Uncategorised THE END OF INNOCENCE James Ferguson on The Humming-Bird Tree, Ian McDonald’s novel about growing up in pre-Independence Trinidad By James Ferguson | Issue 71 (January/February 2005) 0 Comments There are some people, we are led to believe, who simply can’t distinguish between fact and fiction. Or, if you prefer, between what real people say and do, and the actions and words of invented characters. I’ve heard there are TV viewers who religiously follow developments in soap operas as if watching the day-to-day business of real people, rather than actors. Some readers apparently write abusive letters to authors, more or less accusing them of murdering or otherwise abusing their characters. Perhaps there is only a thin line between reality and the world of the imagination, but it’s one we mostly manage to negotiate. So I was surprised to read on a website from Guyana a rather bitter attack against the author Ian McDonald, who was accused of pandering to racist and anti-Indian prejudice in his novel The Humming-Bird Tree. First published in 1969, it is written in the first person — which may explain the confusion — but is nonetheless unmistakably a novel. The main protagonist and narrator, like McDonald once was, is a boy of 11, white, and born in Trinidad. This might lead us to suppose that the book is, in part at least, autobiographical in inspiration, but it hardly means it is an autobiography. Nor does it mean that the ideas expressed by the narrator are in any way those of the author. To equate the first-person fictional voice with an autobiographical memoir would lead us all into a great deal of trouble; should we accuse Albert Camus of not loving his mother because he wrote L’Etranger? And what to make of authors like Joseph Conrad or Salman Rushdie, who deal with questions of enormous moral ambiguity through the “I” form? But the charge of depicting the Indian-descended people of Trinidad as “crude and contemptible” is a serious one, and it is worth looking at what McDonald is trying to do in this much-acclaimed novel, recently republished by Macmillan Caribbean. It deals with Alan, the son of well-to-do white Trinidadians, who is growing up some time in the 1950s. His is a privileged background, and he is all too aware of it. In fact, one might say he is intensely embarrassed (as only an 11-year-old boy can be) by his social status, and much else. There is a large, even painful, degree of consciousness about Trinidad’s social and colour divides, and about how a rich white kid fits into this complicated society. MORE LIKE THIS: IF IT FEELS GOOD, EAT IT This self-consciousness is made all the more acute by Alan’s relationship with two children from a nearby Indo-Trinidadian village, who are employed as domestic helps by his parents. Kaiser, the boy, is tough, brave, worldly, and slightly unpredictable, and Alan looks up to him as something of a hero. To make matters more difficult, he is also beginning to fall for Kaiser’s sister, Jaillin, whom he sees as both attractive and unobtainable. Terrified of looking foolish in front of Kaiser, but desperate to make a good impression on Jaillin, Alan is caught in an uncomfortable pre-pubescent quandary. The three children spend time together, exploring the countryside and getting up to no good, and this allows McDonald to explore the tensions and affections that develop between them. Alan, for his part, finds their company much more exciting than that of the other upper-class white children he knows at school. What they think of him, at this point, is less clear, but what is evident is that Alan’s parents disapprove of the friendship. In this sense, they are not depicted as particularly prejudiced — indeed, they appear comparatively enlightened — but merely represent the conventional social attitudes of the day. Alan’s exposure to this other, non-white world involves a series of incidents and adventures — he goes to the village, attends a cockfight, grows closer to his friends. But at the same time he becomes increasingly aware of the social gulf that divides him from them. Part of this awareness comes from his exposure to the poverty and squalor of the cane-cutters’ village, but part also from a growing understanding of his own social class and the expectations placed upon him by his parents. The divisions are cultural and religious, but also linguistic; while Alan speaks a “correct” version of English, Kaiser and Jaillin express themselves in the Creole-influenced language of the countryside. The parallel worlds inhabited by the children hence become a metaphor for the stark divisions, here expressed in terms of light and darkness, of 1950s Trinidad: The sun cast hard shadows against bright savannas in that land; there were no grey declensions in tone. Knowing Kaiser and Jaillin, I lived the contrasts more intensely than others of my high-class world. This consciousness of difference, made more painful by an unrequited adolescent passion, is a far cry from the banality of racism. In essence, the narrator is caught between two mutually incomprehensible social orders, attracted to the vitality of Kaiser and Jaillin, but nevertheless a product of his own background. The relationship is finally ended when Alan’s father, alarmed at what he views as an inappropriate intimacy between his son and Jaillin (although this intimacy remains chaste), fires both Kaiser and Jaillin. The three children go their separate ways, and in this sense Alan’s childhood comes to an end. MORE LIKE THIS: HARRY PLAYS MASWhen Alan meets Kaiser and Jaillin again some years later, it is as an educated member of the white elite, but also as an individual still powerfully aware of competing pulls on his loyalties and affections. Kaiser, we see, has become a money-obsessed clerk, turning his back on traditional village life, while Jaillin’s original elusive pride has hardened into a sour dislike of men in general, and white men in particular. It is only at the very end of the novel that she can confide to Alan how much she was in love with him during that childhood period. But by then, of course, it is all too late. The relationship with Jaillin is like an emblem of Alan’s lost childhood, in which regret and yearning are mixed with memories of happiness and pain. On the verge of leaving Trinidad for a university education at Cambridge, Alan, now more than ever, feels the dual nature of his attachment to Trinidad. On the one hand, as part of the elite, he is conscious of the responsibilities and privileges that are his by birth. On the other, this sense of social place “was a strain, and conflicted with my sense of a West Indies growing in a new world and way of life.” What Kaiser and Jaillin stand for, he finally understands, is “an emerging, different, mixed, mutual love”, part, but not all, of his adult identity. Far from being crude and contemptible, Kaiser and Jaillin are ultimately complex and highly sympathetic characters. They play a central role in an evocative and deeply humane novel that is not about making cultural or racial judgments or confusing difference with inequality. Rather, The Humming-Bird Tree is a book that deals in the most sensitive way with the joys and pains of growing up, and growing up in a fractured society. This is not racism, but an honest recognition of the contradictions and conflicts within a colonial (and, to a lesser degree, post-colonial) order. And, above all, it is a work of fiction.