LITERATURE: THE ARTIST IN THE BALM-YARD: ‘SEASON OF ADVENTURE’

Lamming’s high priest is much more fantastic:

He was a short, black man, narrow around the waist, almost fragile in the spareness of his arms. He wore a pair of snake-skin sandals. The straps parted and crawled in a bright black radiance lapping around his toes. The smell of cemeteries rotted his hands. His eyes were the colour of burnt hay. Delirious in their gaze, they sparkled and cracked into splinters of light like glass. He carried an axe in his right hand, a bracelet of black bones was swinging freely round his wrist when he waved the axe in worship above his head. The gods resided in every tooth of point and blade. (Season of Adventure, p. 31-32)

This is not a piece of lurid writing, however, because we are seeing from Fola’s point of view, her senses have almost been overwhelmed by the strange sights and sounds and the mass hysteria around her and the frightening houngan is face to face with her. The compelling presence of the houngau completes the temporary confusion of Fola’s senses, and she is led into the tent where the gods seem to possess her.

The sensational use of an African ceremony in The White Witch of Rosehall is accompanied by a revulsion against what is presented as African paganism, and the fictional character’s revulsion is shared by the author. In Season of Adventure, the dark continent view is located in a character who is to be disburdened; the sensational aspects of the ceremony arc used as a corrosive force, mesmerising Fola into participating in the rites at the tonelle. Lamming does not try to present Fola’s actions as arising from anything more than fear, shock and a confusion of the senses. Fola docs not come to share the faith of the cultists. But when the girl begins to reflect on her experience later, she recognises that her fear and ignorance in the tonelle, are closely related to her revulsion from the peasant masses. From this point, she starts to free herself from shame, seeking desperately to add to the known “Fola”, the “other than” which her education and privileged upbringing have conspired to bury.

As the ceremony is one for the resurrection of the dead, it lends itself symbolically: the ‘dead’ Fola finds the opportunity to break our of her purgatory and fain a new future Expanding in her season of adventure, Fola sees the privileged families of the republic as forever locked in water. “decrepit skeletons near Federal Drive polluting the live air with their corpse breathing”. When she catches her¬self hesitating between the safety of denial and the shame of acknowledging her new friends at the Reserve, Fola guiltily accuses herself too, of being a corpse trapped in purgatory: “Like the dead soul that could not trespass beyond their recorded lives. she had cut herself off from her own future”. On the other hand, when Fola intervenes to save Chiki from arrest, she is seen as a dead coming to bear witness, as well as like a believer possessed by the gods:

The women watched Fola as though they had seen Guru’s soul recover in flesh and standin’ the tonelle, shouting what he knew about the diamonds which had disappeared again. Fola stood there, her eyes now closed, fist knotted like Aunt [arnc’s in her possession. They thought the girl was a corpse until the corporal disturbed her sleep {Season of Adventure, p. 274)

But while Lamming uses the cult and the cultists to image lost meanings, and to shock Fola into her season of adventure, the author deliberately refuses to take a sentimental view of the tonelle. At the end of the novel, the meeting place is destroyed by fire, and the houngan has lost command and self-command. The politician Baako, in looking forward, expresses a proper sociological view:

 He said he would ask the citizens of the Reserve and all like them to think again about their relation to the tonelle. He would not order them to change, but he would try to find a language which might explain that the magic of medical science was no less real than the previous magic of prayer. The difference was one of speed. Injections worked faster than a bribe for knowledge they could not guarantee. (Season of Aduenture, p. 365)

The “no less real than” hardly conceals a recognition by this authorially approved character that the practice of the cultists can also be seen as a symptom of social and economic frustration.

Season of Adventure is the most significant of the West Indian novels invoking Africa, and a major achievement, for several reasons: because it does not replace a denigrating excess by a romanticising one; because it embodies a corrective view without making this the novel’s raison d’etre; because it is so emphatically a West Indian novel invoking the African heritage not to make statements about Africa but to explore the troubled components of West Indian culture and nationhood; and because it can do all this without preventing us from seeing that Fola’s special circumstances, and by implication those of the West Indian, are only a manifestation, although a pressing one in the islands today, of every man’s need to take the past into account with humility, fearlessness and receptivity if the future is to be free and alive.

(1) Frantz Fanon The Wretched of the Earth (1965), p. 124

(2) The Wretched of The Earth, pp. 136-137.

(1) A ceremony described In The Pleasures of Exile (1960) pp. 9-10 would appear to be the basis of the ceremony In the novel: “In the republic of Haiti… a native religion Sometimes forces the official Law to negotiate with peasants who have retained a racial and historic desire to worship their original gods. We do not have to share their faith In order to see the universal significance of certain themes implicit In the particular ceremony of the Souls I witnessed four years ago in the suburbs of Port-au-Prince … The celebrants arc mainly relatives of the deceased who, ever since their death, have been locked in water. It is the duty of the Dead to return and offer on this momentous night, a full and honest report on their past relations with the living … It Is the duty of the Dead to speak, since their release from that purgatory of Water cannot be realized until they have fulfilled the contract which this ceremony symbolises. The Dead need to speak If they are going to enter that eternity which will be their last and permanent Future. The living demand to hear whether there is any need for forgiveness, for redemption … Different as they may be in their present state of existence, those alive and those now Dead – their ambitions point to a similar end. They are interested in their Future.

 

Kenneth Ramchand lectures in English at the University of the West Indies Mona. His book on The West Indian Novel will soon be Published by Faber.