THE SHORT LIFE AND SUDDEN DEATH OF HAROLD LADOO
He was born out of the pressure of wartime. Sometime around 1945 in Trinidad. One of his stories recounts a rape-murder by Americans from a nearby base and the helplessness of the peasant father in the face of the bribery and intimidation of the hush-up. Maybe he was born earlier. The insurance company noted "proof of age not accepted" on a small policy he took out. His birth certificate was a colonial relic, many-columned and hand-written in the English style. It was hard to decipher, and only one name on it seemed to relate to him, "Soni." There was also the notation, "Illegitimate." I could imagine the colonial bureaucrats shaking their heads, trying to make good clean Christian order out of it, muttering about these damn illiterate natives. At the level of marriage certificates they probably gave up completely.
He grew up in the plantation area of Couva, near the small village called McBean, with a family called "Ladoo." This is the part of the Island nobody visits unless they were born there. The population is descended from indentured labourers from India who were imported to replace the supply of African slaves when slavery was abolished.
His wife, Rachel Singh, always called him Harold. He spoke of an education in a Canadian Church Mission School, and I got the impression this noble name grew to be his preferred one at that time. It certainly suited him. He was the kind of person no one would think of calling Harry. From this time in the mis-sion school probably dated the emblazoned tattoo of a simple cross on his right breast that I discovered with a shock the first time I helped him move from one Toronto apartment to another on a sweating summer day. He bore another terrible mark, a vicious scar on his throat above his collarbone. He told two ver-sions of how he got that, just as there were two versions about the cross (one being that it was done without his knowledge while drunk on shore leave from a merchant ship in Valparaiso). First, he told me the scar was surgical and done because of a childhood disease that nearly killed him. The other was that it was the result of a bloody knife fight. I never knew which to believe, though I learned that he was very sick as a child and nearly died in his teens. He had a long period of convalescence which he spent reading G. A. Henty and mounds of other forgot-ten Victoriana.
Rachel was a widow, some five or six years older than Har-old. Her first husband, and her brother were both murdered about ten years ago and she was left with five children. She came to Canada over five years ago with Harold and had two other chil-dren, both boys: one now four, the other still a baby. One of her earlier children, Deborah, lives in Canada too. Harold brought her over two years ago because the extended-family resources for adequate schooling. The children still live in a small apartment on Jane St., in the west end of Toronto, along with Rachel's mother, who takes care of them while Rachel works as a waitress.
Before Mrs. Singh arrived, Rachel and Horold could share the baby-sitting because Harold usually worked as a short order cook during the day or went to Erindale College. Nights he stayed at home writing until early in the morning, at which time he and Rachel could have some time together. Those last two years, as his writing obsession grew, Harold trained himself to get along on three or four hours of sleep. To maintain his concen-tration in the crowded household when he had the idea for a book, he would lock himself in the bedroom and stay up round the clock for two days or more until he had the rough draft com-pletely finished. Then he would call me, or Dennis Lee, announce he had written another novel, and collapse, exhausted and exult-ant. It got so I could always tell when that had happened. At strange hours (three or six a.m.) the phone would ring and he'd say, "Hello, Mr. Such." (A kind of teasing formality used only on this occasion.) "I've just finished another novel." His speech was slurred because of his fatigue and the fact that these were the first words he had spoken to anyone for days.
I first met Harold Sonny Ladoo at the Islington subway sta-tion, waiting for a bus with a crowd of Erindale and Humber College students. He was huddled in a cheap coat too large for him: black hair, thin dark face, small moustache, large dark eyes staring straight ahead, looking at somewhere else completely I noticed he was jotting words down on the back of a TTC transfer. It could have been a shopping list he was writing, an address, any-thing. But I had a strange and certain feeling I knew what it was. I'd done exactly the same thing myself. I said, "Hi. You're a writer, aren't you?" He said, "Yes." We had a coffee together and I explained I'd just been given a job as writer-in-residence at Erin-dale. He was interested to hear that, since he felt a university would be a good place to get in touch with the world's great litera-ture, and besides, there'd be all these wise men to converse with. I tried not to disenchant him too much. Right now, money was his pressing problem, but someday he'd like to get a B.A. and become a teacher. Teachers were the people in his life he'd most admired. I mentioned student grants and loans that he knew nothing about and persuaded him to ride the bus with me to Erindale and check it out.
Dr. Larry Elmer and Mrs. Linda Weber, who ran student affairs in the registrar's office were deeply impressed by Harold. He was admitted as a mature student and they went to bat for him to see what they could do about grants and loans. Books were a problem, but he managed to get some second hand he read the others in the library or borrowed them from me if I had them. Almost immediately he started using my office as a mail drop His excuse was that the house in which he rented a top floor flat wasn't reliable for getting mail. But I felt it was also a subtle message to his friends in Trinidad, a confirmation that he was beginning to make it in the new land.
