It was a difficult book to read for more than one reason. I will make my comments in a following post as I wanted to use this one to upload Marina Salandy Brown's excellent presentation on both Ladoo and the book. Of particular interest in her paper is the response from critics such as Victor Questel and Christopher Laird. Did I like the book? Hmmmm. The jury is still out on that one. Do I think it is good literature? I do.
But onto Marina.
NO PAIN LIKE THIS BODY
By Harold Sonny Ladoo
Reading group 18 Jan 2008
I am pleased, utterly, to have read this book in spite of the fact that it made for very uncomfortable reading. I had to choose between it and Half a Yellow Sun (which I regard highly). One page in, one sentence in, and the decision was made. This is the third significant
Instead of starting with the novel itself, I’d like to start at the beginning - with this, to me and the majority of us, previously unheard of writer, Harold Sonny Ladoo. Who was he? Where did he come from? Why did he write so unrelentingly about domestic violence? He died very young and very brutally - Why? To answer some of those questions I would like to quote extensively from one important source of info about Ladoo, Peter Such.
Such met him in a bus station and befriended him….. “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.” Such was writer-in-residence at
Ladoo was born illegitimate in 1945 and was murdered in 1973 – aged 28. He grew up with a family called "Ladoo” in the plantation area of Couva, near the small
Ladoo migrated to
Such says: “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 concentration 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 completely finished. Then he would call, announce he had written another novel, and collapse, exhausted and exultant. 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.”… Reminds me a bit of how Garcia Marquez wrote 100 Years of Solitude.
Ladoo was published by House of Anansi - where he had originally sent his poetry that had been roundly rejected. Such writes “The whole pile came back with a long letter from Dennis Lee, the publisher, which said "Write about the things you know." Ladoo disappeared shortly thereafter for a week, then turned up at Such’s office carrying a small folder containing only six five-to-ten-page short stories, all written in a few days. Everything else he had ever written had been burned – two suitcases full of them.
He never looked back. Those short stories became the source material for his first novel, published under the title No Pain Like This Body, and not its working title of Yesterdays, which is the title of his second novel published posthumously in 1974.
In the very early 1970s Ladoo’s father died suddenly and he returned to
Dying was obviously not the plan but Such suggests that Ladoo sensed his own demise. He had said of his obsessive writing “I do not have much time.” And when Such saw him off at the airport, Ladoo said “I may never come back.” Apart from sorting out his mother he had been planning apparently “to research facets of the different cultures during the times of slavery and indentured labour for a vast saga like Faulkner's that would cover the events right up to modern times with the immigrants to
There is one episode I want to quote for you as it may shed some light on Ladoo’s death and the violence in this work which, for me, are inseparable . It may also link to the “vicious scar” on his neck. I think although the writer and his work are separate things, it is the philosophy of violence that infuses this novel. .
One night Peter Such gets a call saying Ladoo is in trouble with the police and Such goes to help - “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
“Haltingly he told me the circumstances. He'd been dragged rather unwillingly to a party. Dead tired, and 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 paranoid. By the time they arrived home he was very agitated. He went downstairs to rest while the others chatted.
“Ten minutes later he came up again (from the basement where he lived with his family) 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. The psychiatrist examined him, pronounced him eminently sane, and kept him for ages talking about literature….. Harold made that kind of impression on people.”
From this account of the author’s life you will see that there is a disturbing parallel between the life and the novel. As if one led to the other or as Such suggests, Ladoo could sense his own death and was drawn back to it. Maybe the writing was a making sense of something he sensed, something that was inevitable given his personal reality?
I will confine my remarks to a few precise areas since there are many aspects of the novel for us to discuss and I know some of you disliked the novel – inconstant language, poor transcription of the vernacular, inauthenticity, voyeurism, acquired existentialism, unnecessary and unrelenting violence, smacks of first novel, written for foreigners etc.
I would rate this novel as a classic work of
I agree with reviewers who suggest that Ladoo created another character of
Ladoo sets his masterpiece of social realism in an isolated village separated from urbanisation by a lack of means of communication, roads, transport, electricity, entertainment and culture. The place – to me – is a very recognisable, albeit make-believe Tola Trace in rural
The novel describes the cruel and hopeless existence of a poor rice-growing family during one rainy season. The action takes place in a very brief time frame and deals with the family’s struggle to cope with Nature’s unrelenting violence, a drunken and angry father, the God’s who betray them and the final loss of body, mind and spirit.
