REVIEWS: The Knights Companions: Ganesh, Biswas & Stone
Novels by Vidia Naipaul
“Then, unexpectedly, Ramlogan began to cry. He cried in a painful, belly-shaking way, pumping the tears out. ‘You don’t even want me to touch your fence now’. He wiped his eyes with the back of his big hairy hand. ‘But you don’t have to be insultive about it. All right, you ain’t want me. Nobody ain’t want me. The candidate ain’t want me. The three of-all-you remain up there complotting against me, and you ain’t want me to put my hand on your fence now. I don’t control no votes, so nobody ain’t want me. Just because I don’t control no votes’. He stopped for breath, and added with spirit: ‘Chittaranjan, the next time one of your wife chickens come in my yard, don’t bother to look for it. Because that night I eating good’. He became maudlin again: ‘I don’t control no votes. Nobody don’t want me. But everybody chicken think they could just walk in my yard, as if my yard is a republic’.”
In a passage like this, V. S. Naipaul accurately captures the essence of a quarrel; yet a quick analysis of this passage pointedly and humourously reveals many central motifs of The Suffrage of Elvira. When democracy comes to Elvira, the basic corruptibility and the grasping materialism of the villagers return the bribe-giving Mr. Harbans to the Legislative Council. Yet, this is not our preoccupation here. It is the mock caricature so evident in Ramlogan’s behaviour. Ramlogan, in his caricature of anguish, reiterates: “Nobody ain’t want me”, twice. To be sure, he is not a lonely man, even though living alone. He has the community around him, which during the election is one in its materialistic attitude to Democracy. There is, however, community. Here there is no need for the formation of the organisation of The Knights Companion. For this organisation, which appears in Naipaul’s last novel, is rooted in a society already hardened by age, ossified by boredom and virtually non-vital in its organic processes. Indeed, this order – The Knights Companion – can and does become an “insulation against the world out of which it arose.”
Mr. Biswas, in A House for Mr. Biswas, can find no such insulation from the dynamic, multi-layered, predatory society which seems to have trapped him. Yet he too is in need of the Knights Companion; he too, is alone, strtving “to arrest his descent into the void”. For brief moments, his young daughter, Savi, and his son, Anand, become his Knights Companion. The many characters who move through Miguel Street have found their own companionship. They embody one of the prerequisites of the organisation – “youth and comradeship and the protection of the male”. Ganesh in The Mystic Massur is often alone; at first, misunderstood, before he acquires his mystic powers, he “began to feel a little strange and feared he was going mad. He felt himself cut off from the people in Fourways”.
For indeed, man is a solitary creature and the trajectory of. bis existence is the individual’s power to sustain himself and to persevere. Mr. Biswas perseveres, always looking forward. The present is non-existent – he “waits for the world to yield sweetness”. – For both Stone and Biswas the present is flavourless, but for Biswas, it is active; while for Stone, the present ls reminiscing for the past, the even, stilted, unruffled boredom of the past. “Life was some¬thing to be moved through. Experiences were not to be enjoyed at the actual moment, pleasure in them came only when they had been, as it were, docketed and put away in the file in the past, when they had become part of his ‘life’, his ‘experience’, his career. It was only then that they acquired colour.” And, indeed, colour and/or the colourless is the measure of the difference between the lives and activities of Ganesh of The Mystic Masseur and Mr. Biswas, of A House for Mr. Biswas on the one hand, and Stone of Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion on the other.
Stone is cocooned by boredom, “overcome by a sense of waste and futility and despair”; Mr. Biswas, crushed by the weight of the society, has the feeling of being “trapped in a bole”. The society in which Stone operates is already formed – old – he is a mere atom. There is no group, no caste here, only the amorphous loyalty to the office, but the office too is impersonal. Mr. Biswas’ world is sham Hindu, where caste is of importance only if accompanied by wealth. In such a society, education becomes a parody, yet book-learning is an essential; knowledge is measured by “seventy-five feet of book shelves” or “six inches-width of a book”. It is a manifold society represented in all its triviality, ugliness and vulgarity, a tragic society in which historical and social processes are at work. The milieu is presented in all its creatural and spectral phenomena, often harmonizing with the inner movement of the character. Mr. Biswas, tenacious like the leaves that rot around him, does not fall, strives, until, in some respects, he achieves a measure of success. For him, “Death was forever held in check. The tongue-like leaves of dead green turned slowly to the brightest yellow, became brown and thin as if scorched, curled downwards over the dead leaves and did not fall.”
