A Necessary Gospel

Sean O’Brien

  • Dear Future by Fred D’Aguiar
    Chatto, 206 pp, £14.99, March 1996, ISBN 0 7011 6537 5

It was as a poet that Fred D’ Aguiar first won recognition, with his 1985 collection Mama Dot, set in the Guyanese village where the English-born D’ Aguiar was sent to be educated. The place is dominated by Mama Dot, the archetypal grandmother, source of wisdom, comfort and discipline, a woman so important that when she falls ill nature itself goes to pieces:

Bees abandon their queens to red ants and bury
Their stings in every moving thing; and the sun
Sticks like the hands of a clock at noon,
Drying the very milk in coconuts to powder.

This vivid, funny, uncluttered work, moving between standard and Nation language, was immediately attractive. D’ Aguiar, however, had other subjects and formal challenges in mind. Apart from its title sequence, his second book, Airy Hall (1989), was a much more troublesome affair, showing the pressure of a more discursive and politically complex area of his imagination, at some cost to clarity and impetus. ‘The Kitchen Bitch’, an ambitious but clotted narrative, seemed strongly influenced by the Guyanese novels of Wilson Harris, whose hallucinatory, half-abstract, outrageously bejewelled manner is as dangerous in its idiosyncrasy as that of Hopkins or Dylan Thomas. Problems persisted into D’ Aguiar’s most recent collection, British Subjects (1993), and it comes as no surprise that he should recently have turned to fiction: the loose baggy monster offers more room than poetry for certain kinds of manoeuvre. What is interesting, though, is that with his second novel, Dear Future, D’ Aguiar has once more put village life in the foreground: the author’s disclaimer notwithstanding, for the Co-Operative Village of Ariel read Airy Hall.

In a brief, charming, slightly mysterious Preface to a selection of his poems in E.A. Markham’s anthology Hinterland: Caribbean Poetry from the West Indies and Britain (1989), D’ Aguiar wrote:

As children we used to try and catch fireflies by locking onto their zigzag, lights-on, lights-off flight in the dark, the same zigzag uncles told us to run if chased by an alligator. When the light of a firefly came on we dashed to it, in the brief dark that followed we slowed then stood still, momentarily, lost in directionless night, left only with an afterglow. Then it would spark again forming an imaginary necklace of light that folded on itself.

Both the alligator and the zigzag path recur in Dear Future, as does the tale, recounted later in the essay, of an uncle stepping onto a log to cross a trench, only to find it sprouting legs and teeth. The pursuit of the firefly seems to speak for the blend of persistence and luck needed for writing to happen, while the delicacy of the quarry suggests the unencumbered naturalness the writer wants to attain – a condition D’ Aguiar remembers from his earliest poems, where ‘the images felt as much as meant something; meaning and feeling occupied the same space.’ In his imaginative return to Airy Hall/Ariel in Dear Future, D’ Aguiar achieves, in the idyllic opening from which the novel gradually darkens, a lightness and élan capable of supporting a substantial shipment of personal and social history.

The Longest Memory (1994), D’ Aguiar’s fictional debut, moved deliberately away from home ground. It was a tentative but at times effectively lyrical novella set in Virginia in the early 19th century. It told of the murder by flogging of a young slave, Whitechapel. Having fallen in love with the plantation-owner’s daughter during forbidden meetings in the library (literacy here is the instrument of a gentle eroticism), Whitechapel plans an escape and elopement. He is betrayed by his father Old Whitechapel, a pragmatic survivor who believes he is acting for the best and that the young man will be punished but not killed; the son’s executioner is, we learn, his white half-brother. Diaries, newspaper editorials, monologues and Whitechapel’s own rhyming couplets are woven together to create the sense of a communal tragedy. The book’s themes – race, family division, memory, loss, betrayal and power – recur in a transfigured form and to much greater effect in Dear Future.