The story is that of the relationship between a family and Nature, the relationship between a man and his wife and their children, and hers with them - Balraj, who is twelve and is the eldest, a girl -Sunaree, Rama (who dies of a scorpion sting but he could also have died of pneumonia) and Panday. They all work in the rice paddy, though they are constantly on the run from
The author captures the complex ties of family, neighbourhood, of friendship that bind the people of a traditional village society into mutual obligation, intrigue, malicious gossip – mauvais lange, into the publicness of personal events whether it is courtship, marriage, family feuds, entertainment, even private grief. Death provides the opportunity for meddling that makes the funeral of a dead child an important social event so that the family itself becomes part of the wall paper while scandalous and wicked gossip- mongering and backyard talk leaves everybody, pundit, mother and innocent children touched, sullied by the ole’ talk that outs everybody. There is no hiding place, no secrets, no respect, no dignity….. The pomposity and social pretensions of the pundit are given short thrift, the rights of a grieving mother completely negated. In our society no one is privileged against a tongue whipping, a bad talking that’s so thorough that it could drive you mad.
Using painful, shocking and vivid prose, and with extraordinary simplicity and originality, Ladoo creates a world of violation and despair that the human being in the end cannot endure. The big question about this slim book is why is the author’s prose so thoroughly violent and angry? Why does he not spare the reader’s sensibilities? Is he intending to shock or to tell a truth about a pain that has been gnawing away at him and others? Putting it another way - Is the language appropriate for what the author is trying to achieve?
The novel gets off to its certain hateful and wonderfully descriptive start:-
Pa hated Ma and he hated Balraj, so he picked up Ma as if he was picking up a little child and he held her in the air. Ma bawled like a cow hard hard hard. She tried to hold the hog plum tree, but she couldn't meet it. Ma didn't want to go inside the tub; she was turning and twisting as a worm; just turning and twisting and bawling; just bawling and trying to get away. The water in the tub was full of soap suds. Pa held her high and he held her tight as a tree holds another tree. Ma was bawling and getting on, getting on and calling God, but the sky was black and God was watching with his big eyes from heaven; he was not even trying to help Ma a little. Pa turned her over and pushed her face inside the tub; trying hard to drown her. Her feet were high in the air, and her whole body was shaking as a banana leaf shakes when the wind blows.
(Notice how he gets the language absolutely right – the superlative expressed by repeating “hard” 3 times. Notice the unusual similes from Nature – “as a tree holds another tree”, “as a banana leaf shakes when the wind blows”.
The dehumanising of the children and their father is well expressed in this excerpt”-
"Look wot you doin Panday!" Sunaree said.
"I not doin notten. Dis rice could kiss me ass! I is a chile".
"If Pa hear you he go beat you Panday!"
"But I is' a little chile!"
Pa stood on the riceland bank by the doodoose mango tree. He heard Panday. He jumped as a bull on the riceland bank.
"Panday shut you kiss me ass mout boy! Shut it boy! Me Jesus Christ! If you make me come in dat wadder I go kick you till you liver 'bust!" Reading that sentence made me shudder from the cruelty and violence.
In an attempt to show both the two-sided nature of Nature, Ladoo fills the novel with disgusting creepy-crawlies like snakes, rats, worms, ants, spiders and scorpions.
The sky rolled as an endless spider and the rain fell like a shower of poison over Tola. The darknes was thicker than black mud, and the wind howled as evil spirits.
The descriptions of the planting of rice in the paddies are vivid, the need to get it just right so critical to their mean survival.
Sumaree was planting good, but not good enough. Her rows were nto in one straight line….. Panday was not a good planter; he didn’t know how to ram the rice roots under the water and then cover them with mud but he was trying to plant faster than Sunaree. He wasn’t holding the plants carefully; sometimes he squeezed so hard that they broke in the middle just about the water line…. He was afraid; afraid because some of the rice plants he had planted were leaning in the water; others were buried so deep into the mud hat the tops were hidden under the muddy water….. Speed was getting Panday into trouble. He stooped down moved as an old man in the water; but he still couldn’t make a straight line. Sunaree and Panday were tired and hungry; their bellies were full of wind; they were getting sharp pains in their stomachs but they waited for Ma… she too was hungry and tired. When the last faggot was planted Ma came out of the water.
Another question follows from all this – has this author all but disappeared from popular literary memory in T&T because of the terrible story he told and the way he told it? This and my earlier question provoke controversy. It has been suggested that he may have been killed because of his writing. Christopher Laird wrote:
“He does not glorify the East Indian, far from it. It would not be too absurd to suggest Ladoo was killed for what he wrote. If Naipaul can earn the anger of the local community for his snide irony, Ladoo would earn their rage for his own. But Ladoo's own rage stems from his sense of the injustice of indentureship, the poverty and exploitation of his people. His writing comes from a sense of wonder at their resilience, their sense of life, their reverence of God and above all the compassion that seams his world.”
