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Unlinking the chains in House of Ashes

Published: 
Tuesday, July 29, 2014
Monique Roffey

Simon Lee

Bocas Lit Fest winner 2013 Monique Roffey makes a return to her thinly-disguised native land in her fourth novel, House of Ashes, published on July 27, the anniversary of the 1990 attempted coup. 

For Trinidadians this “faction-cum-docudrama” will either sink into the amnesia of collective denial, or be welcomed as an earnest and imaginative attempt to provide the kind of analysis of the island’s legacy of violence and one of its two recent historical flashpoints, which the official inquiry failed to deliver, because as one of the novel’s main protagonists and the sole first person narrator, Minister for the Environment Aspasia Garland observes: “An inquiry would implicate everyone.”

Readers outside the Caribbean will negotiate a psycho-drama/political thriller with a structure suffocatingly locked down in a siege-with-hostages dynamic. But while House of Ashes flags up other established genres from dystopia to historical fiction and a long tradition of Caribbean fiction of political and personal violence (Carpentier’s In the Kingdom of this World, Explosion in a Cathedral, Alexis’ Compère General Soleil, Chauvet’s Amour, Colère, Folie, Danticat’s Farming of Bones, Marquez’s The General in his Labyrinth) it transgresses regional and diasporic boundaries. 

Roffey inserts her revisionist text into the post 9/11 discourse on terrorism and extremist fundamentalism and compounds complexity with such other topical tropes as conservation, eco lit, governance, corruption, New Age mysticism, the psychopathology of the postcolonial Caribbean and its manifestations in dysfunctional families, failed parenting and the angry young dispossessed black man. 

Roffey combines writing with teaching creative writing and at times House of Ashes reads like a series of intense assignments, which might have benefited from more rigorous editing.

Ashes is undoubtedly ambitious, permeated with more pain and desire to understand a homeland than Césaire’s Notebook, but emotional and historical proximity have their own limitations. 

Césaire wrote from Paris, while Roffey wrote in Trinidad, not always successfully fictionalised as “Sans Amen,” (a pun on “land without men,” or even more loosely “a godless nation”?). 

The decision to rebrand may have saved her from a fatwah and the umbrage of those who feel they’ve been maligned but did not grant her the control distance bestows. 

House of Ashes (which recalls Haitian Emperor Henri Christophe’s motto—Je renais de mes cendres—I’m reborn from my ashes) is probably best read as multi-text, tending towards a meta text, a book of many tropes, some of which sit uncomfortably with others. 

It examines postcoloniality; the failures of decolonisation and the legacy of slavery and indentureship; the caudillo or strongman/macho man charismatic leader; issues of power, violence, and governance in small island states afflicted with imposed global neoliberal economics and regional drug trafficking. 

Other regional writers addressing these concerns have opted for allegory (Wilson Harris) or magical realism (Marquez, Carpentier, Alexis) but like Lovelace (Salt), Orlando Patterson (Children of Sisyphus) or Roger Mais (Brother Man), Roffey chooses social realism, which often reads like the social commentary mode of calypso. 

Both the Peruvian Vargas Llosa, in Feast of the Goat, and Haitian Edwidge Danticat, in Farming of the Bones, successfully fictionalise specific violent historical events in the Caribbean: the 1962 assassination of Dominican despot Rafael Trujillo and the 1937 massacre of Haitians ordered by the same “El Chivo” Trujillo. 

The success of both these novels may be partially attributed to historical and even geographical distance from the subject, even though for Danticat the 1939 massacre may have been as personally painful as the 1990 Trinidad attempted coup was for Roffey. 

Another example of analysing a specific violent event, this time non-fictionally, is VS Naipaul’s essay on the Murders at Christina Gardens, in his Guerillas collection. Naipaul who gave the invaluable advice to writers: “write about one thing,” is able to dispassionately examine the pyschopathology of Michael X, the Trini-born Black Power British acolyte of Malcolm X, who was eventually hanged for the murder of young English socialite Gale Benson on the outskirts of Arima in 1972. 

Naipaul allows the infamous Abdul Malik to hoist himself by his own petard, not by recounting what he said so much, as by his actions. 

The point here being that limited focus, and showing rather than telling, even if the telling is done by characters, registers far more subliminally than what often reads like didacticism in some of Roffey’s dialogues. 

The first five sections of House of Ashes are constructed around real events in the 1990 coup, although Roffey begins her reconstruction on a Wednesday afternoon (rather than the historical Friday) and concludes with the Monday morning surrender of insurgents and the release of hostages from the fictionalised House of Power, in the City of Silk. 

