Paul Dorn: George Lamming Article
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Seen From All Sides:
George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin
Originally written for Caribbean Literature, taught Spring 1995 at the San Francisco Art Institute by Alexandra Morrison
Beyond the bloodshed and brutality of conquest, colonialism is experienced on a more intimate scale. The historic scars of imperial subjugation may be revealed in the difficult relationship between a poor, rural mother and her better educated son; the trauma a village feels at a violation of its customs by an outsider; the cruel way an occupying power punishes a talented native for pursuing cultural rewards it has stimulated a desire for. The colonial tradition has resulted in societies that continue to frustrate the full development of individual personality; divide communities according to complexion, class and belief; and limit possibilities for expression and achievement.
This legacy of colonialism forms a common theme for many of the writers emerging from the Anglophone Caribbean. In attempting to relate this experience as felt by both communities and individuals, these writers have used a variety of narrative forms. Earl Lovelace's novel The Schoolmaster employs a consistent third-person narrative to convey the damage done to a traditional community by encroaching modern society. To relate the experience of an individual victimized by a racist colonial social order, Harold Bascom uses a consistent third-person narrative in his novel Apatha. For George Lamming, however, a single narrative approach is inadequate to properly convey the effects of colonial oppression.
Creatively reconstructing the "world of the whole Caribbean reality," Lamming uses multiple narrative perspectives for his novel In the Castle of My Skin. This approach was derived from Lamming's understanding of the complex colonial experience in the Caribbean. In his 1983 introduction to Castle, Lamming indicated that British colonialism had created a fragmented society, torn between its desire to emulate the "Mother" country and the need to establish an independent existence.
"It was not a physical cruelty. Indeed, the colonial experience of my generation was almost wholly without violence. No torture, no concentration camp, no mysterious disappearance of hostile natives, no army encamped with orders to kill. The Caribbean endured a different kind of subjugation. It was a terror of the mind; a daily exercise in self-mutilation. Black versus Black in a battle for self-improvement." (George Lamming, In the Castle of My Skin; Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994; p. xxxix)
Lamming reveals the colonial experience of the village - also suggesting the experience of the entire Caribbean - through three narrative vehicles: the first-person autobiographical account of the character G.; the third-person account of the conversations between the Old Man (Pa) and the Old Woman (Ma); and the third-person account that relates broader events in an attempt to capture the consciousness of the village as a whole. As Lamming writes in his introduction: "There are several centers of attention which work simultaneously and acquire their coherence from the collective character of the Village." (p.xxxvii)
"The result was a fractured consciousness, a deep split in its sensibility which now raised difficult problems of language and values; the whole issue of cultural allegiance between imposed norms of White Power, represented by a small numerical minority, and the fragmented memory of the African masses: between white instruction and Black imagination." (p. xxxvii)
First-Person Account: G. Grows Up
The novel is framed by the narrative of G., an autobiographical character based on Lamming's experience. The first-person narrative allows Lamming to credibly relate how an individual comes to know himself - the reader gains an understanding of how G. recognizes the shaping effect of British colonialism on his personality. By not giving this character a name, Lamming seems to suggest that G. can serve as a representative or universal Caribbean. From a naïve, provincial child to a young adult soon to leave his home, G. becomes increasingly aware of the influence that English culture has had on his development.
The novel begins with G. telling of his ninth birthday, a day marked by torrential rain. This first chapter reveals much about the village, a community with unremarkable features: street lamps where people gather to gossip at night, a few run-down stores, nondescript houses, roads that sometimes disintegrate "into pools of clay." Apart from the memorable rain, G.'s birthday is little noted. He spends it having "tea and a bun in the backhouse" English-style, and his anticipated cake never materializes. The reader learns that G. has been raised primarily by his mother, his father having deserted her before he was born. "My birth began with an almost total absence of family relations." His uncle had gone to US to find work, his grandmother lived in Panama, his grandfather had died many years before. Immediately the reader is made aware of the effects of colonialism: poverty and consequent premature death, families torn apart by lack of opportunity, and ubiquitous British custom and decorum.
The village's social order is laid out further in the second chapter, which G. also narrates. At the top is the landlord Creighton, protected by layers of overseers and underlings, "stamped like an envelope with what they called the culture of the Mother Country." At the lowest level, despised by those who identify with and serve the ruling elites, are G.'s friends and neighbors: "My people are low-down nigger people."
