The Books of My Numberless Dreams

“The trifling sprigs of chance”

Posted on: December 19, 2006

The title “The Hills Were Joyful Together” is taken from Psalm 98, one of the popular psalms. The writer exhorts the Israelites to rejoice and praise the Lord for keeping his promise, handing them victory over the “heathens”. He has been faithful and merciful, sing and praise him, even the natural world.

Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.
Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together

It can only be seen as ruthlessly ironic: the characters in the novel are constantly at war with themselves, family members, neighbours and more generally with the corrupted authority figures of society—most directly with the police. There is no clear line between the Israelites and the heathens and there are few signs of mercy from anyone, including God. Old traditions clash or blend with European Christianity and in a country commonly seen as decisively Christian, the citizens’ reality erodes that faith until it is abandoned or becomes nothing but an empty habit.

The story structure is done in three parts, set in Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, during the early 1950’s. It is still a *British colony but by this time the movement for independence and black power is already developed. Workers unions formed to counteract the abusive power of the “sugar barons”, pulling reinforcements of police from the city to the country. (By 1962 Jamaica would be independent with a constitutional democracy.)

Initially this seems to be of minor concern to Mais as he focuses on the lives of persons in a small inner-city community. His careful descriptions of the ramshackle “barrack-like shacks…crazily-leaning fence” and a “standpipe…leaking continually…a weary trickle of water” in the yard convey a grim picture of their impoverished existence. While many find what work they can, including Zephyr who is a prostitute, the pay can only support a meagre existence. None of the teenagers seem to be in school. The characters internal and familial problems are often caused and always exacerbated by their poverty—and the solutions to them are sought violently. Manny, at 19, desires Euphemia an older women who is Shag’s girlfriend and cheating on him with Bajun. (Everyone knows this except Shag.) When Manny becomes too aggressive after being repeatedly rebuffed she slaps his face and it degenerates into a full-blown fight, each giving kick for blow. No one interferes until Manny brings out a knife (which he stole). The men’s self-identity and ego are particularly entangled with violent force and power. Shag may not yet know of Euphemia’s infidelity but, at a joyous community fire-side scene he tells a tale of a friend who “chopped up” his cheating girlfriend and her lover with a machete. Indeed it turns out that Shag has his own machete resting under the bed and, when he finds Euphemia and Bajun in the act, questions his masculinity and even the strength of his love for her because he is hesitant to commit murder in vengeance.

He could chop the woman up, yes, but somehow he didn’t care that much. He toyed with the idea for a moment…and wondered was it that he was wanting in manhood, that he did not care enough to kill her?

The novel’s scope widens when the unemployed Surjue participates with Flitters in an attempted robbery in order to acquire funds to support another criminal operation. They are stopped on top of the roof in the act, Flitters abandons Surjue who provided his opportunity to escape, and Surjue is arrested. What follows is vicious police brutality of such an awesome scale that one cannot question that the brutal, unjust penal code is good for little else but keeping the police and judicial workers very busy. Surjue is given no bail and is viciously beaten with a baton and a cow whip in questioning, before he is even sentenced. The prisons are worse: Surjue and Mais note from the beginning that the prisoners are treated worst than animals; the wards’ threat of violence is never far and sanitation is a joke.

He had said to himself, if you give people that kind of power over other people, what’d you expect? It came like second nature to them to knock the prisoners around….they treated animals better. A man could get into trouble for being cruel to an animal. But there was no law protecting criminals…criminals had died of the beatings and the B rations and the dysentery and the further beatings they got, and the doctor made out a certificate of death by pneumonia…Of course the doctor wasn’t wrong when he put down pneumonia, or whatever it was, on the death certificate. He wasn’t required to set down that…[it] was brought about by the man’s ribs being broken, say, and his lying for three days in a dumb-cell without seeing a doctor, and a piece of one of his ribs sticking into his lungs.