Many non-Indian middle-class people in west/northern
Indentureship was a cruel system introduced against the advice of some people here including Robert Guppy, grandfather of Yseult Bridges who wrote Child of the Tropics.(pg 82-83).
But the educated elite was not interested in the fact that the system would create social and economic problems in the future, they were determined to continue to be sugar growers even though cane’s supremacy was already being challenged by beet in the international market. They remained slave owners in all but name. (CHILD of the Tropics) pg91-92.
Indentureship created an ill-paid, abused labour army that undercut the wage levels of the non-agricultural working class groups. The social effects were monstrous because it engendered deep racial animosity borne of misunderstanding between the black man and the Indian, which still prevails and defines our politics. It is in this historical context that we must examine this work.
Information on Ladoo is scarce. I found only two reviews, one by deceased Dr. Victor Questel, which I now quote from.
“Ladoo's first novel NO PAIN, adds a new dimension to the West Indian novel. It is the kind of dimension that complements Michael Anthony's exploration of the world of the child and the adolescent as seen in THE YEAR IN
Questel describes Pa as “the most violent father in West Indian fiction… He is the one who beats up each member of his family. He is the one indirectly responsible for Rama's death and Ma's madness. In fact Pa can be seen as the reverse side to the indifferent invisible God in the sky. Pa is a snake, the agent of evil, a devil figure; a directionless individual on a violent rampage of violence. Thus, if God is presented as the indifferent agent of destruction, then Pa is presented as his opposite number on earth.
“As things get progressively worse Panday asks
"Wot God doin now?"... "He watchin’ from de sky". "God still watchin"
"Well God playing de ass now"!
“This feeling that those in authority do not care, but are simply "playing de ass" runs throughout the novel. Each member of the family looks upon the other with suspicion and with the feeling that he or she is both exaggerating his or her pain or irritability. Thus, when Ma is drunk during the wake for Rama, her child, Panday, says:
"Ma you drink rum and playing in you ass!" Ma was getting on bawling and swearing and getting on. Pa came inside the kitchen. "Keep dat bitch quiet!"
"But she chile dead", Soomintra the wife of Sankar said.
"Yeh. De chile dead, but she eh have to get on like a ass".
Questel observes, “Most of the action in the novel is played out in rain. Ladoo's characters are seen as trapped in the wires of rain, and therefore fixed in time, in the wet season, which is presented as the more aggressive of the two seasons. It is significant that Ladoo traps his characters in the rain and then closely examines their lives, since it allows him to make his point by exaggeration for once trapped he places them under a micros-cope. One can see that this writer has imposed all his memories of grim wet seasons onto that one wet season of his fictitious Carib Island. The result is a rain of terror that reigns supreme.
“So far, in West Indian literature our writers have used the sun as the symbol of suffering and hot indifference. The cold of the rain in Ladoo's novel is even more biting.
The sky rolled as an endless spider and the rain fell like a shower of poison over Tola. The darkness was thicker than black mud, and the wind howled as evil spirits. (p.58)
“Before singling out any of the action at the wake scene I should first record the reaction of Ma and Pa to the death of their son Rama, since their reactions are related to Ladoo's implied question - "who is to blame?"
"Me son dead widdout seem he modder face. Two days he live in dat hospital just waiting to see he modder. He wait till he dead. Which part in dat sky you is God? Me chile not even leff a trace in de world. He just born and dead. Dat is all. And he own fadder kill him too besides!"
"I tell you God kill him!" Pa shouted. "Yet you saying I kill him. Well me eh doin one kiss me ass ting for dis wake and funeral!"
I don’t know if any of you would agree with me but the perfectly described wake (biscuit, rum and storytelling) provides some of the few lighter moments in the novel as villagers exchange jokes and the “Brahmin” pundit gets his comeuppance. Questel thinks, “Ladoo uses the wake scene to show how the gods have fallen. No one including the priest has any faith in the ritual performed. In addition to this the priest's authenticity is questioned by the group and by extension what he represents.
... "He is a modderass chamar and he playing Brahmin. Bisnath Saddhu is not a priest. He fadder used to mind pigs in Jangli Tola. He modderass chamar come to Tola playing holy". And Pulbassia laughed and said, "Yeh one foot. Give him in he ass!"
Bisnath Saddhu the village priest said, "Shut you one foot tail I not from Jangli Tola. Me fadder and me come from de Punjab". "Punjab me ass Punjab! Pulbassia shouted. "You son of a bitch Baba all you used to mind hog in Jangli Tola."
"Who say dat?"
