The horror of the scene immediately evokes today the blood-soaked, brutalised body of Jesus in the blockbuster film The Passion of the Christ. Brother Man and Mais's other novels (The Hills Were Joyful Together and Black Lightning) have received much attention over the years. A wide range of notables have written about Mais, from Norman Manley to Kamau Brathwaite to Kenneth Ramchand, most of whom have variously expanded on the virtues of his prose. One who didn't was his close friend and fellow writer John Hearne. Writing in Jamaica Journal in 1989, 35 years after Mais's death, Hearne pondered his "persistence".
"How significant a writer is he? To what extent is he a sociological rather than a literary phenomenon?" asked Hearne.Describing Mais as "perhaps the most genuinely anarchistic man" he had ever met, Hearne went on to rue the fact that "for a writer" he not only owned very few books, he was also uninterested in seeing plays or visiting museums. Such cultural experiences, according to Hearne, were absolutely essential to "that cultivated sensibility that is central to any artist's development and mastery of material.
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Roger Mais simply did not know enough and what he knew was not digested."As unkind as this assessment seems, it also reveals a lot about both Hearne and Mais, and the writing profession in general. Rereading Brother Man in preparation for this review, I wondered who and what the influences on Mais would have been. Interesting, then, to learn that Mais was a relatively "uncultivated", indeed "uncultured", man by middle-class Jamaican standards, or indeed English ones, the model for Jamaica's upper classes.
His grasp of writing would have been intuitive rather than literary, akin in some respects to the painted or carved outpourings of a similar group in Jamaican visual art, the so-called "Intuitives". Many of these artists also portray biblically inflected, sometimes apocalyptic visions of the forces of good and evil, their graphic delineation bold and innovative. Mais painted too, but in a surprisingly delicate and stylised manner, quite unlike the rough, robust prose of Brother Man.Hearne's criticism of Mais as a writer raises a series of questions. Hearne was possessed himself of the "cultivated sensibility" he believed essential for good writing; why have his own novels not persisted to the present? Are they victims of changed sensibilities in contemporary Jamaica, or are they intrinsically weak literary creations, too fixed in a distant time and space in ways that do not allow their successful resurrection today? Are they just literary fashion victims, or is there something in the current cultural landscape that has rendered their onetime appeal null and void? Is there not something to be gained also by revisiting the best of Hearne's writing, to wrestle with the reasons why his novels have faded.