Brother Man, Part I
Posted January 2, 2007on:
In West Indian literature there is little support for aesthetic ideals like ‘Art for Art’s Sake’. Not in Jamaica at any rate. The overshadow of slavery and colonisation, the ongoing status as a Third World country increasingly dependent on tourism—foreigners spending their shiny, shiny foreign cash—as the agricultural sector weakens, the tragically high crime rates, the political corruption closely tied to the criminal elements, the brain drain to the developed world, this reality is not conducive to vibrant discussions on whether art can and should be its only reason for being.
All Jamaican literature is studied in the New Historicism style (of which post-colonial/postcolonial is an extension in my eye, with the emphasis on studying the text within historical/political frames). This lead naturally, perhaps, from the fact that Jamaican literature of any prominence had engaged with Jamaica’s colonial past, the political culture and sociological problems. I do not find fault with this tactic as long as it is the art form primarily which compels the artist to create, whether it is in the literary, visual or performing arts. If her primary obligation is to any kind of activist aims which just happen to be packaged in a poem for example, the art must then suffer. It is dead before it arrives and only has the possibility of reaching the converted, the people who already support whatever agenda she is peddling.
Karina Williams, in a review of Jean D’Costa’s Roger Mais: The hills were joyful together and Brother Man (Critical Studies of Caribbean Writers), notes that the Mais’ works “success as novels of protest has had a damaging effect on his reputation in the long rub by focusing too much attention on the documentary and polemical element in his work at the expense of his more durable qualities”. This is a shame and also a surprise because, despite being written pre-independence (which, happening in 1962, was not that long ago) many of the political elements are still relevant. The anti-authority strain towards the police is alive in Jamaican society and news of police brutality crops up repeatedly in the news; The questionable role of the Christian church’s effectiveness in helping to address social ills of the lower class; the lower and working classes standard of living; all of this sounds familiar. If people are looking for present-day relevance there is no lack of it in my estimation.
That could be enough said but Roger Mais’ novels, particularly Brother Man, have intrinsic qualities of their own of a calibre that makes them worthy of notice outside of political and sociological concerns. Brother Man, his second novel, is not a mere historical artefact providing a window into Jamaica’s past, but shows an improvement in style, a sophistication in the development of themes and exploration of human character that trumps any of the dated charges that could be more ably aimed at Hills.
 Karina Williamson. “Roger Mais: The Hills Were Joyful Together and Brother Man by Jean D’Costa”. The Review of English Studies. 32 (1981): 245-246