Walter Castle is a minor government official in post-independence Trinidad, living in a destitute area of Port of Spain with his pregnant wife and child. Overlooked for the umpteenth time for promotion at the office, he slumps into an intense bout of meditative depression which culminates in a particularly idle Sunday, when he lies in bed fighting a persistent headache with long periods of thought and recollection. Walter Castle is desperate to leave the city, to give it all up and take his wife and child to the countryside, where he wouldn’t have to deal with the stress and the hustle of the capital and would be free to work the land for himself and his family. The only thing standing between him and his bucolic fantasy, however, is Stephanie, his wife, whose common sense and motherly instincts tell her (and Walter in the process) that this dream is unadvisable for a number of reasons, not least financial.
While Gods Are Falling is the first novel of the renowned Trinidadian writer, Earl Lovelace. First published by Collins in 1965, when it was awarded the BP Independence Literature Award, the novel has been rescued from oblivion by Peepal Tree Press, who re-launched it in 2011 as part of their “Caribbean Modern Classics” series. Exquisitely appointed with an appealing cover, an erudite introduction by Dillon Brown and typically professional editing, this edition pays fine tribute to the work of one of the most lucid and committed thinkers in the region.
Consisting of a very manageable 250 pages, While Gods Are Falling tells the story of Walter Castle’s shift from a depressed and detached individual, to a socially responsible member of the community. Devoid of any hope and aspirations, he decides the time has come to concede the fight, to throw the towel and recoil. But when he informs his wife of his plans she makes him realize that it’s too late for that, because he already has taken too much from life, and he still needs to pay back. Asked what, exactly, he has taken from life, she explains to him he could have done as he liked before he married her. But now he has a family, a child born and another on the way, a wife – and for their sake he is forced to carry on.
Faced with this discrepancy between what he wants and must do, Walter examines his entire life, from his childhood, looking for answers to transcendental philosophical questions: what is life, what does he want from life, what makes a man a man, what is freedom, what society, what are the values of our society, how can we change or affect that society, and so on. The most outwardly political of Lovelace’s books, the author actively engages with his readers in a dynamic intellectual exercise that aims to produce some palpable contributions towards the erection of a new society at a time when political changes were drastically influencing the lives of the people in Trinidad and Tobago. In a way, this was Lovelace’s personal contribution to the debate that followed immediately after the declaration of independence in 1962, and, indeed, after the establishment of universal suffrage (and with it a modern democracy) ten years earlier.
Walter Castle looks at the city sprawled before him from the third floor of his tenement building and he thinks to himself “this is your city too.” But what he sees makes him think that life in Port of Spain “has no significance beyond the primary struggles for a bed to sleep in, something to quiet the intestines, and moments of sexual gratification.” With nothing to look up to, modern society falls into a rapacious consumerism that constrains and conditions all human relations, because “if you don’t have you don’t count and all of us want to count, to be something, to have something.” But Walter Castle just wants to be a man “with two balls,” and he feels that he is being prevented from this, castrated, even, by the city, by his job, by the responsibilities that come with having a family.
Limited to the role of “a small man” in the society of Port of Spain, Walter Castle figures that seclusion and isolation would enable him to express himself more suitably, and more freely. Progressively, however, he comes to realize that “you alone can’t beat the world” and that “your own mother and family […] They’re all the people you have,” and “that alone, a man don’t feel good” because “when a man doesn’t belong, when a man has to fight alone, achievements don’t mean a thing.”
Lovelace’s train of thought links the nature of man as a social being with the phenomenon of religion and the particular details of modern society, from personal expectations to its form of governance. To him what is important is not “the explanation of God, […] the fact of that god’s reality, but the belief in such a god,” because “when a man doesn’t have something to live by, he might as well be dead.” This path takes Walter Castle to understand that what is most critically missing in a Port of Spain mired in violence and crime is a sense of values. And the values that Lovelace wants to extol in While Gods Are Falling are human values of sympathy and interrelation. Because to Lovelace the introduction of modern politics to the islands represents a break with the past, a landmark that conditions everything in history as a before or an after; and before the arrival of party politics people lived in some sort of an Age of Innocence, but now, with participative democracy and a representative government we have entered the Age of Responsibility, in which each individual in society is partly to blame for everything that happens in the country, be it good or bad.
Once Walter Castle realizes that “he must have been blind not to have seen that there is no other way but to fight in the world as it is,” he also becomes aware that the grim environment of hooligans and prostitutes, rapists and murderers within which he lives is also, partly, his fault. People need a purpose, people need to belong, people are better with other people around and therefore people want to feel like they are being considered, included, supported. That is the primary message of While Gods Are Falling.
As a book of fiction, rather than a political treatise, the novel might have some faults – most notably the flatness of most characters other than Walter himself, and the peripheral role women seem to be given in Lovelace’s society. But, overall, the reading is compelling, with his typically alluring prose and the distinct sound of his Trini heritage. Most remarkably, the issues addressed by the author close to 50 years ago remain central considerations in today’s reality both in Trinidad and Tobago and in many other islands. The real value of While Gods Are Falling lies in the fact that it opens several avenues of debate about highly relevant matters to our world today. And while Lovelace opts to steer his novel in a given direction, our reading might well lead us to a different, though equally valid, alternative. For this very reason, this remains not only a Caribbean Modern Classic, but also an essential one at that.
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD NEWSPAPER ON MAY 5, 2012.