Michael Thelwell 1939–
Jamaican novelist and short story writer.
In his fiction, Thelwell examines the cultural milieu of his native country. The Harder They Come portrays the moral turpitude of a Kingston ghetto by focussing on the dreams and frustrations of a would-be Jamaican pop singer turned outlaw, an infamous figure in Jamaican history.
[In "The Harder They Come"] Mr. Thelwell is most convincing when depicting daily life (the market, a bus ride, gang rivalry at the movies); much of this depends on the richness of his characters' language—the rolling, resonant, hypnotic patois. This is the extraordinary feature of an otherwise extremely conventional work; the action is predictable and most of the characters are stock types. Mr. Thelwell is more interested in the mythic qualities of his hero, and he has succumbed to a temptation that is widespread in the portrayal of third-world men in fiction and on film: the super stud, as if every black hero, in order to be authentic, had to possess total sexual confidence, even before puberty. It is a weird compensation for powerlessness. (p. 35)
Darryl Pinchpenny, "Seductive Setting," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 1, 1980, pp. 15, 35.∗
In Jamaica during the late 1940s, a gunman named Rhygin (born Ivanhoe Martin) made a brief and stunning appearance in the local news. When Jamaicans picked up their Gleaner one morning, they read of the first great shoot-out in the island's history…. There were to be other deaths in succeeding days and weeks, as Rhygin, eluding the best efforts of the law to capture him, sought out and gunned down selected enemies—persons he deemed to have wronged him. Though the mere idea of Rhygin was terrifying in the extreme, Jamaicans were fascinated as well, for nothing like him had yet showed up in the annals of local crime…. What a figure!, as Jamaicans said, in reflecting upon their first Hollywood-style gunslinger. What could have produced him? From what source of inspiration or grievance had he sprung? Little or nothing was known of his earlier life. In which case, it is probably natural that, as he continued to haunt local thinking, he would in time become a subject of indigenous art. It was only in the realm of imagination that answers to the questions he aroused could be found, or plausibly suggested—answers that could also be used to cast some light upon the circumstances of Jamaican life that may have influenced the emergence of such a character.
The first major effort along these lines was made a few years ago in the form of a film, The Harder They Come…. [Michael Thelwell] has now, in a novel, made the second...
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[The Harder They Come] is a tale well-told by Thelwell. Dealing with Jamaica in the throes of sharp transition—from colonialism toward neo-colonialism; from the relatively independent and stable folk communities like the one Ivan [Rhygin] left to the fast, mad world where white coral and even a seat on the beachfront are bought and sold in the tourist trade—Thelwell uses a flexible idiom. The first section of the novel is appropriately naturalistic, and recalls the eloquently described worlds of Thelwell's apparent models, Andrew Salkey and Chinua Achebe. If in places the narrative ride is burdened with heavily schematic analyses and unneeded explication, elsewhere in the novel's opening chapters the allusions to lore, literature and history are wonderfully woven into the finely textured cloth of the novel. Thelwell's wry humor and his precise description of palpable detail rescue the early pastoral scenes from insincerity or mawkishness. There is no faking here. With sometimes grotesque vividness he describes scenes he must have witnessed, people he must have known. The scene, for instance, in which Ivan finds his grandmother dead in her house, is unforgettably striking…. (p. 6)
We meet Thelwell at his best when Rhygin hits Kingston, and the tale unfurls in a variety of versions and voices, with music and gunfire rocking and rattling through the book's pages. It is in the chaotic city, where mad Ivan becomes the fearless...
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[Michael Thelwell] has written a richly textured novel [The Harder They Come] that maintains the film's dramatic impact yet provides a unique and resonant view of Jamaican culture and grassroots consciousness….
From the outset, Mr. Thelwell emphasizes the vital connection between the land and the people who inhabit it…. (p. 511)
Also, early on, Mr. Thelwell begins threading descriptions of the Jamaican peasants' remarkably varied folklore into the narrative. His depiction of the traditional "Nine Nights Feast," for instance, is riveting and illuminating. It captures the joy and anxiety associated with the songs, dances and elaborate rituals that are performed to assure the safe departure of deceased spirits. (pp. 511-12)
The depiction of Rhygin naïvely confronting the poverty, ruthlessness and violence of the city streets has a Dickensian cast to it, and Mr. Thelwell emphatically draws the stark contrast between the city and the idyllic environment Rhygin has left….
In structure, "The Harder They Come" is clearly a pastoral novel. Its explicit criticism of the corruption, antihumanism and violence of city life and "progress" places it in a literary tradition that is as venerable as Vergil's "Bucolica." And, as with many of its predecessors in the genre, there is a decided leaning toward the romantic and sentimental.
But, more importantly, Mr....
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