coherent whole from structural elements painstakingly arranged. Sharon Maas is not one of these.

In this her third novel, The Speech Of Angels, Sharon Maas proves herself once again to be a gifted and natural storyteller. Her story pours out, seemingly of its own volition, in such fluidity of movement and beauty of language that any structural flaws or minor inconsistencies are glazed over and become imperceptible to the reader and irrelevant to his enjoyment.

Maas’ writing style tends more to the narrative than to dialogue and in the hands of a lesser writer this would slow the tempo of the work and constrict the flow. With Maas, however, her use of metaphor and imagery is so evocative that any slowing merely allows for appreciation of the poetic prose and its impact upon the senses.

“It was an oval pool of turquoise tiles and shallow water which caught the early morning sunlight and played with it in concentric circles rippling backwards from the spitting fish.”

“Music is well said to be the speech of angels,” said the dour Thomas Carlyle. This famous quotation, from which the title of this volume is taken, was the opening line of his scathing essay on the opera in which he attacked what he saw as the debasement of music for the frivolous amusement of a sybaritic populace. He argued that “nothing among the utterances allowed to mankind is felt to be so divine” as music and that it should be used as a vehicle for worship, for whatever in mankind is divine.

Maas seems to agree for it is this quest for the divine in music which forms the tonic key in this romantic epic tale of a gifted child’s progression to adulthood and self-realization.

Five-year-old Jyothi, happily secure in her Indian village, is seduced away from awareness of self and boundaries by the pure siren sound of a sitar which resonates in her very soul. “Light and sound merged into a single entity pulling her forward…Music! This was music!... She stood in the doorway transfixed…”

But Technology intrudes upon the age-old customs of her village and sweeps away her family’s livelihood taking with it the planned, pre-destined order of their lives. Jyothi is soon living in a hovel on a Bombay pavement but the squalor of her surroundings fails to dim her inner glow and she is befriended by a childless German couple, Jack and Monika, who are intrigued by her vivacity and by her face which had “a wraithlike beauty to it, a luster barely veiled by the smudges on the thin cheeks.”

When tragedy strikes and her world disintegrates, she is adopted by the couple and taken to Germany but her trauma lingers and she remains encased in a solitary inner world, finding it difficult to communicate even as she struggles with feelings of inferiority and the rejection of her peers.

It is then discovered that she has a rare musical talent which her adopted mother, Monika, devotes herself to honing and perfecting and Jyothi is soon feted and courted as a prodigy, a Wunderkind. But, though she plays the violin to please her mother, there is no longer any joy for her in music and the spontaneous laughter which had lit her early childhood is gone.

Even as she begins to heal and develop, tragedy again shakes her foundations and she must reconstruct herself anew but this time there is an accepting school environment and an empathetic friend. A visit to India disturbs this ephemeral new equilibrium, however. She sees herself in a child-beggar, “I had done that myself…I had borrowed my neighbour’s baby and lugged it around as an asset to my begging forays. I was that little girl.”

As Jyothi achieves material success as a violinist, and as betrayal drives her to seek solace in striving for greater technical perfection, she develops a brittle and imperious outer persona which thrives on adulation and applause, and succeeds in suppressing her lingering self-image of the ‘street child’. Then the fragile edifice she has constructed crumbles in a crescendo of silence and she is forced to confront her roots.

Unlike Maas’ earlier works, which incorporated broader societal issues, this is a study of an individual’s travails and triumphs, drawing more upon psychology than sociology and, where the societal issue of racial intolerance arises, it is dealt with in the pragmatic manner of a child.

The adults are shocked by a bigoted diatribe but thirteen-year-old Jyothi is unfazed, “I had known for years that people judged me because of my origins and because of how I looked…You can’t fight these people; you can only shield yourself from them, and that is what I had been doing for the last seven years”.

Maas herself, a ‘mixed native of British Guiana’, who was propelled as a teenager from 1960’s Guyana to an English boarding school and who later lived and worked in Germany, would certainly have had experience of bigotry but the issue is treated with a sensitivity which keeps it from clouding the perspectives of her characters.

Literature is often adjudged by its mimetic quality, its ability to imitate life, and often seems more real than life itself. Maas succeeds in this mimesis. Her characters are finely and realistically drawn and, while a few remain one-dimensional, the main actors are portrayed with all their idiosyncrasies.

From Monika’s neurotic but stoic nature, with her strongly disciplined Protestant ethic which she imparts to her adopted daughter, to the laid-back sensitivity of Jack and the anomic nature of the man Jyothi falls in love with, the characters live. However, Jack and Monika’s personal lives fade from view when Jyothi joins the family and assumes center stage and, as they become the supporting instruments in this literary concerto, their own lives become a bit too muted.

The book’s structure is elegantly simple, without the complex inter-related plot structures of Maas’ earlier works as it relies instead upon the internal struggles of the individual for its complexity, and though there are occasional descents into the style of the romance novel, these do not significantly detract from the quality of the writing itself.

The Speech Of Angels transports the reader into a world of emotions and sensory images - superimposed upon the experience of different cultures - and the imagery lingers. It is both entertainment and fine writing. It is a great book.


Posted by jebratt :: Friday, July 28, 2006 :: 3 comments

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