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For The Love Of My Name

Written by Lloyd Searwar for Review presented at launch of the book on no date provided

While I have never had any doubt in my mind about what I wished to say about this novel I would have found it difficult to say it except for a fortunate occurrence. It would have been difficult for me to say it because in our fractured society any utterance is immediately depicted as an expression of ethnic or group solidarity, a situation which applies to all groups and sections of our society. The struggle for objectivity in presentation and for the acceptance of such objectivity are symptoms of the divisions in our society.

Lakshmi Persaud has published two other novels, Butterfly in the Wind and Sastra, which were favourably reviewed but in this novel there is a creative leap to an altogether higher level. I wanted to say that Lakshmi Persaud has in this novel which we are launching today come very close to writing a great Guyanese and West-Indian novel.

The occurrence which has made it easier for me to say what I have just said is that I came across remarks of Dr Stewart Brown, Senior Lecturer in African and Caribbean literature at the University of Birmingham at the launching of this novel in London last December. Dr Stewart Brown has recently been here where he launched his splendid book on critiques of the work of Martin Carter.
In his remarks in December in London, Stewart Brown had this to say about Lakshmi’s novel:

Indeed in so far as I have read another novel that deals with some of these issues in a comparable way, then the great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of Savannah is the book that comes closest. You will remember that Anthills was shortlisted for the Booker prize: I would hope that the judges for the year 2000 Booker pay due attention to Lakshmi’s book, it is of that quality and originality.

We all know of the prestige which attaches to the Booker prize. And Stewart Brown’s comment is not singular. One critic Pamela Beshoff has said that this novel marks the maturing of Caribbean Literature. But let me turn to the novel itself.

As critics have remarked the events of the novel while purporting to deal with the life of Robert Augustus Devonish, President for Life, who rules an island state called Maya it is in fact a thinly veiled account of some aspects of the Burnham years. However the novel is much more than just a chronicle of events. It is not history but a work of the imagination which can be so often truer to life than history. It is a novel of rather a rare kind, a novel of ideas. There are only a few such novels. It is difficult to write such novels because a novel must be first and foremost an exciting story if it is to engage one’s interest. One recalls Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain the ultimate novel of ideas but nevertheless a good story. Yes, it is a characteristic of this Lakshmi novel that it steadily puts one in mind of certain great works of the imagination. I will come back to this theme in a minute. But let me hasten to say lest I give the impression that this novel is a boring tract that it is in fact a deeply moving and exciting story. Take for example the killing of Kamelia, the sugar worker. In history we know her as Kowsilia. I found it so moving that I had to put aside the book for two weeks or more before I could resume the reading with a quiet mind. Then there is the planning of the fratricide by Devonish’s sister or the use of forms of exquisite torture devised to dehumanise persons oppose the regime.

But more important than individual incident is the humanity that shines through whether it is the difficult resolve of Marguerite Devonish’s sister of the President for Life or the lyrical love story of Aasha and Vasu or the kindness of the poor and obscure who pay no attention to political and other divisions except to circumvent them so that life can go on. Devonish himself as I will show in a minute is capable of standing back and making objective judgements.

Let me give you by way of quotation a taste of some episodes in the novel. In the world of Maya the island state, the elite wear masks. The quality of the masks vary with the degree of eliteness. The masks significantly are purple.

‘Once you see them soldiers wearing the deep purple mask, I say, give way, for they could do anything, sister. I mean anything at all, Miss Devonish. Once you see they have on that mask, you see me here, I will let them have anything.’
‘I hear some people with expensive masks are finding it difficult to remove them.’
‘You have to protect the skin with cotton and oil and lubricants before you wear them. I hear those masks are powerful, they have a life of their own. They pick up the skin, you know, and hold it tight, turning the face into a mask like them. It is like pressing a coin real hard on the soft part of your hand, I suggested. The coin leaves its face, a stamp of itself.’
‘Even when you use the oil and all that, and with luck take it off, it already left a printout of itself on you. Not nice. I know a rich lawyer who had plastic surgery done abroad. I haven’t seen him since. I wonder what his face must now look like, because he wore it all the time. He did real good business for the government. He must be so rich, I tell you, he can afford to buy more than one new face abroad.’

