READING THE WINE OF ASTONISHMENT
BY AMEENA GAFOOR
Continued from last week:
Bee, in his practical but passive manner, sees their continued hardships as a direct result of the betrayal of their own people, by men like Morton, their own boy from the village. Economically deprived people in the region have always seen education as a vehicle that steers them out of poverty and have looked to their educated leaders to lead them out of their social and economic degradation. But once Morton secures a job as a pupil teacher at a Catholic School and abandons the Baptist Church to convert to Catholicism, he severs connection with his working class roots at Bonasse. Morton exhibits a lack of moral integrity when he abandons the beautiful brown-skinned village girl bearing his child to marry a woman of “light colour”, more in keeping with his new social status. His values shift when he exchanges his father’s house in the village, built over years by his father’s hand, for the “privilege” of occupying a haunted mansion of a white planter on Bonasse hill overlooking the sea and the village. Bee complains helplessly, “ . . . but police raid the church, and we had a man in the Council” (10).
Bee had campaigned relentlessly up and down the village for Morton to be elected to the Legislative Council in the hope that he could influence decisions on the matter of the Church and their cultural dispossession, but after six months in the Council Morton has as yet done nothing to lift the ban on the Spiritual Baptist church while Constable Prince harasses the villagers, old and young, rounds them up and marches them to the Police Station. Eva, the perfect example of a subdued, colonized creature, pacifies a disillusioned Bee: “Six months ain’t nutten. Six months is just a hour, a minute these days . . . you have to give him time” (3).
Social success has alienated Morton from his working class roots; his assimilation into the culture and manners of the white world has led to self-contempt and sheer opportunism. Bee sees Morton as a betrayer of his people and has lost faith in him, “And every day we growing more away, going more astray from ourself. Why you think we put him there?”
The novel condemns Morton’s defection to the white world and his transformation into a mimic man, as Bee observes: “Mr. Civilize sit down there in the whiteman house on the whiteman chair with the whiteman tie and cuff-links and wristwatch and telling me, ‘We can’t change our colour, Dorcas, but we can change our attitude. We can’t be white, but we can act white’” (13). Nor is Morton the only misguided black man who has turned his back on his people. Constable Prince is another example of blacks used by the colonial establishment to oppress their own people.
Bee doubts that Morton will help Reggie to gain entrance into a high school since Reggie has failed the government county examination. And yet Bee knows that education is the only way to break the cycle of poverty and that without Morton’s help he must make further sacrifice to pay the school fees for his son to move up the social ladder. The theme of the pursuit of education and the betrayal that comes with it first surfaces in Lovelace’s second novel, The Schoolmaster (1968), a work of tragic proportions, in which progress comes to the remote Trinidadian village of Kumaca in the form of a new road and a new school with a new schoolmaster. But this progress is a double-edged knife that wounds the community in an unexpected manner.
The Wine of Astonishment provides ample scope for the reader to discuss the notion of leadership and to compare and contrast the capabilities of a political leader like Ivan Morton with Bee and Eva, the spiritual leaders. Where Morton succumbs to the pressures or lure of the white world, and is content to be a mimic man in its dress, its artifacts, its religion, Bee and Eva tenaciously hold to their culture, far more fundamental to their sense of self and belonging, and do not yield to the attractions of the white world. While Bee and Eva stay with their flock and suffer the tribulations with them, Morton is an ambivalent character that pays lip service to the very people who have helped him succeed and from whom he has virtually separated himself.
Yet, for all of his vision to seek a life of dignity for his congregation, Bee first appears in the novel with his arms outstretched like a symbolic Christ figure that has been chosen to suffer and “bear the cross” before he and his people are redeemed from centuries of cruelty and oppression. The Wine of Astonishment is in fact commenting on this passive attitude of the community, Bee’s Christ-like figure fated to suffer and Eva’s philosophical acceptance of their lot, as if God had ordained it instead of it being an unjust, unequal situation they must actively resist.
For all their social advancement, Morton and Constable Prince can hardly be called heroes of the black peasantry. We must examine another larger-than-life character in The Wine of Astonishment, a character around whom most of the dramatic action of the work is centred, and that is Bolo, champion stick fighter, coconut picker and member of the Spiritual Baptist Church.
According to the narrator, Bolo endears himself with the entire village, all the market women tease him and he teases them in return, for “this Bolo was a special man; and not only us, the women, to everybody. If you have a house to build or a dead to bury, you could call him to lend a hand, and though he’s a man who fears nobody, he knows how to laugh, and if you down to cheer you up . . . “ (21).
We first meet Bolo in Church one Sunday during the War years, full of life and “rising like a spear out of the back row, with the rest of the congregation, to sing the first hymn” (16). Bolo is depicted in heroic terms, with “a new kind of toughness about him, a warrior still, with his chest up and his eyes bright with dreams that fill him” (16), standing there in the Church, “with a sunshine smile bursting on his face and his warm spirit brimming out of him to all of us, touching us, joining us with him” (16,17). But when the congregation opens its mouth to sing it is a toned-down worship, “the same dead way, without bell ringing or handclapping or shouting” (17). Bolo stands there with “amazement and heartbreak in face, his lower jaw dropping out of his face, his eyes disbelieving, his head turning to look at Bee” (17). Disillusioned that the Church still did not have the freedom to worship in its real spirit after so many years, or decades, Bolo leaves the Church quietly seething with fury.
