The Coral Rooms

Written by Anthony Kellman for Studies in the Literary Imagination on

I grew up on an island that glides and undulates in fairly even meter, a landscape regularly blocked with stanzaic cane-fields except on the tourist-laden southern and western coasts where hotels, concrete exclamation points, shout: Paradise! Paradise! In my teens, writing songs and verse, I wandered over the sand and along the ribboning coasts, wondering what images I could garner from this hearth that had not been used before or how to present the old images in a fresh and original way. In Guyana, Wilson Harris had his mysterious rivers and waterfalls, hinterlands and rain-forests: external features on the landscape, irresistible, laden with dramatic possibilities. And to some lesser degree, the same applied to writers from Jamaica, St. Lucia, Dominica, where resided mountains, sulphur lakes, volcanoes: explosive metaphorical sources on the surface of the islands. I could not help feel some envy, of course, Barbados had its scintillating flora and coruscating beaches, but the other islands had those in addition to other dramatic moments in the landscape totally absent from the lace of the Barbadian topography.

In Barbados, George Lamming had explored, as accurately and as potently as only a good realist novelist can, the surface realism of the island and its beaches. V. S. Naipaul had done the same with respect to Trinidad and Tobago. As a New Generation writer, what original insights could I bring to bear on the literature of my island? I was to discover that my imagistic canvas had been there from childhood but had been locked within the recesses of my memory, visibly inactive until two events, two coincidences, occurred. At a surface level, these events were steeped in light-heartedness and social play and had no profundities bearing on the act of writing. They were, however, to have a radical effect on my imaginative endeavors.

The first coincidence took place around 1980 on my first visit to the Harrison’s Cave, an extraordinarily beautiful cave rediscovered by the Danish speleologist Ole Sorrenson in 1970 and now a major tourist attraction. It was indeed a revolutionary experience. Much of the dramatic imagery I intuitively sought was contained within the belly of the island, the throat and the intestines of the island, the veins of the island, the vagina of the island: underground rivers and waterfalls, rain-forests of stalactites and stalagmites continuously drenched in cave showers, streamy echoes of prehistory - all there. This visit to Harrison’s Cave unlocked my pent-up memories that had been begging for expression and transported me back to my childhood in Grazettes when, during the long summer holidays, all the boys would engage in exploring the mysterious cave at the foot of Whitehall Hill. Quivering with excitement, I dug up all my old high school poetical and fictional experiments to (re)discover that at age eighteen I had attempted a very ambitious (though aborted) fictional autobiography. The tattered manuscript began: 'Exploring the cave at Whitehall, along with seabathing, was the chief summer activity of my friends and I.'

The ensuing cave scene, an interior image, was to become the intuitive basis for a series of poems which appear in Watercourse (1990) and a basis for my novel The Coral Rooms (1992). I never completed that teenage effort, but now I was beginning to realize that I had before me, within my grasp, an exciting language field to explore, an extraordinary canvas of primordial imagery to use as a vehicle for the exploration of consciousness and of the world with which I interacted.

The second event occurred in 1982 after the publication of my poetry collection, In Depths of Burning Light. The event was really less of a coincidence and more perhaps of an intuitive and inevitable development emerging from an imagistic field in which I was already immersed: the Caribbean Sea. In one section, 'Around the Reef', I use different tropical fish as metaphors for various aspects of humanity. My research for this was conducted by reading all I could about the various fishes: Lane snapper, goby, lion fish, spotted moray eel, sprat. I studied their natures, their behavorial patterns governed by environment and by survival needs. Not long after the book appeared, a female friend and I, out of a sheer sense of adventure, decided to become certified scuba divers. And this was the second staggering event. Here now I was able to dive one hundred feet under the surface glitter of the Barbadian seascape and meet these aquatic personae face to face, touch them, let them touch me (excepting the lion fish or deadly moray eel, which I kept well away from).

