The Crucifixion

Written by Daryl C. Dance for Review of West Indian Literature on

When I interviewed Ismith Khan on August 14, 1981, twenty years after the publication of his first novel, The Jumbie Bird (1961), and seventeen years after the publication of his second novel, The Obeah Man (1964), he mentioned a third novel, The Crucifixion: ‘I’ve got another novel that nobody wanted to publish. It’s called The Crucifixion. The novel is finished, it’s sitting there, I don’t know what will ever happen to it. I don’t push these things too hard - and I don’t bother to trouble publishers and editors... Maybe one of these days when I am dead and gone, somebody will find some of these things tucked away back there.’ Fortunately, The Crucifixion, his M.A. thesis at Johns Hopkins University, is no longer just sitting there to possibly be discovered among Khan’s papers upon his demise, but, rather, it has found its way onto the list of Jeremy Poynting’s Peepal Tree Press, which is performing the laudable task of making available a number of significant volumes of Caribbean literature that might not appeal to most commercial presses for reasons that have nothing to do with their quality.

The Crucifixion, like its predecessors, focuses on the emptiness and the violence of life in Trinidad and on the quest of the individual to find some understanding of and meaning in his/her own life. As in The Jumbie Bird there is a great deal of Christ imagery, and this novel also culminates in ‘a Christ-like sacrificial death’ (to borrow Arthur Drayton’s phrase in his discussion of The Jumbie Bird in Fifty Caribbean Writers). In The Crucifixion a number of Port of Spain yard dwellers, most notably the significantly named Manko, seek some understanding of the meaning of their lives. In the standard English account, that quest is expressed as Manko goes to a philosopher with the request, ‘I want some knowledge’ (11). In the Creole voice (for there are two voices throughout this novel), we are constantly reminded that ‘he want to learn some damn t’ing.’ Closely related to this quest for knowledge is the quest for purpose in life, or as it is expressed in the Creole voice, ‘What-de-ass to do wid meself(17)?’ After some questioning and some studying it becomes clear to Manko that God has called him, and he is secure in the knowledge that if people will but listen to him they will be saved. AND if they don’t listen to him, he takes it upon himself to visit the wrath of God upon them. This arrogant certainty of their own knowledge and awareness causes Manko and numerous other individuals in this work to set themselves up as godlike judges of the behavior of others. As such, they self-righteously try, condemn, and crucify their fellows. Manko recognizes this flaw in others, but does not realize that he is similarly guilty. For example, at the very time that he sanctimoniously chastises the distraught policeman who appeals to him for information about Miss Violet, he recalls the former cocky manner of the policeman and thinks: ‘He was playing God, ...A man ain’t have no right playin’ God’ (121). Nonetheless, throughout this novel Manko, blinded by the certainty of his divine mission, persecutes and destroys in his effort to save and resurrect. Discovering workmen who were supposed to be repairing the statue of Christ on the cross on Calvary Hill irreverently sitting on that statue while they gambled, an irate Manko reports them to their foreman, indignantly lectures them, and forces one to bow down on his knees and repent his evil and ignorant acts. Later, looking around him at the bar that he often frequents, Manko, appalled at the wretchedness of the people there, concludes that they ‘needed to be dragged through the streets by their scruffs before they understood God’ (82). His many actions indicate that he is quite willing to issue and enforce such an edict, for here as elsewhere he wants to make the villains he sees ‘go down on [their] knees as he had done with the workman at Calvary’ (83). The main actor in a ritual to determine whether or not his neighbor, Miss Violet, has stolen the money of another resident in their yard, he coldly refuses to intercede when the Bible falls before her to declare this innocent woman guilty, resulting in her having to give her money to the accuser and be thrown out of the yard. He is later still indignant about her, thinking after his encounter with her policeman boyfriend: ‘I’ll tell you where Miss Violet gone to - she gone to hell where she belong - worthless - heedless - they have hard ears, they hear the voice inside they bosom, but still they won’t listen. I’ll make them listen if it’s the last thing I do in this black world’ (123). Later when he discovers the true culprit who stole the money, he feels no need to repent for his role in the miscarriage of justice, but rather begins to brutally flail the boy for his sins.

