V.S. Naipaul, E. Lovelace, a new Caribbean Poetics, and the Right to Obscurity

Essay, 2004

14 Pages, Grade: Merit

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V.S. Naipaul, E. Lovelace, a new Caribbean Poetics and the Right to Obscurity

According to Homi Bhabha, colonial discourse centers on a “recognition and disavowal of racial/cultural/historical differences”. ‘Subject peoples’ are positioned as such through “the production of knowledge in terms of which surveillance is exercised and a complex form of pleasure/unpleasure is incited (Bhabha 1994:70):

[C]olonial discourse produces the colonized as a social reality which is at once an ‘other’ and yet entirely knowable and visible. It resembles a form of narrative where the productivity and circulation of subjects and signs are bound in a reformed and recognizable totality (Bhabha 1994:70-71).

By imposing an all-encompassing, universalizing discourse, which is produced and structured by the Foucauldian power/knowledge couplet, on other territories, peoples and cultures, colonization produces a colonial subject that is at once different (and needless to say inferior) and “yet entirely knowable and visible” (Bhabha 1994:71).

With decolonization and the emergence of independence movements, however, also came the need to resist the universalizing power/knowledge regimes of colonial discourse – to articulate an independent identity grounded in a memory of historical experiences which are no longer seen as mere parts of a metropolitan historical narrative. Edouard Glissant’s demand for a new Caribbean Discourse, a new cross-cultural poetics structured by both the idea and the reality of creolization, can also be located in this particular context. Glissant treats creolization as both “the basic symptom of the cross-cultural contact” specific to the Caribbean and as an abstract idea with a global trajectory (Glissant 1989:140). Moreover, the dual process of re-appropriating the signifying elements of the past, and of articulating them in a new Caribbean discourse does not consist in the recovery of a past buried under a totalizing, colonial narrative; it is not a question of something already there, but rather the aesthetic process of re-articulating the past in the present by retroactively conferring meaning upon it. Barbara J. Webb calls this dual process “naming” and “unnaming”:

Caribbean writers are therefore involved in a dual process of naming and unnaming; the first by laying claim to their own past and their own traditions, and the latter by dismantling the hidden mechanisms of political and cultural domination (Webb 1992:7).

To deconstruct colonial discourse and to dismantle its power/knowledge regimes, thus, also implies a need for obscurity, a need to assert one’s difference, to become unknowable. As a consequence, language emerges as a privileged site of postcolonial struggles. Or as Maryse Condé puts it:

Language is a site of power: who names, controls. The politically and economically alienated colonized are first colonized linguistically. In their attempts to gain freedom and self-determination, the colonized must put an end to the preeminence of the colonial language (Condé 1998:102).

Edouard Glissant for instance expresses the need to make French and Creole opaque to each other, alongside the more general need for obscurity vis-à-vis a transparent Western universality (Glissant 1989:133; 166).

This paper will attempt to analyze how the two Trinidadian novels, The Mystic Masseur by V.S. Naipaul and The Dragon can’t dance by Earl Lovelace, relate to the above-outlined dual process of naming and unnaming. Or more specifically, it will try to read these novels against the background of the following statement which raises some of the aforementioned points:

What these writers offer is a new poetics for the Caribbean: an affirmation that creolization means “difference” – the right to opacity as Glissant puts it – and consequently the refusal of universal transparent models. This poetics celebrates the right to borrow or absorb selected components of the “other” without relinquishing one’s own dimensions; it is an interplay of mutual mutations (Balutansky and Sourieau 1994:8).

Do Naipaul and Lovelace offer a new poetics for the Caribbean which asserts creolization as the right to opacity, as an attempt to escape the universalizing transparency imposed by the power/knowledge regimes of colonial discourse?

V.S. Naipaul’s novel The Mystic Masseur relates the career of Ganesh, a Trinidadian of East-Indian descent whose trickery and role-play allow him to rise from “a struggling masseur” to a colonial politician (Naipaul 2002:1). The Mystic Masseur which was first published in 1957 can be read as an ironic portrayal of the first generation of corrupt Trinidadian politicians emerging during the first general election in 1946 (Mann 1984:476). Sachdeva Mann argues that The Mystic Masseur “exemplifies Naipaul’s early critical stance on mimicry as a theme” (Mann 1984:469). Indeed, mimicry emerges as the central theme of the novel and Ganesh, the failed teacher-turned-mystic-turned-politician emerges as the supreme mimic man.

