The Dragon Can’t Dance
The Dragon Can’t Dance. The author,Earl Lovelace, allows even the non-indigenous reader to understand, to feel the physical and psychological realities of poverty-stricken Calvary Hill – every “sweet, twisting, hurting ache”(p. 133) – more intensely , more completely, through his use of paradox. Indeed, oxymorons pepper the pages of his novel, challenging our habits of thought and provoking us into seeking another sense or context in which these self-contradictions may be resolved into truths, truths that are clearly universal yet at the same time inseparable from the combined colour and squalor of post-World War II Trinidadian life.
Striking contradictions are employed most frequently in the author’s characterization of Sylvia. While she is a relatively marginal character, in her, Lovelace limns a startlingly real portrait of a woman, body and soul, and, as virtually all male characters in the novel are mesmerized by her, it is fitting that the extent of her power is most regularly conveyed in terms of paradox. Already at age seventeen she possess a “knowing innocence”(p.39), intuitively aware of her sacrificial role to her overburdened mother’s rent collector, Guy. When he would touch her, she sometimes stood still, sensing, almost mischievously, the need to perfect the “triumphant surrender”(p.40) fitted for the whoredom that was her destiny, if not her calling.
Along with the omniscient narrator, the protagonist Aldrick Prospect is fascinated by her. When she comes with a white dress and oversized shoes to offer herself to him, he thinks that it is “as if she had come both to give herself and to resist his taking her.” Unable to accept the social responsibility that she implies merely by her presence, Aldrick will later see Sylvia in necessarily contradictory terms as “Sylvia, that child, woman … her eyes … kindling a kind of active uncaring”(p. 114) toward him. Her physical beauty, “the rhythmic rise-fall of her buttocks, the tremulous up-downing of her behind”(p.151), will make him “hurt for her, for the taming of her” (p. 152), for years to come.
Graduating from the physical, however, that “up-downing, drop-rising” (p. 152) of her bottom, Aldrick will come to realize that “her very desirability placed her above ordinary desiring” (p. 229), the mere ownership which Guy intends, and it is at carnival that he first glimpses the future that they might share, how he might paradoxically “lose himself and gain himself in her, swirling away with her until together they disappeared into the self that she was calling back, calling forth” (p. 141). Echoing the Indian, Pariag, and Philo the Calypsonian, Aldrick begins to desire to simply live and love and grow, which is exactly why he has always loved Sylvia: her beauty was not a weapon, but a “declaration of a faith in life and a promise of life” (p. 228). He alone realizes the paradox that Sylvia is both “illuminated and doomed by that aura”(p. 229) of inner “sainted” beauty which Guy threatens to suppress by effectively sequestering her in a new home in Diego Martin.
Only through the use of paradox could Lovelace convey the full range of emotion between Sylvia and Aldrick, who both realize early on the spirituality of their love that blossomed like a mango rose against the unmitigating backdrop of Aldrick’s small room, the crazy formation of boxboard and wood-board shacks on the Hill, against all of the physical and economic realities of Port-of-Spain. When Sylvia notices Aldrick coming up the Hill after his five-year prison sentence, for example, the sight of him sends “a chilling melting thrilling feeling ” through her flesh (p. 206). The oxymoron is especially apt given the intensity of her true feelings for Aldrick and her guilty knowledge of the fact that she has affianced herself to Guy solely for economic reasons.
Lovelace continues to employ paradoxes to fully dramatize the omnipresent economic tensions in Calvary Hill. For all of Diego Martin’s comparative sterility – “the newness and sameness of everything” (p. 227) – the streets of the Hill remain “the very guts of emptiness” (p. 143), and Fisheye and his band of disaffected warriors have little else to do but loiter at the Corner, holding their bodies “in that relaxed aliveness ” (p. 26) as they watch “the monotonous pedestrian journeying of people ensnared in their daily surviving, a ritual impelled … set in motion,” Lovelace writes, “by that most noble and obscene reason: the wife, the children, the belly, the back of the foot; the need to keep keeping on” (p. 166). It is easily observable how keeping on in such economic conditions is “noble and obscene” at the same time. The oxymoron serves to increase the sense of realism and, with it, the inherent pathos for the plight of the uprooted urban workers – even for Fisheye and his unemployed hooligans. Frustration and anger – “an anger older than themselves” (p. 164) – is the inevitable result, which manifest in the posturing and ultimate misdirected violence of Fisheye and his band. With effortless narrative pace, Lovelace’s description of the band members’ “tight unhumorous grins” (p.165) culminates in the “serious stupidity … the important stupidity” (p. 179) of their failed pseudo-revolution in Woodford Square.
Finally, the racial prejudices which characterize the Hill are also effectively dramatized in paradoxical terms. Despite Miss Cleothilda’s hollow oxymoronic maxim, “All o’we is one” (p. 14), an outsider like the Indian, Pariag, will never be able to feel a human bond with the others in the Yard. Then again, that is not wholly true; only paradoxes can accurately and adequately convey the urban truth. It is only after the destruction of his bicycle that the Yard can see past Pariag’s race to his humanness; Pariag feels this closeness as well. However, with the culturally pluralistic ideal almost in reach, Lovelace translates the paradoxical and practical reality for the reader:
Pariag … felt touched that they had recognized him … Yet, it pained him that they had recognized him just at that moment when he was drawing away; and this pain brought a tallness to his walk, so that he was at that time both closer to them and farther from them. It would be across this distance and with this closeness that they would view each other henceforth (p. 155).
Even Fisheye will eventually stop pressuring “two shilling” from Pariag whenever Pariag passes by him. But when a young fellar says to him, “I didn’t know he was your friend,” Fisheye responds: “Get the f– out of here, who say he is my friend” (p. 155)?
Of course Fisheye’s retort contradicts what he unconsciously feels inside, but it is indicative of that seemingly unattainable goal of not only Trinidad and Tobago, but of all nations – “Indian, Chinee, white, black, rich, poor” (p. 163) – that Pariag redefines, thinking of Miss Cleothilda and her All o’we is one: “No. We didn’t have to melt into one. I woulda be me for my own self. A beginning…’ (p. 224). And Lovelace’s vision in The Dragon Can’t Dance provides just that: a microcosmic beginning, ringing challenging, all-too-relevant truths about humanity from a world of self-contradictions, through a lucid poetry of paradox. To borrow Lovelace’s own words about Miss Cleothilda, his is arguably a novel of “audacious and pious grandeur” (p. 147).