by Tim McGrenere
If Ernest Hemingway came back to life and read the first sentence of Rabindranath Maharaj's latest novel, he would likely shoot himself again. A Perfect Pledge begins with a tortuous seven-liner comprising fourteen commas, one colon, and two lists of exotic smells and foods. There is a midwife who smells of "roasted almonds, cumin, cucumber stems," and a shopping list including saffron, sapodilla, and a sikya fig, which the narrator informs us is a "small banana found in all the birdcages of the village." Somewhere in the middle of all those fine-smelling words a sickly child is born.
The village in question is Lengua, Trinidad, and the child is Jeeves (short for Jeevan) who is the first son of Narpat Dubay, the novel's fifty-five-year-old protagonist. Their relationship forms the backbone of the narrative, which spans from a few years prior to Trinidadian independence (1962) to the mid-1970s. Narpat is a philosophical sugarcane farmer who has grown impatient with the backwardness of his fellow villagers. A self-proclaimed "futurist", Narpat rails against the economic dependency of the sugarcane farmers on the English processing factory and the religious dependency of his fellow villagers on Hindu pundits selling sham wisdom, idolatry, and "pappyshows".
Narpat's quest for independence is by turns comically quixotic and pathetically self-destructive. He becomes obsessed with the notion of building his own sugarcane-processing factory to help his impoverished villagers free themselves from the low market prices offered by Tate and Lyle. Without any significant financial or physical help, Narpat tries to design and build it himself in his spare time. Eventually his single-minded devotion to his unrealistic goals drives all the female members of his family away. Only Jeeves, the young son, remains loyal to his father even though he often doesn't know why. Narpat is a character who requires what Jeeves, like his namesake in P.G. Wodehouse, has: patience.
Maharaj's novel also requires patience of the reader, and not just for that first interminable sentence. Maharaj has spent little effort on conventional plotting, choosing instead to explore the minute, intimate details of a Trinidadian village and a family's life. The larger story arcs move slowly from year to year and event to event with the little tensions building ever so slightly. There are few moments of dramatic confrontation and most involve Narpat's anger or his foolishness when forcing his wife or kids to pack up and leave. Because of the leaden pacing it was easy to put this book down.
The book is also a fairly conventional colonial-historical novel. Maharaj is looking back at his native Trinidad from a contemporary Canadian vantage. He presents the overarching theme of a colony seeking its independence from a fading imperial power, while still mired in its own inertia. There are the usual gorgeous landscapes blighted by poverty. There are the requisite set pieces of progress coming to the backward Third-World village. Electricity, television, and flush toilets arrive to the usual comic effect. And there is the arrival of Hollywood and Bollywood films. Young Jeeves escapes his decrepit home and his difficult father by going into Princes Town and working at the cinema where he watches Clint Eastwood and starts to make moves on women. All of this is charmingly and smartly done by Maharaj. He is a skilled and insightful writer who often shows a deft comic touch and a flair for the Trinidadian vernacular. But still, he is taking us along well-trodden thematic ground. And for that reason also, I found A Perfect Pledge easy to put down.
There is one thing I found annoying about the writing itself. In this kind of novel, the writer often includes bits of the local language because there are no true equivalents in English and also, presumably, to give the writing flair and authenticity. Maharaj does this as well (note the sikya/small banana mentioned above). That is fine. Often, however, we get an English definition alongside the exotic word, and this gives the narrative in A Perfect Pledge an occasional jarring falseness. For instance, the narrator speaks of a room that "was gloomy but for a small bedi, a ceremonial tray, directly beneath a skylight on the dome." Or, on the same page, Jeeves stares "at the jhandis, religious flags, flapping above a neem tree." This looks like the work of a well-meaning editor who didn't want to distract readers by forcing them to look to a glossary at the end of the book and couldn't bear simply to leave the exotic terminology unexplained or cut it out entirely. But this is an awkward and unsatisfying construction, especially when it occurs so often. It makes the narrative sound like it's part of a Teaching Trinidadian-Hindustani Language Manual.
The novel, like its hero, requires patience. And that patience was eventually rewarded for this reader. By the book's midpoint, I was engaged by its slow Caribbean rhythms and at home with the large cast of eccentric characters. I did put down the novel quite often, but like Narpat's frustrated son, I kept coming back to see what the old man would do next. There is something compelling about his futile drive for independence that eventually causes him to seek "detachment" from everyone in the lonely tower of his factory. One scene reminded me of the film Cool Hand Luke. Luke is being pummeled into a dizzy, bloody mess during a prison yard fight but refuses to quit until his aggressor finally walks away in disgust. Virtually the same thing happens to the much older Narpat in a stick-fighting scene. Like Luke, Narpat is bashed by a powerful foe nearly to the point of death because he refuses to back down. The surrounding crowd, like the reader, admires Narpat's pluck but grows increasingly sickened by his masochistic frenzy. Maharaj nicely manages this ambivalence throughout the book. We always know Narpat is doomed, yet we still never give up on him. By the end of the novel, I was surprised by the emotional attachment I had developed for this character, who had grown beyond Maharaj's words on the page into a fully realised being, a chaotic man fighting against chaos.
Narpat's futurism may not save his fellow Trinidadians, but his madness and humanity ultimately carry A Perfect Pledge to a memorable place beyond the un-Papaesque first sentence, the editorial blunders, and the colonial period narrative conventionalities. ò