Sunday, March 25, 2012

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

Cover image © Penguin Modern Classics.

It’s hard to believe that a book could anger me quite a much as Wide Sargasso Sea did. My anger may well be completely unreasonable, or indeed it may be borne of the exact frustration that Jean Rhys wanted a reader to feel.

The novella commences not long after the 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act has come into effect in the British colony of Jamaica and follows the life of a young white Creole heiress, Antoinette, from childhood into adulthood. The story is supposed to be that of the mad woman in the attic in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

As the novella begins, in the faded colonial plantation estate of Coulibri, the sense of a world already falling apart is overwhelming. Our narrator draws attention to the decaying grandeur early on, notably focusing on her mother’s horse: “I saw her horse lying down under the frangipani tree… he was not sick, he was dead and his eyes were black with flies.”

Being caught between the haughtiness of European society and the animosity of the black community, and with the added trauma of an arson at the family home and the subsequent death of her brother, the narrator’s mother, Anette, descends to madness.

Following the demise of her mother, Antoinette ends up in a convent school whilst her step-father Mr Mason returns to England. Eventually, the only form of escape for Antoinette is through a marriage, arranged by the son of her step-father for a fee of £30,000, to the weak, miserable and yellow-bellied Rochester.

Rochester takes over the narrative in the second part of the novel as the newly-married couple retreat to an estate house on an anonymous Windward Island for their honeymoon. This narrative takeover is indicative of his overpowering of Antoinette’s character as he ‘renames’ her Bertha, thus replacing her exotic name with one closer to the grey mediocrity with which he is familiar.

His narrative magnificently fails to appreciate or capture the true lushness and wilderness of the vibrant Caribbean island setting. Instead he sees it only as a form of tropical prison that he cannot comprehend and over which he cannot exert any authority – circumstances which ultimately lead him to destroying Antoinette.

This novella is beautifully written and portrays a Caribbean setting that Rhys’ both feels a part of and yet feels alienated from. On a personal level, the character of Rochester grates and jars – as one would presume Rhys wanted him to. His lack of adventurous spirit in his new surroundings is typical of the old colonial attitudes and for a modern reader, one who enjoys embracing the different textures and fabrics of life around the world, he serves as the embodiment of everything I abhor in human nature.

The miserable conclusion to this novella does little to placate my anger and I feel that Rochester’s robbery of Antoinette’s heritage, joie de vivre and soul is a grave travesty of poetic justice. With that said, this is a novella that everyone with an interest in the imperial and post-colonial world should read.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Bakiga Window: The Road is Long

Sunset over Johnstone Road in Kabale, Uganda.
A dear Ugandan friend, Peter, seemingly manages his life by adding the word ‘project’ after whatever it is that needs doing. During our visit to Uganda this years there has been the ‘Lunch Project’, ‘Bus Project’ and ‘Football Match Project’ to name but a few. It is easy to see our time in Uganda as a pyramid of projects of many different levels of importance, or, like the Johnstone Road, a never ending hill to be surmounted.

It is Wednesday 20th April, the sun is setting behind the distant hills and I am wandering back up Johnstone Road towards the hotel for the last time. For 2011, the projects are coming to a close.

With the regular organiser and manager absent this year whilst she gets married, I’ve found myself in charge of running the show. In doing so I have an even better insight, and perhaps appreciation, of what really goes on behind the scenes – every day meeting somebody else, shaking hands, making speeches and every evening, after everyone else has gone to bed, sitting up until midnight accounting for the day’s expenditure.

I like to write. I was never good with numbers.

Our successes for the year have been many. In addition to old friends, many new acquaintances have been made. We’ve been able to work with new projects such as the Blessed Academy Primary School and build on existing projects like the one with Kigezi High School and Wise Parents Nursery.

Additionally, making a formal connection with Taufiq Islamic Primary School ahead of next year’s visit is something of a great personal achievement. I know a few members of Kabale’s Muslim community already and so being able to work with them in developing their educational provision is a great privilege.

With this bringing to a close my third visit to Uganda, conclusions are becoming increasingly more difficult to arrive at. The process of planning, visiting and evaluating has become eternal – running on a continuous loop – meaning that by the time I have finished writing up one visit on my blog, the next visit has come around already.

There was once a time that I was Tomás, a guy who visited Uganda a couple of times, now it seems that I somehow a part of Uganda and Uganda a part of me. It appears to be impossible for any news of Uganda, or programmes on TV about Uganda, to pass my friends and family by without them contacting me to let me know.

I presume that they know now that it is a country that I love, home to many close friends and that will forever be a part of me.
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