from Urgent Tasks - Number 12
by D. Elliott Parris
Minty Alley, first published in London in 1936, is C. L. R. James's only novel. Had he written nothing else, had he not established himself later as a major historian and political theorist, this novel, written in his youth before he departed Trinidad in the mid-1930's to establish himself in Europe as one of the most celebrated of West Indian exiles, would have earned him a lasting reputation as a literary artist. On the strength of it he has gained the reputation of being a major forerunner of the Caribbean literary movement in English, which has flourished mainly after 1950. But Minty Alley foreshadows and even goes beyond much that was to follow in West Indian fiction.
James's novel displays a concern for class, color, and race relations in the Caribbean that would be central to the works of writers who were to follow, such as Mittelholzer, Naipaul, Lamming and Selvon. Unlike Mittelholzer, however, James's view of the society reflects an identification with those at the bottom rather than at the top. The sensibility he wishes to celebrate is that of the peasant and proletariat, the people of the "yard." Unlike Naipaul, James displays no hysterical embarassment about Caribbean identity, but depicts it as it is with realistic candor and implied love. Lamming and Selvon would therefore seem to be more closely his disciples; but much of their work is created within the framework of protest — protest against the colonial system that imprisoned Caribbean societies for over 350 years. Minty Alley is no protest novel. Though written in the 1930's, when the fires of nationalism were beginning to enflame the region, the novel pays scant attention to the political causes that ultimately account for the circumstances of poverty which encircle its characters. Colonialism is assumed, but not discussed. The white colonial officials who no doubt managed the affairs of Trinidad at that time, and who controlled its economy, are nowhere in the novel. The race relations that concern James here are not between White and Black, but between African and East Indian fellow Trinidadians. The class struggle here is not that of Bourgeois versus Proletariat, but the struggle of petit-bourgeois, educated Mr. Haynes to come to grips with life and the vitality of living personified in the lower class residents of No. 2, Minty Alley, where economic circumstances have forced him to become a boarder and fellow resident.
The landscape of Minty Alley is sparse. Emphasis is on characterization rather than setting. Much of later West Indian fiction is rich in descriptive passages of the landscape and lengthy explanations of cultural life against which the plots unfold, practices partly dictated by the conscious awareness of some authors that they are writing for a foreign audience. But James wrote Minty Alley for the familiar; description is kept to a minimum, to what is necessary for the interests of the plot. The author's skills are those of the playwright, a keen ear for the nuances of dialogue and a deft dexterity with character revelation and development. If transposed to the stage as a full-length play, Minty Alley would hardly need a change of scenery. Most of the events that take place in the novel occur at No. 2, Minty Alley, and what happens elsewhere is most often retold to the residents there, sometimes in more than one version, depending upon who brings the news.
Although the hero of the novel, Mr. Haynes, is from a petit-bourgeois background, C. L. R. James shows very little interest in this novel in analyzing the psychology of the West Indian lower middle class that Haynes represents. All we learn about Haynes is that his education (he is a high school graduate) and his socialization prepared him for nothing more than to be a book store clerk while he waits to go on to higher education. In terms of real living, his life is a blank when he arrives at No. 2, Minty Alley. It is there he is to be confronted with life, first as a voyeur, and then, ever so gradually, as a participant, as he observes and eventually gets drawn into the life of the working class residents, who include his landlady Mrs. Rouse; her niece Maisie; Mr. Benoit, common-law husband of Mrs. Rouse for eighteen years; the nurse, boarder and best friend ol Mrs. Rouse, who steals Benoit away; the nurse's young son, Sonny; Miss Atwell, another boarder and Philomen, the trusted East Indian servant.
This novel is important as a political statement more in terms of what is implied than in terms of what is directly stated. The implications are many. First, the novel implies that the vitality of Caribbean identity is to be found in its working class, the people of the "yard," people like the residents of Minty Alley. Moreover, while possessing great sensibility and a keen common sense, the lower class still looks with respect on the petit-bourgeois educated class for guidance in areas that require more formal training, as the residents of Minty Alley turn to Mr. Haynes for assistance in legal affairs and other business, and respect his judgment. But just as Mr. Haynes is depicted as lacking in confidence and as unprepared for emotional and physical involvement in life, the novel implies that the Caribbean petit-bourgeois class had been rendered relatively impotent by its education and stood to benefit from more exposure to the passions of the lower class. Mrs. Rouse's initial trust and love for her East Indian maid, Philomen, imply that racial differences need not impede a strong alliance between African and East Indian Caribbean peoples, but the later break in the relationship between these two women on the advice of an obeah priest that the East Indian's presence in her home is the sole cause of all Mrs. Rouse's problems, also implies that superstition and ignorance can easily sever the fragile bonds between the two communities, as they struggle to deal with the reality of their circumstances. In retrospect, then, James's vision of the 1930's seems prophetic of the nationalist struggle that was to be waged in the Caribbean in the decades to follow, a struggle that saw the alliance of the petit-bourgeois leadership class with the working class, whose strength lay in the acquisition of the vote and newly organized trade unions; a working class that in some cases was to experience internal division along the lines of African versus East Indian.
Because we know what the young James went on to become we cannot help but draw these political implications from the novel. But the focus of the young writer, James, in Minty Alley is kept the human interest of the drama that he unfolds, and as we watch these vibrant characters emerge from the pages, as we weep with their sufferings and exult with their joys, we become clearly aware James's humanism, a quality that stayed with him and permeates his later historical and political writings.
D. Elliott Parris, from the West Indies, is a Professor of Afro-American Studies and Caribbean Studies at Howard University.