A madman’s rant

James Ferguson on The Lunatic by Anthony Winkler

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Of the 20 or so books that I’ve looked at in this column, not one, I realise, is comic. Rather the opposite, in fact, as most have dealt with sombre and sometimes tragic themes such as slavery, exile or the problematic nature of cultural identity. Even a novel like Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, an often funny account of the antics of Caribbean immigrants in 1950s London, is given a bitter aftertaste by its awareness of racism and disillusionment in the Promised Land.

The Caribbean is not normally regarded as a place of undue seriousness or innate melancholy. Its people do not tend towards excessive introspection, and laughter is perhaps more widespread than in, say, Scandinavia or other Northern climates. So it is curious that the rich literature produced by writers from the region tends not to be comic in tone and subject, strange that so little of the daily banter and verbal inventiveness to be heard in any village or street finds its way onto the printed page.

There are exceptions, of course: the early V. S. Naipaul, with his ironic but affectionate tales of Trinidad life; short story writers like Timothy Callender and Frank Collymore, both from Barbados; or patois poets such as Louise Bennett or John Agard. But, even so, it would be hard to point with confidence to more than a handful of comic classics from the Caribbean.

Of these, one is The Lunatic by Anthony Winkler. Winkler was born in Kingston, Jamaica, migrated to the United States in 1962, and still lives there, a full-time writer of novels and screenplays. In the 1980s and 1990s he published a series of novels about his native Jamaica, of which this one, which first appeared in 1987, is perhaps the best-loved.

The lunatic in question is one Aloysius, a harmless but extremely eccentric village character who ekes out a precarious living by doing odd jobs, and who lives in the woods. His madness is mostly a matter of language. He has a thousand names, for instance, random words that he has heard and likes the sound of. He also hears and speaks to the trees and bushes that are his only companions in the wilderness. These articulate specimens of greenery are mostly disapproving. They scold Aloysius mercilessly, and spread rumour and gossip, mostly concerning his unpredictable behaviour, throughout the countryside.

As in any comic novel, sex inevitably rears its ugly head. As a solitary madman, Aloysius gets precious little of it, and is reduced to forms of self-abuse that inflame the prudish indignation of the talking bushes. Everybody and everything, it seems, is obsessed with sex, not least the frustrated lunatic.

But this frustration comes to an end with the unexpected arrival of a human relationship, with the arrival of a large and libidinous German tourist called Inga Schmidt, who wanders into the madman’s life. Inga and Aloysius are soon an odd couple, living together in the bush, the cultural divide between them bridged by the meeting of what Jamaicans call “hood” and “pum-pum”.

Indeed, so sexually voracious is Inga  that poor Aloysius is rapidly exhausted. It is at this point that their idyll draws to a close as Inga recruits another man, a butcher  appropriately named Service, who completes an unlikely ménage-à-trois. All of this is naturally a source of scandal not just to the villagers, but even more so to the trees and bushes that only Aloysius can hear, shrieking their outrage.

Alas, Inga’s money soon dries up, and this unlikely threesome are faced with imminent starvation unless they can lay their hands on more cash. It is at this point that they decide to burgle the Great House that overlooks their woodland lair, and which belongs to the local white landowner, Busha McIntosh. McIntosh, representative of the island’s dwindling white upper class, is a sympathetic character. Irascible, prone to hypochondria and conscious of his own mortality, he is obsessed by the goat that roams the village cemetery, eating everything in its path. He, understandably enough, does not want his own grave to be eaten by a goat, and is keen to build a goat-proof mausoleum.

Needless to say, the burglary does not go according to plan (I shall refrain from revealing what happens), and Aloysius finds himself alone once more. Redemption of a sort materialises in the shape of the widow Dawkins, who takes Aloysius into her home and bed, on condition that he ignores the heckling coming from the trees and bushes that they pass on their country walks.

hat makes The Lunatic successful as comic fiction is not just its development of a bizarre situation, but equally its use of language. The chorus of vegetation that pursues the hen-pecked Aloysius with its shrill nagging provides a wonderful mix of obscenity and prudery, while the lunatic’s verbal incontinence is matched for strangeness by Inga’s mix of Teutonic and Jamaican dialects. Even Aloysius ends up speaking with a German accent amid this cacophony of talking trees and babbling bushes.

And such trees, it seems, can fall prey to jealousy:

“Aloysius!” the tree cried. “Me and you keep company. What happen? You don’t like me company anymore?”

“But you is a tree!” Aloysius cried. “You good company, but you is a tree.”

“Is because me don’t have pum-pum,” the tree said sullenly.

“No, man!” Aloysius replied.

“Is true!” the tree screamed spitefully. “All dem night and day dat you and me hold discussion everything all right. But now pum-pum come ‘pon the scene, everything change up. Now everything is pum-pum, pum-pum, pum-pum. Aloysius, remember what de parson dem say ‘bout pum-pum?”

Yet the novel is about more than “pum-pum” and the lunacy inherent in language itself. There is a sharp edge of social satire, a critical dig at attitudes and prejudices. The bushes that bewail Aloysius’s apparent depravity sound very much like those people whose moral indignation is hard to distinguish from old-fashioned prurience. At the same time, those who condemn Aloysius as a lunatic are often stupider and more deluded than the madman himself. And tourism, the phenomenon that brings Aloysius and Inga together in the first place, is not spared its own cynical treatment, as the narrator unflatteringly compares three species of Jamaica-loving holiday- makers: English, American and German.

This may not be a politically correct piece of fiction. Its characters come perilously close to stereotypes, its earthiness and occasional vulgarity may not appeal to more sensitive readers. Still, it remains a very funny novel, one that proves that the Caribbean can indeed produce comic fiction, even from the United States. n

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