The Lagahoo's Apprentice
by Rabindranath Maharaj
Published by Knopf Canada
400 pages, 2000
Reviewed by J.M. Bridgeman
Stephen Sagar, the protagonist in Robin Maharaj's The Lagahoo's Apprentice, is a writer who travels. Defying convention, he does go home again, after living in Toronto for 16 years. Home is the Caribbean island of Trinidad, where Stephen has been contracted to write a biography of a retired politician, Edwin Rampartap, Mr. Ram. Is Stephen's junket just an excuse for a little R & R? Is he flying into adventure, to a heart of darkness, or towards self-discovery? Or is he merely running away from a stifling apartment on Ellesmere Road and a cold marriage where every walk in the streets alone seems like a temporary absence, a "parole"?
Madhoolal, Mr. Ram's driver, picks Stephen up and takes him to the estate, Rougeleau. Is the name Red Water "a legacy of the island's colonial past?" Or is "the Dead River" red from the blood of hanged slaves, of sacrificed beasts? Stephen mistranslates wheel / huille as snake, a boa or anaconda instead of as "prate or spirit." How could anyone, Madhoo implies, forget such important things? Stephen tries to shake off the culture shock. "Prates, douens, huilles, slave cemeteries; it was hard to believe that just three days ago I was in the living room at Ellesmere, flicking through the television channels and watching Martha Stewart . . . "
Maharaj immerses us very quickly into this exotic other world. Rougeleau is a former sugar cane plantation, lush with tropical plants, grapefruit and coconut ready to be plucked from the trees. Wheels and snakes are omnipresent. Clocks, watches, springs and men who count pop up everywhere, linking past, present and future. There is much twisting and turning and screwing and unscrewing (of bottle caps). The vine-clad walls are perfect hiding-places; coiled snakes lurk in bushes and slither through cracks. Characters have forked tongues, scaly flesh, hooded eyes; their words are drowned by the hissing of pipes; they slough off clothing and skins. Madhoo asks Stephen about his own "re-pro-duc-tive gorgon." This perfect weaving of landscape, myth and sexuality entices the reader, laughing, to eat of this tree, to follow to the end.
Stephen does not warm to Mr. Ram and begins to suspect a hidden agenda. He wonders whether he can write the kind of biography his patron wants without abandoning his own ethics. But Mr. Ram does share one secret as he takes Stephen to visit the source of the River of Blood near an ancient volcano. Upstream, an artesian spring gushing from the ground flowed "over the pebbles and stones and then over smooth ropy rocks like clay suddenly hardening. There were saucer-sized holes in the ground and small mounds that looked like molten statues of chubby babies."
As Stephen sleepwalks through his assignment, the reader begins to suspect that he may be a somewhat-unreliable narrator. As a journalist, he is expected to seek the chaos beneath the superficial order, but Stephen's skepticism goes beyond an attempt to see all sides of an issue. He seems negative, hypercritical, furious and, thus, nonobjective. He misses the point of stories he is told and misinterprets what he observes. He is a man who cannot see. The setup is complete. The reader is hooked, never quite sure what will happen, fearful that Stephen will trip up, that his personal shortcomings will ignite some violent outburst that will cause bodily harm to himself or others.
It is great to be able to laugh, to care about a character, to be intrigued by a foreign setting, to wonder what will happen and yet still to be engaged in a novel of ideas. The Lagahoo's Apprentice is more than a mystery. In Part II, Stephen runs away from Mr. Ram's. On the bus ride to his old haunts, he describes himself as "a man hovering uneasily between detachment and desolation." Yet he seems to know instinctively that he is unwell and what he needs to do to get better.
Stephen goes immediately to the backyard of the house where he used to live with his parents and starts to dig. Unearthing an Ovaltine tin filled with his childhood collection:
I struggled with the rusted lid, twisting and turning it until it was loose. I... put my hand inside and grabbed a fistful of marbles.... I shook the marbles in my hand and they caught the sunlight and glinted. The colours seemed to be scattering from my hand.... "Fairy eggs."
With the recovery of the lost arcs, magic returns to the island; Stephen begins to see with marble eyes. He retreats to a beach for two months to take the sun and drink the passion-fruit. He hangs out with fishermen, has a fling and looks up his old friends. All help him see some of his own many faces, recover lost memory and to know himself for the first time. He continues to collect the detritus he has been accumulating to take home for his daughter, but the bits and pieces take on new meaning. "The beach is decorated with shells of all sizes and shapes. Chip-chips like pink baby slippers, oysters like open palms. Grey and babyish."