Homi Bhabha posits mimicry “as one of the most elusive and effective strategies of colonial power and knowledge” (Bhabha 1994:86). Mimicry which springs from a desire to produce a knowable Other “as a subject of difference that is almost the same, but not quite” centers around an ambivalence and indeterminacy, that is to say that mimicry in producing almost the same, but not quite represents a disavowed difference and thus constructs the colonial subject as a partial presence (Bhabha 1994:86). In deploying the strategy of mimicry colonial discourse therefore “depends on a proliferation of inappropriate objects that ensure its strategic failure, so that mimicry is at once resemblance and menace” (Bhabha 1994:86). Since it has to produce knowable colonial subjects, which are almost the same, but not quite, through the strategy of mimicry, colonial discourse is based on a merely partial representation of the colonized, whilst there still remains a ‘kernel’ which on the one hand eludes or resists representation and on the other constitutes the condition of possibility for such a discourse. Consequently, mimicry is both an integral part of colonial discourse and a potential strategy for its subversion.

The story of Ganesh’s career told from the point of view of a narrator who as a native Trinidadian acts as Ganesh’s biographer highlights the inherent ambivalence of mimicry oscillating between its complicity in colonial domination and its potential subversion of the latter. The narrator establishes Ganesh as a fraud from the outset:

Later he was to be famous and honoured throughout the South Caribbean; he was to be a hero of the people and, after that, a British representative at Lake Success. But when I first met him he was still a struggling masseur at a time when masseurs were ten a penny in Trinidad (Naipaul 2002:1).

Since honour and fame do not normally come the way of “struggling masseur[s]”, “Ganesh’s later success appears to be, of necessity, fraudulent” (Mann 1984). The narrator is used as a device which creates an ironical distance and serves to expose the gap between ‘reality’ and mimicry. For example when Ganesh advocates the use of correct English instead of dialect the narrator shows us the discrepancy between Ganesh’s pretensions “to talk the people language good” and ‘reality’:

One day he said, ‘Leela, is high time we realize that we living in a British country and I think we shouldn’t be shamed to talk the people language good.’ […] ‘All right, man.’ ‘We starting now self, girl.’ ‘As you say, Man.’ ‘Good. Let me see now. Ah yes. Leela, have you lighted the fire? No, gimme a chance. Is “lighted” or “lit”, girl?’ ‘Look, ease me up, man. The smoke going in my eye.’ ‘You ain’t paying attention, girl. You mean the smoke is going in your eye’ (Naipaul 2002:65-66).

Ironically, although the use of mimesis as a narrative technique produces a whole set of realistic effects and serves to mock and ironize Ganesh’s mimicry the “real” Ganesh eludes us throughout the whole novel. This has to do with the fact that the narrator who purports to tell Ganesh’s real story is himself involved in Ganesh’s mimicry:

Paradoxically, he [the narrator] is implicated in the very mimicry that is his subject, for, in telling this history of a confidence man, he is himself creating an illusion, mimicking reality, and tricking his readers into accepting his fabrication as authentic (Mann 1984:476).

The composition of the whole novel involves, however, a triple structure of mimicry, for the fact that Naipaul himself seems to mimic the literary convention of the novel which is arguably a European form, adds another level to the dual structure of the character’s and the narrator’s mimicry.

As a result of the prominence given to the theme of mimicry, the novel’s relation to a new Caribbean poetics which affirms creolization as difference, as a right to opacity is marked by the ambiguous nature of mimicry itself and its relation to colonial discourse. The triple structure of mimicry in The Mystic Masseur simultaneously reinforces and subverts colonial discourse. On the one hand, we can read the novel as the picaresque spectacle of a small unimportant island whose inhabitants make fools of themselves because, in all their otherness, they just want to be like us. Naipaul’s preface which establishes English geography as a frame of reference for Trinidadian society testifies to fact that since the novel caters to an English audience it runs the risk of reproducing a kind of Western transparency by making Trinidadian society knowable to English readers:

All characters, organizations, and incidents in this novel are fictitious. This is a necessary assurance, although its politicians have taken to calling it a country, Trinidad is a small island, no bigger that Lancashire, with a population some what smaller that Nottingham’s (Naipaul 2002: preface).