The priest sat up, wiped his eyes with the back of his hands, yawned and said, "I de born a Brahmin". And Amen to that!!
Questel says “The counterpoint of irony is what knits the novel together. The central irony being that Nature for those trapped in Tola Trace is hostile, yet nature is all they know, and their ability to tame nature determines their degree of survival. The result is that we get descriptions of the hostility of nature, even the evil in nature, while alongside these are passages which show the characters becoming part of Nature”. I agree with that observation.
“One of the starkest of passages in the novel is the description of Rama covered in a ricebox. Rama is sick with fever and is placed in a covered ricebox as if dead and placed in his coffin. He is later stung by a scorpion and dies in the district hospital. It is as if his burial is rehearsed. Questell says “The placing of Rama in the covered ricebox gives some more support to the tentative theory of re-burial mooted by some commentators on West-Indian literature”. I do not know about this but hope someone could enlighten me on this aspect of our literature.”
It may no longer be true but Questel says “The only works written in the English-speaking West Indies which come closest to this novel in so far as we are talking about man versus nature” are two books I have not read – “ Roger Mais's THE HILLS WERE JOYFUL TOGETHER and Derek Walcott's THE SEA AT DAUPHIN. To Afa, "the sea it have compassion in the end"; to those in NO PAIN, the rain does not care, nor does the wind or the land.
“The rain didn't care about pounding 'the earth. Ma and drops; they looked like fat earth from above. God was earth and the sky with the whole of Tola was dark and Tola. Rain was Balraj saw the worms invading the trying to tie the rain drops.
He says: “One area of weakness in NO PAIN is that Ladoo overdoes his attempts to capture sound. The novel is top-heavy with sounds such as 'tuts', 'splunk', 'slap' and 'toots'. I understand his need to capture sound in that rain-drenched setting, but it ends in near parody. Moreover it too often interrupts the flow of the descriptions. For example,
A large cockroach with long wings flew flut over the light. It settled taps on the earthen wall. It was wet; it came from the rain to shelter near the light. Nanny took the brown hand-drum and crushed it crachak!
He believes that if Ladoo had omitted the 'flut' 'and the 'taps' that 'crachak' would have been more dramatic. He says “As it is, it is just another noise.” I think he was using it for light relief as in the way the children always say “orright” in a pathetic way that always made me laugh because it released me from the violence .
Questel ends his review –
“Since Ladoo is now dead, it is difficult for anyone to make claims for him since he cannot now fulfil them. All that can be said is that Ladoo has pointed another dimension that is open to the young West Indian writer. If the novel reads as if it is unfinished, it is because it is the first in a projected series which Ladoo's untimely death has brought to a very premature end. The novel really does not attempt to answer some of the questions raised; maybe the later novels would have cleared up some of the areas of vagueness. The strength of NO PAIN is its directness. Ladoo by looking back steadily at Tola Trace has made it the earth's centre, and that is a success that few first novels can boast.”
Christopher Laird wrote in December 2002: “ Ladoo's work showed the innocence of a Michael Anthony, the folksy gentleness of a Selvon, the satire of a Naipaul and the cosmic vision of a Mittleholzer, but above all it was steeped in a dreadness and violence all its own…. Ladoo's portrayal of his characters is quite different from how East Indians have been portrayed in our literature previously (or since). Naipaul uses his upper class Brahmin sense of superiority to poke fun at his characters. His satire depends on authorial comment and his compassion is measured out carefully. Selvon on the other hand is full of compassion but his East Indians find answers in merging with creole Trinidad. Until Ladoo, there has been no writer who wrote of the world of the East Indian peasant of central Trinidad. This he does with no outright comment. His characters speak for themselves.”
TO END - Such says this novel had drawn criticism from West Indian friends because of its blunt honesty. “Harold felt he was writing true West Indian literature with the flavour of its society in every word. His big opus was to be the epic he felt everything else had been leading up to, which was what he came back to research. “
The Dept. of English at the University of Toronto at Mississaugua (Erindale College) has established the Harold Sonny Ladoo award for creative writing, in celebration of Ladoo, a former student and graduate. It is interesting that he had been overlooked by the literati here for so long. Maybe because of the raw and terrible reality he portrays of a particular section of our society. I also think for people anxious to reinvent themselves this truth may have been too painful. The picture he paints of the wretched, isolated poor is an unpopular one and one that few non-Indian Trinidadians have witnessed but I did as a child growing up in various parts of Trinidad in the ‘50s and ‘60s
In my opinion the writing – the tone, the descriptions, the language, echo precisely the despair, the violence and the anger of the people the author wished to portray. It was what he knew.