The characters are thrown by chance into the milieu in which they find themselves – chance becomes the given for them. Ganesh Ramsumair seems to have been born with a gift – what in the novel is called a “hand” – for healing the sick. He and many other people sense the existence of this “hand”. Ganesh firmly believes that in spite of the difficulties of any moment, “great things going to happen, man, great things”. Mr. Biswas, too, is born with a sign – a negative one – born “in the wrong way, six-fingered and at midnight”, he is destined it seems, not to be a mystic masseur but “to eat up bis own father and mother”. Mr. Stone And The Knights Companion opens too with a sign – a sign of bad luck: a black cat. Mr. Stone, on letting himself in, before he can switch on the hall light, “the depthless green eyes held him, and in an instant the creature. eyes alone, leapt down the steps”. In all three characters there is the element of the supernatural. This is the given of their characters caught then in a society. It is the interplay between the given character and chance which controls and guides them on. Ganesh functions in his society by acquiring the external tools of survival – books, education, etc. His character describes an arc – the arc from not knowing and vague feelings of hidden talents to a point of being pushed to the exercise of these given talents by chance circumstances; “from a badly dressed schoolboy, who never played games or lost his country Indian ac¬cent or stopped being a country boy”, through Pundit Ganesh Ramsumair to the final glory of G. Ramsay Muir, Esq., M.B.E. He reaches his high point of creativity, when as the mystic masseur, he has no equal; “no one could lay evil spirits better, even in Trinidad, where there were so many that people bad acquired especial skill in dealing with them. No one could tie a house better, bind it, that is, in spiritual bonds proof against the most resolute spirit.” He could master any ball-of-fire, soucouyant, or loup-garou. Even though he achieves material success and through this a degree of social mobility, yet, in fact, his character circumscribes a downward movement. There is moral degeneration and an acceptance of glamorous mediocrity.
The element of grasping and chicanery exhibited by Ramlogan and to some extent, by Leela in The Mystic Masseur and the theme of politics already presented in this same novel, arc given full play in The Suffrage of Elvira. The movement here is from “superstition and ritualism” to the full development of spiritualism and predatory materialism. The characters in Elvira are all selfish, greedy, egotistical, grotesquely comic. The social dimension provides the phenomena for caricature, with Harbans capitalizing on the newness of “this thing, democracy” to the people of Elvira and Cordova. The arc which we saw described by Ganesh’s character, repeats itself in each of the personages of Miguel Street; to be sure, the spaces traversed are different. The characters in the street brotherhood, seem to move .from a given point of “pose” – a “pose” that is in reality a mechanism of defence and protection against an almost hostile, at best, an unsympathetic society. It is through this mannerism or eccentricity, more: often than not, of a theatrical nature and born out of the celluloid heroes, that the character is most dynamic or creative. Having lost or been dispossessed of this idiosyncratic behaviour, the character’s downward movement is to a state or near apathy and loss of life – either physical or spiritual. A House For Mr. Biswas is the culminating point of all these given features. Mr. Biswas is desperately in need of help, which the author will not, or cannot, extend.
In Mr. Biswas, impotence and Tage turn inwards after being outer directed to the Tulsi family and this brings on hallucination and mental disorder – a veritable persecution complex. It is this antagonism and consequent tension between Mr. Biswas and his formidable she-dragon of a mother-in Jaw, the teeming world of Hanuman house and all that it stands for, which provides the dynamics of A House For Mr. Biswas. But Mr. Biswas, with his malicious and cantanker¬ous pettiness ls saved from the tragic. He too believes that “some nobler purpose awaits him”. But for him each phase in his life is temporary – he lives the life of the non-moment. It ls a life of despair, of nothing. Like Ganesh, given the great emphasis placed by the society on book learn.ing – he educates himself and always lives in the reflection of those whom he considers to be educated. Gullible and easily taken in, he is gyped by petty “lawyers” like Seeberan or succumbs to the literary prowess of “purists” like Misir and his circle. He .achieves eventually the empty dreams so dear to many of Naipaul’s characters (and to many Trinidadians), that of seeing his name in the newspaper. Even his acquisition of a house is beset with disappointment. Born without a “buth” certificate, married without the Hindu dowry, living without recognition, striving alone and in the dark, he is like one of his own characters who witnessed an “Amazing Scene”. He emerges not so much as a tragic figure, but as one who is compelled, if he wants to survive, to struggle against the insanity, the greed, the predatory, the ingratitude, the cursing, the back-biting of his immediate world. Mr. Stone does not have to fight against a society. The demoniac element in his character ls symbolized in his relationship with the cat, on which he pours all the accumulated and transferred hostility felt against his neighbours, the Midgeleys Mr. Stone does not move through time. Rather there is an atmosphere of mustiness, of rot, of decay; a refuge in the monotony of day-to-day ritual and deadening habit. It ls ironic that someone like Stone should realise his moment or creativity in conceiving the idea of the organisation of the Knights Companion, that he should have “solved some of the problems of old age. He rescued men from inactivity; be protected them from cruelty. He preserved for men the comradeship of the office, which released them from the confinement of family relationships.”