The narrator tells us of Bolo’s distinctive attributes: “There is something in Bolo that Mitchell with all his money don’t have, a beauty, not of face, Bolo don’t have what you would call a pretty face: nose broad, growing like the roots of a mangrove tree from below the high cheekbones of his face, lips curl up like the edge of a cashew fruit – but a spirit, a belonging to the place, a respect that Mitchell feel should be his own because of his prosperity” (27). Bolo’s skill and grace (mark him out as a cultural person) in the gayelle, the stickfighting ring in front of Buntin’s shop, his stature in the community and the dignity he longs for for his people, are depicted in heroic terms:
The whole village talk ‘bout him. They say that . . . it don’t have a man to stand in front of him. They say he don’t fight just to win battles for himself, for him stickfighting was more the dance, the adventure, the ceremony to show off the beauty of the warrior. And he do it with love and respect, more as if he was making a gift of himself, offering himself up with his quick speed and rhythm, as if what he really want was for people to see in him a beauty that wasn’t his alone, was theirs, ours, to let us know that we in this wilderness country was people too, with drums and song and warriors. (21,22)
Bolo has taken the position that, with his superior physical attributes and prowess, he must exercise responsibility for his community’s well-being. Yet, there are forces working against him in the community, forces that undermine his authority as a leader. First of all, the arrival of American soldiers in the colony has dramatically altered the social landscape as well as the moral tone of Trinidad in every respect, degrading the women and putting easy money into the hands of the men, “lean fellas in zoot suits with long silver chains looping from the fob of their trousers to their side pockets . . . these was the new heroes” (22). Bolo’s self-esteem is undermined by these damaging changes and by the fact that he is now ignored, no longer a man who commands respect: “now, men who used to be dying for Bolo to take a drink with them was passing him in the street without a word of greeting. Bolo feel it. He feel it” (22).
As Mitchell, newly rich on easy money, brashly informs Bolo, “You know what wrong with you? You don’t know how to change . . .You sit down here thinking you is king, holding on to your stickfighting fame, and don’t realize that things ain’t the same and the days you waiting on not coming back again” (27). But a change had come over Bolo and when he walks he no longer has that “free easy stride, that smooth fluent joyful walk that we use to so admire. A stiffness come over him. . . .” (27). Indeed, Bolo has become disillusioned for some time now, since Ivan Morton had seduced Eulalie, the girl Bolo had set his eyes and heart on.
In addition, Bolo fails to grasp an important change in the village and that is, that the warrior, as the chief figure in the village, was dying. The narrator explains: “What was happening was that the scholar, the boy with education, was taking over . . . for now education was getting popular as the way to win the battle to be somebody; and the warriors, the men to fight real fights, was just something to remember . . . ” (46).
The fact is that “Bolo’s vexation was plain as day” (48) over the prolonged ban on the Church together with Bee’s complacent acceptance of the “watered-down” service. Bolo attends Church regularly to register his silent displeasure and make known his firm belief in the freedom to worship one’s God in a manner one chooses. For this, he is brutalized by the police and sent to prison for three years.
Bolo’s brush with the police – the confrontation of the powerless with the powerful – is the beginning of his tragic slide from greatness for even though Bolo is of superior strength, he is powerless against the Police who overpower him and treat him like a common criminal. His provocative efforts to stir his fellow villagers into action against the indignities they face daily are met with apathy. Unlike Bee, he is outraged and unwilling to tone down his anger. He willfully takes items from shops without paying, he destroys their property to get them to re-act, but they remain complacent until he seizes Primus’s two daughters and takes them to his house. This rouses Primus who, instead of gathering a village group so that Bolo could use it as an opportunity to lecture them on their lack of will, summons the police who fell Bolo with one bullet when he shows resistance and refuses to give up the two girls.
The question we must ask is: is Bolo a hero or is his method of stirring his community into action and courage flawed because Bolo is too idealistic, inflexible and uncompromising? As a cultural force in the community, and almost like Neitszche’s “superman”, Bolo expends his life force (the Eros instinct) into the death instinct (the Thanatos instinct) and is therefore ultimately self-destructive. Artistically, Bolo must die to make the point that as social beings we must be prepared to change and compromise. We can therefore regard Bolo as an anti-hero.
The Wine of Astonishment is ultimately both tragic and redemptive. Bee, Eva and their children are emblematic and come to represent the black experience under colonialism. In the end, Bee is the hero of the work and Eva has made the discovery (self-discovery) that the spirit that has been driven underground and silenced (by colonialism) is emerging in the steel pans and lives there so that, ultimately, the spirit cannot be suppressed despite the best efforts of the colonial authorities:
. . . and in this tent is the steel pans, and playing these pans is some young fellows, bare-back and with tear-up clothes, and it have two girls dancing to the music that they playing; but I not looking at the girls, I listening to the music; for the music that those boys playing on the steel band have in it that same Spirit that we miss in our church: the same Spirit; and listening to them, my heart swell and it is like resurrection morning. (146)
Colonialism has created deep rifts in the society and has fractured the consciousness of the colonized man, woman and child, but the struggle for cultural security and authenticity is just, if only because culture is the bedrock of human existence. Writers and artists are the main planks by which the transformation of consciousness takes place in a society.
M. Keith Booker and Dubravka Juraga in The Caribbean Novel in English, Heinemann, 2001 (104).
Frances Henry, Reclaiming African Religions in Trinidad: The Socio-Political Legitimation of the Orisha and Spiritual Baptist Faiths (UWI Press, 22003).
Melville J. Herskovits and Frances S. Herskovits, Trinidad Village, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947 (324 – 344).
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