The Ventriloquist’s Tale, by Pauline Melville.
The Ventriloquist’s Tale, by Pauline Melville. Bloomsbury USA (1999), Paperback, 368 pages.
GLOBAL WOMEN OF COLOR
A superb and strange novel by an Indigenous woman about several generations of a family living on the southern savannas of Guyana.
Pauline Melville is a wonderful writer, partially descended from the Indigenous people of Guyana on the Caribbean coast of South America. Her language is both delicate and precise and echoes her ancestors. While her novel is not magical realism, mythical creations and actions pervade human actions, even when Roman Catholicism is practiced. Her narrative is not strictly chronological, but it is always easy to follow. Overall the book conveys a fatalistic, but not depressing mood. Life happens with little discussion of motivation or impact. When Rosa, an English character in the book, travels to Guyana, she is advised, “You are at the mercy of the random. Don’t look for a pattern or try to impose one. Wait until something happens and then go with it.” The novel itself seems to be rooted in that understanding.
Since I started blogging, I have read several books which I intensely loved without being able to write about coherently. The Ventriloquist Tale is one of these. Perhaps it is no coincidence that such books are ones written by and about Indigenous people like Thomas King and Helen Oyeyemi. Even when their language seems conventional, readers seem to be asked to “understand” something outside the concepts that prevail in western thought.
The title, and the voice of the ventriloquist in the Prologue and Epilogue, establishes that this book is not entirely what it seems. Although he never appears elsewhere in the text, the ventriloquist claims to narrate the whole novel. He clearly establishes just how unreliable he is and how little respect he has for facts.
We, in this part of the world, have special veneration for the lie and all its consequences and ramifications. We treat the lie seriously, as a form of horticulture, to be tended and nurtured, all its little tendrils to be encouraged.
In addition to the ventriloquist’s comments, the main text of the books takes place in two different time frames. The opening and closing sections, and some in between, take place loosely in the present, perhaps in late twentieth century. With times bad on the savanna, Chofe McKinnon goes to Georgetown to find work, taking with him his aunt, Wifreda, who needs cataract surgery. What happens in the city develops into a plot that connects to events on the savanna around the time of the 1919 eclipse of the sun.
The major part of the novel concerns the McKinnon family during the early twentieth century. Scotsman Alexander McKinnon had originally wandered into the region alone and married two sisters who lived there. He adapted to village traditions, while not quite understanding or respecting them. He retained some of his interest in the world he had left, and life went smoothly. His ranging prospered, and both wives had many children.
Then Danny and Beatrice, the oldest of the children by one of the wives, reached adolescence and engaged in a passionate incestuous love affair. The various groups living on the savanna had myths about such behavior, linking it to an eclipse, to star patterns, and to the behavior of the tapirs, small pig-like mammals. In the myths, the siblings assend to the night sky, and the McKinnon children follow their example by running away. Although their mother is saddened by her children’s behavior, she is not appalled. “I know it is not good, what Danny and Beatrice are doing, but it is not the worst thing in the world. It has happened before. It’s just fate.” The person who is appalled is the Catholic missionary who tracks the couple down, convinces the boy of his guilt, and forces him to marry someone else.
In Melville’s writing, the events surrounding the incest are treated with calmness and acceptance. Readers are never given any motivation for why it happens. We understand events primarily through Beatrice’s perspective. At first, she didn’t realize that the man who comes to her in the night is her brother. When she grasps his identity, she seeks to continue their affair, never believing that what they are doing is in any way wrong. The only agency she displays is in her angry revenge on the Catholic priest whose actions caused her relationship with her brother to end.
In the blurb on the book Salman Rushdie commends Melville for “taking a cool look at any extremely steamy story,” but I disagree. I did not find anything about the book “steamy,” except perhaps the weather. I found Melville is less “cool” than simply unwilling to condemn the incest. For Melville, as for Beatrice, incest is not a critical turning point for the story. It does not cause later catastrophes for the village. Only Wifreda, Beatrice’s sister, blames her blindness on having seen the couple and reported them to others. What matters is that, while their behavior is viewed as wrong, it can be understood within the context of the culture. It is the priest, the outsider, who views it as earthshaking and evil. Melville asks us to imagine a world which can absorb, if not approve, what the couple has done.
For me, Melville’s treatment of incest works because of her ability to write explicitly about sexuality with grace throughout the book. I usually find writing about explicit sex to be crude and very unlike my own experience of sexual excitement and pleasure. (I have scolded myself for being such a prude.) But Melville’s depictions were different and I loved them. I realized that the difference, perhaps, was that her attention centered on Beatrice’s sexuality, not David’s. For Beatrice sexual pleasure is a continuum that began with self-eroticism long before David appeared in her hammock and it engages her whole body as Melville describes.
But what is the novel primarily “about,” if not the incest? Like many post-colonial novels, the intersection of different ways of life is one of this book’s themes, although it is a somewhat muted one. The ventriloquist, and other characters, suggest that retaining traditional ways and isolating one’s people from the newcomers is best. Unlike most post-colonial novels which deal with cultural conflict, the family on the savannas seem to have that option initially. When the American oil company arrives, however, that possibility is tragically lost. Perhaps it would be better to suggest that Melville understands the appeal of change—and the appeal of the English woman whom Chofy loves—but believes that such luxuries cannot release us from responsibilties to the people and land where we belong.
Melville makes the land, and her detailed descriptions of it, central to her story. Her writing is a very visual and sensual experience, not simply regarding sexuality, but in its descriptions of the places events occur. Her word choice is not so much lyrical as precise, aptly suited for what she describes. At times readers are placed in Georgetown, the capital, but more often they are immersed in the isolation of the savannas where the people whose stories she tells live. Melville takes readers to unfamiliar places where behavior we would condemn elsewhere is possible.
I highly recommend The Ventriloquist’s Tale to any readers willing to be moved by the unfamiliar and random world we inhabit.
I still I have more questions than answers about this book, and I’d love to learn how others respond to it.