A PERFECT PLEDGE
By Rabindranath Maharaj
Farrar Straus Giroux. 401 pp. $25
Among the many things to admire about A Perfect Pledge is the author's confidence. Standing between Cervantes and Naipaul would inspire enough anxiety of influence to bring a lesser man to his knees. Imagine Don Quixote staying home in Trinidad, and you've got something like the wandering, witty, ultimately devastating story that Rabindranath Maharaj tells in A Perfect Pledge.
The author teaches high school in Ontario, but he was born and raised in Trinidad, a tiny island nation about the size of Delaware, off the coast of Venezuela, and it's there, in a small farming village, that he sets his first novel to be published here. (His short stories and two earlier novels have already attracted critical praise in Canada, which sadly is no protection against oblivion in the United States.) This is a rich, expansive tale about a poor, compressed place that Maharaj loves enough to celebrate but knows well enough to recreate in all its stifling corruption and ignorance. It begins with the birth of the fourth child and only son of Narpat, an eccentric sugar-cane farmer in 1955 (the same year the author was born). The sickly baby's name is Jeeves, and though the novel moves from his birth to his marriage two decades later, his father remains the focus throughout.
For the 400 people of this isolated village, Narpat is impossible to ignore; for us, he's impossible to forget. A man of unflappable conviction, he knows exactly what's wrong with the way everybody else eats, prays, works and gardens. Poor Jeeves must sleep on a mattress of twigs (improves circulation) and subsist on his father's barely digestible diet, which leaves him feeling nauseated and flatulent much of the time. Complaints only call down long harangues about their neighbors' foolish taste for sweets and alcohol. "Toxins," Narpat insists. "Look at how much bloat-up people it have in this crowd. Diabetes and stroke just waiting to happen." His wife endures unending labor in their decrepit house, but Narpat thunders away every night about the danger of sloth and ease. "What is the point of this electricity nonsense," he harasses his bored children, "when you could get the brightest light from any gas lamp? No outage, no blackout, no monthly bill."
In this carefully drawn world, he's a marvelous character, an encyclopedia of warnings, adages and remedies, some based on science but most on a philosophy of almost violent self-sacrifice that translates every hardship and deprivation into a virtue. "Why you want a big, fancy concrete house when a small, humble, two-bedroom hut with no unnecessary furniture is so comfortable?" he asks in the richly accented voice that Maharaj captures so well. "A hammock? That is the prime cause of laziness and hunchback. A rocking chair? The shakes. . . . A couch? Stoop shoulder and lumbago. I could spot these couch people from a mile walking like if they dragging a tail." He's like some Caribbean version of Henry David Thoreau, married with children.
Willful, extreme and unrelenting, he would have been an easy figure to satirize, and Maharaj generates plenty of comedy with him, but ultimately A Perfect Pledge pursues something more complex. For one thing, Maharaj manages to show the affection between Narpat and his family before his ferocious self-righteousness finally fractures them. For another, Maharaj makes it clear that Narpat is often right: Their village is plagued by laziness, alcohol and ignorance. The elaborate drainage system he designs would save the neighborhood from frequent flooding. His organized protest is the farmers' only hope for retaining their livelihood. The key to meeting the demands of the modern age is, as he insists, "to become futurists."
But Maharaj weaves tragedy through all Narpat's obnoxious optimism. Even in the early, humorous sections of the novel, the frustration of living with a wise man slips out when his wife says things like, "Everybody getting by without this so-call sacrifice. Everybody improving and getting more modern, while we sinking deeper and deeper in this hole." His most elaborate and costly scheme -- and the one that consumes him during much of the novel -- is the construction of a sugar-cane factory to give farmers more control over their crop. It's a sound idea, in theory, but as designed on hundreds of old cardboard boxes and constructed (almost entirely by himself) like some rusty Rube Goldberg machine, it's a sadly quixotic pursuit, a theme emphasized by the factory's power source: a decrepit windmill.
This is a charming story, but it's charming at about four miles an hour (with plenty of detours), which means it's easy to jump off before the considerable mass gathers momentum. Then it's unstoppable. The light, nonjudgmental voice that Maharaj uses to narrate the family's early years eventually renders their long decline with delicate pathos. Almost imperceptibly, the comedy of Narpat's craziness drops away, and the shadow it casts on his family grows darker and darker.
By the end, only Jeeves, the boy who once "marveled at his father's ability to transform a setback into an enjoyable tale," is willing to carry the burden of his own "perfect pledge." Narpat had always impressed upon his son the importance of sacrificing everything for the land, but ultimately Jeeves hears the call of a deeper, more profound responsibility: to his father. Even as the old man's frustrated idealism slips into mean-spirited dementia, "Jeeves felt a whiff of tenderness, a shrill affection for his father that was like a burst of pain because it was so unexpected." It's a heartrending conclusion, tenderly, beautifully told. If I were a futurist, I'd advise keeping an eye out for more from Maharaj. *
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.