The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Listen, the Wind and other stories: first impressions

Posted on: June 20, 2007

I read the first three stories in this collection and, so far, Mais’ style or technique reminded me of two authors.: Ayi Kwei Armah and Virginia Woolf. Armah because of the fiction’s direct engagement with the political, social world — its faults, its dangerous state — in a highly symbolic, allegorical fashion, in which characters are given just enough detail for the reader to hold on to. Woolf because in one story, “The Tramp”, it echoed that technique often used in Mrs Dalloway where a character’s concrete observations of the current moment are taken to a more abstract, expansive level.

The stories are short, none more than five pages, and in them Mais appears to be working out or exploring a concept rather than aiming for a conventionally rendered narrative. In “Look Where You’re Going” the protagonist is ‘a very serious young man’ who is penned in, by societal expectations and economic necessity, the predictable life cycle of *government work ( a desk job), finding a mate, buying a little plot of land and establishing a family. He rebels against these constraints regularly, taking on jobs then quitting, finding a girl, coming close to marriage, then breaking it off, restlessly trying to find out what he was really meant to do, inevitably returning to the mainstream when necessity calls for cash.

But all he wants to do is to be free, as he tells God.

Lord, he would say, I want to be one of the debonair whose inheritance is the earth, as they say. I want to do the maddest, gladdest things, just for the fun of it. To take the delight of it straight to others, just as light carries its luminance to all the objects that come within its radius. And never do a mean thing. To fear nothing so much as the naughty slip into some little meanness, that is more often that not sheer stupidity.

He wants creative freedom essentially, and through it, perhaps, in fulfilling his potential, connecting with other persons, each allowed the same privilege, possessing the same beautiful potential, flourishing and ‘spontaneous, as the green idea of growth’. But he would occasionally backslide, he would re-enter the pen that reduced him to little more than a cog in the machine, and sometimes he would think, in resignation, that society was not for and could not be the organic, “whole green universe” he craved.

One of the primary ways in which Mais’ style here differs from Armah’s is the light humour running under this depiction of a serious young man. It gives the story an accessibility, a friendly tone that balances the gravity of its concerns. Mais is sympathetic to this would-be writer (the protagonist started a novel) who knows it takes “courage to face the future without security of any sort” and whose courage often fails him.

At the beginning of the story I wasn’t sure if I could take this hero seriously. Ah, you want to be free with no responsibilities, without the responsibility of money, just to be mad and glad, eh? What a hippie. But wasn’t that so predictable, to mock and belittle an attitude or idea, a person who was not wise enough to search for something meaningful in the accepted societal framework, who dared to consider a life for himself beyond what I thought possible?

The “Jungle” and “The Tramp” are more overtly evocative of Mais’ The Hills Were Joyful Together, filled with the kind of abstract, philosophizing passages that evade easy comprehension. Not entirely out of reach, but not securely grasped either (for me, at any rate). In the “Jungle” the protagonist is walking steadily down a road in a city at 3:30 am envisioning himself in a jungle filled with lethal, violent, stalking cats and mangy, scavenging dogs. It was a “shriek…of…terror or pain”, one “almost human” that provoked it.

His thoughts are quite dark, even morbid. He dwells on the repeated shrieks, trying to discern what kind of victim it might be (woman or child?) without ever showing any real concern for its fate. He moves on to consider his own death, taking for granted that it will be a violent one, the only unsettled matter being whether he will fall under “the great cats” or the “foul and sulking” dogs. It took me a while to figure out wtf Mais was writing about. Always one has the vague idea on initial readings.

It’s linked to the first story I think. There we had the young man reaching out for what he wanted out of life but always diverging, going off on different paths, often dejected. Here we have a man deciding, basically, that he’s going to go big rather than go home. Despite society’s general encouragement of conforming mediocrity, the well-meaning and not so well-meaning discouragement of friends and acquaintances, petty grudges and misunderstandings, essentially all the usual obstacles that obstruct ambitions, he’ll remain steady to his goals. This isn’t a very bolstering, happy read though, because he does not contemplate his success but how he’ll crash. The violent imagery works because Mais’ stories deal with the poorer class, the under-represented, neglected members of Jamaican society who lived a rough life in which violence was a familiar element. And, these days, it’s something no Jamaican of whatever class can ignore.

Still, despite it’s meaning, the man’s ruminations have a very dreamy, wayward tinge that raises questions. It’s answered at the end when it’s revealed that he’s drunk, walking, stumbling “with an almost comical precision, a nice discrimination”. One is tempted to laugh and brush the whole thing off, and it’s an option, but it’s one Mais makes difficult to choose. He ends the tale with a perfect simplicity that sums up the story’s main theme.

His thoughts were overtaken by the darkness, and the gloominess, and the eeriness, and death. But his feet were taking him home.

This got long. I’ll write up on the third story in the next post.

*I imagine that in the 50’s the best opportunities available for work was in government service.

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