The Books of My Numberless Dreams

A hollow sacrifice

Posted on: October 9, 2007

A Quality of Violence by Andrew Salkey is a strange novel. Set in April 1900 in the eastern part of St. Thomas, a rural Jamaican parish, a large part of its narrative occurs at night and involves long Pocomania rituals. (Perhaps incorrectly, I consider it to essentially be a religion built on obeah, and so I use the terms interchangeably.) I knew little about Pocomania before, only the clothes the women wore when they danced: red and white turbans with pencils inserted at the sides and long, flowing white dresses; and this information is based on an old Jamaican music video I saw when I was a child. (I’m tempted to say it was Oliver Samuel’s “Wild Gilbert” — I’m convinced he’s the one that sung it, but I cannot get confirmation from friends, nor the internet.) Salkey’s detailed description was informative but it did not make it familiar (which was not within his power). I never thought I would read a Jamaican novel that could render any part of its land, history or culture strange, regardless of its time period. Salkey’s epic poem “Jamaica” gave me parts of my history with which I was unfamiliar, but I reacted with a sense of proud ownership and a sort of “Of course! that’s how it happened” attitude. I couldn’t claim Pocomania with the same enthusiasm because its decloaking rendered it more foreign.

A smaller contribution to this reaction is that, again, there are no uncomplicated, straight forward Christian characters. I’ve read a few Jamaican plays, seen a lot more and, typically, such a character is included. If it isn’t then the framework of the play operates on an unquestioning assumption of Christian beliefs. A Quality of Violence is not as detached as Mais’ fiction is, in that respect, but he does not do the predictable thing of setting up a ‘good’ ie Christian against a ‘bad’ ie Pocomania. If there is any such ‘good’ force it is reason and mutual respect.

The prose provided more familiar footing. The third person’s diction, phrasing and tone in the prologue is apocalyptic. If one isn’t determined to be open minded and ready for anything (like I was) one may well drop the book after reading it. Salkey attempts to exude drama and evoke a sense of importance and profundity that the book has not yet earned. The style does not resurface until the epilogue but its positioning as the novel’s frame and the foreboding tone of the opening infuse the entire story. The novel’s main, however, is dominated by dialogue, the characters speaking an informal Jamaican English that often slips into patois, but is not inaccessible to non-Jamaicans. The narrator’s voice here is unintrusive, his descriptions done in a more subdued manner to match.

Besides aesthetic reasons for not wanting one’s entire novel to sound like a bible prophecy, I think that there are thematic ones as well. A major theme is the dichotomy between the African culture of the new citizens and the British Christianity they’ve incorporated into their identity (or had imposed on them) over centuries, in a new country whose indigenous population was wiped out. Christianity is,by implication, the preferred standard as admirable (or at least reasonable) characters like Brother Parkin and his second Mr. Marshall refer to it for guidance. Africa’s influence is comparatively dimmer as its practices are mixed with Christian elements in Pocomania. It is portrayed as confused and harmful, not because its practitioners wield any supernatural power but because it fosters ignorance. Roger Mais’ fiction espoused the same point of view, though Salkey is a smidgen more sympathetic. Brother Parkin described obeah/voodoo ‘as a rather feeble tower of Babel…erected to get nearer the truth of the power of the Almighty.’ But, as mentioned before, the solution offered (an ineffectual one as played out in the story) is a general appeal to the intellect and to the human systems of judgement and thought. Brother Parkin uses Shakespeare as well as the Book of Job as moral authorities and rhetorical tools.

The plot is pretty simple. The island is going through a prolonged drought and small farmers are thinking of emigrating. One couple, the Marshalls, consider Haiti as a probable option and seek more information one evening from another couple, Brother Parkin and Cousin Biddy, who lived there for 2 years. They interrupt the two in the middle of an argument and the subject of Haiti only provokes more angered hysterics from Cousin Biddy and calm, milder replies from Parkin. When the topic is dropped with the Marhsalls no clearer on what they should do, Parkin suggests they attend a Pocomania prayer meeting that is being held in hopes of ending the drought. The Marshalls are Christians but their curiosity wins out and they accompany Parkin. The events during that meeting and the outcome of a much paler, childish imitation of such rituals the next day send the community spiralling into a night of mob violence. The time span is only two days.

