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Book Reviews Rabindranath Maharaj’s Fatboy Fall Down revolves around immigration without mentioning it

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  • Title: Fatboy Fall Down
  • Author: Rabindranath Maharaj
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: ECW
  • Pages: 226

The tropical island that forms the setting of Rabindranath Maharaj’s 10th book of fiction, Fatboy Fall Down, is a drowsy, rum-dizzied place in which not a lot happens. It looks a lot like Trinidad (the author’s birthplace) but is not named as such, perhaps so as to stand in for the Caribbean as a whole, or as any place that exists in the margin of power.

The novel tells the entire life story of one man from his unhappy childhood. The boy is fat and cruelly mocked for it by both children and teachers. The teachers display a callousness so extreme it can only be called sadistic, and this part of the book is painful to read. “Fatboy fall down” is what one teacher grimly repeats to the boy after witnessing his bullying. Because the child expresses an interest in flying both literal and figurative – he wants to be able to float above the world, to escape into the clouds – he is nicknamed Orbits.

This nickname takes on an even larger significance as his listless life progresses. The island is generally a lethargic and pessimistic place: People are paid to do little in government offices, farmers slaving in hot mud in the buggy countryside are angry and yet resigned to their lot. Orbits’s clever brother, Starboy, starts to take drugs and kills himself in sordid circumstances. Politics are corrupt and rely on bribery and strong-arm tactics. One crooked businessman is wonderfully named Halligator. There was a time in which the island was rich from oil money. Now, “Windowless glass-domed buildings, incomplete stadiums, sprawling hospitals and schools with no equipment were scattered all across the island like relics from another place.” Men spend a lot of time grieving together in rum shops. “The police could barely contain their amusement whenever reports were made. Women beaten by their husbands, children by their parents, students by their teachers, and the general consensus was that the victims somehow deserved their fates. The weak paying a price for their weaknesses.”

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Heat and dripping or rotting foliage lie over this fatalism like an embroidered veil. Maharaj lets loose a flurry of local names for trees, flowers and fruits that will not be familiar to many Canadian readers – bungalows lie nestled among pommecythere and broad-leaf breadfruit and ripe “tonkobeans.” These words are foreign to me, but lovely: My mental pictures of these plants are doubtless more colourful than the real things are.

This picture, dark as it sounds, is leavened by a dry satirical humour. Cynical people trying to do as little as possible can be very funny. One of Orbits’s first jobs is helping on a riverboat for tourists. He is supposed to be a guide, but never says anything to the tourists. He is castigated by his boss for his silence. “Orbits thought of what he could have said. The sun is hot. The water is muddy. The mosquitoes and bugs must have eaten the flamingoes. … On the second trip, he improved one utterance. ‘The lady vomiting,’ he called to the boatman.”

Early on, Orbits becomes engaged without having much say in the matter.

“House wedding or church wedding?” the mother wondered aloud.

“All unions are a farce,” Starboy said.

And so was the marriage broached and settled.

Every now and then Orbits hears about Canada, a land to which brave people emigrate. Once people go there, they tend to lose touch with home, sending back the occasional report of prosperity. We receive no descriptive details of the cold country whatsoever. The islanders, including Orbits, are generally skeptical about this promised land. A taxi driver describes those who return to visit: “You does only see them when they come back for some visit looking like if a steamroller pass over them, but still they insisting in they new brogue that life real sweet in the cold and this place going down in a hole. I drive plenty of them. Families with miserable complaining children.” When Orbits’s one true friend, Wally, finally does leave for Canada, a part of Orbits feels betrayed. Orbits’s ex-wife and child also go there.

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This sense of exile from an unknowable place of privilege gives Orbits’s nickname an extra resonance: The whole island is in orbit around the more privileged world, a distant constellation in an aimless circle, never close to power or prosperity.

Orbits never does emigrate – making this book, curiously, a novel with immigration as one of its recurring concerns, a story very tangentially about Canada, but without any description of immigration in it.

The novel has its longueurs – as with many of the lazy afternoons it describes, it can go for many pages without event. Orbits’s rather puzzled reflections on what a man can do faced with such entrenched conservatism make up the bulk of its pages. “Maybe we in these islands are just floaters and cloud-gazers,” he writes to his exiled friend. “We have nothing to contribute so we simply drift along like passing clouds, hoping for the best.” There is quite a lot of this.

Orbits’s progress, however, slow and subtle as it is, does occur. At a certain point he decides to enter local politics, to try to make a change, and has some small success, but eventually gives up in the face of the island’s utter passivity. What he ends up learning is compassion: He realizes his friendship is valuable, that he has more in common with the backward labourers than he thought. He settles into remote and overgrown rural solitude, finally embracing the island’s essence rather than trying to change it. The very slightness of his journey is perhaps what is most intriguing about this subtle and atmospheric novel: It is not exactly satisfying, but convincing, a tiny victory in the hot, long afternoon.

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