The Children of Sisyphus by Orlando Patterson. New Authors Ltd. Hutchinson of London, 18s.
Every West Indian novel worth notice is a tract for the times. But the test for it as for any type of novel must be: is it worth reading for the story it tells, the people it introduces, the interest of the piece of the world it restates or explores? Here Mr Patterson triumphs. His novel can take a third reading and not thereby shrink. His subject is made to order—the life of the people of the West Indies, more precisely, the people of Jamaica. A new people, new in a double sense: they came into existence only three hundred years ago, they have written and been written about for less than 20 years. The novel gives us a comprehensive view: the poor, the ignorant, the despised, the rejected, the middle class, the officials and the more or less prosperous. And a wonderful portrait of a West Indian political premier in action—that above all will live, will live because although the portrait is particular, even a coordination, a tight co-ordination of incredible singularities, the total effect is that of a general type, the West Indian politician in the first years of self-government. The social scene constitutes the bones of the book and allows Mr Patterson to give free rein to his instinct for luscious writing. He is only 23, and is still a university student. Ordinarily he would begin, even if he ended by being a novelist, with a volume of verse. But in a West Indian island class relations are so stark, the contrast between the professed ideal and the real so cruel, that Mr Patterson’s prose can tremble on the verge of going over the line but can never shake free from the discipline of the social structure and the sharp concrete realities in which it expresses itself.
The novel, it is known, deals specifically with the Rastafari, the sect of Jamaican Negroes who reject the bastardized version of British society which official and educated Jamaica seeks to foist upon them. They have created for themselves a new world, in which the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, is God on earth. His kingdom in Africa is the promised Heaven to which all the Rastafari elect will go, not when they die but when they can raise the money for the passage.
As an introduction to his novel Mr Patterson places a lengthy quotation from Camus in which the theory of life as an embodiment of the absurd is militantly stated. The very title of the novel embodies this conception
But a good novel and serious novel, and this novel is both good and serious, always tells more than the novelist consciously puts into it. And for the critical reader The Children of Sisyphus is a mine of indications about certain aspects of the human condition.
First of all, as always happens, the successful concentration of Mr Patterson on Jamaican reality illumines a universal feature of contemporary life. The Rastafari are one example of the contemporary rejection of the life to which we all are submitted. The Mau-Mau of Kenya do the same. The Black Muslims of the United States are of the same brand. And for the time being we need go no further than the beatniks of the most advanced countries of Western civilization. ‘Anywhere, anywhere out of the world,’ the world that they know.
But Rastafari and Mr Patterson are West Indian. They are both new. Their world is just beginning. They do not suffer from any form of angst. They have no deep-seated consciousness of failure, no fear of defeat. That is not in their history. Mr Patterson does not, cannot, convince the reader that the life he is describing is absurd. Horrible, horrible, most horrible it is. But it is not absurd. The prostitute who tries to lift herself out of the squalor, the filth of the Dungle is consciously impelled by ‘ambition’. The other prostitute whose pathetic destiny equals the horrors of her existence is impelled by her passionate wish to give her daughter a secondary education. The colossal stupidities, the insanities of the Rastafari are consciously motivated by their acute consciousness of the filth in which they live, their conscious refusal to accept the fictions that pour in upon them from every side. It is the determination to get out of it that leads them to their imaginative fantasies of escape to Africa. These passions and forces are the ‘classic human virtues’. As long as they express themselves, the form may be absurd, but the life itself it not absurd. The fate of Rastafari and Mr Patterson himself are very closely linked. And this book is one proof of their common distress and common destiny.