He didn't show me much of his poetry. It was very English Victorian, with an insistent epic tone, but it had a sense of rhythm and a tackle quality to the imagery that seemed to be kept rigidly in check, suffocating under the ordered cadences and artificiality of the nineteenth century. The poems were really exercises. I'd spoken a bit about Dennis Lee and Lee's publishing company, the House of Anansi, and he thought he might send his work over to them. I was certain he'd be rejected, but that didn't dissuade him. The whole pile came back with a long letter from Dennis, who had himself gone through the same kind of exercises years earlier. The key phrase in the letter was "Write about the things you know." In a huff over the rejection, Harold wrote back to Dennis, making some critical remarks about Dennis' first book, Kingdom of Absence, and some nasty remarks about editors in general. I told him I thought Dennis was right. It was a philosophy that had be-gun to free all the young Canadian writers I knew - start with who you are, in your own time and place and space, and go on from there.
He had mentioned some prose work. I suggested he should bring the whole lot in to me and I'd read it over. I didn't see him for a week. He came in carrying a small folder containing only six five-to-ten-page short stories. He said they'd all been written since our last conversation.
"Why didn't you bring in all the rest?"
'I burned the whole lot, along with the poetry."
Rachel tells me it took several hours to burn the manuscripts, two full suitcases of them. Everything he'd ever. written up to that time.
In one sense everything a writer produces is autobiographical. But what distinguishes great writing from the merely therapeu-tic and self-conscious is the power to empathise and observe ex-actly. Without those things, craft, which can be learned or imi-tated becomes mere decoration.
As I read his vivid stories of life in McBean village, in Trini-dad, some funny, some stomach-lurching, I kept looking out at the Italian Club of Erindale College playing soccer in the chill fall, rubbing their cramped calf muscles, and realised I'd been utterly reached by some of the essential human quandaries that go beyond time and place. I run a literary quarterly, Impulse, reading over a thousand submissions a year from beginning writers. Maybe a single poem scrawled while you're high in Kamloops, or volumes of delicate sensibility written by a lonely old lady in the back-woods of Ontario. I keep it up, I think, mostly because I'd like what happened that afternoon to happen again, just once. Har-old was a born writer.
The things he'd been set to read in his courses began to fill up the spaces in his vast undirected reading of English and Ameri-can literature. On his own he was reading Canadian literature too. (He'd also learned literary Hindi and had access to great Eastern works as well.) In a few months he began to realise he was probably brighter and better read than anyone in his classes, including, in some cases, his professors. Like many people who don't have "college" as an accepted axiom of family life, he'd had a very inflated view of the knowledge factory and had felt uneasy about it at first. The first year he came out pretty well with straight A's. By the second year the more insecure of his teachers began to think he was putting them on because he'd make refer-ences to all kinds of work outside their narrow speciality - which in most cases was American literature. His dislike of many of the American professors increased as he began to realise the essen-tially colonial situation of our universities (although one, who had read widely in Canadian literature, impressed him greatly). I tried to dissuade him from confrontation with the mindless ethnocen-trism that some others exhibited, begging him to take the wise silent path. But he was principled and proud, and tremendously innocent of the rules of the University Game. I feared for his ambitions as some of his marks began to slip.
Those short stories of his proved to be quick exploration passes over the material for his first novel, which he began almost imme-diately. This habit of getting into novels through his short stories was one he kept through his brief writing career. I didn't realise this at first and wanted to do some work with him on tightening them up as stories. But the canvas was really too small for the vastness of his conceptions, and the long creative input a novel demands was more to his liking. In fact, looking back over the books that poured out in the next two years, I sus-pect the novels themselves were training for the great work he had half-formed in his mind.
Patricia Gllhooly, one of a lively group of students I grew to work with at Erindale Initiated a magazine, a one-shot called Thirst, which included a piece of his novel. This gave him con-fidence. No matter how there was a public out there. It helped him to find his own voice a problem all beginning writers must face. A little later I began Impulse and published more of Harold's novel. Our first Issues contained well-known writers like Purdy, Lee, Gibson, Avison, Waddington and Matt Cohen. Harold was elated to find himself in such good company - and a little scared, too.
Soon after, his book was finished. It had a true velocity but bumped and lurched because of the lack of a consistent point of view and the differing tones In dialogue, description, and narrative. I'd been casually speculating with him about writing a novel I was thinking about (Riverrun) from a group consciousness point of view, using an undifferentiated "we." He tried the idea in sev-eral places in his book and it just didn't work. (His experiment saved me a few months because I didn't have to try it myself.) He straightened that out by telling most of it from the point of view of the child, Rama - a very difficult thing to do that I think he pulled off. One ~ thing about Hemingway was his ability to walk a tightrope between actual dialogue and reported speech. He did this by making the texture of the reported speech corres-pond with the idioms phrasing and rhythms of the dialogue. Harold read A Farewell to Arms to see how it was done and used it to solve the wide variance in tone between the rich dialect of actual speech and his "author's" paraphrasing of lengthy con-versations.