I had rediscovered another imagistic field, all subterranean, all interior. Kamau Brathwaite, speaking for most Caribbean writers, once lamented what he perceived to be a real artistic hindrance for the island author:

'[M]ost of us, coming from islands where there was no evident lost civilization - where, in fact, there was an ""absence of ruins,"" faced a real artistic difficulty in our search for origins [because] the seed and root of our concern had little material soil to nourish it. '

With my imagistic discoveries, the artistic chains implied in Brathwaite’s statement fell clanging to the floor. How does any of this bear on The Coral Rooms? And how does an interior image function in revisionary capacity? First, it must be pointed out that any interior image ought to be rooted in outer realism. The staggering undersea activity around the Barbados reefs has the surface realism of jet-skiers, windsurfers, and fun-loving beachgoers juxtaposed on it. Perhaps some school children are splashing each other with water. Perhaps someone is drowning. Similarly, the shattering underground activity in the island’s caves has the surface realism of men, women and children living their lives, going to work, to school, to church, quarrelling, making love, dying, all juxtaposed over it. So there is that coexistence of dual realities, inner and outer. Until now, no Barbadian writer had trespassed on this inner terrain. My innovation in The Coral Rooms is to enable us to witness the psychological breakdown of a man trapped by corrupt material interests, juxtaposed on a subterranean, protean reality of psychological rupture. I endeavor to depict a potential gateway to wholeness, a dream/cave myth that revises the foundations of history and thus offers a viable route back to an authentic self. Previously, Wilson Harris’s best works, The Guyana Quartet and Carnival, touched on similar notions which unhappily self-consume in much of his work because of his almost total abandonment of a realism with which a reader may connect. The result is too much textual wrestling demanded of the reader. In spite of this stylistic hurdle, Harris remains the most inventive and visionary of first-generation English-speaking Caribbean authors.
In The Coral Rooms, the inner/outer poles of reality are apparent when the main protagonist, Percival Veer, in the throes of a nervous breakdown caused by overwork and a terrifying encounter with a former colleague whom he had professionally destroyed, is prompted by his wife to take a day off work. It is just after Easter, and Percy is lying on the beach:

'His orange-colored swim suit stood out against the sand like a distress signal. Yards away, where the sand and earth embraced, a life-guard station, the same color as his suit, stood unmanned. He was lying flat on a dreaming stomach. Near to his right, four crab holes punctuated the sand.

Four boys move toward what resembles a gaping mouth or giant vagina. He is the youngest, about seven. Inside the huge dark mouth they each light bottle-lamps and pass through the throat of the cave with a sense of foreboding. Suddenly, there is a desperate noise, a scramble, and one of his friends, Tommy, screams and disappears. The other three gather at the edge of the three-foot drop and see Tommy scrambling to his feet. ""I all right,"" he rasps. ""Get down in here and gimme a light. My lamp out-out."" One by one they each lower themselves: miniature mountain-climbers in the heat of the half-dark. Looking up, they see that the light from the mouth of the cave is gone from view and, wet with excitement, they lumber on in their daddies black yard boots and their patchy clothes, carrying the lamps close to their heads so that the bats, demented by the glare, would not strike them in the face. A mile inside and crawling on their stomachs through muddy water, they ease through a low passage and the Great Hall opens up like a womb before them. Freshwater springs run over its sides making them shine like crystal. Waterfalls cascade on two sides and dramatic rock formations, suspended giant limbs, are everywhere. Hundreds of tiny needles gather like living things.
He suddenly struggled to his feet, arms flaying like a drowning man’s. Looking down, he realized the tide had risen and a wave had splashed over his sleeping feet' (21-22)

Here, on the one hand, the protagonist is attempting to relax on a beach; on the other, he is beginning a psychological journey that later will prove redemptive. He is a fractured image, by memory and dream a fusion of the past, the present, and the future. The vision of the dream-cave is one in which the actual cave of his youth has been transformed. Inherent in the dream-catalyst (the nervous breakdown) is the seed of metamorphosis and renewal.

