facebook pixel

Caribbean Beat Magazine

Tragedy in the Dungle

James Ferguson on Orlando Patterson’s Jamaican classic The Children of Sisyphus

  • -

When a hefty dose of existential angst collides with the dangerous ghettos of inner-city West Kingston, it can mean only one thing: trouble. And trouble, if not full-blooded tragedy, runs through this classic portrayal of poverty and Rastafari in colonial Jamaica.

Admittedly, I may be taking liberties with the definition of tragedy. Tragedy, I was taught at school, presupposes a fall. The tragic hero or heroine must lose whatever is dearest to him or her, must come down in the world. Tragic heroes should be kings, queens, emperors. Here, it is true, there is nowhere to fall to, nothing to lose, for the novel is set in the most desperate slum in Kingston, the notorious Dungle.

Orlando Patterson’s cast of characters inhabit a place that is literally Kingston’s rubbish dump, an area whose name betrays its foul nature. Feeding from rotting garbage, sheltering in tumble-down hovels, theirs is a nightmare world of deprivation and cruelty. From here, there is nowhere lower to sink.

But tragedy also means inevitability, the grinding wheels of fate or divine vengeance. Such inevitability lies at the dark heart of this book, for if its characters foolishly believe they can escape the misery of life in the Dungle, they are cruelly disabused. Whatever the malignant forces at play, the message is bleakly clear: there is no hope of redemption or relief.

The Children of Sisyphus (1964) is very much a product of its time. In the early 1960s, Parisian existentialism was in vogue in intellectual circles in Europe and North America, and even if students hadn’t read Sartre’s gruelling Being or Nothingness, they could at least affect a faddish posture of metaphysical malaise.

More approachable was Albert Camus, whose Myth of Sisyphus popularised the concept of the absurd hero, the individual adrift in a world without meaning. Sisyphus, the mythic figure punished by the gods, is forced to roll a huge rock up a hill. Whenever it is close to the top, it falls back, and Sisyphus must start again. It is a telling image for an existence of endless and meaningless toil, the lot of homo absurdus. The only answer, Camus concluded, was to continue pushing the rock, for the struggle against meaninglessness provided meaning of a sort.

The young Orlando Patterson, it seems, came across this treatise in intellectual pessimism in the university library while studying sociology in Jamaica. He says he read it “over and over, almost like a Bible”. If its theme of existential emptiness appealed to him as an individual, he also recognised that it had a wider, potentially imaginative, applicability. The dehumanising poverty of the Kingston ghettos offered a concrete instance of life without meaning, of relentless oppression. Sisyphus, he realised, could live in a shanty town.

Patterson’s other academic interest concerned the rise of the Rastafarian cult in urban Jamaica. Since the 1930s and the peak of Marcus Garvey’s influence in Kingston, this religious movement had attracted growing numbers of adherents, convinced that the advent of Emperor Haile Selassie in Ethiopia spelt the realisation of a biblical prophecy. “Babylon”, the forces of the white, colonial order, would collapse, and the children of Zion, imprisoned for centuries by slavery and exploitation, would return to their homeland and their living god. As a student sociologist, Patterson explored this powerful phenomenon, seeking to understand why the dispossessed of a Caribbean island should seek salvation in a distant African ruler.

The Dungle and Rastafari are both based on historical reality. The slum itself was eventually bulldozed and replaced by the more permanent concrete sprawl of Tivoli Gardens, while the cult, with its paraphernalia of dreadlocks, biblical revelation and ganja, remains a living force. But Patterson invested both with a symbolic, almost epic significance, as he sought to depict a Sisyphean world of unforgiving hardship and pointless aspiration.

The novel revolves around two individual female characters, Dinah and Mary, and a less sharply delineated group of male rastas. Both women are prostitutes, using what they can to survive in the savage world of the Dungle. Both dream of escape, Dinah by attaching herself to a man, Mary by encouraging her promising daughter to find an education and a white husband. Both are to be cruelly disillusioned, for Dinah’s relationship with a dubiously charismatic revivalist preacher ends in disaster, while Mary’s daughter is forcibly removed from the slum by the authorities for adoption.

The rastas, too, are to face a harsh awakening, for they believed that Selassie had sent a ship from Ethiopia to pick them up and return them to their promised land. No such arrangement, it transpired, had been made, and the rasta leader, Brother Solomon, resorts to his own final solution by hanging himself. This general situation, again, is drawn from an actual contemporary event, when rumours of imminent repatriation brought thousands of followers to a fruitless wait at Kingston’s docks.

The truth of the matter lies in the fatalism expressed by the ancient crone, Rachael, who in the best tragic fashion plays a choric role. She predicts that all who try to escape from the Dungle are doomed to failure, are pulled back into its squalor by the will of a cruel God: “Ah tell oonoo all de while. Is no use. No use. Massah God know why ’im put we down ya. ’Im mean say is ya we mus’ stay. Wha’ de use yu try an’ run?”

If hope is an illusion, concludes the rasta elder Solomon, then it is better not to break that illusion, to enjoy the fleeting moment of false happiness. He points at the waiting rastas: “Look! They have before them one hour, two hours, five, no twelve, before the ship come. Twelve hours of unreality. Twelve hours of happiness. Who else but the gods could enjoy such happiness? For the moment they are conquerors. For the moment they have cheated the dreary circle. And it’s only the moment that counts.”

If this sounds like a sombre novel, then it is. But it is neither hard work nor is it ultimately depressing, for Patterson’s compassion for his characters produces an irrepressible humanity that defies complete pessimism. It is certainly a flawed book, “very much a young man’s book,” as the academic Victor Chang charitably puts it, but its stylistic faults and occasional existential overload are not enough to blunt its power.

Orlando Patterson has since pursued an academic career in the US and is a well-known commentator on race and society. His early novel, meanwhile, remains an ambitious landmark in Caribbean writing, bringing together tough social realism with a deep sense of the tragic. The lost souls of the Dungle may not be tragic heroes in the classical meaning of the term, but their hopeless struggle with an arbitrary and unpitying universe suggests that poverty and tragedy are far from incompatible.

James Ferguson is the author of The Traveller’s Literary Companion to the Caribbean (In Print/Passport Books/Ian Randle Publishers)