Karen King-Aribisala: The Hangman’s Game, Leeds, Peepal Tree Press, 2007, pp.191
Review by Frank Birbalsingh
Guyana Journal, November, 2008
With two prizewinners among the three books she has so far written, Karen King-Aribisala swells the ranks of talented women writers who currently grace Caribbean writing in English. Her first collection Our Wife and Other Stories won the Best First Book award in the Commonwealth Prize competition (African region) in 1991; and after a second volume Kicking Tongues that transfers Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to a Nigerian setting, her novel The Hangman’s Game has now secured the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ prize, again for the African region. But Ms. Aribisala earns other plaudits as well: for her achievement as a relative youth compared with established female authors such as Jamaica Kincaid or Lorna Goodison, and her versatility in writing about Africa as a Guyanese woman married to a Nigerian and working as Professor of English at the University of Lagos in Nigeria.
Ms. Aribisala is by no means the first Caribbean author drawn by the atavistic pull of Africa. Since at least the 1950s and 60s, as writers such as George Lamming, Vic Reid and Kamau Brathwaite have shown, Africa has loomed large in Caribbean imaginative consciousness. What may be different about The Hangman’s Game is that its report on the brutality of General Sani Abacha’s dictatorship carries an authentic stamp of personal experience in Nigeria in the 1990s. Not that Abacha’s name or dates are mentioned. He is simply called “Butcher Boy” which alone is menacing enough.
Ms. Aribisala does not forget her Caribbean homeland though. In The Hangman’s Game the repression of a Nigerian dictator highlights an equally ugly episode in Guyanese history: the heroic revolt by African slaves against their British colonial masters in 1823, only to be suppressed through acts of vicious torture and brutality by their British rulers. The author’s use of Caribbean history to illuminate events in modern Africa looks like a stroke of originality since it reverses a pattern established by previous West Indian writers who invoke African history largely to explain events in contemporary Caribbean society.
The Hangman’s Gameopens with an unnamed female Guyanese narrator reflecting on the 1823 revolt and deciding to go with her husband to Nigeria to: “see for myself why slavery, the slave trade, occurred in the first place... I want to know why blacks sold their fellow blacks into slavery and... why God allowed it.” (p.10) A tall order indeed! More surprising still, the narrator chooses a nursery rhyme “Three Blind Mice” as the title of her novel partly because: “both Demerara [Guyana] and Nigeria were in a state of blindness;” (p.20) her main female characters will: “comment on the three men in their lives,” and the novel will: “give a kind of synopsis of the nursery rhyme and relate it to the happenings in Demerara.” (p.20)
At any rate, the novel consists of four interwoven narratives: one in which the narrator takes the reader into her confidence as she considers stages of the novel while she is composing them; a dramatic re-enactment of the 1823 revolt in Guyana or Demerara as the colony was then called; and thirdly, as mentioned earlier, a sobering exposé of violence and terror under a modern day Nigerian dictatorship. Most intriguing is the fourth narrative that re-enacts the children’s game that calls for contestants to compose the drawing of a hanged man while guessing the letters of a word to fill each line that makes up their drawing. As it turns out, the word in the hanged man’s game is CONTROL, which evidently points a finger at slavery in Guyana and dictatorship in Nigeria.
But the first and fourth narratives are less revealing than the second and third. In the second narrative, for example, concrete day-to-day details of the 1823 revolt convey plausible and revealing insights about the novel’s characters, their motives, relationships and strategies. This is the prime value of historical fiction: to flesh out and breathe fresh life into mere facts, statistics or names found in history books. The gross self indulgence and tyranny of British colonial officials like Governor Murrain and Captain McTurkeyen both humanize and condemn them, whereas the portrait of Reverend John Smithers, fictional name of the so called ‘Demerara Martyr’ Reverend John Smith, is sympathetic and admiring. Smithers [Smith] was sent to Guyana by the London Missionary Society, and because of his missionary and educational work with the African slaves in Bethel Chapel, on Plantation Ressouvenir, was suspected of fomenting rebellion. He was convicted and condemned to be hanged, but died of tuberculosis before he could learn that he had been pardoned. The entire portrait of Smithers, including the drama of his unjust treatment and his struggle to overcome sexual longings for Rosita, wife of the chief Deacon and slave revolt leader Quamina, is convincing, touching and deeply moving.
Female characters in The Hangman’s Game, both black and white, are driven by a feminist agenda understandably aimed at restoring women to their rightful place in history. Mrs. Smithers, for instance, resolves not to be her husband’s appendage: “the missionary’s wife, but a woman ... who can change the course of history and ... finally put an end to the institution of slavery.” (p.119) Meanwhile, the aim of Auntie Lou, a female slave, is to: “spearhead a revolt in conjunction with the male slaves.” (p.119) And following the example of the farmer’s wife in the nursery rhyme, who cuts off the tails of three blind mice, auntie Lou, also cuts off the penis of Governor Murrain causing his death. But one wonders about this nursery rhyme analogy and the whole Guyana/Nigeria comparison when we consider Wole Soyinka’s claim in his play Death and the King’s Horseman: that the worst oppression of local rulers has by European colonial regimes. As someone famous for his exposure of crimes by post-colonial African dictators, Soyinka’s claim seriously questions the effectiveness of Ms. Aribisala’s linking of oppression in colonial Guyana and modern Nigeria.
Frank Birbalsingh is Emertus Professor of English, York University, Toronto, Canada.