At this stage, his wife Materia represents the given reality, the outer reality. Later, however, she too will be shown to contain the character of the dream-cave. As the story continues, she experiences difficulty in coping with the change that has befallen her husband. Whereas Percy’s burden is personal, it is also an historical burden. In the Caribbean, the fragmentation and fracturing that took place as a result of the cultural clash between Europe and Africa produced colonialism. With independence coming to several of the islands in the 1960s, there developed a belief that the Caribbean persona, having endured the hostilities of colonialism, was well-placed to build or revise a new world free of the catastrophic mistakes of the so-called First World (wars, environmental destruction, mayhem, and so on). But this ideal was not fully realized. In several places, an era of neo-colonialism dashed all hopes for regional integration and any idea of the region’s ever becoming a model of compassion for the rest of the world. One thinks of the slayings in Trinidad by Abdul Malik, the oppressive government of Forbes Burnham in Guyana (a government that permitted Jonestown to happen); the 1983 murder of Grenadian Prime Minister Maurice Bishop by terrorists in his government; and, in 1990, the attempted coup led by Abu Bakr in Trinidad.

Percival Veer is an embodiment of a neo-colonialism which breaks him down just as colonialism scattered and shattered Africans in the New World for four hundred years:

'His body had become some curious duct releasing the waste his soul’s island had accumulated ever since its independence from Great Britain in the sixties when the dead-hand of neo-colonialism had moved swiftly through the region, burying the hopeful spirit of self-determination under a dunghill of enormous greed poxed with arrogance and pride. His sacrificial body contained all the fat black-bellied heads of corporations, political animals, newspaper publishers, lawyers, all scrambling for a piece of the earth to plant a flag in the name of the king of the I. The I was lord and master. Coups. Drug trafficking. Pornography. Socialist jargon. All leading to one end: The I and the I and the I.' (92)

Percy’s realization here is one of self-implication, but it is also one of self-sacrifice. He is now aware of the national ramifications of contemporary corruption and realizes that the collective greed started with individuals like himself. Also, for him to bear the burden of a nation of corruption is for him to become a psychic sacrifice, psychic scapegoat, potential conduit of purgation. Thus, the ground of compassion may be occupied when individuals recognize the nature of moral collapse and determine to rebuild their lives:

'Percy had always thought that this passage through the cave was in part about proving himself, discovering whether he had the faith to stand on his own two feet, faith to endure in the shadow of death. He had seen visions in the light thrown by his helmet lamp in the cave. What was inside him? Could he find illumination there? There was only one way to find out. He turned off his helmet lamp and fumbled on the ridge, through the layering darkness, his hands his only guides. True death, he thought, was this: complete obliteration, the black of the nothing. Save for the bumpy touch of the dark earth under his feet and the icy wall-faces under his hands, he would have had the living experience of death. But the stillness here, the compulsion to listen and see inside, was beautiful, and he felt welling up inside him an intensified compassion for the Amerindian and the slave, a compassion which the darkness was forcing him to see, to hold and be held by, the inescapable self, true as sunlight, pure as cave springs. It was as if he was moulting a restrictive skin, shedding scales from his eyes. Now he was seeing more clearly (in this pitch dark) than ever before in his life, as if he was growing new antennae of sensitivity, new antennae of freedom.' (91)

Here, Percy’s revelations spread out from the merely personal and national to enfold pre-history as well. He travels backward in psychical time in order to retrieve and revise the historical lost. Thus, he can be empathetic not only to his immediate slave ancestry but to that of the Amerindians as well. Even if we overlook the fact that in places like Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana there has been much miscegenation of East Indian and black races, Percy exhibits true miscegenation of spirit by recognizing the bonds of historical suffering which unify the Amerindian and the slave. Whether genetic or psychic, they are part and parcel of who he is, 'the escapable self.'

But awareness without action can be just as ineffectual as no awareness at all. As Percy’s internal breakdown forces him to look inside himself, to interior imagery, for answers, he obeys strange new voices within, as outlandish, crazy, and ridiculous as they may appear to the external world. His redemption becomes possible because he thereby responds. In an earlier scene, when he tells Materia about his recurring dream, we witness his determined resolution to act: 'I have to find the cave… I never asked to be chosen, Materia. And, yesterday, I kept hearing the windy voice . . . the windy voice keep calling: ""Come home. Come home-""' (29). This call is a call to the harbor of self-revision away from which Percy, over the years of diseased ambition, has drifted. When he reaches a point in the cave and attempts to reach the other side by diving through water some sixty feet deep and starts to drown, it is at this point that the truest, purest vision is released. This vision (at near-death) is wholly transforming. Dream is memory, of actual or figurative interior flights and explorations, in which one may experience the pure element of freedom:

