Brother Man, Part II
Posted January 2, 2007on:
Brother Man is named after the hero, a Rastafarian living in a lane, one of the lower income communities in Kingston. I know little about Rastfarianism but from what I googled Brother Man embodied the the ideal and profile of his faith: he was politically passive, non-violent and of the lower classes. Society’s view of Rastafarians was, on the other hand, wholly negative in the 1950’s: they were “bearded drug addicts”, a “cult of outcasts”, which the novel reflects having been written at the time. He is an informal counsellor, healer and of general help to others in the community. He took into his home a young girl, Minette, from the street when she was 17; she has been there for two years at the start of the story, filling the role of home-maker although their relationship is platonic. As the story progresses he evolves into a Christ figure, preaching love for one’s fellow man above all, and suffers through the inevitable fall and crucifixion (which, being Mais, is not as symbolic as one would like).
The novel has five parts, each of which opens with a Chorus of people in the lane, echoing the Greek tragedies. Mais effectively flips their role here: this is no ideal audience, sympathetic to the character’s plights, but a self-pitying group of incessant, malicious gossipers and ‘back-biters’, spurned on by “their own secret terror…telling their own hunger and haltness and lameness and nightness and negation, like flies buzzing an open unremitting sore, tasting again, renewing, and giving again, the wounds they have taken of the world”. Their speech is not formal but a deep Jamaican patois. As Brother Man’s star rises, as he becomes more popular, draws large crowds even from the city, and his message of rebuking evil “to follow after righteousness”, the chorus’ character softens, the members are kinder, more charitable and sympathetic to others. The moon and the ocean breeze, a symbol of spiritual enlightenment and an agent of moral cleansing are elements in these scenes in contrast to part one where the chorus stands in the “noisome yard” where a standpipe leaks making “waste in the sun-cracked green-slimed concrete cistern”. When the chorus is uneasy, reverting back to its selfish behaviour, which it had never truly abandoned, the reader knows that fortunes have plummeted.
There is the expected cast of characters whose stories interconnect and alternately take centre stage. Minette, the young woman taken in by Brother Man, is a caring but frustrated character. She had been a runaway from the country in Kingston with no prospects, living on the largesse of strange men until she approached Brother Man. His simple kindness helped to rebuild her self-esteem and respect and, of course, she wishes to repay him in a fashion most familiar to her.
She wanted more than anything in the world that she should be able to give him something in return for all he had done for her, that she should share his life with him, as she shared his home; in short, become his mistress, since she had never thought of asking him to marry her. And in her simple way of looking at things there was nothing at all the matter with that; men and women had lived like that all over the place, in the country and in the city alike. It didn’t matter the least, it was nothing.
Girlie is Papacita’s live-in girlfriend, one of Mais’ typically strong women, physically able to hold her own against most, responsible for house and funds, holding up in spite of her mate’s inadequacies. Papacita is a man-about-town, unemployed at the beginning, supported by Girlie, yet it is likely to be in another woman’s bed as in hers on any given night. He is her only weakness, physically as well as emotionally. Theirs is a primal relationship where Papacita’s hold over her, his ability to keep some respect from her and himself after each straying episode is of violent sexual dominance. She goads him, ignores him, he attacks and the struggle continues until she is subdued.
It wasn’t play, either: it was all in deadly earnest. And it happened like this every time he played fast and loose with her, chasing other women. Every time he had to force her, as he was forcing her now, as he had had to force her that first time, the very first time he had taken her…It acted upon them both like whips, goading them on to a kind of sexual indulgence, that to them, of all pleasures, had not its parallel in the world of experience.
Out of bed she never hesitates to give the first blow if provoked, or respond to his physical overtures, until she is too hurt to retaliate or is goaded beyond endurance and raises the stakes. Like Manny’s fight with Euphemia after she rejects his advances and Shag’s fatal attack on her The Hills Were Joyful Together, violence is a fixture of the twisted relationships in these communities.
Jesmina is the other young woman in the novel who is taking care of her ill older sister Cordelia and her infant son. Cordelia’s husband has been sentenced to prison for five years, convicted of selling marijuana. Jesmina is anxious about her sister’s welfare with the bread winner gone and her dress making job the sole means of support. She is determined to remain with her sister but is understandably concerned how this will affect the direction of her own life. She has a boyfriend who is obviously serious about her but she is unable to share her concerns, neglecting him for the sake of her family.
The matter is worsened by Cordelia’s mental regression. Brother Man helps to heal her malady with home-brewed remedies and prayer, but when her baby falls ill his skills prove ineffective. He gives her money for the doctor and for the prescription she is given. Unfortunately the mental stress coupled with ardent belief in spiritual cures over science, she never buys it. Instead she seeks the help of an obeah man, a practitioner of the occult. Here again we see the tragic repercussions of the gap left by the imprisoned male family member (Surjue and Rema) and distorted religious belief (Charlotta ). Cordelia’s mental instability produces an burgeoning animosity towards Brother Man, making her instrumental in his downfall as well as hers.
The reader sympathises with the characters, even more so than in Hills because Mais tightens his focus on them in the overall scheme of the story. He is less enamoured with his role as prophet: gone are the random philosophical passages and deviations from the plot to develop religious themes. Instead the Chorus replaces the first to remarkable effect and the story’s action more ably handles the second. The narrative flow is better: descriptions of settings are more expertly written, more necessary to the aims of the story than in Hills where it came off as merely being serviceable. Indeed I thought that Hills often read more like a play at certain points with no benefit to its style or content; instead it added a veneer of artificiality in the treatment of different story lines, with echoes of “Enter, stage right!” sounding in my head when each new one appeared. Brother Man shows no traces of this.
In short it was a perfect ending to my reading year. I am looking forward to Black Lightning, which I may get to next month. The action takes place in a rural setting, a change from the first two novels, and I’m curious to see what Mais does with his themes and character archetypes there. After that I will post a general assessment of the novels, addressing the themes he repeatedly explores from different angles. That’s the plan anyway.
 Religious Movements: Rastafarianism. http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/nrms/rast.html