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Reading C.L.R.James as Novelist: Reference ‘Minty Alley’

Authors:
Reading C.L.R.James as Novelist: Reference ‘Minty Alley’*
Chaman Lal**
Cyril Lionel Roberts James was born in Caroni town of Trinidad & Tobago on 4th
January 1901, who lived up to ripe age of 88 years plus till 19th May 1989, in which
he produced so much scholarly and creative work, participated in political activity in
Trinidad & Tobago and world over at such level, that he became one of the foremost
personality of not only Trinidad & Tobago, but of the whole Caribbean! Born into a
middle class black family of Robert and Eda Elizabeth James, who migrated from
Barbados, James was influenced by his mother, who, like her husband, was a
teacher and avid reader of literature. James was an intelligent child and won a
scholarship even at the age of nine years in Queens Royal College, a high school in
Port of Spain. He had developed interest in Cricket and literature and after
completing his education in Queens College, he could not make career as army
officer and was denied entry, in the back drop of Trinidadian black army recruits in
First World War revolting against racism and war in Italy. There was general strike of
Trinidad workers in 1919, which made Captain Arthur Andrew Cipraini as a popular
leader of workers. With the introduction of legislative Council, Cipriani, a former
mayor of Port of Spain, was elected the member of the council. James understood
the colonial system better now and he was also influenced by English writers like
Charles Dickens, Thackeray and Hazlitt. He became a school teacher, after finishing
his college studies and taught among others-Eric Williams, who later became first
Prime Minister of Trinidad & Tobago. James also joined ‘Anti Colonialist’ Beacon
group, which was set up by Beacon magazine. James’ aunt was a black slave, from
whom, he listened many stories about slavery. C.L.R. James’s first book was
published on Cipriani in 1932, called-‘The Life of Captain Cipriani: An account of
British Government in the West Indies’.
In 1920 and 1930’s, James was teaching literature and history and
playing Cricket. He was covering the game of Cricket in newspapers. He along with
few other black and white intellectuals also formed a group, who were writing
‘Barrack yard’ stories about the wretched colonies of Port of Spain. He wrote two
novellas or long stories-‘La Divina Pastora’ and ‘Triumph’ during 1925 to 1930.
Divina Pastora is a folk story of Sipriani church black statue, owned by Christians
and Hindus both. He wrote a novel also in 1928, which was later published in
England in 1936 under the title-‘Minty Alley’, to be discussed in some detail in this
paper. The classic work of C.L.R.James-‘The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture
and the San Domingo Revolution’ was published from London in 1938, which
established his credentials as the foremost scholar of the region.
George Padmore was his school days friend, with whom, he later worked in Britain in
‘International African Service Bureau’ and introduced him to Ghana’s national
liberation leader Kwame Nkrumah.
C.L.R. James came to London in 1932 and here his personality grew, he
got work in Manchester Guardian as Cricket reporter in 1933. James contacted anti
colonial and leftist movements here and himself turned into a Trotskyite first and Pan
African later. His books also started publishing from London, thus his first book on
Cipriani came out in 1932. In 1933, he published two books-‘Cricket and I’ jointly with
Nicholas Constantine and ‘The Case for West Indian Self Governance’ on his own.
His next book to publish was his only novel-‘Minty Alley’, the first edition of which
came out in 1936. In 1937, he published-World Revolution, 1917-1936: The Rise and
Fall of the Communist International (London: M. Secker & Warburg, 1937). And in 1938, his
classic and most discussed work-‘The Black Jacobins’ was published. With the publication of
The Black Jacobins, James was established in political-academic world as significant
Marxist and radical writer/historian. Strangely, 15 more books of CLR James were published,
but mostly after 1977. Some of these books were jointly written with some other writers. In
1938, James had to go to USA, where he spent next 19 years of his life, which he thought to
be of productive nature. Apart from writing books, CLR James took active part in
revolutionary movements of the world, participating in Trotskyites movements, meeting
Trotsky, later going away from Trotskyism and becoming more involved with Pan African
movements. He had close relations with Ghana’s liberation leader Kwame Nkrumah, on
which he wrote a book.