Manko’s actions are repeated over and over in other characters, characters who, confident in their own rightness, persecute others. Thus self righteous parents mercilessly beat their children (one, known as a ‘good’ woman, forces her son to kneel for hours on a grater and then to put his mutilated knees in salt water without grimacing); confident teachers continuously berate and physically abuse their students; sanctimonious yard dwellers coldly and viciously crucify their neighbors; self assured policemen brutalize citizens; enraged citizens retaliate when the opportunity presents itself and mutilate policemen (in one instance a mob breaks every bone in a policeman’s body with stones and them throws him into a burning building, the leader in effect forcing the policeman to beg him for mercy as he would God). Even the judge at Manko’ s trial who seeks for the truth and eventually finds at least some of the truth is as fallible in his power of judging and condemning people as is Manko in his ascertaining guilt on the basis of his Bible test. Miss Violet, herself the victim of the ‘knowledge’ of her neighbors and Manko, had earlier sought the punishment of others for what she perceived to be their ‘sins.’ Thus she humiliated Manko time after time and finally had him arrested for ‘peeping’ at her. While it is clear that she was guilty of voyeurism herself, there is some ambiguity about Manko’s guilt of some of the charges she levels against him. There is, however, no doubt that she is correct when she accuses Manko of lusting for her. Furthermore it is interesting to note that while Manko’s ministry does not result in his ever truly getting to know and help another person, Miss Violet, who is called to be a prostitute, is happy and secure and successful in her calling. It is she and the cripple who achieve a kind of epiphany that the other characters vainly seek. When she has been cast out of her home by her neighbors, she turns to the cripple, who takes her home with him. Neither makes any demands on the other, and the cripple even offers to leave his house so that she can be alone. There is a critical understanding attained by each of the other, and as they give themselves to each other, they realize that they are experiencing something unlike anything they have ever known. Even if they cannot call it love, at least it ‘is not use or abuse’ (117); it is ‘somet’ing which alleviate for that moment, that night, some pain, some suffering‘ (116). In the context of the brutality of so many other relationships in this novel, the simple, concluding line of this passage takes on a very special poignancy: ‘They satisfy each other’ (118).

Manko’s agony and fury in life are relieved only by his temporary refuge in the bar and his constant pilgrimages to the cross on Calvary Hill, where he finds the peace of seeing himself as a crucified Christ. At the beginning of the novel when the minister in his rural village had violently beaten Manko for usurping his place, Manko ‘thought of how the Lord was beaten and humiliated before his crucifixion, and... felt his pain’ (22). Finally, bitter, angry, and defeated by the sinfulness of the world, he is instinctively drawn back to Calvary Hill, where he ascends the cross, demanding that the people crucify him. The same workmen whom he had earlier castigated gladly respond, tying him to the cross and pelting him with garbage, a scene reminiscent of the folktale of Bedward and literary accounts of Lovelace’s Taffy, Salkey’s Mother Johnson, Wynter’s Prophet Moses, and Carew’s Prophet Jordan, all of which are at one and the same time wildly humorous and cruelly tragic. In The Crucifixion Khan creates some interesting characters, especially Manko and Miss Violet, but they lack the power to move the reader to the kind of passionate response that his Kale Khan, Binti, Jamini, Zampi, Zolda, and even Hop and Drop evoked in his earlier novels.

The plot of this short novel is interesting, even at times compelling. An occasional episode seems to be intrusive, and to disrupt the smooth flow of the narrative. A minor detail that raised a question in my mind was that though Khan goes to great lengths to explain the financial exigencies of some families, he never explains to us how Manko lives in Port of Spain, since it appears that he never makes one penny preaching there.

Students of Caribbean literature will certainly be delighted that after such a long hiatus another novel by this talented Trinidadian novelist is in print and that they can also look forward to a collection of his short stories scheduled for publication soon by Peepal Tree Press."