Lamming And The Search For Freedom
Every village has a ‘bad man’ of its own, and St. Victoria Village was no exception. It had Mr. Spencer. Mr. Spencer was a real ‘bad man’, and not even Big Joe would venture to cross his path. Besides, everybody knew that Mr. Spencer had a gun, and they knew he had used it once or twice too. Mr. Spencer didn’t ever go out of his way to interfere with anybody, but everybody knew what happened to anybody who was foolish enough to interfere with Mr. Spencer.
Mr. Spencer had a reputation.
Now, at the time I am speaking of, every morning when Mr. Spencer got up, he made the sign of the cross, went and cleaned his teeth, and then left the house and went into the open yard to look at his banana tree.
He had a lovely banana tree. Its trunk was beautiful and long and graceful, the leaves wide and shiny, and, in the morning, with the dewdrops glinting silvery on them, it seemed like something to worship, at least Mr. Spencer thought so.
Mr. Spencer’s wife used to say to him “Eh, but Selwyn, you like you bewitch or something. Every morning as God send, I see you out there looking up in that banana tree. What happen? Is you woman or something? Don’t tell me you starting to go dotish.”
And Mr. Spencer would say, “Look, woman, mind you own business, eh?” and if she was near him, she would collect a clout around her head too.
So one morning Mrs. Spencer got vexed and said: “You going have to choose between me and that blasted banana tree.”
“Okay, you kin pack up and go as soon as you please,” Mr. Spencer said.
So Mrs. Spencer went home to her mother. But, all said and done, Mrs. Spencer really loved her husband, so after two days she came back and begged for forgiveness.
Mr. Spencer said: “Good. You have learn your lesson. You know now just where you stand.”
The return takes place with legend, myth and history. Innocence, children, will tell the legends which Lamming recreates:
“Legend is our only guide; and since legend is the natural language of children, it is better to let children reply, and the children should be of the Caribbean”.
Three boys: Singh. Lee and Bob.
Bob, Lee, Singh, Trumper, Boy Blue, Liza and the host of children, who play and romp through Lamming’s novels. They are perhaps some of Lamming’s best creations and tell the legend.
“An’ plain animal talk… An’ the fish dancin’ wild an’ makin’ faces at the bottom o’ the ocean, an’ only the sun get permission to say the time, an’ the moon only makin’ plans to decide the size o’ the sea, or makin’ fun at some mountains which couldn’t climb no more, an’ sometimes collapse, if a new tide turn upside down, an’ shake up the sand. Like such a time it was for San Cristobal, long long before human interference.”
But human interference takes place. The Tribe Boys, the former inhabitants of the islands, the Arawaks, encounter the visitation of the Bandit Kings and as in a trance, plunge to their death instead of surrendering. Lamming, with consummate novelistic artistry, makes his legendry history dynamic. The proud death of the Tribe Boys becomes integral to the theme of freedom and independence.
“Freedom is not a habit which may be overcome, nor is it a fashion which changes with opinion. It is an instinct, it is a nerve. It was that last act of homage to the spirit which gives life meaning, and they saw even in the death they chose, that spirit which feeds man with a will to overcome…”
It was the same spirit which resulted in the fires that swept San Cristobal bringing destruction which the old woman, Ma Shephard, had witnessed. For she, in turn, picks up the history of San Cristobal. Ma Shephard, the exemplar of Age, imbued with the wisdom of a seer and the religiousity of a believer. She is accumulated history, counter point to the innocence of the boys to whom she gives direction and who are her continuum. For Lamming gives duration to relationships, tracing the chronology between age and innocence, between enslavement and freedom and colonialism and independence. History in Lamming becomes not a chronicle of events, but a series of continuous images not severed by static memory, but woven together through recollection, and through the intuitive penetration of pure memory.