Although the novel still didn't move around comfortably be-tween its various prose duties, I didn't want to get really dug into a major editing session with Harold. He was terrified that as he grew into technique and achieved a literary objectivity he would begin to lose the unique poetic density and essentially oral structure of his ideas. I felt he was already at what Joyce calls the dramatic stage in writing, the place where people and events are presented rather than described, where things are felt rather than recounted. If he lost it, this natural talent, it might take him years to get it back. Besides, I knew the obvious qualities of the novel would be recognised by the readers at Anansi and there was a good chance they'd accept it for publication.
Harold was afraid to send it in. He'd read the first edition of Civil Elegies, Dennis' narrative poem about the difficulties of exercising true citizenship in Canada, and was in awe of it. He predicted it would win the Governor General's Award over a year before it did so. He didn't yet completely believe he was a very talented writer, and the thought of another rejection was nerve wracking. He bet me twenty dollars it wouldn't be accepted. I took him up on it because I figured it was a sure thing and this would prompt him to send it in. I jokingly insisted, however, that I be paid in the retail value of copies of his novel when it was published. When it eventually came out I'd forgotten the joking bet until he arrived with some of his free author's copies and proudly and ceremoniously began paying me off, inscribing them with a flourish, a couple of them with personal friendship mes-sages. I guess we were both very inarticulate about our friend-ship; the flyleaves of our books were the only places we ever ex-pressed it.
Dennis did the truly hard and subtle work of editing the novel which came out under the title No Pain Like This Body, not its working title of Yesterdays. Yesterdays, however, is the title of his second novel, which appears this spring. From this time on I edited very little of Harold's work. Dennis and James Polk, at Anansi, did nearly all of it. I was able to sit back and watch him grow.
He grew quickly, too quickly. Writing became his obsession. He stopped working as a part-time cook, except very occasionally, so he'd have time to write. His financial situation deteriorated. There was little money from the book's sales, although it got ex-cellent reviews.
Small grants from the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council offered a little relief, but then his father died suddenly and he had to spend his money on plane fare to Trinidad. He loved his father enormously, greatly admired the way he'd kept things together. He wrote me a desperate letter from Trinidad. He thought perhaps he'd give up his writing and Canada, and stay to work his father's small plot and take care of his mother; she had collapsed completely and was hospitalised. There were other family members, including a sister who had gone to Ger-many but who had left her husband and had come back home and was living with a someone else he didn't like. But all the responsibilities seemed to be on his head, particularly his mother. In a few weeks, though, he was back. He was going to leave the property and the equipment to be haggled over by the relatives. He would not bother about it. As long as his mother was all right.
Now, still short of money, he was forced to move his family into the basement of his brother-in-law's house In suburban Scarborough. It was far from Erindale College - he was still a student, still working towards his B.A. - and this proved a diffi-culty for him. School was now hard to manage, he was working at odd jobs, and he was attempting the difficult hurdle of the second novel. His first book had drawn criticism from West In-dian friends because of its blunt honesty. Harold felt he was writing true West Indian literature with the flavour of its society
in every word - unlike some West Indian writers who had aban-doned the Caribbean and used it as a kind of exotic background for Western audiences. "Soon," Harold said, I'll be ready to write about Canada in the same way."
One morning the phone rang at an ungodly hour. Another novel? No, he was phoning from a police station. "Peter, Some kind of trouble. I'm in terrible trouble." I couldn't get him to explain. As I hung up I heard a news flash on the radio. A man had been stabbed, Harold Sonny Ladoo was being charged with wounding.
The Erindalian had just published part of his new novel, Rage. (At this time he was writing several novels through and leaving them for revision later while trying to straighten out Yesterdays.) This book was an attempt to get at the sources of the awful rage and violence that were the dark driving forces of much of Trinidad's plantation society. It was a horrible piece about a character being knifed up by his enemies and managing to escape by hiding in the sharp razor grass of a coulee. He'd also been reading Norman Mailer for one of his courses and as I drove to the police station I couldn't stop myself from putting these things together. Had his literary obsession manifested itself in real action, rather like Mailer stabbing his wife purely for existential experience?
Haltingly he told me the circumstances. He'd been dragged rather unwillingly to a party, dead tired, had had a bad time He had run into arguments and had a couple of drinks On the way home, as his brother-in-law said later, he seemed to grow strange and paranoic. By the time they arrived home he was very agitated. He went downdstairs to rest while the others chatted.