What is lesser known fact of CLR James is his involvement and friendship with Indian
Diaspora in England and Trinidad & Tobago. He was a regular visitor to Balkrishan Gupta,
an Indian Trotskyite in London, who was linked with Jawaharlal Nehru. He also lived with
another Indian leftist Ajit Roy in London. He was a fan of Indian cricketer Kunwar Ranjit
Singh, on whose name India has Ranjee Trophy matches in cricket. At one time CLR James
was close to People’s National Movement (PNM) in Trinidad & Tobago, which has to its
credit the publication of a book by CLR James-‘Modern Politics’ in 1960. But Eric Williams,
PNM leader, was weary of CLR James, which he perceived as a threat to his leadership, so
he was sidelined in PNM. James joined PNM for its role as a party, demanding freedom from
British colonialism, but he was critical of its rightwing policies and expected it to be more
radical. CLR James had bitter split with PNM and tried his luck in Trinidad & Tobago politics
by joining labour movement with Basdeo Pandey, both fared badly in elections, with James
getting just 300+ voted from his childhood lived constituency of Tuna Puna. Eric Williams, a
student of James in school, went to the extent of detaining CLR James, because of his
Marxist radicalism and had to release him after a hue and cry from public. Later James went
back to England and confined himself to theoretical and academic work, producing many
important works, before his passing away on 19th May 1989 in England.
Though CLR James wrote only one novel and two stories, yet the quality of his
creative writing is such, that, even British publishers had to acknowledge his talent as
novelist by publishing his novel ‘Minty Alley’ in 1936, as first major work of fiction from the
Caribbean. Although James concentrated on historical and theoretical writings later, but his
historical writings became more interesting and fascinating for its readers, as James
developed a certain narrative style, which made ‘The Black Jacobins’ and his other writings
more attractive. His stint in journalism as cricket reporter also contributed towards his style of
writing as narrative, which developed out of his indulgence in fiction writing.
‘Minty Alley’ was written by James in 1928, when he was 27 years old, though it got
published eight years later in 1936. This is the story of as they call it ‘yard life’, or the life of
poor people, mostly black in alleys of Trinidad. Here comes to live Mr. Haynes, a young
student, who after the death of his mother, had to adjust in life with lesser means. He has to
leave his better family house for a cheaply rented room in Mrs. Rouse’s house in 2 Minty
Alley on Victoria road, which also has a cake shop, and had few more tenants like Nurse
Jackson. She has many workers for the shop-Miss Atwell, Indian girl Philomen, Aucher etc.
Haynes’s long term family servant Ella, who is fully loyal to him, had arranged this room, with
the suggestion, that he should shift from here, as soon as his financial situation improves.
She considers Haynes to be ‘high class’ and Minty Alley residents to be ‘low classes! But
once Haynes is in the house, he becomes part and parcel of the happenings in that ‘low
class’ people’s lives. Mrs. Rouse is living with Mr. Benoit, who is not sincere to her and gets
involved with Nurse Jackson, leading to turmoil in the lives of Minty Alley residents. In the
beginning, every one praises nurse, as she is caring of every one, she lives with her son
Sonny, and is very possessive of him and beats him cruelly, once he disobeys her. Maise,
an attractive young relative of Mrs. Rouse lives in the house, but is always fighting with Mrs.
Rouse. Ella cannot live in the house, but she keeps on doing all work for Haynes, which she
was doing earlier, cooking, serving food, cleaning etc. Later falling seriously ill, she has to
leave the city to live with her mother in countryside for few months. Haynes is attracted
towards Maise and wants to have his first ‘love making’ experience, Maise is responsive, but
he himself takes too long time to take initiative, which too, he could take only at the coaxing
of Mr. Benoit. Mrs. Rouse is good hearted affectionate woman, but breaks down at the
desertion by Benoit for marrying Nurse Jackson. Miss Atwell and Philomen take care of her,
and she finds solace in Haynes’s consolatory words also. Haynes lives in a privileged
position in this house; he is liked by everyone, for his gentle ways and studying habits.
