By Yulande Lindsay (shahinel@hotmail.com)

Michael Thelwell’s classic novel The Harder They Come, chronicles the journey of one man’s evolution from ‘country bwai’ to urban legend. On the surface, the book details Ivanhoe “Rhygin” Martin’s journey from his rural beginnings through his quest for musical stardom and riches to his emergence as a gunman, a folk hero, an anti-establishment symbol. However, a closer examination of this richly evocative work reveals a deeply rooted love for and an in-depth analysis ofJamaica and its society.

The novel is as its protagonist. It is “rhygin” – “spirited, vigorous, lively, passionate with great vitality and force…” (Thelwell, p. 398). It does what the movie could not; it presents an audience with a kaleidoscopic tapestry, colourful and vibrant, rich in historical, political and cultural details, which fully illustrate the Jamaica of the time. The characters are finely drawn, each one playing its own pivotal role in the development of the main character, Ivanhoe-turned-Rhygin. Miss Mando, his grandmother, represents his foundation, his grounding personality. From her, he learns the importance and values of his ancestors, the usefulness and essential nature of the land on which they work and dwell, it is from her teachings that he develops a strong work ethic which prevents him from descending into petty crime when he first arrives in the city. Their relationship is close although it becomes severely strained when Ivan expresses the desire to go to Kingston to become a famous singer. He unintentionally brings to the fore Miss Mando’s greatest fear, that he will leave the land, abandon her as her children have done, never to return. The rift remains unhealed when she dies.

The scenes of Miss Mando’ s death and subsequent funeral are some of the most powerful in the book, representing as they do both the past and future, remembrance and prophecy. The ceremony follows strictly the traditions of times past: the recounting of the circumstances of the death (how was she sitting, did she have anything in her hand, was it a difficult death, etc.), the gathering and full participation of the community, the elaborate and expensive coffin and the Nine Night festivities:

“…everyone knew that the spirit of the dead remained in the grave for nine days after death, emerging at night to wander around the familiar places of the departed’s life. This being so, it was necessary to have some formal activity- set-up, singing meeting, or a quiet watch-on each of those nights when the spirit would be wandering.

…it was the ninth night that was of significance. On this night when the spirit finally departed the world, taking its last leave of the living, there was a great celebration…”(Thelwell, p. 89)

It is on this night that remembrance becomes prophecy and Ivan’s future is becomes clear, for during the Kumina ceremony, Miss Mando’s spirit pays her final respects to attendant friends and family. Upon acknowledging the presence of her grandson however, the spirit begins to wail and mourn:

“Aieee! Mi pickney, mi pickney. Mi pickney. Fire an’ gunshat. Gunshat and bloodshed. Bloodshed and gunshat, waiee oh.” (Thelwell, p. 97)

The book is worth reading just for this first section alone. The description of rural life, the funeral rites and traditions and in particular the Kumina ceremony are so vibrant one can almost see these images as you read, hear the frantic drums of the kumina, experiencing the sheer power of band leader Bamchikolachi and his drum Akete as they call forth the spirits.

Thellwell’s description of Ivan’s bus trip to the city is priceless in its hilarity. His first glimpse and experiences of Kingston leave us feeling sympathetic towards the country boy as he is robbed, not once but twice by persons in whom he has foolishly placed his trust. It is here that we are introduced to the characters that eventually shape and influence the adult Rhygin, the heroes and villains of the Westerns that Ivan comes to love and after whom he begins to pattern his behaviour: the lone mysterious man, walking cool and unconcerned through a hail of bullets, emerging unharmed and triumphant. Ivan’s experiences roaming the streets, homeless and seeking work among the suburbs of St. Andrew introduce the reader to a Jamaica rife with racism which leaves Ivan bitter and angry, his dreams temporarily on hold as he struggles for survival.

Ivan is rescued from the streets by Pastor Cyrus Mordecai Ramsey, Defender of the Faith, who provides Ivan with a home and job, introducing him to his true love Elsa, Preacher’s adopted daughter and subject of his unhealthy obsession and in the process ironically, reacquaints him with his love of music and his ambitions. Preacher, as he is known, is strict and consumed with his own humility and while Ivan is grateful to him, he cannot quite embrace fully his strict faith and beliefs. It is this defiance and Elsa’s return of Ivan’s love which pushes Preacher into madness and ends in Ivan’s brutalization by an unfair justice system, step one in the evolution of Rhygin. Step two occurs when Ivan, fully pursuing his dreams of fame, encounters the corrupt system which rules the music industry in Jamaica. The encounter with the music producer Hilton, who represents the white elite, serves as a crucial turning point for Ivan, for it is not just the fact that he does not gain monetarily from his music, but he learns that Hilton, as a form of punishment for what he perceives as Ivan’s arrogance, withholds the record, telling the DJs not to ‘push it’, thwarting him of the fame he has long dreamed of.

Ivan’s final descent into Rhygin begins, not with his involvement in the flourishing ganja trade, but when he returns home to Blue Bay. He is shocked and deeply disturbed by the changes he has found. His home has been left to decay; the area has become a tourist mecca where the American dollar reigns supreme. Even a comical scene where Ivan discovers white Rastafarians for the first time is tinged with disbelief and not a little sadness. The visit shocks Ivan to the core, completing his split with the past, there is nothing left and Ivan literally becomes a man without a past. From this sense of self-betrayal and loss, emerges a man determined to become independently rich, leading him to confront those with whom he does business, challenging the status quo.

“I have made a record of crime history.”

                                                          Rhygin (Thelwell, p. 354)

Ivan’s full transformation is complete when he is betrayed by one of his cohorts and is confronted by members of the police force. After killing four of them, Rhygin becomes a murderer and folk-hero. Murderer to the white elite, the police and clergy who fear that Rhygin will become the articulation of a despair and anger that has hitherto only bubbled beneath the surface of the inner-city society and folk-hero to those who regard the police as ‘Babylon’ and ‘down-pressers’, tools of the wealthy whose role it is to keep in them unending subjugation. Rhygin gains his fame at last.

Michael Thelwell’s use of the Jamaican Creole contributes to the excellence of the book. Also, his comedic instincts are flawless (see he scene where members of the Rastafarian community, attempt to capture the city of Kingston). The Harder They Come is a must read for all those thirsting for good and consistent Jamaican literature. Its relevance has not waned as its themes of fame, corruption, lust, love and tradition are still applicable in Jamaican society today.

(Source: Rereading Jamaica)


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