Of Masks and Men
How to capture the sheer buzz of Trinidad Carnival in fictional form? How can the written word ever hope to recreate that heady mix of sensory stimuli, to make sense of something that, by its very nature, defies explanation?
Carnival is noise, crowds, adrenaline, alcohol, and exhaustion; its impact is one of sounds, smells, sights. Its roots lie in the irrational, in celebrating an ephemeral and ritual abolition of the status quo, a brief vision of another world. It is fantasy incarnate, encompassing extremes of beauty and the grotesque.
It takes a brave writer to have a go at putting Carnival on paper. Some have tried and produced little more than second-hand folklore. Others have explored with varying degrees of success the effect of the event on an individual psychology. Most foreign authors have seen the phenomenon as an act of liberation and a vital expression of cultural identity. But nobody comes close to Earl Lovelace’s classic novel of 1979 in presenting Carnival as an expression of and metaphor for Trinidad society, with all its tensions, complexities and creativity.
This is not to say that The Dragon Can’t Dance is an uncritical celebration of Trinidad’s marathon bacchanal. On the contrary, it takes a distinctly ambiguous look at the empty rhetoric of cultural cohesion and togetherness represented by the “all ah we is one” syndrome. Lovelace shows us that while Carnival may provide passion and meaning to lives that might otherwise lack both, it also — quite literally — masks unresolved issues of social status and personal relationships. Far from representing true liberation, Carnival is a short-lived escape from hardship and pain.
The rituals and roles of Carnival provide Lovelace with his novel’s structure and characters. Revolving around the inhabitants of Calvary Hill, a Port of Spain slum, it casts its protagonists into traditional Carnival archetypes: the queen, the calypsonian, the “bad-john”. Each is a performer, adopting a role in the collective event. But each is also a developed and intricate human character, and it is in the gap between the role and the real person that the novel explores the emptiness at the heart of Carnival.
Aldrick Prospect, for instance, lives for Carnival and the once-a-year opportunity to play the part of the dragon. Otherwise rootless and purposeless, his life takes on a brief meaning only through the elaborate costume he makes and wears. Aldrick’s existence is so determined by his Carnival role that the rest — emotional and social — is secondary. Likewise, the tough bad-john, Fisheye, can find a satisfactory sense of his own identity only in the ritual violence offered by street clashes between competing steelbands.
If Lovelace’s characters are shaped and fixed by the traditional Carnival roles they play, then Carnival itself is depicted as something that is changing. One of the most striking aspects of the novel is precisely its portrayal of a changing society, of a Trinidad moving from colonial status to independence, and of an evolving cultural world. Fisheye, the archetypal street-corner tough, whose incoherent aggression finds meaning in territorial punch-ups, is horrified at the gradual arrival of commercial sponsorship and other symptoms of respectability. Aldrick, too, finds that the old symbols of rebellion — stickfighters, jab jabs, subversive calypsos — have disappeared “among the fancy robbers and the fantasy presentations that were steadily entering Carnival; drowned amidst the satins and silks and the beads and feathers and rhinestones.”
The changing face of Carnival leaves Lovelace’s characters behind. Only Philo, the calypsonian whose phallic double entendres win him commercial success, moves with the times, leaving the slum for a comfortable suburban life in Diego Martin. Disillusioned, Aldrick abandons his dragon identity and joins Fisheye and other idlers in the futile political gesture of capturing two policemen at gunpoint in the name of the “People’s Liberation Army”. In this implicit reference to Trinidad’s Black Power uprising of 1970, Lovelace suggests that political posturing, as opposed to real social change, is little different from the antics of Carnival masqueraders. “Indeed,” concludes the narrator, as Aldrick et al languish in jail, “their efforts at rebellion was just a dragon dance,” threatening, but essentially an act.
The novel does not for a moment deny the overwhelming power and energy of Carnival. Lovelace describes the feeling of solidarity and belonging experienced by Aldrick on Carnival Monday morning:
And full to brimming with furious tears, Aldrick felt again the fierce love and hope that he had doubted in himself, felt again a sense of mission; felt that yes, there was a place here for him, that there was something to say yes to, and people before whom and on whose behalf he could dance the dragon.
But this mood of togetherness and communal identity lasts no more than 48 hours, and it is then that Aldrick realises, subconsciously or not, that his role-playing will never lead him to real fulfilment, in the shape of the desirable Carnival Princess, Sylvia. Released from prison, he later returns to the Hill and meets Sylvia again: “Now I know I ain’t a dragon . . . Funny, eh? Years. And now I know I is more than just to play a masquerade once a year for two days . . .”
We are left hoping that Aldrick and Sylvia will find happiness in a non-role-playing future, while Philo, the upwardly mobile calypsonian, discovers his own contentment by returning to the Hill and the bed of the aging Carnival Queen, Cleothilda. Even Fisheye renounces his old bad-john persona: “That is a old long time thing. That gone out with the biscuit drum and the three note boom.”
The Dragon Can’t Dance subtly hints that roles and masks are an impediment to, rather than a means towards, liberation, whether personal or political. On that level, the novel has much to say about society, the individual, and modern Trinidad. But despite its obvious political overtones, this is no exercise in didacticism. The book is suggestive, not explicit, and its real richness lies in its evocation of Port of Spain, its streets, its movement, its atmosphere. The narrative ranges over history, race, and Trinidad’s ethnic mix, interweaving the story of Pariag, the Indian country boy who moves to the city, into the tapestry of the Hill. He, like the other characters, will come to terms with his alienation, overcome the racism he encounters, and discover an authentic self.
As Carnival once again takes over the streets of Port of Spain, there is no better time to discover or rediscover this true classic of Caribbean literature. More than any other work of fiction, it looks lucidly into the very soul of the bacchanal, rendering with extraordinary power and finesse its beauty and its beastliness.