Kevin Jared Hosein’s Hungry Ghosts
The title of Kevin Jared Hosein’s novel is derived from a mourning ritual in which rice balls are left out for the hungry dead while the living forgo all worldly pleasure. It’s a good fit for this beautiful yet unceasingly dismal portrait of mid-1940s Trinidad, in which abject poverty, colonialism, and recent war-time occupation have squeezed joy from the landscape and the people alike, leaving tragedy and loss as the most salient features of either.
Though the island does not gain independence until 1962, there is a decidedly post-colonial feel to the setting, which alternates between a wealthy estate and an impoverished sugarcane barrack, one of many which are “scattered like half-buried bones across the plain, strewn from their colonial corpse.” The barrack is a rat-infested, “place of lesser lives,” which hosts some thirteen characters between five rooms, half-separated by crumbling partitions. The ones we care about are Hans Saroop and his wife, Shweta, whose shared ambition is to get out of the barrack and buy a plot of land in nearby Bell Village. The Saroops have a son, Krishna, who is “frail but uncommonly precocious.” The wealthy estate is owned by an eccentric criminal whose sudden disappearance leaves his beautiful wife, Marlee, all alone on the estate, where Hans Saroop is her favorite of the day-laborers. When Marlee receives a ransom note and a mid-night scare, she offers Hans a pay-raise—large enough for a down payment on the empty plot—to serve as something of an overnight-guard, further blurring the line between the disparate worlds that Hans straddles.
Describing these worlds is perhaps Hosein’s greatest strength as a writer. There is a lush quality to this prose which brings the landscape to the forefront:
Picture curry leaves springing into helices; mangroves cross-legged in the decanted swamp; bastions of sugarcane bowing and sprawled even and remote; the spoiled smell of sulphate of ammonia somewhere in there; pink hearts of caladium that beat and bounce between burnt thatches of bird cucumber—all lain like tufts and bristles and pelages upon the back of some buried colossus.
Unexpected word choice, an encyclopedic knowledge of the local flora, and a good ear for classical rhetorical devices makes many of these passages a pleasure to read. The landscape takes on a character of its own, which is lovely to watch at first, but also has the unexpected consequence of making the human characters themselves feel sometimes small and inconsequential. Within a few chapters, it is clear that character development through character action is going to take a back seat to evocative landscapes, and that the conveyance of tone is going to be a job left to the natural phenomena and physical setting. These elements begin to insist so strongly on propagating the general sense of gloom that they are sapped of their power by their sheer volume and lack of subtlety, as in: “The sun was going down faster than usual, evoking the brooding nature of the lonely road.”
A potentially redeeming feature in setting up the landscape as a mire and a “small lonely plot of land swathed in bushes” as the professed goal of the Saroops, is that the reader is bound to hope that the novel might offer some taming-of-tragedy catharsis when Saroops finally buy the land and maybe cultivate a home there. Neither comes to pass, and the dream doesn’t so much explode as simply dies and drifts away.
This failing is somewhat representative of the novel’s largest shortcoming: nobody seems to want anything for any extended period of time, which goes hand in hand with the other major problem: nobody seems to maintain or exhibit their most central traits for any extended period of time, or exhibit these traits in any way that justifies Hosein’s insistence that they are these things.
For instance: we are told that Krishna Saroop is an “uncommonly precocious” child, but aside from having his “nose deep in old, crumpled magazines,” he never does anything even bordering on intelligent. We are told that his father, Hans, is renowned for being a uniquely honorable and selfless man, who sacrifices everything for family and slaves away in the hope of purchasing a plot of his own, but as soon as he is presented the opportunity of abandoning his wife and child for a romance with Marlee following the resolution of the ransom-note perpetrator, he does so without any real soul-wringing hesitancy or time for transitioning into this new role, and abandons the long dreamed-for plot as well. We are told that Marlee’s past has made her sympathetic, resourceful, intuitive and independent, but as soon as she realizes her domineering husband is probably not coming back, she seduces and takes in Hans, dresses him in her husband’s clothes, and then proceeds to be transformed in the course of a page into a sort of Marie Antoinette, who rides up on a horse in a fancy dress to a poor child’s village funeral, where “Her eyes were a broadsword slashing the throats of degenerates.” In this way, the characters behave something like the landscapes that Hosein is so adept at describing. They are beautifully rendered at first, and then acted upon, and then changed, but through no agency of their own.
The theme of escaping group-living in rural, mid-century Trinidad should be familiar to fans of V.S. Naipul’s A House for Mr. Biswas, whose title character is roughly contemporaneous with the timeline of Hungry Ghost (Biswas dies in middle-age in 1952); yet while poverty and injustice are giant obstacles that allow us to see the indefatigability of Mohun Biswas’s spirited need for independence and a house of his own, to Hosein’s protagonists, these things serve as muck and mire; characters are stuck in one place, and then they are stuck in another, but there are no traceable footsteps or ascribable paths of connection. The undefeatable human spirit of Naipul’s Mohun Biswas is defeated again and again in Hosein’s Hungry Ghosts, which is fine, but it is not fine that it never puts up anything resembling resistance. We never get a moment of potential frustrated by injustice and bureaucracy and impoverished circumstance that bursts out, as Biswas does: “Communism, like charity, should begin at home!” Instead, plot logic and character agency are in constant genuflection to tragedy and grief. Four dogs are killed off, in four different ways. The result is a feeling that the novel lacks control or balance and the narrative’s grim descriptions ultimately impede rather than immerse.
Gertrude Stein (or at least Kathy Bates’s portrayal of Stein in Woody Allen’s 2011 Midnight in Paris) says “the artist’s job is not to succumb to despair, but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.” Hosein does a magnificent job painting a brutal image of a place and time inhospitable to human decency and hope, but the fight his characters throw against this circumstance is hardly more than feeble. We are given two endings, one for a set of rogue and orphan twins, who are more set pieces than characters, but give us the best chance for hope as they huddle together at the end and dream of “somewhere remote, behind God’s back, where they couldn’t be bothered. Where sins were easily forgiven. Where the past could be prologue. They weren’t sure yet if such a place existed. But reckoned when they found it, it would be waiting for them. When they got there, they would know.”
It’s a lovely final scene, but it rings less representative than the farewell given Hans: “Dismantled and discarded by all the lives he wanted to live, tried to live. Nowhere left to go now but down, down, downstream.”