Departure of Benoit and Nurse Jackson bring unhappiness and crude expressions of
life in the house, poor people cannot control their emotions like rich people, neither have
they had other kind of cultural expressions for their grief. So the emotions, grief and
unhappiness gets expressed in most crude fashion-abuses, shouting, fighting with each
other- all reflect their deep unhappiness with life. Yet deep down their crude expressions
there are loyalties, concerns and commitments. Thus Mrs. Rouse is not able to accept
another man in her life, to replace Benoit, Ella the servant cannot become indifferent to her
master Haynes, Philomen most caring and loyal servant of Mrs. Rouse cannot stop crying at
her unjust forced removal from her low paid job; even after quitting her job, cannot stop
caring for Mrs. Rouse. Mrs. Rouse admits before Haynes that she forced Philomen to leave
her job, as the ‘preacher’, who had been exploiting her, by getting her hard earned and
much required five dollars, for giving such inhuman advices to her, ‘she should avoid and not
trust ‘the coolies’, meaning Indians’, which Philomen was. Even after making her quit, she
cannot mistrust her and looks for her company, which Philomen never denies, despite
getting unjust treatment at her hands. Haynes himself feels part of these people and he gets
deeply attached to Maise, who despite her bitter tongue, makes him realise many harsh
realities of the life, and she would not tolerate any one speaking a word against him.
C. L. R. James, the deep humanist at his heart and nurtured with humanist literary
values by his mother, through the study of best literature of the world, brings out the depth of
emotions of lower class working people of the ‘yard’. In Kenneth Ramchand’s words-‘The
vividness of the Minty Alley lodgers is one expression of life’s triumph over narrow
surroundings’.i1 James through his novel and depiction its characters ignorance in life, tries
to make them aware of their exploitation by ruling powers, including religious preachers of
various hues, thus, he exposes the exploiter Christian Wiseman, when Mrs. Rouse narrates
the incident of this intelligent ‘Godman’, telling her that she should not expect from ‘coolie
blood’ anything but ‘treachery’, as ‘her ‘blood’ and ‘coolie blood’ don’t take’! At Mrs. Rouse’s
query about Mr. Benoit living so long with her, he tells because he was ‘half coolie’. So at
this crook’s advice, Philomen is forced to leave her, and through Haynes, James conveys to
Mrs. Haynes and his readers that-‘to tell you the truth, I believe they are a set of imposters’.2
In fact by writer has focussed on Black African-Indian relations and their mutual prejudices
against each other, one thinking of the other in derogatory terms like-‘coolie’, the term given
to Indian indentured labour by British colonial masters, and the other using derogatory term
‘kaale’(The Black) for Africans. James had highlighted the fact that only by eradication of
such prejudices, Indian and African descent people can live in harmony in Trinidad and as a
radical thinker, James was a strong votary of harmonious Indo-African relations in
Trinidadian society.
C.L.R. James‘s art of characterisation is very impressive, all the characters of the novel
appear in their humane form, neither idealised nor demeaned. They are humane characters,
full of strengths and weaknesses, full of passion for life, growing with life. Strength of
James’s Minty Alley lays in its depiction of the reality of yard life and its realist characters.
This was a time of progressive movement in literature, based on realism, taking shape world
over. Minty Alley was published in 1936 from London, in 1934, Progressive movement in
literature was taking shape in London, first international progressive literature conference
was held in Paris in 1935 and in India in 1936. C.L.R. James shall not be unaware of these
literary trends; rather he may be part of it. C.L.R. James’s only novel falls in the category of
Maxim Gorki’s literature in Russia, Lu Xun’s literature in China, Premchand’s literature in
India, Emile Zola’s literature in France and so on. James was contemporary of all these
writers and they all were creating classics of realist literature in those days-Gorki’s ‘Mother’,
Lu Xun’s –Diary of a Mad Man, Zola’s ‘Nana’, Premchand’s ‘Godan’(Gift of Cow) or
‘Kafan’(The Coffin), all these writings appeared during this period of realist literature gaining
ascendance world over. And C.L.R.james’s Minty Alley is proud part of this tradition of
world’s realist literature.
References:
1
i1.C.L.R. James, ‘Minty Alley’, with Introduction by Kenneth Ramchand, 2008 reprint, New Beacon Books,
London and Port of Spain, page xi.
2. ------Same----, page 184
References from some web pages:
1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C._L._R._James
2. http://www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/biograph.htm
3. http://www.isj.org.uk/?id=253-The Revolutionary as Artist-Christian Hogsbjerg
4. http://www.mclemee.com/id84.html- Scott McLemee-C.L.R.James-A Biographical Introduction
5. http://www.mclemee.com/id84.html-The Neglected C.L.R.James- Paul Buhle, Monthly Review
6. http://www.workersrepublic.org/Pages/Ireland/Trotskyism/clrjames.html -An Interview with C.L.R .
James-1986
7. http://www8.open.ac.uk/researchprojects/makingbritain/content/c-l-r-james -The Open University,
London
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