The precocious Red Head, aged nine, is accidentally smashed in the forehead with an axe by his uncle Beanstalk while chopping wood. In his stunned condition he is visited by dreams: one of playing draughts with the President while on horseback; another of a man crippled by polio riding a bicycle off the end of the pier; a third involving a strangely decorated kite (an image harking back to Mama Dot). During this bravura passage, an imp of prophecy also appears, insisting that there were four dreams, not three, and leaving the sinister refrain, ‘There will be red, then there will be black.’ Although some of the dream-elements are encountered later in the book, D’ Aguiar’s use of visions and prophecies has less to do with narrative outcomes than with the description of feelings and states of mind. The initial patterning is allowed to unravel: the fulfilment of one part of the dream-prophecy prevents the fulfilment of another, so that Red Head’s future belongs to the realm of might or should-have-been. At the same time, his unusually adult intelligence is assured of its innocence by the limited experience to which he can apply it. The portents, meanwhile, are offset by the sudden introduction of Red Head’s vast extended family – 26 relatives, including his magnificent grandparents, Bash Man Goady (his older, more matter-of-fact brother) – and his Asian girlfriend Sten, all of whom D’ Aguiar is able to animate in a comedy of ordinary happiness where there appears to be all the time in the world. In Ariel nothing may have quite happened yet, but no aspiration seems implausible, whether it is Uncle Wheels’s ambition to win a national bike race, or Red Head’s to be a draughts champion. In Wheels’s case the family have already decided that he’s the victor, while Red Head’s success is a foregone conclusion. Somewhere in Red Head is a feeling that everything – including the absence of his parents – will come to make sense. Confined to bed by his grandmother after the axe accident he asks when he can get up:

     ‘All I want is to know.’
     ‘Soon, soon.’

     His mother had gone abroad with his three younger brothers and left him in Ariel ... she too had told him soon. She would return soon. That was six months ago. He missed her. She was bony but her skin was soft. She was sweeter than any fruit or flower, whereas Granny carried the odour of soap, and, when she’d just brought clothes in off the line, of the sun. At his age every desire was soon. And his father had gone away. Just like that, he’d dived into the hot afternoon, his eyes hidden with a nod just in time to avoid the sun. The last time Red Head had talked with Bash Man Goady about missing their mother, father and brothers, they were having a walk-race to school. His brother was breathless but he’d paused to draw hard on the air and had spoken as if they had been swinging in the hammock at the bottom of the house.

     ‘If you don’t think about it, it won’t hurt.’

     He had taken his brother’s advice as a necessary gospel. So far it seemed to work when he was awake.

If Ariel is a fragile enclave, it is also a richly mixed society (hence Red Head’s hair). Red Head and his family keep faith with this complexity, and D’ Aguiar allows Ariel its brief utopian moment. ‘Grandad spoke of men who’d married women they’d fallen in love with regardless of race and who had themselves been the products of various unions between the races. He pointed to the fact that he was Portuguese, his wife African, one daughter-in-law half-Amerindian, another Indian. Let them try and separate us. Let them try.’

But the politics of the big city, in which Red Head’s parents are implicated, begin to press in on Red Head and the rest of the family. With the approach of elections, the party of government, bent and in hock to the IMF, seizes on a national tour by the great wrestler Singh to represent its own prowess and symbolise its forthcoming triumph at the polls. Singh, wooed away from the Opposition, has never been known to lose: indeed his attraction lies in the fact that his victory is only ever a formality, as the Government wishes its own to be. The distribution of blank election leaflets, the President remarks, ‘was an act of genius ... if what was meant by it was that the people should write their own campaign promises since their wish was the Government’s command.’ As for Singh, the Government and its fixers have reckoned without the intervention of Red Head’s family, which naturally boasts a wrestling uncle, Bounce. Cunningly trained by Grandad in the psychology of the ring, Bounce wins with a combination of kidology and a strategic headbutt. The transition from comedy to catastrophe is effected with great skill, leaving Red Head’s family and Sten barricaded in the house, besieged by a murderous crowd.