Book One ends in a crescendo of violence. It abates slightly in Book Two but continues relentlessly until the very last page. Mais’ is more overt in his condemnation of a corrupted police force where the few good members are rarely rewarded; of a penal code that made prison “a place of detention and punishment. Not as a hospital for morally sick people, a place of rehabilitation. It is like taking your consumptive old grandmother, and burying her, to cure the disease”; of the upper-classes “who thought, ain’t old slums awfully quaint-looking and romantic, and in their own way beautiful?” while sipping tea in restaurants and reading Book-of-the-Month selections oblivious; and of the Anglican church which was invisible, save in the form of a lonely Chaplain who does his best but holds little influence.

We see how the imprisonment of the men affects their families at home. Rema, his loving, faithful, dependent girlfriend is destroyed by Surjue’s imprisonment. At the beginning she and Zephyr are determined to find a lawyer to seek Surjue’s bail, but by Book Two, when four years have passed, we know that that was a lost cause. Her eventual descent into insanity is the most heartbreaking plot line of a story that does not want for misery.

The moral sickness of the characters often physically manifests itself. Bedosa is a malicious, spiteful man who, out of cowardice and insecurity, sought power over the community by spreading lies or twisted truths. One day he mysteriously develops severe stomach pains from eating his wife’s stale patties. Charlotta insisted she had just made them. Euphemia, after Shag’s unconsciously pointed violent tale, becomes incredibly anxious and complains of a nondescript malady. Ironically he considers sending her to the country for fresh air when he needs it more: he has tuberculosis, developed at his work place. As the disease takes its physical toll so does his morals under the knowledge of Euphemia’s betrayal. And on it goes, the more medieval take on man’s humours.

After all this it may be hard to believe but there are moments of happiness or at least contentment for some of the characters. Before his imprisonment Surjue and Rema had a good relationship as do Ras and Cassie. Zephyr, a typical prostitute-with-heart-of-gold, is a help to everyone. Mass Mose, an old cobbler, is a respected figure in the community. Even Mais’ prose shows moments of whimsy. Throughout the narrative of Book One he continually portrays, in almost every chapter, how primarily the sunlight or the moonlight hits and is affected by objects in a scene. And how the wind sounds through the leaves, through a hole in three, a crack through the door, or observes it playing with papers, with someone’s clothes, with a loose corrugated roof.

The sun hard rolled up high and hot in the cloudless metallic sky…the light seemed to split up into a thousand flaky fragments as it flowed over the oily leaves of the lime tree…The wind made a shushing sound going through the mango tree, lifted the loose dust that covered the worn bricks and scattered sharp grit on the iron roofs of the shacks like dropping rain.

These passages helped to visually place me in to the Jamaican environment as well as the familiar details of the corrugated roofs or the Ward Theatre in downtown Kingston. Every naming of a familiar fruit, star apple, guinep (which I did not know how to spell ’till now), june plum, even the many orange peels described lying on piles of days old garbage made me smile. Best of all was the patois, the recognised phrases, the image of the woman at the back of the house washing clothes and singing hymns, just as my aunt always did and still does.

Reading Jamaican novels really did set home more firmly in my personal landscape.

*My knowledge of this period is based on the novel, vague pieces of info I’ve picked up from assorted media (including music) and basic information on Marcus Garvey learnt in primary school. We never covered post-Emancipation Jamaican history at any school I attended and pre-Emancipation was just some stuff on Columbus, the Tainos and Caribs.

** I am not quite done with my thoughts on this book but I am trying to be as concise as possible. I would promise a second post but truth is I may become distracted by another novel.

(Edited because there were horrible errors that I can only notice days after posting. My apologies.)

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4 Responses to "“The trifling sprigs of chance”"

You are a wonderfully articulate blogger! Always reading such interesting material!!

Thank you very much for thinking so Heather T. I admit that I regretting posting it as soon as I hit submit because I more or less thought it was a bumbling mess. Sigh.

[…] 1. Isabella (The Charmer)2. Carrie (Getting Serious About Getting Married: Rethinking the “Gift” of Singleness)3. Imani (The Hills Were Joyful Together)4. Monica (children’s books make me cry)5. MFS (The Ode Less Travelled)6. Janie (It Doesn’t Take a Genius) […]

[…] malicious pettiness can be found in all of Roger Mais’ novels. Bedosa, in The Hills Were Joyful Together, was a cowardly, insecure man who spread lies out of envy. The chorus in Brother Man was the […]

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