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The Ghost of Bellow's Man

Written by Jeanette Lynes for Canadian Literature on no date provided

Although its title makes reference to Saul Bellow’s writing, Sasenarine Persaud’s The Ghost of Bellow’s Man evokes, if anything, a post-colonial portrait of the artist as an angry young man. Set in 1982, sixteen years after Guyanese independence in 1966, Persaud presents, in a mode which merges diary and novel, the story of Raj, teacher, Hindu activist and writer. Raj’s story documents his increasing disillusionment with the corrupt government of his country, and the factionalism within the ‘miserably fragmented [Hindu] community.’ This disillusionment is registered in Raj’s ambivalence towards women, his attempt to spearhead a demonstration when chairs are placed in the temple, and his questioning, throughout most of the novel, of the value of writing. The ‘crisis of emptiness’ Simon During associates with post-colonial societies aptly characterizes Persaud’s kunstlerroman. From its outset, the novel resounds with negation (‘no,’ ‘nobody,’ ‘nothing’ and so on) and hollowness as layers of pretense are peeled away, exposing the chaos Raj experiences at the core of his society. This process of exposure is painful, forcing Raj to confront his own complicity in the ‘racialist thinking,’ the ‘coloured thinking implanted by community and education...Was no language, no expression colourless?’

Despite the disclaimer that The Ghost of Bellow’s Man is ‘fiction,’ and that ‘any resemblance to any persons or situations is purely coincidental,’ it seems likely that Persaud’s ‘PNP’ leader, ‘Fox Burton,’ is based on Guyana’s PNC (People’s National Congress) leader, Forbes Burnham. Similarly, the assassination of Persaud’s ‘Dr. William Ruddy’ of the ‘Working Class Association’ resembles Guyana’s Working People’s Alliance and its leader Walter Rodney, assassinated in 1980. These parallels are hardly surprising, given Persaud’s Guyanese origins and a depth of bitter disillusionment in the novel that could only be derived from direct experience.

The rage of Persaud’s protagonist is compelling only up to a point, however. Dangling Bellowesque style, Raj is caught in contradictions: between his participation in the doublespeak of what he sees as a fraudulent system on the one hand, and, on the other, his disgust with that system; between his romantic self-image as rebel and under-recognized artist and his self-denigrating paralysis. Raj’s artist’s ego is sometimes overblown and tiresome, and his attitude towards women verges on misogyny. There are limits to how far we can sympathize with, or even care about, Raj’s moral indignation expressed, at times, as dogmatic superiority: ‘Since the British left, since independence, there had been a fall in moral standards... They were destroying decency.’

The metafictional dimension of Bellow’s Man is intriguing; by the novel’s end, we realize that the ‘diary’ Raj has been composing and we have been reading is, in fact, The Ghost of Bellow’s Man. In a Joycean epiphany, Raj, deciding against burning his manuscripts, discovers the potential value of writing: ‘the diary... had started a very uncomfortable process... Maybe as a writer he would always be like a ghost, rattling the chains, trying to get the attention of a heedless world.’ The novel ends with imminent ‘rejuvenating and colourless rain.’ Now that Raj has grasped the artist’s high moral vocation of ‘reminding the world of its misdeeds and cruelties’ he will, we are to believe, be able to confront his own prejudices and ‘tell the truth.’ But somehow this ending seems perfunctory and not quite convincing. The Raj we take away from this novel seems less like a trailblazing Stephen Dedalus than a post-colonial Prufrock wondering, ‘do I dare?’

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

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