The Uncompromising Eye

Christopher Laird

December 2002

 

This year is thirty years since the publication of a novel that the Director of Caribbean Studies at the University of Toronto calls the most significant novel to come out of Trinidad.

 

It’s writer was a young man from McBean, Couva. At 22 he had emigrated to Canada with his newly wed wife and set his sights on being a great writer. He wanted to write Naipaul, Harris, Marquez, Faulkner and others into the ground. Six years and two published novels later he was dead, head crushed, body battered, beside  a road back in Mcbean. The official story: hit and run.

 

Outside his family, few in Trinidad know anything about him. His work was reviewed only in the small arts magazine Kairi which I published with the late Victor Questel. He has been ignored in the Caribbean. “He only published two novels” has been the offered excuse. Yet there are quite a few examples of Caribbean writers who have only published one or two novels who are placed in the Caribbean canon and are even on school booklists.

 

But in Canada, the story is slightly different. Harold Sonny Ladoo remains alive in the memories of  some of Canada’s most distinguished literary figures. Dennis Lee, one of Canada’s best known poets, recently appointed Toronto’s first Poet Laureate, wrote a 24 page poem on The Death of Harold Ladoo which has been republished in his recent collection Nightwatch. Novelist and screenwriter, Peter Such’s essay The Short Life and Sudden Death of Harold Ladoo, published in Saturday Night in Toronto in 1974 and republished in BIM #63 in 1978 is a seminal testament to an incredible Caribbean talent.

 

Last year one of Canada’s most distinguished contemporary artists, Jamelie Hassan, undertook a residency at the Caribbean Contemporary Arts here in Laventille. She dedicated her residency to the memory of Harold Ladoo and made a personal pilgrimage to McBean visiting Harold’s sister and the site of the discovery of his body.

 

What was it about Harold Ladoo that impressed so many people so deeply that 30 years afterwards someone who never knew him personally but was affected only by his writing and his story should make such a pilgrimage?

 

In an effort to answer this question and also to try to do justice to Ladoo's memory, I travelled to Canada last month to start work on a video documentary about his life. I met with the people with whom he worked at the House of Anancy Publishing house in the 70’s, then a dynamic and catalytic forum for a new generation of Canadian writers. Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson, Michael Ondatje as well as Dennis Lee himself all had their first books published by Anansi at that time. Harold was one of these and one who achieved sudden celebrity with the publication of his first novel, No Pain Like This Body. Not only in literary circles either.

 

Novelist Mawan Hassan, visual artists Ron Benner and Jamelie Hassan all speak of the effect No Pain’s publication had on the community of restaurant workers and dishwashers at the time (Harold washed dishes for a living). As young people, children of immigrants, students and aspiring artists No Pain was a symbol of what could be achieved by a dishwasher and an immigrant to boot. According to Ron Benner, “You couldn’t be a dishwasher in Toronto at that time and not have No Pain Like This Body pass through your hands.”

 

Dennis Lee’s poem refers to it as “that spare and luminous nightmare”. It is a book unlike anything produced in our literature to date. The late Victor Questel called it’s main protagonist, Pa,  the most violent character in Caribbean fiction” but it isn’t purely the violence that hits you when you read it, it is the incredible economy, the deft control of dialogue and characterisation, the vivid visualisation and the maelstrom of emotions, idiosyncratic perspectives, and the hostile environment orchestrated with the surest of instincts.

 

Ladoo’s writing is unmerciful in its characterisations. Even Yesterdays, his second novel, dismissed by some as an inferior work,  astounds in its daring and its insistence in driving straight through the hypocrisy and sensitivity to image that Caribbean people and especially ‘fortress communities’ like the East Indian community possess.

 

Ladoo was not concerned with toeing the line of a desirable image of one’s community to be presented to the world. He wrote it as he saw it, as his community made him live it. For example, in one of his unpublished short stories, Chamar Tola 1941, he describes a father leaving home as evening falls to look for his young daughters who have not returned. The father comes upon them being raped in the headlights of a jeep by US soldiers from a nearby base. The harsh truth of the story grabs the reader immediately.. Surely, one asks oneself, incidents like this must have occurred. Trinidad was host to one of the  largest US military bases in the hemisphere. Stories like these arise wherever there are military concentrations. Recently there was a celebrated case in Germany and another in Japan. How come, one asks, we haven’t seen such stories in our literature?

 

Friends tell me of hearing stories like this quietly passed down inside families but they have not appeared on a public forum. In the urban centres kaiso incorporated stories of prostitution, child abandonment and the cuckolding of local men by the US military but not of rape or violence. From the rural, Indian, community: silence. Ladoo’s encompassing rage at the hypocrisy around him, at the refusal to face our true selves and our true history drove him towards his vision.  It is possibly this characteristic that ensured that he would not be publicly recognised by his own community and it certainly would not be far fetched to suggest that it contributed to his untimely end.

 

I offer the suggestion that, apart from the fury of his genius, the uncompromising eye of Harold Sonny Ladoo was his true gift to his community and to the Caribbean. In the season of Divali it is well to remember that the light of truth can be unpleasant and even painful. The flames that test our truths as they tested Sita must be faced or we will never enter Ayohdya.

 

In the six years he was in Toronto, Harold worked in a restaurant, attained a university degree and wrote at least 10 novels, only two of which were published and the fate of the other manuscripts remains a mystery. All those who knew Harold attest to his sense of running out of time, his hurry to accomplish his task, the non stop writing  sessions locked in his room writing a draft at one sitting, sometimes typing under the bed to kill the noise of the typewriter, and triumphantly phoning friends at 2.00 in the morning when he completed yet another novel.

 

James Polk, the editor of Yesterdays speaks of Harold showing him a sheet of paper on which he had sketched an outline of a 200 novel saga!  He wanted to do for the Caribbean what Faulkner did for the American South. It was with a Canada Council grant awarded after the publication  of  No Pain, that Harold was going to travel to Europe, the Caribbean and the US to research this epic. Instead, summoned by a letter that spoke of his mother, after his father’s death, being put out of her house and reduced to begging on the streets of McBean, he returned to Trinidad and to his death.

 

But you heard your own death singing, that much I know.

            And went to meet it mesmerized - to get

                        the man that got your mother, yes; but also plain

                                    wooing it, telling Peter you’d           

     never be back alive. The jet’s trajectory

                           a long sweet arc of dying, all the way down.

                                     For the choice of dying was death by writing - that

                                                airless escape

                  from a world that would not work unless you wrote it,

                                        and no longer worked when you did -

               or death in the only place where you wanted to live,

                                    except it christened its children

                        with boots, machetes, bloodwash of birth and vengeance.

                                                The choice was death, or death.

 

 from The Death of Harold Ladoo

 By Dennis Lee (1976,1979)