Commentary on an excerpt from “The Dragon Can’t Dance” – Christopher James Lee

Having fallen victim to colonialism and slavery in the eighteenth century, Trinidad’s society embodies a spirit of resistance, a spirit of fight and rebellion against authority. This is displayed and exhibited through none other than the Carnival. In the novel The Dragon Can’t Dance, one of the more profound reoccurring themes that author Earl Lovelace communicates is the search for cultural identity. As a collection of events strikes into Aldrick Prospect, the protagonist of the novel, the realisation that the community of Calvary Hill has lost the spirit of rebellion that had once imbued the people, he understands the importance of the true intentions of the Carnival.

In this extract, Aldrick laments at the long-lost traditions of rebellion and defiance, yearning for his people to bring back the spirit of Carnivals that were had in the face of adversity, of racism and slavery, in hopes that the people of Calvary Hill can celebrate Carnival for what it means, and find their place as upholders of tradition and culture in their blood. With a great degree of control over diction, sensory imagery and syntax, of which including rhetorical sentences, syntactic inversion, and parallelism, Lovelace conveys Aldrick’s hopeful, bittersweet lament by generating a beautifully unique rendering of the Carnivals of the past and above all, its cultural roots that supersede the superficial colours, sounds, and awe of the modern celebrations.

There is an unmistakable presence of parallelism in the extract. In terms of artistic and stylistic effect, each instance adds a sense of rhythm to the narrative, to a point where the extract seems flowing and lyrical. From a wider scope, reading deeper into the repetition of clauses and phrases actually reveals the more subliminal uses of parallel syntax in the extract, which act as a metaphor for the traditions of the Carnival that are repeatedly held each year. In turn, this bears meaning that is in line with Aldrick’s frustration: though the Carnival is held each year without fail, the true spirit behind the festivities has been lost for years, rendering the celebrations empty and meaningless.

In the first paragraph, the two most distinct examples of repetition are the description of the history of the masqueraders’ coming, and Aldrick’s muses about the traditionalist spirits of warriorhood. When illustrating the masqueraders of times gone by, the words “back” as well as “and” are used to denote the Carnival’s scale of influence not only in a temporal sense, where the tradition had been passed on for generations, but also a spatial sense: “…back across the Middle Passage, back to Mali and to Guinea and Dahomey and Congo, back to Africa…” The same masqueraders would then “link[ing] the villagers to their ancestors, their Gods…” The repetition of “their” signifies a progression from ancestors to Gods, the utmost echelon of power, demonstrating the impact of the Carnival on the spiritual identity of the village. The mode of the narrative then shifts to a more deep, introspective take on Aldrick’s contemplation of his insistence upon upholding the beauty of rebellion. Towards the end of the paragraph, “a desire” is paralleled with “a mission”, and “to let them see their beauty” with “to uphold the unending rebellion they waged.” The repetition of grammatical form encapsulates Aldrick’s determination for upholding the spirit of the Carnival, and having the villagers of Calvary Hill find themselves within the culture.

In the second paragraph, many of the instances of repetition are used in the description of the Carnivals of old. At the beginning of the paragraph, Aldrick is shown to feel that he is “the last one, the last symbol of rebellion and threat to confront Port of Spain.” The repetition of “the last” demonstrates and emphasises Aldrick’s fear of being the last and only one to uphold the Carnival. Next, a temporal shift is introduced, bringing the narrative to the old Carnival. “Once upon a time, the entire Carnival was expressions of rebellion. Once there were stickfighters…” places emphasis on the chronology of the events, making it a point to show that the festivities mentioned were no longer known of, presenting Aldrick’s hopeful longing for the traditionalist values at the root of the Carnival and his concern for the quelled cultural identity of the people of Calvary Hill. Repetition is then used to show the discrepancy between the new and old Carnivals, in that the festivities were direct expressions of rebellion. In the description of the devils, “a menace” is paralleled with “a threat”, “they moved” with “they threatened”, “horns on their head” with “tridents in hand.” This description of past tradition is again, in line with the use of parallelism as a metaphor for the futile nature of Aldrick’s Carnival. Moreover, the word black, in different forms, is used four times in a single sentence not only to semantically illustrate the rebellious Carnival, but also on a cultural level, where the subject of racism seems to be an underlying motive, exposing the attitudes exhibited towards people of different race in the novel. AFS0109144-The-Jab-Jabs-likely-lads-who-disguise-into-kind-of.jpgThese elements of the past Carnivals are then heavily juxtaposed against those of the new towards the end of the extract, where the dragon would be “drowned amidst the satin and silks and the beads and feathers and rhinestones.” The repetition of the word “and” emphasises this contrast against the blackness, and this very contrast of black and white symbolises the change of the Carnival, where the spirit of rebellion and combativeness has been shrouded in the shallow, superficial beauty of the satin, silk and rhinestones.

