Raymond Ramcharitar, from Trinidad, is a poet, cultural critic, ex-journalist , and a short story and novella writer. He has been a lecturer of English and literature and is the author of a scathing, disturbing and yet highly entertaining attack on the Trinidad press, Breaking the News: Media & Culture in Trinidad, published in Trinidad by Lexicon; he has edited the poetry anthology The Armour of the Ridiculous, also published in Trinidad by Lexicon. His two most recent books are American Fall, a collection of poetry, and The Island Quintet, stories and a novella, both published by one of the most distinguished presses in the Commonwealth World, Peepal Tree.
Recently, The Island Quintet was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize: Best First Book Canada/Caribbean Region (fiction). Judging from the reviews this book received in the Caribbean and England, it was surprising it did not, at least, win the regional prize. But it is deserving of more: it should’ve been seriously considered for the overall Best First Book from the Commonwealth World. It’s quite possible that Quintet didn’t win because of its subject matter; for you devoted Caribbean readers, think of Harold Ladoo’s Yesterdays.
The Island Quintet is not just a good work of fiction, the most demanding of art forms along with poetry; it may be something close to a masterpiece. You may think this is just how I feel because Raymond Ramcharitar is from Trinidad, the island I was born and raised in; and, possibly, he and I go back a ways in Trinidad, with star-rich nights of debates and drinking with Ken Ramchand or Wayne Brown, Raymond taking cursing to a new level of post-modern inventiveness (a common enough occurrence when he speaks about Trinidad, the saddest island, truly, after Haiti in the Caribbean) that has earned him this accolade from Trinidad novelist Niala Maharaj (permit me a bit of freedom with my paraphrasing): Raymond Ramcharitar is he who moves the earth when he curses. He does it when he writes too. But describing The Island Quintet as being close to a masterpiece is not something I have done; this is the opinion of a reviewer who, along with a couple others, actually knows (when it comes to certain literary occasions) what he is talking about. And Basil Pires’s review, set against those by David Dabydeen and Lloyd King, two very distinguished Caribbean men of letters, erases any doubt that The Island Quintet is just another book.
The Island Quintet is an important work because, among other things, it shows its author as a “master of the erotics of displeasure”, writes King. Such achievement is major, for those words can be used to describe Jean Rhys’s superb depiction of the Rochester-Antoinette situation in Wide Sargasso Sea, one of the best novels ever about our insane region. But that’s not all: Ramcharitar has shown in Quintet what that particular situation in Rhys’s novel, with its legacy of slavery and all its attendant problems (race, class, identity, sexuality, politics, revenge, materialism, violence), has become in our time: an Island, Trinidad, which is, in so many ways, a thriving example of post-colonial failure. (By the way, if you think that this is simply another beautifully written book that is dark and not funny, you’re mistaken.)
If you desire to know what the real news out of Trinidad is these days, if you wish to see portraits of characters so true to life that they make you sit up and re-read the words that brought them there, if you wish to see one of the most talented Caribbean writers taking on the same issues Conrad did in Heart of Darkness (Quintet addresses the present-day manifestations of them), then this collection of four stories and a novella is very much worth reading. Kurtz, in Heart of Darkness “opening his mouth wide – it gave him a weirdly voracious aspect, as though he wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him” is an image that came to my mind repeatedly while reading this book. I’ve not read such realistically drawn greed and bipedal unpleasantness since V. S. Naipaul’s Jimmy Ahmed in Guerrillas. Ramcharitar gets the post-modern Trinidad person so exactly right, especially the types who have sold, squandered, and destroyed the island’s sovereignty, natural resources, and human potential. There is a real sense of genuinely evil people in these stories. All the stories are in first person and deal with people who are trapped, who are seeking their selves or dealing with corrupted selves, in the worst state of the so-called post-colonial period of Trinidad and, by implication, the wider Caribbean region.
In the novella “Froude’s Arrow” (in which there is a man named Kurtz) the narrator, very familiar with the local and expatriate society, observes and reflects: “During the evenings at the larger diplomatic functions, as we stood to the side, watching trade missions and cultural ambassadors surrounded by fluttering expats and local commercial pirates, Froude would grow increasingly incensed. And they all seemed to seek out his contempt. Circles would form around him as we stood there. Kurtz, freelance correspondent for various foreign papers would appear, tall, gangly, but with the dangerous dark eyes of a man who had met his demons and sodomised them – and always with some foreign substance caught between his teeth.”
In “The Artist Dies”, a superb noir story, the barbarism of the elite, of those with sham education and base values – people who can pick up the phone and order a hit with the ease of a tropically fatigued priest mumbling the penance for your petty indiscretions – is finely presented. It’s fascinating in this story to see how far race problems and plantation politics have come in Trinidad; they have arrived at a point, this story shows, where corruption and wealth, materialism, are what defines us. All else is a ruse to get us what we wish to own, mangle, or destroy. This story is remarkable for, among other things, showing how the history of this region continues to thwart our development.
The “Artist”, as he’s referred to in the story, is the real thing; he’s that oddity (and brilliantly drawn by RR) societies the world over and since the beginning of time have repeatedly given us: the ultimate critic who can evaluate and recognize both the beauty and flaws in our lives, our countries.
“The Artist Dies” opens at a funeral and then moves rapidly into flashback, recounting the narrator’s friendship with the Artist and the reasons for his destruction. The humour in this story is riveting: the scenes in London between the narrator and Artist are priceless. One of the most memorable scenes I’ve read in recent Caribbean literature takes place at an exhibition of the Artist’s, to which the elite of the artistic community have come. The exhibition is a total condemnation of the island, bold and vulgar and exquisitely accurate about the state of moral and spiritual decay. It should have been dedicated to Patrick Manning and his plantation lackeys; certainly they were the inspiration for it, and for much else in these stories. Here is a brief sample of one of the Artist’s exhibitions.
“In the middle of the floor was a sculpture called ‘The Muse Inspires the Island Artist’. It comprised a detailed mask of a woman’s face with a raven black wig set on a body made of steel pipe and iron strips. Around the waist was a strap-on dildo, and one of the hands held onto a leather strap which was attached to the neck of a male figure painted onto a canvas. The figure was on all fours wearing a bondage mask made of the island’s flag.”
What this story, the first in the collection, says about Trinidad is dark, indeed. All the stories in The Island Quintet alert us to the final destruction taking place in Trinidad, the kind that allows an island to wallow in its historical and cultural obscenities, its slavery and plantation dynamics that have been perpetuated and nurtured in the present by irresponsible and half-made people, by people with no real education or sense of beauty, by people who worship violence, greed and jingoism.
Ramcharitar’s The Island Quintet goes a long and courageous way in addressing the real problems of the Caribbean, especially in Trinidad. This book met with outstanding acclaim by the Caribbean Book Club readers in Grand Cayman last week. Someone should put Ramcharitar and Quintet on Oprah’s Book Club; it would do something decent for the publishing world, which of late has been so compromised that it might as well nominate Sarah Palin for a Nobel in Literature.
Keith Jardim is a professor of English Literature and Creative Writing. His first book, a collection of stories, is due out next year.