The following section is less successful. Satirising the venal ‘them’ who rule the wholehearted ‘us’ of Ariel, it opens with an evocation of one of Red Head’s dreams, as a civil servant, Brukup, ‘the capital’s best known polio victim’, rides his bike off the end of a pier. He is killing two birds with one stone, disposing of some papers bearing evidence of vote-rigging, while also emptying his bowels. On emerging from the water, he proceeds along the half-made roads of the capital for a relaxing visit to the brothel. D’ Aguiar handles this perfectly efficiently, but like his grotesquely fat and sweaty colleague and rival Gamediser, Brukup has no secrets for the reader to uncover. These figures of Jonsonian appetite only half-engage D’ Aguiar’s interest – and ours. Others in this grim episode of city comedy, such as the President’s secretary-cum-whore, or the dentist paid by the Opposition to bug the President’s teeth, seem to have been recruited from a Tom Sharpe novel. The President himself is vain enough, a nasty piece of work, posing on horseback, threatening his staff with knocking their false teeth out, but that’s all there is to him.

The action moves to Britain for the penultimate section, which recovers the strength of the opening. With three of her sons, Red Head’s mother is in London on behalf of the Government, in theory to mobilise, but in fact to invent, the overseas vote in the forthcoming general election. She is a believer in the President’s work, ripe for exploitation and gradual abandonment by her political masters. When the money runs out, she is forced to move to a grim bedsit and takes on sewing work for Mr Ahmad, who becomes her lover as well as her employer: ‘The children called out one night, thinking perhaps the two adults they adored were choking in the fine dust shed by the fabrics which had taken over the room.’ Ahmad already has a wife, although this is only revealed when Red Head’s mother and the three boys have converted to Islam. As the boys recover from circumcision, Ahmad arrives with a box of Swiss chocolates and announces: ‘You can be wife number two.’ The end of the relationship is a good example of D’ Aguiar’s readiness to include mess and complication, to have his characters follow the zigzag path which leaves this courageous woman even further away from home. The tone of the writing reflects her own determined calm, so that when she is beaten up while using a telephone box, the random horror of this (not wholly unpredictable) incident must be juxtaposed with the boys’ outing on their new bikes (gifts from the still-hopeful Ahmad) over the landscaped hills of a rubbish dump. When Ahmad’s eldest son Shaheen falls off and breaks his arm, one of the boys remarks:

     ‘You fell off your bike, not a tower block.’

     This was a new word in his vocabulary, acquired when he accompanied his mother to view a flat the council had allocated to her, on the 12th floor of an estate made up entirely of several towers. She wanted to take the flat for all the rooms it offered, but when she looked down from the window at the people below, she said they resembled ants and made her feel dirty, since she couldn’t grab a broom and sweep them out of sight.

The London episodes lead back to the theme of time, felt in the whole section as an inescapable inertia, an exile that has still not been admitted. The bedsit itself is a ‘clock’, for whose smooth running she is endlessly responsible; she is also the time-keeper of her own loss, acknowledged in her recognition and accommodation of a monotonous suffering. She thinks of her two sons ‘with such regularity it was more like an occupation, so that the instances when she felt nothing were rare’. The section ends with her lying sleepless at dawn in grey and white London: ‘Soon she would force herself to get up and attack those cuffs and collars, breaking her meticulous stitch in two places and pulling the entire thread clear of the cloth like a bird pulling a worm from a lawn.’

The final section back in Ariel, from which the book takes its title, is a series of letters addressed to the future by Red Head from an imaginative Limbo-state, the simplified landscape of soil and vegetation where he and Bash Man Goady are learning to die:

Dear Future,

I am considering calling off this whole arrangement on account of your stubborn silence. Don’t imagine that I am not aware that this may be a test of my stoicism. I am not a fool. I was hit with the back of an axe and death stopped up to carry me away and I fought him off single-handed.

     Life took my mother and three brothers from me and I put up with what I had left, my elder brother, and lived that life. You should know, dear future, that I laboured on in the belief mat I would see them again.

The reader may well feel manipulated by Red Head’s speculations and enquiries and by his general reasonableness as he comes to realise that this is where things end, that he and Bash Man Goady will never see the family again, that his future cannot exist because he doesn’t. These doubts about the ending of the novel give rise to other questions about the construction of Dear Future. There is a suspicion that the tale may have taken over from the teller, which may account for the feeling that this bold, funny and sensuous book is shadowed at several points (notably in the city-political passages) by a larger, as yet unwritten and probably more conventionally realistic work.