On the other hand, however, The Mystic Masseur may be read as affirming Trinidad’s fundamental difference, as making Ganesh in particular and Trinidadian society in general opaque to a Western audience; for as readers we only get a partial representation of Trinidad. It is precisely the novel’s deployment of mimicry which ensures that Trinidad is only represented as the same but not quite, whereas its fundamental difference remains elusive and opaque. The theme of mimicry can also be seen as a creative response to the trauma of the colonial encounter – a response which asserts difference through repetition.

Earl Lovelace’s novel The Dragon can’t Dance which was first published in 1979 deals with a related but different form of role-play and masquerade which also highlights a different aspect of Trinidadian society. At the heart of the novel lies the masquerade of carnival and its significance for the inhabitants of a shantytown called Calvary Hill. Carnival which is a fusion of African and European elements expresses the population’s desire for unfettered movement and freedom (Philip 1998:130). The early beginnings of the Trinidad carnival can be traced back to the arrival of French planters in the 18th century. From the emancipation of the slaves in 1838 onwards, however, carnival came to represent Afro-Trinidadians’ resistance to colonial domination (Scher 2002:468). The fact that carnival in its subversion of social hierarchies, in its excessive hedonism and its transgression of boundaries was always identified as a threat to authority “is to be found in the struggle to control it – first by colonial governors, then by subsequent governments” (Philip 1998:130).

On Calvary Hill, where the “Trinity of Idleness, Laziness and Waste” is cultivated, the masquerade of carnival embodies the realization of dreams and hopes (Lovelace 1998:11). “Carnival it is that springs this hill alive” (Lovelace 1998:11). For the dispossessed and socially alienated people of Calvary Hill Carnival is the only means to exercise their right to opacity, to affirm their difference vis-à-vis the Other. During the two days of Carnival the people of Calvary Hill in particular and socially marginalized Trinidadians in general are able to assert their power and agency, to perform an assumed identity and, through this performance, assume subject positions that have repercussions even beyond carnival. Miss Cleothilda who plays the queen of the Calvary Hill carnival band carries on her “presumed gentility” all year long:

[T]he hill knew what she knew: that to her being queen was not really masquerade at all, but the annual affirming of a genuine queenship that she accepted as hers by virtue of her poise and beauty, something acknowledged even by her enemies, something that was not identical with her mulattohood, but certainly impossible without it (Lovelace 1998:18-19).

Or Aldrick who performs a dancing dragon:

Aldrick was a dragon. He was a hustler, working nowhere; and the only responsibility he was prepared to bear now was to his dragon, that presentation on Carnival day of the self that he had lived the whole year. He had his life (Lovelace 1998:44).

The identities gained through the masquerade of carnival are, however, precisely like identities based on mimicry, mere simulations, simulacra, copies without original:

And he thought, Aldrick thought: ‘You know, tomorrow is no Carnival.’ And he understood then what it meant when people said that they wished every day was Carnival. For the reign of kings and queens was ending, costumes used to display the selves of people were going to be taken off. What of the selves of those thousands? What of his own self (Lovelace 1998:125)?

Moreover, The Dragon can’t Dance also shows how a ritual which crystallizes the selves of dispossessed people and their memories of resistance against colonialism is appropriated by the establishment. An increasing mainstreaming and commercialization puts carnival as a ritual of resistance, which is intricately bound up with the way marginalized people perceive themselves, in jeopardy:

Once upon a time the entire Carnival was expressions of rebellion. […] [A]nd there were devils, black men who blackened themselves further with black grease to make their very blackness a menace, a threat (Lovelace 1998:121).

Lovelace describes how Carnival is turned from a cultural response to colonial domination, from an affirmation of otherness as a threat, from a ritual of resistance into a commercialized spectacle of a domesticated and hence perfectly knowable other.