Intuition and pure memory may evoke ritual and ceremony. It is ritual which vibrates and gives vitality to the words and to historical recreation of the old. Perhaps, it is the fire that preceded the Haitian Revolution of which Ma Shephard speaks in the following words:
“T” was a malice on every side that start disaster. The men who make that fire fret how their labour went robbed in a lan’ which refuse to make them brother an’ sister, or freed them with a right reward for the sweat they drip night an’ day. The lan’ come to look like a tyrant in their eye an’ they decide to burn what ever memory hol’ them to the plough. An’ they burn every blade, young an’ ol’, ripe or not ready, it matter no more, an’ they promise to burn an’ burn for ever, till those who conquer San Cristobal an’ own it from afar relax their will, or choose some next han’ to labour with the lan’. ‘Cause thev had no more home to go to. San Cristobal was the only home they know, an’ it was no home.”
She, the ancient seer, sees the possibility of a similar doom overtaking San Cristobal as political leaders, Shephard and Singh and Lee, strive to grasp independence. Shephard, the son returning from his journey to England, is imbued also with the power of ritual. He does not foresee destruction, but hope and promise and possibility for the island. Ritual seems to become dream and his language, born in hallucination, soars out telling of legends and colonial myth and history, and the future possibility. He invokes San Cristobal, ritual becomes supplication and he cries out:
“San Cristobal, San Cristobal, where the sea is silver and the mountains climb to the moon. Here Africa and India shake hands with China, and Europe wrinkles like a brow begging every face to promise love. Colour is their old and only alphabet. San Cristobal, so old and yet so new, no place, this land, but a promise.”
In the preceding speech, Lamming brings together many of the motifs which obtain in his works. We notice a progression from the beginning of San Cristobal to a future beyond independence, and all of Lamming’s works are a progression which unfold the changing nature of colonialism, leading to the coming of independence, the search for self and identity after the winning of independence.
In the Castle of my Skin tells of the changes which occur to a village steeped in colonial values, and still a replica of a slave plantation, a large land-owning house surrounded by the native population. The Pleasures of Exile in its essentials tell of the changes in the relationship between Prospero and Caliban, between the colonizer and the colonized, a change brought about by the gift of language, which led to a new way of seeing.
The author’s glance then picks up a group of emigrants fleeing the boredom and the static colonial society prevailing in the Caribbean. They are searching for a change in their fortunes, journeying to the land of Prospero where deception and disillusionment await them. But it is deception and disillusionment which will operate on the sensibility of the protagonist, Shephard, In Of Age and Innocence, compelling him to action which will destroy the political colonial regime of San Cristobal and lead to the imminence of Independence.
In Season of Adventure, Lamming takes us beyond Independence, symbolically presenting a search for new identity, a search which rejects the colonial values which had shaped the consciousness of the people of San Cristobal. The novelist says that he only looks backwards in order to leap forward, to leap beyond. To do this, he “fertilizes a fact with life and does not betray its precise importance.”
Fact and fiction interplay even as true identity of characters, and given or assumed,. identities crisscross. The play of illusion and reality gives a dualism to his characters, motive and intention direct their development. Atmosphere reflects the changes of their mood, external phenomena mirror the movement of passions, emotions and thoughts.
A process of crystallization brings every element of the situation together:
“The image hardened. It was fixed, it assumed a substance, alive and tangible.”
But by a counter movement, image and things fragment and disintegrate and change. In all of Lamming’s works, disintegration or objects, of individual and of groups, occurs. In the Castle of my Skin, even though the old man, Pa, says:
“The changes goin’ to come an’ the changes goin’ to go, but at the bottom, the real thing will go on forever. ‘Twill be so till time change to eternity.”
Yet a change in the relationship between Prospero and Caliban, between the landlord and his tenants, does occur. But the change will take place slowly, for the village was rooted in a colonial condition wherein the land lord in his white house on the hill controlled the destinies and thought patterns of all the tenants At night, the tenants turn their lights out when the landlord’s lights go out.
“Big life one side an’ small life a next side, an’ you get a kin’ o’ feelin’ of you in your small corner an’ I in mine. Everything’s kind of correct.”