The two catalysts for the violence is the drought and the obeah. Salkey describes the desperation men are driven to because of the death that drought brings to the land.

…those whose lives are nearest to it sometimes resent it with a strange violence in the blood. They resent it with a blind, hurricane hatred. And a few resent it but are hopeful. They pray in their own way, make bargains with the carrion-crow, and, after a while, begin to look and act as if they, too, were at an angle, diving towards the land with their mouths opened and their claws bared.

A Quality of Violence emphasises not only the futility and hopelessness of droughts and other dangerous natural phenomena, but the similar qualities they share with humanity’s efforts to control them through religion. Religion itself is a chancy endeavour in which its followers are wholly ignorant of their gods intents and are left throwing darts in the dark at empty solutions.

The drought brings a touch of madness to the land, a kind of rebellion, and a quality of compelling suicide which Calvary once witnessed.

Drought, then, is a kind of sacrifice of the land that serves no higher purpose that we can see. And the comparison to Calvary implies that Jesus’ sacrifice was as futile. In the context of the novel it is because, after centuries, people are ever ready to sink beneath the secure mindlessness of the mob.

Like other religions across the world Pocomania too has its belief system that involves sacrifice. Usually (I assume) this is restricted to the killing of a chicken and the use of its blood. The self-flagellation of the leader and his deputy which was eventually finished by some of the other male participants, seemed to be a special addition done for the drought. As various forms of Christianity in the past and present placed special emphasis on the blood Jesus shed for the world’s sins, so does blood in the rituals have a special power, as explained in the chants.

‘If skin is to cut with lash, then come we lash the skin till water come down and wet the land. If the skin is to break with lash, then come we break the skin till water come down and wet the land. If man must dead with the lash, then come we dead and make water we we and the land.’

The first prayer meeting that Parkin and the Marshalls on the first night, and the impromptu gathering on the second night take up the bulk of the novel. On initial reflection I had not given significant consideration to how this theme was developed in the novel because a) it was mentioned in a blurb on the back of the book and I was reluctant to go the obvious route and b) I hadn’t quite figured out why Salkey linked the drought to Calvary. So this left me with the puzzle as to why Salkey chose, at least in the first instance, to give so much attention to the first prayer meeting. I realised that the details of the meeting were needed for readers to accept the dramatic conclusion. We need to see how involving, mesmerising, how sensational and over-the-top the ritual was and, more importantly, how fervently the followers believed in the leader, Dada Johnson, and the efficacy of the all the crazy procedures. It’s only in seeing how the people’s imaginations are engaged then, how willing they are to be controlled, that readers can believe and even predict how the leader’s wife, Mother Johnson, is able to incite the crowd the next night to violence, even death. If the meeting had been relayed by second hand, or only parts revealed, the story would have lost much of its power.

The Pocomania members fervent belief is undercut by a fact that only the reader and Brother Parkin is aware of. Dada Johnson and his wife were ex-convicts, fraudsters, who plied their trade and moved from place to place. Dada Johnson only believed in his religion in as much as it could earn him some money: he charged a fee to enter his prayer meeting. But the irony cut both ways as Johnson dies, it appears unintentionally, from the whipping that got out-of-control. The next night his widow tries to her deceased husband’s position for her own selfish aims by playing on their beliefs and her assumed knowledge of the dark arts, which also got beyond her control. In A Quality of Violence the consequences of men and women going beyond their human limits, no matter how desperate their situation seems, are often fatal.

I’d like to continue but I’m starving. Hopefully my attention span lasts long enough to explore the dual Jesus figures (very different from Mais’ Brother Man), the dubious presentation of Africa as a “true home” and why I much prefer the women in Mais’ fiction.

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