This hierarchical structure creates enmity between the groups struggling to improve their status. The competition is ferocious for the limited opportunities for advancement, or for the master's favor. "Suspicion, distrust, hostility. These operated in every decision ... Take no chances. Be on the look-out always, everywhere. Be fierce. Be strict. Be aggressive." In such an atmosphere, a mere gesture by the white landlord - serving tea to his distressed tenant after the rain - becomes an act of paternal magnanimity.
Later in the novel, G. relates his contacts with the white inhabitants of Barbados.
We were now in Belleville where the white people lived, and the streets bordered by palm trees were called avenues. Here the houses were all bungalows high and wide with open galleries and porticoes. Bottles of milk were grouped on the steps, and occasionally light flickered from the kitchens where the servants were preparing early coffee. (p. 109)
With his friends Trumper, Blue Boy and Bob, G. views the white world as it entertains itself. As he watches them dance in the landlord's house, G. envies the sailors and wonders what it would be like to hold a woman. When the boys are discovered and chased off the property by the Black overseer, they seek refuge among a crowd of evangelicals. This scene is hugely symbolic: in colonial societies oppressed people frequently turn to religion for protection from their tormentors. Beyond its spiritual comfort, the church becomes a site of communal strength and resistance.
The boys have lengthy conversations about the frustrations of life, the peculiar institution of marriage, their position in the world. Even at these moments, the British influence - or indoctrination - is felt.
'An' where's England?' Blue Boy asked.A promising primary school student, G. is pushed by his mother to achieve. She scolds him for hanging on the corner with his friends, viewing them as a potential threat to his possibilities for success in the white-dominated world. This tension between his mother's aspirations and his desire for acceptance grows as his education proceeds; G. feels himself pulled away from his friends, despite the fact that they're "my people." Trumper, Blue Boy and Bob have been less fortunate academically; they are confronted by meager opportunities on the island. G. also becomes aware of the growing separation from his mother. At the end of the novel, G. realizes that his education - fashioned in Britain - has conditioned him to leave the village, which offers little cultural stimulation. And yet he is sad at the thought of leaving, seeking to retain some memory of his earlier life, some connection to "my people."
Bob smiled and to our utter astonishment spoke with a kind of religious conviction: 'Barbados or Little England, an island of coral formation set like a jewel in the Caribbean Sea.'
We heard the words, and we knew they weren't Bob's. (p. 156)
Third-person Narratives: Giving Voice to the Village
While the character G. forms the core of In the Castle of My Skin, the first-person narrative is limited if one wants to convey the experience of a larger community. To present a fully developed sense of life in the village, Lamming relates part of his story through the third-person accounts of the British school, the wharf workers' strike, the riot that spreads from the city to the village, the evictions carried out by the new landowners, and the conversations between Ma and Pa.
In contrast to the young narrator who is confronting a future full of possibilities, Ma and Pa are approaching the end of their lives - long years spent entirely in the village. They serve as the living memory of the village's past, and this experience has led to differing views on the village's future. Both accept the immutability of the existing structure: Ma has turned toward spirituality, while Pa maintains a pragmatic sensibility tinged with fatalism. While he puts some faith in Mr. Slime's ability to deliver modest improvements, she puts hers in God. When the lapsed teacher turned real estate broker betrays the village, Pa is crushed and sees little hope for change from some benevolent superior. Black or white, landlords - rulers in general - will always be self-serving.
'Only one light,' the old man said, 'one light.'Lamming also uses the third-person narrative to introduce the colonial system of education. The schools were structured exactly as they were in Britain, with no regard for the needs or interests of the Black pupils in Barbados or elsewhere in the Caribbean. The young students have little understanding of the concept of Kings and Queens, of Empire, or of that rare commodity: money.
The old woman shook him by the shoulder again. She could hardly bear the pain.
'Death an' life,' said the old man. ''tis the same said thing.'
'Only for those who've put their life in the Master's hands,' said the old woman. (p. 212)
This face on the penny was very fascinating. Could you have a penny without a face? They looked at it closely and critically, and made notes of their observations. How did the face get there? The question puzzled them. Some said it was a drawing of the king made with a pin while the copper was soft ... It was a long and patient undertaking. But it had to be done if there was going to be any money at all, and everyone knew how important money was. It was difficult but necessary. That was not feasible, some though. In fact it was very silly to argue that such a job would be done by sensible people. And the English who were the only people in the world to deal with pennies were very sensible. You couldn't involve a king in all that nonsense of melting down copper and making a drawing. And how would he find the time to sit till all those million pennies were done? (p. 53)
The school was essential to the socialization of the children, indoctrinating them with the beneficence of the Mother Country.