Both mimicry and carnival are still aligned with what Glissant calls counterpoetics, they are still “locked into a defensive strategy – that is, into an unconscious body of knowledge through which the popular consciousness asserts both its rootlessness and its density” (Glissant 1989:132). While Naipaul’s characters do not “move from this unconscious awareness to a conscious knowledge of self”, Aldrick acquires this knowledge while serving his six-year sentence for his last masquerade, the kidnapping of two policemen (Glissant 1989:132). Aldrick becomes aware of the fact that people like him have no agency, that their subjectivities are positioned through the discourse of the Other:

‘Even with guns in we hand, even with power, we was looking to somebody else to make a decision. … Even when we have power, when we have guns. Is like we ain’t have no self. I mean, we have a self but the self we have is for somebody else. Is like even when we acting we ain’t the actor (Lovelace 1998:188).

Aldrick’s masquerades may be read metonymically as the symbol of a marginalized people’s search for a means of expression, for a poetics which enable them to articulate their identity, to assert their difference and to exercise their right to opacity. Lovelace’s The Dragon can’t dance clearly expresses the need for a new Caribbean poetics which is capable of moving beyond masquerade, beyond the merely defensive configurations of a counterpoetics. Moreover, the very structure of the novel, which consists of an assemblage of fragments like carnival itself, a constantly shifting, unstable synthesis of disparate elements, undermines any notion of “a form of narrative where the productivity and circulation of subjects and signs are bound in a reformed and recognizable totality” (Bhabha 1994:71). In Lovelace’s novel there emerges no such totality, only fragments which are loosely connected and the empty, hollow ring of “[a]ll o’ we is one” (Lovelace 1998:19).

The new Caribbean poetics envisaged in Glissant’ Caribbean Discourse – a truly cross-cultural poetics structured by an awareness of creolization as both an idea and a reality – is a potential, a necessary possibility and not an already-existing entity. The use of the Creole language “to create texts that remain faithful to the cultural environment that produced them” alone does not mean that these texts “participate[…] in the collective project of deconstructing the language of power” (Condé 1998:104). On the contrary, the deployment of Creole as a mimetic device may even unwittingly serve to reinforce the power/knowledge regimes of colonial discourse by constructing both the Creole language and its speakers “as a social reality which is at once an ‘other’ and yet entirely knowable and visible” (Bhabha 1994:71). If the virtual logic of a deployment of different forms of masquerade, such as mimicry and carnival, however, is pushed to its limits, it may result in a blurring of the demarcation line between real and virtual, and thereby also undermine the epistemological foundations on which Western power/knowledge regimes are based.


Balutansky, M. K., and M.-A. Sourieau. (1994). "Introduction". In Caribbean Creolization. Reflections on the Cultural Dynamics of Language, Literature, and Identity, edited by M. K. Balutansky and M.-A. Sourieau. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Bhabha, H. (1994). The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.

Condé, Maryse. (1998). "Creolité without the Creole Language?" In Caribbean Creolization. Reflections on the Cultural Dynamics of Language, Literature, and Identity, edited by M. K. Balutansky and M.-A. Sourieau. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Glissant, E. (1989). Caribbean Discourse. Translated by M. Dash. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Lovelace, E. (1998). The Dragon can't dance. New York: Persea Books. Original edition, 1979.

Mann, S. H. (1984). "Variations on the Theme of Mimicry: Naipaul's The Mystic Masseur and The Suffrage of Elvira". Modern Fiction Studies 30 (3):467-485.

Naipaul, V. S. (2002). The Mystic Masseur. London: Picador. Original edition, 1957.

Philip, N. M. (1998). "Race, Space, and the Poetics of Moving". In Caribbean Creolization. Reflections on the Cultural Dynamics of Language, Literature, and Identity, edited by M. K. Balutansky and M.-A. Sourieau. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Scher, W. P. (2002). "Copyright Heritage: Preservation, Carnival and the State in Trinidad". Anthropological Quarterly 75 (3):453-484.

Webb, B. J. (1992). Myth and History in Caribbean Fiction. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

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V.S. Naipaul, E. Lovelace, a new Caribbean Poetics, and the Right to Obscurity
University of Newcastle upon Tyne
Caribbean Creolization
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Naipaul, Lovelace, Caribbean, Poetics, Right, Obscurity, Caribbean, Creolization
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M.A. Markus Kienscherf (Author), 2004, V.S. Naipaul, E. Lovelace, a new Caribbean Poetics, and the Right to Obscurity, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/109691


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