This sense of the void and emptiness is evoked by Naipaul in his description of the people who move through his novels. “The faceless crowds, in the mass so uniform in their clothes”, whom Mr, Stone daily passes and repasses. live out their lives in an atmosphere of decay, bareness and mustiness. When at the age of 62 Mr. Stone acquires a Knights Companion in a 52-year-old wife, “mustiness, the result of ineffectual fussings with broom and brush by Miss Millington, in which Mr. Stone bad taken so much pleasure, was replaced not by the smell of polish and soap, but by a new and alien mustiness of his wife’s tiger skin rug”. The dialogue of cursing, back-biting and ‘mauvatselangue’ which lightened the dark twilight tones of the Tulsi household in A House For Mr. Biswas, is missing completely in Mr. Stone And The Knights Companion; here, the first part of the book is a spectral, unrelieved statement of spiritual boredom, a dreary monotony which for Mr. Stone is not only the passing of time, but the very meaning of time. Stone’s character describes the arc which we have already noted in Ganesh’s. His little flutter before spiritual death comes about through an act of creativity which is itself rooted in decay: the preservation of other old people from the inactive. It is a preservation attempted by Stone, but again, the element of the grasping and the predatory enters. Stone’s invention, his idea, the highpoint of his life, becomes the property of and the springboard for the material advancement of the coarse, vulgar Whymper. Stone’s anger, all passion disappeared. He realised that “all that he had done, and even the anguish he was feeling now, was a betrayal of good emotion. All action, all creation was a betrayal of feeling and truth. And in the process of this betrayal his world had come tumbling about him. There remained to him nothing to which he could anchor himself”. The moment of ease has gone and unease reappears. The end of “Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion” is an end with a possibility of movement forward again, but even this is denied; Mr. Stone has completed his cycle. Now he no longer fears the sign of bad luck with which the novel had opened – other emotions arise when the progeny of the first black cat dashes across the scene. “Fears blended into guilt, guilt into love. The black cat was down the steps and before any further gesture could be made was out through the open door”. At least the potent black cat even though killed, has been able to continue his line. For Mr. Stone, there is no such possibility. Inactive, he can no longer be sustained by the fluttering women around him.
With Mr. Biswas, the void and existence of his life is replaced at times with the frightening, even the gruesome – there is little that is joyful or reassuring. Caught in his web of fantasy, innocuous household objects become menacing, threatening. “On the wall he saw a nail that could puncture his eye. The window could trap and mangle. So could the door. Every leg of the green table could press and crush. The castors of the dressing table. The drawers”. His escape is a negative one, to concentrate on the shape of letters until he is released from his hallucinations by sleep. But this relief is short-lived. “His sleep was broken by dreams. He was in the Tulsi store. There were crowds everywhere. Two thick black threads were chasing him. As he cycled to Green Vale the threads lengthened. One thread turned pure white; the black thread became thicker and thicker, purple-black and monstrously long. It was a rubbery black snake; it developed a comic face; it found the chase funny and said so to the white thread, now also a snake”. The link between Mr. Biswas and Mr. Stone lies in their feeling of fear – fear of cats, fear of people, fear of change. For Mr. Stone, time is marked by changes in nature, in a tree; a measure of change also comes in the person of Margaret, his wife. For Mr. Biswas, change comes in his removal from house to house and from job to job.
The overall vision of Naipaul is one of pessimism, despite the comic which creeps in with the author’s touch of the caricaturist and the stylistic device of pinpointing a character by an idiosyncratic, meaningless gesture or mannerism. Absent from Mr. Stone And The Knights Companion is the light touch of The Mystic Masseur, the element of farce in The Suffrage of Elvira and the comic humanity of Miguel Street. In their place is a sardonic humour. Often there are statements akin to larger philosophizing, which are organically non-vital. Perhaps the element of decay so visible in the interiors of rooms or in the faces of his characters may have entered the author’s writing. He, Naipaul, may have described his arc of creativity, with A House for Mr. Biswas as the high point. It is evident that in his first four books – The Mystic Masseur, The Suffrage of Elvira, Miguel Street, A House for Mr. Biswas – Naipaul had felt and knew his background and “captured its essences”. The inner reality of Mr. Stone’s social circumstances is not palpable, is devoid of density and seems alien to the author’s creative landscape. Naipaul seems to have journeyed abroad perhaps in an attempt to unshackle himself from the gnawing sense that his literary geography is merely the huge, vast canvas of the Caribbean, which, containing as it does, myriad and multiple motifs for the writer, provides him with subjects that go beyond the purely local and penetrate deep within the regions of universal conciousness. Despite the fact that there are in Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion certain motifs common to his first four books, yet it is obvious that Naipaul has attempted and not unsuccessfully -‘” that is, coming after A House for Mr. Biswas – a conscious psychological exile. One hopes that this is not so. But like his Mr. Biswas, himself superior and despising the society in which he moves, Naipaul may remain rooted in it, and yet rise above it. Possibly, after Middle Passage and after the void of An Area of Darkness, Naipaul will conclude with his Mr. Stone that “he was no destroyer. Once before the world had collapsed about him. But he had survived. And he had no doubt that calm would come to him”.