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The Ghost of Bellow's Man

Written by Jeremy Poynting for Caricom Perspective on no date provided

The action of the novel takes place in a little over a fortnight, with a flashback to the incident of ‘the Chairs’, the causus belli of the events which occur within that narrow time span. The narrative is calculatedly simple, its significance is not.

Raj the central character, a frustrated and reluctant teacher, with a weakness for schoolgirls, a Hindu activist and would-be-published novelist, is involved in a protest against the introduction of chairs into his temple. The meetings of his youth group are banned, and they begin a protest against the temple committee. He spends several frustrating days at school, visits the library a couple of times, contemplates the seduction of one of his female pupils, starts a typing class, skirmishes with a female colleague, waits impatiently for news of whether his novel is to be published, takes part in a Street demonstration and is thoroughly scared off by the appearance of the dreaded inspector Adjit. Waiting, though, is perhaps Raj’s principal occupation.

Yet, if the substance of the novel is about frustration, the passing of dead days in despairing times, the novel is anything but negative or dull. Part of its life comes from the friction between the different ways the events are told. At times we are within Raj’s stream of consciousness, directly within his perceptions of the world, at times he is presented as a third person character and for the last third of the novel, as the fictive creator of the diary-text. Raj is thus seen from different perspectives and the nature of how he constructs both a view of himself and the events he acts in becomes the living texture of the novel.

Raj is not so much an ‘unreliable’ narrator as an inconsistent one. He is at once acutely self-reflective and self-deceiving, a rebel who is at times a stickler for convention, the taker of high moral stances and an abuser of his position of trust, a self-aggrandizing perceiver of the political significance of his actions, but also, and savingly, self-mocking in an honest awareness of his deficiencies. To be inside Raj’s mind is frequently an infuriating experience, but it is never dull.
In creating this extraordinary person, Persaud achieves a number of things. He creates a character who is an extraordinarily acute portrayal of the inner life of an aware, politically conscious Indo-Guyanese of the 1980s, with all the confusions, anger, double-standards that real persons have. In being both inside and outside Raj, Persaud is able both to create the Guyana of the eighties as seen very specifically from the perspective of the Indo-Guyanese, but also shows us how Raj’s biases are constructed. Since V.S. Naipaul’s classic novel The Mimic Men few other Caribbean writers have achieved that kind of complexity of vision.

Thus, though Raj’s anger is filled with a sense of Indo-Guyanese racial dispossession, The Ghost of Bellow’s Man is far from being an ethnocentric novel. It ducks none of the pains of living in a corrupt and shabby racial despotism, but is equally frank and merciless in its treatment of Indian racial hang-ups. This inwardness also enables Persaud to go beyond a naturalistic portrayal of the corruptions of public life. The usual tendency is to blame it on the politicians, particularly of the other ethnic group. Persaud portrays Raj, as moving from the tendency to regard himself as having become corrupted by the society he lives in towards asking deeper questions about the relationship between the codes of personal and interpersonal ethics he acts in accordance with, sometimes unconsciously, and the nature of political culture in his society. There is, for instance, an episode in the classroom when Raj, observes a surly reluctance amongst some pupils to do anything until ordered to, and another when he himself makes a juvenile show of rebellion against his authoritarian headteacher.

He is led to wonder how deeply embedded in the national psyche are such patterns of authoritarianism and forms of protest which are ultimately dependent on that authority. Forced into looking closer, Raj begins to see that within his own milieu, his own behavior with respect to power and responsibility is often not that different from the behavior of the corrupt political despots he despises. Ultimately, what Persaud achieves with his focus on Raj, and the subversive, self-mocking commentary going-on inside his head, is the investing of the ordinary, the everyday tedium with an intensity and exactness which demands that they be seen anew.

It is appropriate then, that Raj’s ambition as a writer is an important part of the novel. At one point, disillusioned with yet another publishing rejection, with himself and with the ability of writing to make any difference, he decides to burn his manuscripts, until he is told by his brother, ‘What we’ve got to have in this place is people who will tell us the truth’. Raj, having begun to admit uncomfortable truths about himself in his diary, realises that not only must the truth-telling begin with himself, but that truth is always more complex that it appears."

This is a review of The Ghost of Bellow's Man

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