Now this is not mythology, or a wild foray of the imagination. The truth is that we all wear masks of some kind and sometimes insensibly we become the masks we wear, especially is this so when there is pressure to conform. Moreover the wearing of a mask which expresses group solidarity enables one to embark on personal action which one might otherwise find repulsive.
Or moving to another theme take the role of the academics described in the novel as AUL (Assorted University Luminaries), Devonish the President for Life speaks about them:

‘These (the AUL) are a group of men and women who speak continually of academic independence and integrity, yet found it all too easy to keep silent when I had things to do which, let us say, brought real politik into conflict with the niceties of human rights. It grieves me to say that these luminaries, whose salaries and privileges are paid by all taxpayers, who travel in curtained comfort on their chosen flights - which they call ‘objective thought’ - turn out to have ideas that enable my own to thrive. I marvelled at these comrades’ amoebic flexibility - their capacity for doublethink - but then, such men have their uses.’

Which is as good a description of how our university conducted themselves during the long years of totalitarian rule, with of course the glorious exception of Walter Rodney. Once the Government stance was radical and anti-colonial it did not matter whether democracy and freedom of expression were being slowly destroyed. The treason of the intellectuals as is pointed out in the novel was region-wide.

‘Their island economies are broadly similar, and so from time to time, the Region’s political economists, philosophers and Intellectuals, referred collectively as Assorted University Luminaries (AUL), come together as a Maritime Regional Community to consider their common interests.’

So much for the role or rather non-role of Caricom. A curious by-product of living under an authoritarian regime is the observed phenomenon of distorted group perception of reality. One is constrained to see the world through optimistic spectacles, even though everything is going violently wrong. This group attitude to the famous Glass Factory illustrates this phenomenon. It is delicious, let me quote it at some length:

‘The purple-masked ladies of the Women’s Socialist Movement had come to the end of their monthly meeting. ""Glass, comrades,"" Madame Chairperson said, ""as we all know, permits light to enter. The construction of this factory is symbolic; it marks a turning point for us."" As an arm of the Government these women saw it as their role to encourage the people to hold strain while the government turned things around. They did this by adding polish to good news whenever they faced the public media and by reducing the pain of the bad. ""A glass factory also means sparkle and refinement. Let us not forget that,"" another said.

‘This was the kind of technological advance that Mayans, accustomed to putting their main export in jute bags, had been seeking from the development process. With Independence they thought local manufacturers would be converting the country’s raw materials into locally made goods. Much time had passed and this hope had not yet been realised.

‘The committee members of the WSM would not have dreamt of being critical of the Government, but their suppressed disappointments found expression in their excitement over having a glass factory in the midst of so much unemployment and the ever deepening depression.

‘It was suggested at the WSM meeting that a glass factory had other advantageous features not initially envisaged. It could, unlike, say, a cassava flour mill, become a tourist attraction.

‘""A glass factory,"" Madame Chairperson explained, ""is our way of saying to tourists that we are becoming industrialised."" Smiles came to their faces. These well meaning ladies felt there was something about the word industrialised that had intimate connections with the industrious, the diligent - dynamic modern economic. ""Think, comrades, what a glass factory will do to enhance our image."" It was a voice rolling out a carpet of warm hope.’

This is a case surely where the creative imagination of the novelist can present a deeper truth than just a plain description of events. It is just not possible that Lakshmi could have overheard such a conversation. But I who was sometimes on the edge of such discussions know that this is the way that many thought about and talked about the infamous glass factory.

Let me end by again noting the final judgements of the two critics, already quoted. Pamela Beshoff concluded her review to which I have already referred as follows:

‘Honest, fearless and also generous, this is the book for the millennium, one to shake comfortable assumptions of rectitude into recognition of the abyss into which some of us may fall while others fail to care. I couldn’t put it down.’

While Stewart Brown at the London launching asserted:

‘For the Love of my Name is a moving, disturbing, profound novel. It is an important novel to be coming out at this moment in history, as we turn into a new millenium and inevitably must think about the qualities and values that might - will - should characterise human societies in the future. I am glad to be here to help celebrate its publication and I urge you all to read it soon!’

In conclusion let me add my own judgement. I hope I have said enough to induce you to want to buy or certainly want to read this novel For the Love of my Name. Creative literature so often reaches a deeper truth than the historian. And the great historian as for example Thuicydides bring to his task the powers of the imagination. For those of us who lived through those times the novel will give meaning to experiences which we just could not deal with at the time and which we have sought to put aside but with which we must now come to terms. When younger people ask about those days this is the novel from your personal library, however small, that you will wish to put into their hands.

This is a review of For The Love Of My Name

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