'He entered into the dark of the dream and heard again its streamy laughter. The black was not black. He had been here on the inward journey, so he could see the glitter of stalactite and stalagmite, the cascading hairs of each waterfall, the petroglyphic crystal wonder, the towering rock silos, the scintillating conical formations. Black had to do with the color of one’s skin, perhaps, but not with ignorance, not unenlightenment. Outside, where he lived, was sheeted with every light and echo of light, but it was out there that he had been most blind. His new antennae sensed the pure element he was in and his hands coiled outward to scoop up the water of darkness and splash it all over his invisible body. He felt like crying and laughing, all at once. The tiger of darkness had attacked him, tearing away every last residue of pride, bringing him finally to his knees so that he could receive the total quality and dimension of blackness, blackness which was brighter than any sun or moon.' (92-93)

This is Percy’s baptism, a submersion by water and by the spirit. The tiger here is an image of spiritual rebirth, a type of Christ that rends man’s corrupt nature apart so that he may be reconstructed.

Further, the cave as interior image is, for Percy, a simultaneous death-wish or escape from a stultifying existence choked with materialism; hence, a survival. This possibility is seen in the synthesis between himself and the old man, Cane Arrow, who led him to the cave. The Maroons, or run-away slaves in Jamaica, had escaped the oppression of slavery by fleeing into Jamaica’s hills and forests and living off the land. Percy’s actual hunt to find a cave, giving up his secure and prestigious job as a PR executive, may seem like a cop-out, but in a very real sense, he is fleeing the neo-colonialism (of which he had been an active champion) in order to rediscover a purer element of existence. If and when he returns to his past life, it will be as a shaman, pure and true. Cane Arrow himself is a victim of neo-colonialism, a system which Percy symbolizes before his transformation. Cane Arrow notes that picking fruits during his youth on the Farm Labor Program in Florida was '[s]lavery and Panama all over again' (88). Ironically, dominator and dominated are drawn together because they need each other. And this alliance proves extraordinarily humbling for Percy:

'[Percy] was getting attached to Cane Arrow, and it was this intimacy, this sudden familiarity which both of them felt now, that elbowed a silence between them. Their attachment felt real, but Percy knew that, like faith, its substance was things unseen. In a rational sense their bond was too sudden and substanceless, and one part of him wanted to hold back to a safe shore from where he could control all distances and space. But another part of him sensed that faith was life’s intimate dressing and crown. He would make himself open and he would learn.' (77)

And what has he learnt? He has learnt genuine humility, genuine compassion. Just as he had discovered the miscegenation of spirit between Amerindian and slave, he recognizes that dominators and dominated are parts of each other and that, through genuine compassion, the arbitration of categories (the arbitration of classes) can be vanquished and man’s historical condition revised.
One witnesses also Cane Arrow’s curious attempts at addressing this problem of socio-economic arbitration and imbalance. Cane Arrow can be seen as a modern-day Maroon or, if you will, a neo-Maroon. He lives off the vegetables he has planted around the cave, and he sleeps in the mouth of the cave on strips of hardboard. He doesn’t own the land but feels entitled to living off of it because of the injustices he has suffered. In him rests the seed of rebellion.

Percy’s transformation, his capacity for revision, ironically has a rippling effect. Cane Arrow, the neo-Maroon, now needs Percy, the neo-colonial. He is transformed by the sensation of Percy’s vision. He sits by the mouth of the lengthy water passage through which Percy attempts to dive, wondering whether or not his younger friend is alive or dead:

'Helping Percy had brought a good feeling, as if he had achieved something enduring in life at last, as if life was not, after all, without some purpose, had not wholly cheated him. He crawled across whole segments of cave-rock which made the younger man balk and seek an easier passage through the cooling pools. It was as if he, Cane Arrow, was the bearer of some complex knowledge he had been able to make to look easy. He was chief bottle-lamp and guide. He was helping to make possible some baffling journey which he sensed was very important, that stretched beyond the confines of the cave, beyond his own meagre intellect, deep in ages past and still to come. These feelings now seemed to quicken him. He was old and young, limping and whole, seized by the specter of eternity dancing in the bottle lamp flame. He suddenly stood up, an instant-born and grown stalagmite.' (89-90)

Here, Cane Arrow’s inarticulate thoughts implode, and he gains a deeper knowledge both of himself and of Percy through a vocabulary of emotional comprehension. Later, after fishing the half-drowned Percy out the water, Cane Arrow is to note:

'""People out in de world would say yuh mad if you tell them wha’ you been telling me. Den can’ understand. I understan’ causing I got me own beauty cave. It in me an’ I in it. I is part o’ it. It was there all the time, but I only get the fullness of it when I did going through the cave wid you, yuh know. That’s right, Boychile. You help me understan’ me own beauty cave.""' (97)

The telepathic power of Percy’s dream seems also to effect Materia, drawing her into revisionary space, into interior space, where spiritual cataracts may be removed:

'He saw the pastoral tableau once more, but this time it was the woman’s laughter which seemed to be mocking it. She was Amerindian, she was African, she was brown-skinned Materia, and as he listened more carefully to her, he heard not mockery but joyous laughter ringing out worlds of possibilities, coalescing visions and revisions of races and their juxtapositions. Creole magic. What was happening to his sight? The face of the laughing woman was Materia’s, entirely hers. She was here with him. Just as the wind had summoned him, he sensed it was summoning her.' (85-86)

Here again, the dream-cave image, the novel’s epicenter, proves to be a catalyst for the revision of selves: pre-Columbian selves, pre-slavery selves, post-slavery interpersonal selves. At the heart of this revision is the awareness that we are all part and parcel of each other (whether in history’s past or in history’s present) and in need of reconciliation. Later, in the closing stages of the death-by-drowning dream, as it were the life-by-drowning dream, one witnesses another vision of the transformed Materia as lover, ancestral mother, and feminine omniscience:
'...and sensing the nearness of the end of his beginning, he wasn’t at all surprised to find Materia swimming there. Materia, Materia? Yes, Mr. Percy. Where are you now? Right here beside you. What are you doing? Selling clothes. Whatever happened to us? Who knows, Mr. Percy? Who knows?

'He couldn’t escape her. He had inhabited and had been inhabited by her streamy laughter. She was an essential thread in the cave’s mystery, a part of all the illuminating blackness seeping into him. She was inside him and therefore knew his actions before he acted, heard his utterances before he spoke. The cave knew its geography centuries before he had laid feet here and in that wisdom obtained her true cunning and triumph.' (93-94)

This, of course, is another most telling discovery for Percy. He had been unfaithful to Materia many times and had believed himself successful in hiding his deception. He now realizes that the cave/Materia 'knew his actions before he acted.' His presumptions are shattered forever, and he has no choice but to acknowledge and accept the female’s triumph.

In order to explore my own book, The Coral Rooms, I must at this point approach it obliquely. Recently, I came upon a startling and potent novel by the German author Patrick Süskind. Perfume is a novel whose epicenter rests on an interior image of scent, an olfactory gift with which the protagonist Grenouille is endowed and one he uses to transform himself. However, unlike Percival Veer, whose inner visions reform him and then move outward to effect positively those around him, Grenouille’s gift is used exclusively for selfish reasons, resulting in horrific actions against mankind in general.

Grenouille’s olfactory talent leads him into an awareness of himself that transforms him from grotesque moron to terrifying divinity. He escapes from the abhorrent taint of the human world that includes his perfume-making patron Baldini wearing the face of the charlatan conquistador and exploiting Grenouille’s abilities in order to acquire great wealth. Grenouille flees to the pinnacle of solitude on the Auvergne mountain where the atmosphere is purest. There, in a vision, he perceives himself as a glorious and grand giant towering over a fragrant empire, a kingdom of endless plantations of fragrant fields (126-27).