Good old England and old Little England! They had never parted company since they met way back in the reign of James or was it Charles? They weren't sure, but it was a James or a Charles, God bless his name. Three hundred years, more than the memory could hold, Big England had met and held Little England and Little England like a sensible child accepted. Three hundred years, and never in all that time did any other nation dare interfere with these two. Barbados or Little England was the oldest and purest of England's children, and may it always be so. (p. 37)
Yet some in the village, such as the shoemaker, were considering the possibility of severing the colonial link. Through his reading of J.B. Priestly, he had learned the possibility of imperial collapse.
'"Twas the great big Britsh Empire," he said. "That's what we here is part of, Barbados or Little England, God bless her soul, is part of that. But times goin' change too, 'cause time ain't got nothin' to do with these empires. God don't like ugly, an' whenever these big great empires starts to get ugly with the thing they does the Almighty puts His hands down once an' for all. He tell them without talkin' fellows, you had your day." (p. 103)
Rather than the "Almighty," the agent of Britain's imperial demise is suggested by the rioting scene. The fighting breaks out in the city, and its tremors are felt in the village. Soon it reaches the village, as a crowd of Blacks pursue the white landlord Creighton.
The landlord turned the corner and walked up the road between the houses on either side. The terror of his face was indescribable. His clothes were soiled, and he stepped with the uncertainty of a drunken person. The men waited. The thought of his death was terrible. He seemed to understand what might happen, but he didn't look back. Mr. Foster prised open the window to see what was happening and he saw the landlord. It was incredible. He had never seen or imagined Mr. Creighton could look like that. No one had ever seen him walking through the village. (p. 206)
Unfortunately, the political situation in Barbados and the Caribbean was not yet conducive to a collective solution to the villagers' plight. The lack of a communal response left them vulnerable to exploitation by better-off Blacks such as Mr. Slime. In the intensely competitive situation created by colonialism, the oppressed fight each other for crumbs instead of uniting to upset the whole table. Another prosperous Black reflects on his situation as he evicts Mr. Foster:
Now it was his chance to own land. He understood Mr. Foster's attachment to the house because he knew his own desire for the land. He was irritated, confused and finally downright angry. He had lived in a house and on land that weren't his property, and he had had to change residence from time to time. It was a habit not altogether uncommon among the more comfortable classes in the island. They lived for a few months in one house and quickly moved into another and another always concerned about the status of the vicinity. (p. 242)
A Caribbean Vision for the World
In the Castle of My Skin portrays a world still very much extant today. The colonial system was launched by the industrial revolution and the birth of capitalism. Driven by an insatiable need for markets and resources, capitalism has conquered the world, its onslaught driving under other economic systems - such as feudalism, subsistence agriculture and hunting-gathering. People are increasingly linked and connected in the new international market. This has meant the destruction of entire cultures; yet it has also meant the creation of a global culture. No longer are people's destinies determined by traditional patterns of living, but rather by their ability to communicate their experience, to carve out a space for themselves, to claim their rights.
Around the world, in places such as Somalia, Angola, Rwanda or Haiti, millions of people very similar to G. are struggling to undo the painful legacy of European colonialism. Their experience, brought to life in Castle, resonates with people in the advanced countries as well. Here in the US, the wealthiest society ever to exist in history, the majority of the population experience immiseration, alienation, oppression and exploitation. They face a future that everyday seems to grow more bleak - rising unemployment or unsatisfactory underemployment, falling wages, cuts in social spending, elimination of arts funding, eroding civil rights, ecological deterioration, growing threats of war.
What's needed is a renewed popular movement dedicated to transforming the world into a place more humane and hospitable. The struggle for genuine liberation is a project jointly pursued by those in the "Third World" as well as the majority of those in the "First." Only through a mutual fight for emancipation will the divisions of class, race, gender, sexual orientation and nationality be overcome and a real "global community" established. Lamming's novel is an important early attempt to communicate the Caribbean component of the resistance to capitalist oppression.
Turbulence is at work everywhere ... (millions of simple folk) have now become the subject of their own history, engaged in a global war to liberate their own villages, rural and urban, from the old encirclement of poverty, ignorance, and fear ... This is the most fundamental battle of our time, and I am joyfully lucky to have been made, by my work, a soldier in their ranks. (p. xlvi)
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