Lovelace also makes use of periodic sentences, syntactic inversion, and a conspicuously short sentence. By placing the main clause “the masqueraders’ coming” at the end of the sentence, Lovelace effectively and smoothly segues into, and places focus on the narration of the masqueraders: “little boys, costumed in old dresses, their heads tied, holding brooms… heralding the masqueraders’ coming, that goes back centuries for its beginnings…” Though not strictly a sentence ended with a full stop, it still follows the grammatical formula of a periodic sentence. Another periodic sentence comes after the account of the masqueraders’ coming, where Aldrick dons the dragon costume on Carnival Monday morning: “so that every Carnival Monday morning, Aldrick Prospect with only the memory burning in his blood a memory that had endured the three hundred odd years to Calvary Hill felt, as he put on his dragon costume, a sense of entering a sacred mask that invested him with an ancestral authority to uphold before the people of this Hill…” n305202.jpgInversion is used in this sentence, such that “as he put on his dragon costume” is placed before “a sense of entering a sacred mask…” This control over syntax acts as an introspective simulation of Aldrick’s mental state while putting on the costume, exposing and placing particular emphasis on his obligation and responsibility to uphold the rebellion and warriorhood at the end of the sentence. Another example of syntactic inversion: “Once there were stickfighters who assembled each year to keep alive in battles between themselves the practice of a warriorhood born in them” In this section of the extract, Aldrick recounts the days when the Carnival was a direct expression of rebellion. By placing the to-infinitive before the object instead of after, more emphasis is placed on the concepts of warriorhood and vigilance, therefore accentuating the importance of these traits as the collective cultural identity of the villagers on Calvary Hill. Finally, a sentence that is noticeably shorter than others in the extract is “The dragon alone was left to carry the message.” The length, or lack thereof, of this sentence emphasises the fact that it is saturated with meaning, that all the old traditions of stickfighting, of devils and of jab jabs are all gone, leaving Aldrick with the sole responsibility to uphold the spirit that the past traditions expressed.

Considering diction of the extract, two short, uncomplicated words are used to tie together the narrative of the second paragraph: “but” and “there.” The structure of the use of these words follow an ABBBA format, whereby a contrast between the old and new Carnival and therefore the community of Calvary Hill is presented. The first “but” illustrates Aldrick’s burden and responsibility of upholding the spirit of the Carnival. Then, enter the existential “there.” After introducing Aldrick’s burden, we are subjected to Aldrick’s recount of the old traditions, the existence of which is signified by “there”: “once there were stickfighters”, “there were devils”, “there were the jab jabs.” The use of a simple “there” indicates the past existence of these traditions, and therefore hints at the loss of such forms of expression of vigilance and rebellion at present on Calvary Hill. Reverting to the present, Aldrick voices what troubles him: “But bothering him even more than this was the thought that he didn’t believe in the dragon any more.” As Aldrick returns to the brute reality of the fact that past Trinidadian culture has been weakened and diminished, he admits to himself that he has lost faith in himself, the sole carrier of rebellion and threat.

Translating into text the awe and flair of the festivities of the past Carnival is no easy task, yet Lovelace achieves this with the use of imagery, supplementing his meticulous control over syntax. The use of sensory imagery is particularly distinct in the illustration of the old Carnival, specifically that of the devils and the jab jabs, both working to convey the rebellion and vigilance of the Carnival’s roots. kambule-re-enactment-trinidad-7.jpgVisual imagery is utilised in the description of the devils, specifically with the colour black. As aforementioned, the colour is referred to four times, causing its connotations of danger, threat and mystery to be ingrained into the reader’s mind. As for the jab jabs, a barrage of auditory, and organic imagery appears, enhancing the overall immersive realism of the description. The onomatopoeia of  the “cracking” of whips, along with the organic imagery presented by “burning pain” are likely references to slavery in eighteenth century Trinidad, hinting at the past rebellion against racism. By placing focus on the rendering of the past Carnival, the contrast against the Carnival of Aldrick’s time is particularly strong, revealing the dilapidation of the cultural identity of the villagers of Calvary Hill.

In sum, Lovelace makes impeccable use of imagery, diction, parallelism and rhetoric to create images of the old Carnival, revealing the source of Aldrick Prospect’s inner turmoil — Calvary Hill’s loss of the spirit of the Carnival, of rebellion, vigilance, and threat, of cultural integrity and identity.


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