The interior image transforms Grenouille, at least in his own eyes, from slave to overlord. It is just such capacity for revision inherent in every such image that makes the liberation of individuals, for good or evil ends, possible. In Grenouille, the evil possibility is quite evident. His yearning for supremacy is the yearning of the conquistador (the neo-colonial Percy) with all the potential for mayhem and pure evil which that image implies. It is interesting that Perfume is set in eighteenth-century France, the peak of European colonialism. Grenouille enters the world as a white 'slave' born of a fisher-woman under a market table among bits of rotten fish and soon afterwards orphaned. He finds his 'escape', his underground railroad, through his olfactory abilities. Like the black slave, he too dresses in a 'sambo' personality in order cunningly to learn what he can about his immediate world, in this case the perfume business. Then, he attempts to use this knowledge as a gateway to freedom and empowerment:

'He could smell what was happening in the interior of the mixing pots and the precise moment when the distilling had to be stopped. And occasionally, he let this be known - of course, quite unassumingly and without abandoning his submissive demeanor… He was a master in the art of spreading boredom and playing the clumsy fool.' (178-82)

Grenouille’s interior perception, his silent introspection, guarantees a private space in which, without distraction, he can horde an armory of knowledge. He has found a reforming image which he can store against an ignoble and ruinous upbringing. He succeeds in his quest for knowledge, purchases his freedom, and earns a living. But this curious beauty and freedom does not and, it seems, cannot stay pure, because it is overridden by a negative pole over which Grenouille has no control and does not quite comprehend: obsessive pole, absurd pole, genetic pole; genetic absurdity, theatrical absurdity that makes a positive end for him impossible. He is driven by naturalistic forces and plunged into a mode of fatalism, murdering twenty-five teenaged girls. These he never molests, and, with ironically heroic feelings, he even attempts to preserve their virginal scents in a pomade in order to create the ultimate perfume, the only thing in life which he can associate with love. The aristocrat Richis, justifiably fearing his daughter to be Grenouille’s next victim, notes:

'For if one imagined... all the victims not as single individuals, but as parts of some higher principle and thought of each one’s characteristics as merged in some idealistic fashion into a unifying whole, then the picture of absolute beauty, and the magic that radiated from it, would no longer be human, but of divine origin.' (203)

Here, the principle of social unification or reconciliation being finally attained in death is theoretically sound. But the unnatural manner of death at the hands of a serial murderer induces a mood of terror in Süskind’s problematical democracy. It is a gruesome, diseased reality, It is also a counter-reality, a juxtaposed interior and exterior image. Wilson Harris calls this phenomenon 'the private face and public mask' ('Place' 6), the image we present to the world as a given reality - Grenouille wears the most unassuming, endearing and humble demeanor - and the subterranean, private image which contains the potential either for the terror of evil or the terror of redemption.

Both protagonists, Percy and Grenouille, are given to self-loathing and both carry inside them potentially liberating images. Grenouille’s tragedy is that he is unable to reconcile his internal liberation and beauty with social responsibility or any form of compassion. Percy, on the other hand, is changed internally and transforms those around him as well. In The Coral Rooms, dual realities collide within the walls of a dream cave and within those of an actual limestone cave.
In the midst of neo-colonialism in the Caribbean and socio-racial injustices widespread in both the U.S.A. and Europe, the capacity for revision and the opportunities for such revision still abound. The notion of a transforming interior image, a transforming revisionary image, can be a vehicle for such liberation and is, indeed, one of the positives that Caribbean literature has to offer.

Brathwaite, Edward Kamau. 'Timehri', The Art of Aubrey Williams. Ed. Anne Walmsley. Coventry: Dangaroo, 1990. 82.
Harris, Wilson. 'The Place of the Poet in Modern Society: A Glance at Two Guyanese Authors.' Explorations. Denmark: Dangaroo, 1981. 
Kellman. Anthony. The Coral Rooms. Yorkshire: Peepal Tree, 1992. Watercourse. Yorkshire: Peepal Tree, 1990.
Süskind, Patrick. Perfume. Trans. John E. Woodsy. New York: Knopf, 1986.