V.S.Naipaul, writing in THE MIDDLE PASSAGE, has questioned the ‘maturity’ of West Indian writing and has further commented: “to the initiated, one whole side of West Indian writing has little to do with literature and much to do with the race war.” Yet another critic has described the body of West Indian writing as “so many sentimental recollections of so many island childhoods”, thereby appearing to imply that the typical West Indian artist’s view of his island is nostalgic, idealistic, and out of date.
Both of these strictures would appear to have some validity, particularly when applied to the West Indian novelists who live in metropolitan countries. It is only natural that from the distance of, for example, England or the United States the West Indian would tend to view his own country in terms of a comparison. His stance and view of the society would be retrospective; he could hardly be expected to speak with emotional certitude of any attitudes save those remembered from his early years; social and political changes which have occurred with a certain degree of rapidity during the period of his absence would necessarily have been excluded from his fund of experience. Again, the sudden and blinding realisation of what it means to be a Negro or East Indian in an European context a realisation which is not clearly apprehensible in the West Indies would tend to invite a transference of the West Indian’s position, vis-a-vis the white man, to the examination of his own society.
This is not to deny that an examination of West Indian society in the context of the race war, would not prove significant or enlightening: It is merely to contend that when one is within the West Indies racial conflict is only one aspect of several other major problems which the society faces. Perhaps because Earl Lovelace has remained living in the West Indies he has been able to view the society, its problems and its relationships, from several points of view in his first book WHILE GODS ARE FALLING (published 1965) he shows a serious concern for the problems of post-Independence and present-day Trinidad: this feeling of his involvement with the society has prevented any overriding preoccupation with race. Indeed his book seems to reflect with maximum veracity the kind of easy relationship which exists between individuals representative of various races, especially among the lower class in the country districts of Trinidad.
But this aspect of WHILE GODS ARE FALLING arises only incidentally. The focus of the novel rests on Walter Castle, the kind of hero which has some resemblances to major characters in many West Indian novels. He is a marginal man, unable to cope with his environment. Born in the country he has known the poverty and hardship, and the lack of basic amenities which is typical of a large West Indian family in which the mother is a silent slave in the home, and the father is disabled or un-able to provide adequately. Walter has had to forego an education and to run away from home to the city as a young lad. His life then becomes a struggle to provide the basic necessities first for himself, and later for his wife and young child. At the point at which we meet him he is caught in a bitter and frustrating conflict. As a relatively young man he has come to the full realisation of his inability to progress. He is facing failure in his job, he lives in a slum. he cannot provide adequately for his family, moreover, he cannot relate to his family, his friends, or his neighbourhood in any meaningful way.
Walter begins to ponder the imponderables; “life must mean something. Life’s more than a job or a plate of food or a bed.” But being a man who has spent his life in action and who has survived only by a persistent, if directionless struggle, he must find his answer through practical action. He expresses his dilemma:
“If I could find something here, something big enough to make me forget myself, something high enough to make me reach up to it, then perhaps I could bear the kind of existence I am leading here.”
How, then, can a life heavily circumscribed by economic and social circumstances have any meaning? Not through belief in God, Lovelace seems to say, because
“God somewhere around Elleslie Park and up in St. Clair where people seeing well. God is not round here where poor people ketchin hell.”