Friday, February 15, 2008

The Hangmaiden’s Tale

Yet another plantation novel has come among us. David Dabydeen’s indentured labourers in The Counting House (2005) must make room for Karen King-Aribisala’s emancipated slaves in The Hangman’s Game (2007) in what would seem to be an academic penchant – delving into libraries, researching our history and reanimating incidents and people through fiction.

King-Aribisala (“All my writings are dedicated to God.”) was born in Guyana and is now an English Professor at the University of Lagos.

The journey motif is integral to this kind of novel. This time in place of the middle passage or the kali-pani or the overcrowded barracoons, an airline flight takes the central character from Guyana to Murtala Muhammed Airport in Lagos. Her mission is simple: “I want to find myself”. More persuasively, she wants “to understand the reasons behind ancestral slavery”.

In this day and age you’d think there’d be abundant literature in libraries to satisfy this wanting. Unhappily Guyana at that point in its development seemed lacking in secondary sources. The central character had read a Guyanese-published history of the Reverend John Smith and the Demerara slaves (“That had made me mad. It was so unjust.”) A study grant took her to England but uncovered little of significance. A trans-Atlantic journey to the source nation seemed the only solution.

The moment in history that fascinates the narrator is the last slave insurrection in Demerara in 1823. “Whites were murdered in their beds and as they walked. Slaves were executed. Blood ran. The militia was brought in to restore order and a curfew imposed on the colony. But it was the last slave revolt. The emancipation of slaves became a reality. I am that reality.” So much action packed into one historical moment was apparently too rich for the narrator’s blood. And (post-Burnham) Georgetown as a defining context was doing little to expand her reality.

To make the central character more interesting King-Aribisala converts her into a writer. In the writer’s head there’s a cast of characters; her subject is the 1823 slave revolt; a title, “Three Blind Mice”, is set. But the narrator/writer can’t get the book started. The trip to Nigeria, she hopes, would unblock energies, inject lofty aim in the narrative and release the characters.

After hurried pre-ambling pages The Hangman’s Game takes off and elevates itself to higher ambition: it will be “a drama of Nigeria/ Demerara histories”. Characters from the Guyana past – a Governor Murrain, a runaway named Quamina, a fat slave woman named Auntie Lou, a Captain Mc Turkeyen, assorted “buckras” – take to the stage in 1823, even as our narrator/writer gets acquainted with Nigeria (by pure coincidence going through a “brutal” military coup) in the 1990s.

The narratives are told in alternating chapters. At some point they’re expected to merge into one sulphurous glow of a long traveled for “fusion”. But King-Aribisala’s prose has a first-time earnest grind about it. David Dabydeen working in similar plantation territory revitalized his Indian labourers in orhnis of mellifluous sentences. King-Aribisala displays neither his poetic gifts, nor his flair for designing scenes that shimmer within enriched contextual commentary.

In The Hangman’s Game Quamina (“He had been a good husband. Unlike so many he did not sleep with other women. His real woman was the desire for freedom.”) runs away for the second time only to be captured in this overwrought line: “Quamina gasped at the length-stretchedness of the land, the openness of the sky.” You imagine him swearing and waving his machete in fury at the author for ensnaring him that way.

He is rewarded later with sentences of clean, cinematic slave action: “He turned around just in time to see a white youth drawing a sword. He threw his machete aiming at the man’s chest and the youth fell with the blade still in him. He cried for mercy and Quamina extracted his weapon and stood watching the blood spread over the man’s shirt.”

Other characters on the Demerara side struggle to intrigue us anew. You hear them speak a kind of functional playhouse talk; you see them in hitherto unrecorded positions (Governor Murrain, assisted by the fat slave woman, Auntie Lou, strips and relieves himself in a posy – “a chamber pot made of fine white porcelain” – before going to bed). King-Aribisala has evidently done her research and you turn the page thinking, yeah, she’s probably got that right; colonizer and colonized probably said this or did that to each other.

Contemporary Nigeria suffers from the author’s peripheral insight & experience. Characters and situations seem developed from a sojourner’s notebook. There’s scene at a graveside where a friend (“a traitor to the Republic”) is buried under the menacing eye of a Nigerian soldier. And several scenes in a hospital where the narrator is having a baby and holds “searching”, sometimes irritable conversations with a Nigerian nurse.

At one point, amazingly for new arrivals, the narrator’s husband garners an invitation to a dinner party at Nigeria’s Presidential mansion (“I must do my hair and nails and my make-up,” the pregnant-housewife narrator says. “I haven’t anything to wear except my one and only going-out dress, black and voluminous. I shall look like a huge black tome.”)

Midway through the novel spasms of disarray, which could easily be mistaken for “complexity”, threaten to undermine its structure. Errant musings, fragments, sketchy scenes & conversations, one white page with seven words (“Turn the page. / I turn the page.”) and a smug evangelic lyricism creep into the narratives. Not sure where to turn in a Nigeria her characters don’t fully inhabit King-Aribisala throws a spotlight on political tensions in the city.

Her narrator is invited again to a President Mansion dinner; there she listens to a speech and squirms in moral discomfort. Her husband who is involved in a Christian Outreach program is approached by Nigerian coup plotters. There are roadblocks and rifle-poking soldiers and crowds converging on Tafewa Balewa Square. Edgy but safe on the outskirts, and attentive to news reports, the narrator/author struggles to stay focused on her fictive project as players from the Demerara drama begin to insinuate themselves into the Nigeria theatre.

There may be some extractable meaning in all this – that intended “fusion of histories”, like a bridge over troubled nations – but King-Aribisala’s prose, trodding hoof by pained hoof, squishes too much knowable sentiment out of all the upturned humanity. Holding on to frayed narrative ends (or wondering what eventually happens to our fortunate travelers) could tax the patience of some readers.

For the Guyanese reader enchanted with fictions of cultural separation & spiritual hungers, or just wanting to escape a Demerara of untouchable new governors and anarchic roadways, A Hangman’s Game might serve well their getaway needs. (On the back cover author George Lamming considers this novel “a superb work of fiction kept alive page after page by this writer’s subtle and sophisticated historical imagination”.)

Ms Karen King-Aribisala, it appears, has written a second book, mixing poetry and prose, in which she “transposes” Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” to modern-day Nigeria. Not many Demerara readers may have heard of it. Her fascination with great authors and great moments in history seems far and away, beyond any residual interest she might have in Guyana. And that’s freedom for you, comrades.

Gather ye rosebuds.

Book Reviewed: The Hangman’s Game: Karen King-Aribisala: Peepal Tree Press: England, 2007, 191 pages. (w.w.)