The narrative is driven by three main characters. First there’s the bookish, asthmatic naïve Ashes; a man of prayer living in the shadow of his truly revolutionary brother River, a casualty, or martyr of the failed Black Power insurrection of the early 1970s. 

Ashes fancies himself as a spiritual warrior of the same lineage as his comic book hero the Phantom, along with Buddha, Christ and even Franz Fanon, all of whom like “Fat Clay” of Cuba “might have picked up a gun,” in the service of social justice. 

Ashes is afflicted with the same pyschosomatic wound to his groin as the Fisher King in the legend of Parsifal and the Holy Grail, the wound symbolising in western mythology the same damaged or emasculated masculinity posited by Fanon, which is central to current discourse about failed/damaged masculinity in the contemporary Caribbean.

What works as an allegorical motif in legend, appears incongruous in a realist text and while it demonstrates Roffey’s commitment to grappling with one of the major behavioural aspects of conflicted Caribbean masculinity, for some readers this may be too much authorial intrusion. 

The wound does work however, in linking Ashes in his mid-life crisis with the pubescent crisis of another protagonist, the 14-year-old street wise but woefully ignorant, Joseph “Breeze” Green, one of many abandoned, neglected men/children rescued and indoctrinated by “The Leader”—a man of God whose mission is to restore the spirituality denied under slavery and colonialism, remove those in power who continue the oppression and usher in a new society.

In recreating the claustrophobic horror, unplanned devastation and needless bloodshed of the storming and subsequent siege of the House of Power, Roffey is at her best, juxtaposing the militaristic posturing (boys playing at war and revolution) with the grim reality of innocents caught in crossfire, including a pregnant clerk.

It is through the consciousness of first person narrator Aspasia Garland, the idealistic, uncorrupted yet politically naïve Minister for the Environment, mother of two, former Greenpeace activist and protector of turtles, that Roffey attempts to sift through the nexus of violence and dispossession.

The Stockholm syndrome of captor and captive bonding is made credible in Garland’s uneasy relationship with Breeze, who shifts from initial shallow prejudice and anger (“street crooks, criminals, half-baked radicals…from 1970) to empathy: “this all had to do with a very personal abuse of power; it started at home, with bad fathering, bad mothering, with a lack of love.” 

Garland also admits to culpability: “Our government had overlooked many things” and is even able to conceptualise the Leader’s achievement; “Maybe the Leader had led them back to something good, to an ancient faith…to an original tradition of wisdom.” But later Garland dismisses this old style caudillo, the strongman of Caribbean and Latin American politics: “he had…nothing new to say to a small New World nation which needed ideas as it emerged from under the claustrophobia of colonialism. 

Sans Amen needed new, forward thinking men and women...There was no room...for these antiquated Caribbean macho-men, these Father-Leaders.”

Just as she had given Eric Williams a role in her earlier Trinidad novel, Woman on a Green Bicycle, Roffey brings ANR Robinson back to life as an important player in the House of Power siege. His dignity, courage and colonial values, in contrast to the barbarity of his captors, do not however absolve him from being just as disconnected from the realities of the two nations he supposedly serves, or the internal machinations of his own party and a corruption buried in the very foundation of the House of Power along with the Amerindian bones, as his nemesis the Leader.

For a self-proclaimed feminist it’s hardly surprising that Roffey’s strongest characters are women. The figure of Mrs Cynthia Gonzales, the cleaning lady (or obeah woman) who reduces the blustering gunmen to shamefaced boys (“Yuh mash up mih carpet…Where are your manners and where is your respect for civilisation?) and who refuses to leave her wounded Prime Minister, is truly memorable. Herself the one time victim of an abusive husband she, like Christophene in Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, refuses to allow any man to oppress her, standing as symbol of Caribbean matriarchy with a long tradition in our literature.

There is much in this long novel, possibly too much for a single text to embrace, to prompt readers to consider universal issues of power, inequality and “the chain of violence…which stretches across the world”. Locally, it focuses our attention on distant and recent history and the problems which have not been addressed since 1990, which have recoiled with the vengeance we all live with, or die by, right now. 

House of Ashes by Monique Roffey

Publisher: Simon and Schuster

Ashes is undoubtedly ambitious, permeated with more pain and desire to understand a homeland than Césaire’s Notebook, but emotional and historical proximity have their own limitations. Césaire wrote from Paris, while Roffey wrote in Trinidad, not always successfully fictionalised as “Sans Amen,” (a pun on “land without men,” or even more loosely “a godless nation”?). The decision to rebrand may have saved her from a fatwah and the umbrage of those who feel they’ve been maligned but did not grant her the control distance bestows.​