If Anthony Trollope had been born a century or so later, of Indian descent, on the island of Trinidad, he may well have written something like The Suffrage of Elvira. Instead, he sketched out his middle-class dramas among the backdrop of 19th-Century Westminster, and it was left to Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul to inform us of the intricacies of Caribbean politics. This book, his second novel, is full of the same humour and social observation as A House for Mr. Biswas but is a shorter, more focused story – and it’s a very good read.
The story revolves around a local election in the district of Elvira, and we follow businessman Surujpat Harbans as he discovers the hard way the cost of running for parliament. In order to ensure his victory, he needs the support of a majority of the eight thousand registered voters – four thousand Hindis, two thousand Negroes, one thousand Muslims and one thousand Spaniards. Of course, in a fledgling democracy such as his Caribbean island state, Harbans’ strategy is not to campaign door-to-door with convincing policies and arguments but rather to gain the support of ethnic leaders who will deliver the votes for him. One would think then that having sealed deals with Baksh, the leader of the Muslims, and Chittaranjan, the leader of the Hindi community, Harbans would have the election in the bag. Alas, things do not run as smoothly as that in Trinidad…
The bewildered candidate soon finds out that promises are not always kept, allegiances can be changed fairly quickly and that the voters expect compensation for their promise of support. Despite his reluctance to part with his hard-earned money, his election committee (led by Baksh’s son Foam, a young man born to work in politics) set out to ensure victory by buying off as many wavering voters as possible. Along the way they must lure voters away from Harbans’ rival, Preacher, and contend with his associates, Lorkhoor (a mouthy young man with a van and a megaphone) and the redoubtable Mr. Cawfee. And then there is the dog. And the two missionaries. And black magic. Politics can be so complicated.
It’s a chaotic, rambling tale, as much about ethnic rivalry (as opposed to ethnic tension) and corruption as it is about the noble art of politics, and Harbans’ descent into a gibbering doler-out of free money is a joy to behold. The description of the actual election is very reminiscent of that in Framley Parsonage, with the roles of the patrons in the background played by the Duke of Omnum and Mrs. Dunstable in Trollope’s book and Baksh and Chittaranjan in Naipaul’s. The idea of exorbitant spending, despite supposedly strict rules against bribery, is also a common theme (something Trollope was especially big on, being a defeated candidate himself in real life). In Trinidad though, people take this more in their stride; as Baksh remarks, people expect a little something in return for their support, and they’re not scared to ask for it.
After 220 wonderful pages, the election race has been run and won, and we get to see what happened to all our friends. The winning candidate makes one last appearance in Elvira and then vanishes, never to be seen again (or, at least, not for another five years). It’s a telling reminder that some things never change in politics; the focus on personality is still true today – as is the total absence of any kind of policy throughout the book. However, after all the fun and games, Naipaul is still intelligent enough to raise the reader above the amusement, and in the very last sentence, he causes us to reflect on another side of the story, to think about what might have been and what will be. Just as in politics, there are (at least) two sides to every story…
If Anthony Trollope had been born even later, of Greek descent, in the city of Melbourne, he most definitely would not have written Loaded. He probably wouldn’t have read it either. In fact, he may have even decided to burn it. Christos Tsiolkas’ first novel, like his later work Dead Europe, is full of illicit drugs and casual sex and is as far from the quaint tales of Barchester as it is possible to get. Loaded reminds me of some of the darker pieces I’ve seen by Dan Holloway and his Year Zero colleagues; raw, vibrant and slightly disturbing. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it.
Loaded is a 24-hour tour of Melbourne’s inner suburbs in the company of Ari, a nineteen-year-old Greek-Australian. From the moment Ari wakes up in his brother’s house on Saturday morning to the time he crashes into his own bed the following day, our hero snorts, injects, dances, flirts and screws like there’s no tomorrow. In between the ‘action’ scenes of sex and drugs, the reader gets occasional glimpses into Ari’s mind, receiving a run-down on life in his home city, Melbourne according to Ari: the brain dead middle-class residents of the East, the ethnic ghettos of the North, the Bohemian mix of students and drop-outs of the South and the refuse and scum floating out into the West. Ari hates them all.
Of course, what Ari hates most of all is his life or, at least, the life people want him to lead. He doesn’t want to be Greek, gay, unemployed or macho; he just wants to escape to a place where labels don’t matter, and he can be himself, whatever that is. Not seeing a place for himself in a hypocritical ethnic marriage, university or work, he seeks to block out the world around him with narcotics and transitory sexual acts with men (and occasionally women) he comes across on his travels around the night-time suburbs. But can he do this for ever?
Loaded is, in essence, a story of identity, a rejection of it, a search for it. Ari is Greek, but he’s not; he despises the traditions of a culture imitating the mores of the old country, but he secretly feels a superiority over, and a loathing of, the ‘Skips’ (the white, as opposed to Mediterranean, Australians). He feels the need for a masculine man, but sex renders his partners feminine and conquered, thus eliminating any desire or possibility of romantic feelings. His upbringing has repelled him, and he wants to break away but doesn’t have the energy, or the guts to do it, despite the urgings of his friends. He’s stuck in a very bad place.
In portraying Ari’s life, Tsiolkas is also painting a picture of modern Melbourne, though it is far from pretty. In contrast to the usual harmonious story of a vibrant, integrated, multicultural city, the view in Loaded is one of a holding pen for the poor and downtrodden of the world, longing to return to their homelands, rotting in ethnic suburbs, pretending they are keeping up their old traditions. The writer doesn’t really have a lot of nice things to say about my adopted home town (which is a lovely place to live – trust me) and sees the experiment as a failure, with people walling themselves off in big suburban McMansions as soon as they get enough money. I’m not saying he’s completely wrong, but he’s definitely Mr. Glass-Half-Empty.
This book is not as compelling as Dead Europe (which, by exposing more of the protagonist’s weaknesses, made the story more intriguing and convincing), but it is a highly thought-provoking story of life on the other side of the garden fence. What stays with me after reading this book is the sense of a parallel Melbourne and a life I have never (but could have) lived. There are thousands of Aris all over the city, high on speed and hassling people on trains, slumped in a friend’s bedroom in a marijuana haze, or stretched out in their own vomit in a tenement, arms covered in scars and scabs. The life I lead is one which Ari despises; I’m more than happy to be in my shoes rather than his.