Ten minutes later he came up again with a bread-knife, speaking incoherently and waving it around He had cut himself, and his relatives - from what they could understand him saying
were afraid that he was going to kill himself.. In the tussle to disarm him he stabbed his brother-in-law twice and cut himself again. When it was all over he fell unconscious. He woke up completely oblivious to what had happened, with the police all around him. He was convinced that someone had put drugs in his drink. (He avoided drugs like the plague.)
Dr. Elmer and I went to his trial as character witnesses. After hearing the general facts from Harold's brother-in-law; whom the prosecution put on the stand, the judge called both
lawyers up to the front and chatted a while. The judge decided the case should proceed no further and remanded Harold until he had been examined by a court psychiatrist A Clarke Institute psychiatrist examined him, pronounced him eminently sane, and kept him for ages talking about literature. Harold made that kind of impression on people.
Because of the incident Harold moved again, this time closer to Erindale in the western part of the city. By now he was in his third year. He had great hopes of graduating because there were people at the college who had become real friends. Although I saw him frequently, I left Erindale at this time and he began to see the new writer-in-residence, Dave Godfrey. The previous year, Joseph Skvorecky, the Czech writer and translator, joined the English Department and ran a creative writing course which Har-old attended. Harold gave a reading in the Mississauga library and one of the librarians painted his portrait from a photograph afterwards. It was very accurate, a rather inspired piece, and Harold was proud of it. He hung it in the living room where it could brood over the whole scene.
In the spring of 1973 Rachel gave birth to their second son. A sizeable Canada Council grant for Harold was in the offing, and his second novel had been accepted at Anansi. But disquieting letters kept arriving from Trinidad. There was trouble at home, and it set Harold brooding. He was working hard, though - too hard. People begged him to ease up but he kept saying, "I haven't much time."
He graduated, with some difficulty, from Erindale. Dave Godfrey held a small celebration for him; one of the gifts was a new Canadian dictionary. Then it was summer and he needed work. Harold Sonny Ladoo, B.A., probably a genius, by now about 110 pounds of sinew, couldn't get a job anywhere. He went back to washing dishes. Then the first half of his Canada Council grant came through - $2,000 worth of freedom.
He was undecided what to do. He was trying to shake his Trinidad problems out of his head; yet he kept saying that, because his job prospects in Canada seemed so poor, maybe he should go back and get a teaching job there. Then there was his writ-ing. Was it possible to survive that way in Canada? There was a book he wanted to do on the war of 1812. Then there was
House Nigger, about West Indians in Toronto. Finally, Trinidad again, there was the epic he felt everything else had been lead-ing up to, one that would involve research into all the facets of the different cultures during the slavery and indentured labour times - a vast saga like Faulkner's that would cover the events right up to modern times with the immigrants to Canada. "Write about what you know." And if you didn't know it you would have to learn it utterly. He knew how to do research; the college had taught him that. What if he spent six weeks, months, however long it needed? And at the same time he could keep an eye on how his mother was doing and play it by ear. And when the book was researched he'd pull the bow back until it was ready and then he'd let it go man, and it would surely fly.
Still undecided about when to go, or if to go at all, Harold was invited by the National Arts Centre to do a reading of his works. He was one of four, another being Dennis Lee. Here he was on the great stage, bringing the oral qualities of his work to life. Afterwards he sat chatting with Naim Kattan of the Canada Council for four hours over lunch. Dennis sat musing, amazed at the range and colour of their conversation. It was a kind of third world perspective, a Canadian sound no one had quite heard before.
But back in Toronto there was more bad news in a letter from Trinidad. I saw him hold it and stomp around grimly. His moth-er was destitute, cheated of her possessions. begging on the street. Suddenly, "I'm leaving tomorrow."
I drove him to the airport one day in August He was uneasy. "I'll just make a short trip down there to be sure she's okay. Where I'll live is about thirty miles away, on the way to Port of Spain. That's where an old white man l knew used to live in the jungle. He had a charm with animals and snakes. He was a relative of Queen Victoria.." He'd made me bring a dozen copies of Impulse with his story in it so he could hand them around. When I left him at the gate to say his private goodbyes to Rachel, he said, "I may never come back." I said, "Don't be ridiculous. I'll see you in six weeks."
A week later two~thirty in the morning. I bumbled the phone to my dead ear. Had the bastard come back already? Needed a ride home from the airport? Curse his perfect whims! But It was Rachel. "Harold's been killed in Trinidad. Someone beat him on the head and left him in the ditch along McBean Road. I don't know why he was walking there I want to go there now. I want to go and see him." Rachel. Twice a widow now. "1 can't believe it Are you sure?"
When I got there, at the apartment, there were all kinds of people I didn't know I looked up for his portrait. They'd turned it to the wall I couldn't do anything about it, though I wanted to. At this time, like no other, I so dearly wanted to see his face.