Correct behaviour, which stems from values embedded in the colonized, is indeed a quality of many Barbadians. Perhaps one of the best examples of the colonial mentality governing the behaviour of many Barbadians and Caribbean peoples, (a mentality which must be liquidated with Independence and Freedom), is emphasized in the following scene. Miss Foster’s house has sailed down the river in a flood, and she is telling her neighbours of her visit to the land lord, sharing a confidence:
“He sit me down in a rocking chair, an’ ask me ‘bout the flood. Says he was so sorry to hear what had happen, but we must all pray. But he was the essence of niceness. Then to my surprise, he call the servant and say to give me a cup of tea, tea cup and saucer, my child, as you never see in your life. And on the back of it, he give me half a crown, sixty cents, believe it or not. I went down on my knees, and I say: ‘May the Almighty God bless you always, Mr Creighton’. And he couldn’t talk, Mr. Creighton couldn’t talk for the water in his eyes. I walk down the yard that mornin’ with me head high in the air, an’ not King George on the throne of England was greater than me. When I came out and see the bad-minded black son-of-a-bitch we call the overseer, I shake my backside (God forgive me) at him, just to let ‘im know that I was people too.”
We see here the servility and subservience of a villager to the land lord. We notice, too, what is the measure of greatness for a villager. Miss Foster goes on her knees to the land lord, but she shakes her backside in the face of her black brother, in the face of the middle man, the overseer. The deft shake of the backside, an every day gesture, demonstrates her utter contempt of the overseer and her triumph over him. We move to the satirical coda of a woman who has received a half a crown for her house.
“You never know what coming to you in this world. You never know, my child, you down today, you up tomorrow.”
The lives of these people are grey and merge like the broken-down fences which separate their houses. With unconsciousness, thoughtlessness, their lives slumber in unawareness. A feeling of boredom and static sameness prevails, “….the meaning was not clear to them.”
Yet, there is life and laughter and comedy in this village which Lamming presents in all its multifarious activity. The story of Bots and Bambi and Bambino, the tale of the ‘fowl cock’, are but instances of comic sketches which enliven the narrative and clearly demonstrate Lamming’s ability to capture the laughter inherent in the language of the peoples of the Caribbean. Yet, there is pathos in these lives. Birthdays go down in drains and pools and flow out to the sea. The threat of eviction from their little plots of land shatter their dreams with the force of an earthquake. Here dreams go pop, pop, pop in the heads of boys, and here the old are evicted, ironically, by a new native middle class who are challenging the sovereignty of the white land lord, from land on which they have lived for generations. In a dream the old man, Pa, recalls the changes responsible for his departure from Africa.
“And strange was the time that change my neighbour and me, the tribes with gods and the one tribe without. The silver of exchange sail cross the sea and my people scatter like clouds in the sky when the waters come.”
At a later lime, a new political reality takes him away from his land to an Alms House. The process of being uprooted, that dispossession or inheritance brought about by colonization, repeats itself.
This dispossession of his inheritance brought Caliban in direct conflict with Prospero, the historic change in the relationship between the dispossessed slave and his master, between Caliban and Prospero, is the statement of Lamming’s The Pleasures of Exile. In this conflict, the change comes about through Caliban’s acquisition of language given him by Prospero, merely that he might comprehend the nature of his service to Prospero. Prospero had regarded him as a beast. Caliban was ‘man in spite of’, for without language, he was a beast. The power of the gift of language brings about a new way of seeing, and informs the backward glance, making Caliban seek and ask the question of his identity. The conversa-tion between Crim and Powell, in Season of Adventure illustrates the motif which runs through The Pleasures of Exile, the power of the word.
“Who say I’s a man?’
‘Is you self say so.’ ‘When?’
‘The very day you born.’
‘But I couldn’t make a note with words that day,’
‘Is words make a note with you, like how you beat your drum till it shape a tune, words beat your brain till it language your tongue.
‘Is what that got to do with man?’
Every everything. Till then, you ain’t nothin’ but a beast.’
‘Some beasts does talk.’
‘But talk nothing’ till it ask,’
‘Man is a question the beast ask itself.’
‘All right. I’s a man.”
It was the word operating like magic on their senses, with which Shephard in Of Age and Innocence captivated his followers. It is the gift of language which has precipitated a change in Caliban and consequently, a change in Prospero. In The Pleasures of Exile, Lamming uses language to analyze all these changes. He presents an event and then derives from it, a meaning, extending and linking together, the significations of colonialism and of freedom. Perhaps at times, Lamming in this work is guilty of pedantic preciosity, but he never fails to relate an incident, an event or argument to his central thesis, the change in the relationship of Prospero and Caliban.