This middle section is the romantic lyrical interlude; it reads more like memoir than travelog. New characters function as necessary sounding boards. "What happened to you in Canada?" Shikara asks, and Stephen spouts off as if this is the question he has been waiting for. He has found a pair of ears. They visit his lost friend's Wheel, "an ancient Indian motif. The dancing Shiva," which Keith had crafted of steel rods, conch shells, coral, polished driftwood, the spiny bones of fishes and hundreds of shells. This "dance of time" on the Trinidadian beach symbolizes "the unity of all things," retells the old myths in the new landscape, re-creates, with pieces of the new place. Thus, Stephen is seeing -- in the pillow lava as chubby babies, in the seashells as pink baby slippers, in the wheel --images of rebirth and transformation. In his apprenticeship, he is learning to perceive things differently, to become one of the many lagahoos, the term Trinidadians of Indian heritage use for shape-shifters.
In Part III, Stephen goes back to Mr. Ram's, ostensibly to return the advance. But things here have changed too. The servant girl has been banished. The wife has revived. The daughter has returned from Canada. The hangers-on seem a bit too involved in the debates and riots about island independence. And someone has been murdered. Will justice prevail? Will Tobago separate? Will Stephen complete his assignment? Will he stay, or will he go back to the cold?
Mrs. Ram meets Stephen in the backyard where a statue of a naked woman has been cleaned of moss and strewn with flowers, but its fountain does not work. Protesting, he accepts the screwdriver and attempts to fix it:
I wanted to suggest that she return it for a replacement when I noticed that the plastic tube that led to the fountain had not been inserted far enough to catch the water settling in the bowl. I took hold of the pump and pushed the tube farther in. The pump began to splutter and the water rose from the fountain, first in uneven spurts and then, as the pressure adjusted, into a full flow cascading over the statue.
Thus, Stephen has acquired, along with his new ability to see, skills which he applies to manipulate the world around him. Furthermore, his skill at making the water rise helps us see that the omphalos, the bellybutton of the world, the world tree, grows always in our own backyard. This is the secret knowledge that is the basis of every shapeshifter's power. For Stephen's rebirth has been a revolution, a quest for independence, a return to answer the old schoolmaster's question: "Where is the cradle of civilization?" Colonization ends, the colonized mind is liberated, when it rejects the imposed mythologies of dominant mainstreams and finds its origin, its cradle of civilization, in its own culture. Liberation occurs when we realize that "the world begins where first we see it," as Margaret Laurence wrote 30 years ago. Yet it is one of those truths that each individual and every generation must rediscover for themselves and apply to their own experience. Each quest usually entails a journey towards an edge, where earth meets sea or sky. Every diviner passes the rod to the new apprentice.
I haven't spoiled the plot by telling you "what happens." These threads I have pulled out are themes and motifs that heighten the reader's enjoyment. The Lagahoo's Apprentice is about time, change, death, grief, reality, order, chaos, politics, sexuality, mythology, identity and spirituality. It assumes that "there are no ordinary stories," that every character is a hero with the potential to return from the wasteland to see with new eyes the place where we first began. All of the allusions are deliberate. This is a story about consilience, conjunction, the fusion of everything. Maharaj shows us that every man is an island, volcanic, attached to the molten core of the Earth, from which mud bubbles up, eternally birthing, ever growing.
It does not matter where we come from; we are all connected. Most of us do not live where our grandparents lived. Perhaps it is time to think of migration, island and continent-hopping, as the norm. Then the role of literature becomes helping us learn, through sharing story, through attention to the details, that every place is the Garden of Eden, that our mission as human beings is to learn how to live at home in the world by learning to feel at home with ourselves.
Robin Maharaj compares very favorably to the older and more established Canadian writer of Caribbean origin, Austin Clarke. (See my review of The Question.) Both sing of remembered island paradises of poverty and passion, of lost parents, of exotic childhoods as sources of adult wisdom, of cultural dissonance which has at its roots personal dis-ease. Both are masters of the English language they love to play with. At the same time, they incorporate motifs and symbols indigenous to their settings and their transplanted cultures, tying worlds together and expanding meaning beyond voice and word. Both toy with a subtext of mental health/mental illness and with the question of who decides -- of the tyranny of the majority and of the patriarchy. The immigrant experience grounds their stories of the quest for identity, of everyday heroes. Read them both; read them together. Your world will expand, and that's a good thing. | November 2000