Another antihero from Trinidad

A Canadian novelist gives us a carefully rendered look at life in a Caribbean village

The novel begins with the birth of a baby boy in an impoverished village in Trinidad and then grows into the tale of a Caribbean Don Quixote who fights in vain for a form of independence that he alone comprehends.

The island village in which he lives is bleak with poverty and yet somehow, through the writer's detailed re-creation, it becomes compelling and richly authentic.

"But I've already read that book" you may be thinking. "It's 'A House for Mr. Biswas' by V.S. Naipaul."

Not this time. A Perfect Pledge looks, reads, and feels like Naipaul's masterpiece in many ways, but its author is Rabindranath Maharaj.

Like Naipaul, Maharaj was born in Trinidad although for more than a decade now he has lived in Canada where he published two short story collections and two earlier novels, "The Lagahoo's Apprentice" and "Homer in Flight," all received with acclaim. "A Perfect Pledge" is the first of Maharaj's works to also be published in the United States.

Critics have frequently likened Maharaj to V.S. Naipaul, and such comparisons are unlikely to diminish with the publication of "A Perfect Pledge."

The story begins in the 1950s with the birth of Jeeves. Jeeves enters the world as his father Narpat is compiling a list of foods - diet being just one of many obsessions that Narpat cherishes as his "vision."

Unlike Mr. Biswas (the father in Naipaul's novel who quests endlessly for a house), Narpat, his wife, and five children have their own home, a structure built so imperfectly by Narpat that its floors tilt downward.

But the house is not the only irregular element in the lives of this family. Narpat - like Mr. Biswas - is a cranky antihero beset by unachievable goals.

He's a sugar-cane farmer who wants his own factory so his labor will no longer enrich others. He even begins to build one - a cockeyed affair complete with tower and windmills. (Don Quixote, take note.)

But the factory isn't Narpat's only unrealized ambition. He invents revolving tables, swiveling stools, and reconfigured clotheslines and can openers that nobody wants or needs. He is elected to his local county council (urging voters to "start thinking more progressive ... become futurists") but in the end only succeeds in annoying everyone.

He believes that one day the chaotic events of his life will resolve themselves into a grand overall pattern. "The only pattern I seeing is hardship and starvation," says Dulari his long-suffering wife. "This is how short-termers always think," he retorts.

The story is told through the eyes of Jeeves, and there is much in it to praise. The small world in which Jeeves lives is deftly and vividly imagined, as are the characters who surround him.

There is the schoolteacher-novelist from Canada who baffles his students with talk of affirmative action and interactive learning; the Brahmin neighbor, Ray, who endlessly irritates Narpat with his mantras and his calm; Ray's wife, Radhica, who engages Dulari in a lifetime of oneupmanship even as both seek to hide their domestic disappointments; and there's even a Sancho Panchez - the loyal Huzaifa, Narpat's only friend - ever eager to stay far from his wife.

There is humor and there is writerly skill aplenty but in the end it is not enough.

The comparison to "A House for Mr. Biswas" may be unfair. (After all, a Chrysler is a good car although perhaps less so when judged alongside a Mercedes). But the two books are so alike that comparing is hard to resist, and "A Perfect Pledge" suffers from it.

Maharaj assigns a bit more nobility to Narpat than the acerbic Naipaul does to Biswas but it's a clunky attempt. Narpat's ideal of keeping one's promise in life (the perfect pledge) is passed down to Jeeves, but it leads to a conclusion that is neither subtle nor grand, and in the end the book's story simply doesn't suffice.

The real accomplishment of "A Perfect Pledge" is the way it allows us to sample a world otherwise remote. And yet, the fact that "Mr. Biswas" already took us there can't help but lessen that achievement.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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