Man-Man by V. S. Naipaul, 1959

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by V. S. Naipaul, 1959

"Man-man" is the fifth story in V. S. Naipaul's Miguel Street (1959), about life in colonial Port of Spain, Trinidad. It follows stories that introduce the narrator as a young boy, from whose perspective the events are mostly seen, and other recurring characters. Each story focuses on one or two people. The interest is in the inventive ways the characters strike poses in contrast to the poverty of their lives. By the conclusion of each story we discover that appearances are deceiving, that the amusing heroes are irresponsible and violent, that they are failures or live in fantasies. "Manman" makes use of this reversal but extends its vision to the larger community.

In "Man-man," as with the other stories in the volume, the first half feels a bit aimless as the character is established and we are given information. There is usually a turning point about halfway through each story that has to do with the arrival or departure of a woman in a man's life. (The woman's role as an object of love is here amusingly taken by Man-man's dog, "They were made for each other.") Suddenly there are more events, and the second half of each story picks up speed and moves toward crisis and revelation. The stories often conclude with the arrival of the police, who provide order and justice in an otherwise chaotic society.

Man-man is an amusing eccentric with the reputation of being crazy. He is left alone by others and never works, but he runs for office at each election. He is an imitation Englishman. He speaks English with a correct British accent and spends time forming lovely letters in chalk on the pavement in an inane imitation of schooling and of being a writer. This is the end of the first part of the story. In the second part Man-man is evicted from a restaurant for barking like a dog. Afterward someone breaks into the restaurant, and dog excrement is left at regular intervals on the tables. It turns out that Man-man can control his dog's bowel movements, and his dog dirties sheets, shirts, and other laundry left outdoors until Man-man is given the clothes, which he then sells.

Halfway through the story the dog is hit by a car and dies. Needing another source of income, Man-man claims to have seen God and starts a new career as a street corner preacher. He gets carried away and announces that he is a Messiah who is going to be crucified. He soon begins an unintentionally comic imitation of Christ's passion. He writes invitations asking people to watch him carry the cross to which he is nailed. When people begin throwing stones at him, he comes to his senses and shouts: "What the hell you people think you doing? Look, get me down from this thing quick, let me down quick, and I go settle with that son of a bitch who pelt a stone at me." If Man-man is not mad, others are, and people continue stoning him. The story ends with the police arriving, and he is eventually taken to a mental home.

"Man-man" is similar to other stories in Miguel Street in the way that each section of the tale can stand on its own. Each section is like a block set alongside the next. The main theme of the story is immediately suggested. The first sentence raises the question of madness and whether Man-man is as insane as the community. Man-man increasingly appears merely as an oddball who uses his abnormal behavior as a means of survival and who has enough sense to step out of his fantasies when they bring harm. The community, on the other hand, is shown to be malicious and as something that can become dangerous in its fantasies.

The maliciousness of the community is shown by the laughing at Man-man's victims, the restaurant owner and those whose clothes are dirtied by the dog. The people take pride in Man-man's cunning and notoriety. When Man-man begins his imitation of Christ's passion and crucifixion, they share his fantasy despite the absurdities and incongruities. While Hat, who is the voice of common sense, comments that the cross is very light and made of matchwood, Edward claims, "Is the heart and spirit that matter." It is only when Man-man begins screaming in Trinidadian English for the crowd to stop that people are surprised and come to their senses. Otherwise, they might have stoned him to death. The people are credulous, easily drawn to fantasies and the theatrical. The story implies that it is a short step from the compensatory playing of roles on Miguel Street to crowd hysteria and violence when people follow public leaders.

"Man-man," like many stories in Naipaul's writings, is based on real people and events. There was an eccentric in Port of Spain who believed that he was the Messiah and who brought a crowd together to crucify him and then demanded to be let off the cross. The man figures in several Trinidadian works of fiction, including Earl Lovelace's novel The Dragon Can't Dance (1979): "This is the hill tall above the city where Taffy, a man who say he is Christ, put himself up on a cross one burning midday and say to his followers: 'Crucify me! Let me die for my people. Stone me with stones as you stone Jesus, I will love you still.' And when they start to stone him in truth he get vex and start to cuss: 'Get me down! Get me down!' he say."

Other Trinidadian events alluded to in Naipaul's story are the first local elections at the end of World War II, when instead of real political parties there were dynamic personalities whose posters consisted of their pictures rather than policies. (This is a topic Naipaul also satirized in his 1958 novel The Suffrage of Elvira.) When Man-man becomes a prophet, we are told that at the time "seeing God was quite common in Port of Spain…. Ganesh Pundit, the mystic masseur … had started it." Ganesh is the main character in Naipaul's 1957 novel The Mystic Masseur and is based on an actual politician who began as a "mystic masseur." The importance of politics is shown by Man-man's warning against self-rule ("making the island self-sufficient").

There is a political subtext to the story. Trinidadian politics were for a long time divided along ethnic lines. The majority of Afro-Caribbeans looked to Eric Williams as the leader who would lead them to independence from England, while the large minority Asian Indian community feared being abandoned by the British. The Afro-Caribbean community is mostly Christian, and its political rhetoric fused the religious with the language of decolonization. In the speeches and political pamphlets of the time Williams was spoken of as a Messiah, a Savior. In the story, just as we wonder who are the two other people who vote for Man-man at each election, we become aware that the crowd is ready to be led into fantasies of a Messiah, which makes it dangerous.

"Man-man" is narrated in an understated, objective, precise manner, as if through the eyes of the child observing events, but we are aware of the adult looking back, re-creating the past, and judging it: "Everybody said that Man-man was mad, and so they left him alone. But I am not so sure now that…." The narrative voice seems monosyllabic and uses short, simple declarative sentences, but the paragraphs flow with the rhythmic movement of more sophisticated complex sentences. Contrasted to the assured colloquial British English of the narrator who is recalling the past is the broken, often comic Trinidadian English of the characters when they speak to one another. This is Naipaul writing for a British readership about his native Trinidad, where many people speak some form of West Indian English. While the broken English suggests a society without the stability of England, Naipaul is also helping to create a Caribbean literature through the use of such dialect. Like other stories in the volume, "Man-man" can be interpreted as a study of a society economically and morally impoverished by colonialism, a society that in response has created amusing carnivalesque behavior but that is also subject to potentially violent fantasies and is credulous of leaders who resort to creating public drama.

—Bruce King