Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Figments of His Memory

The Canadian-Guyanese Cyril Dabydeen’s latest work of fiction, a novel with a cute ethnic-sounding title, Drums of My Flesh, is not an attempt to present us with “an accurate view of the world” (to borrow the Naipaul credo). It is in fact a prize-catching embellishment of Dabydeen’s private world & celebrity image. The author has had a long string of published fiction, poetry, reviews and essays. There is a sense in some quarters that he has arrived. In this novel he seems preoccupied with autobiography disguised as new fiction.

Biography and memories, stories from the plantation days, have become the preferred barrel of choice sent home by a greying generation of Guyanese writers living abroad. With the change of political fortunes in the 1990s and a fresh sense of group ascendancy, Guyanese Indians have continued the “reclaiming of our heritage”, a process of unearthing and dusting off buried names and hitherto unheralded accomplishments.

Drums of My Flesh (2007) fits neatly into this ascendancy. (Back in the 80s and 90s The British Peepal Tree Press was eager to encourage ethnicity-based Guyanese authorship. Its published fiction was “new” and ground-shifting, the quality in general uneven.)

Drums of My Flesh has been gossiped as a novel that “enriches” the Guyanese canon, that tiny harbour of accomplishment that is home to the literary works of Wilson Harris, Edgar Mittelholzer, Jan Carew, Roy Heath (plus David Dabydeen and the not fully stretched talents of Oonya Kempadoo and Rooplall Monar). The evidence suggests, however, that it owes little to these writers and their superlative creativity.

There is instead a disconnect from “the canon”. Individual vision has given way to group representation. Author focus is steadfastly on tribal memory, not the nation’s human psyche.

Our earlier writers were gifted with powers of observation, an adventurous life experience and a delight in discovering Guyana’s landscape and peoples. A post Independence generation, only half as talented but with writerly yearnings, seems content to scrape memory barrels or examine navels in search of something to write about.

The concerns and lessons of history are valuable, but a persistent turning in or blindness to troubling deformities in present-day Guyana might result in fresh amnesias, lost testimony. There are stories to be told, truths wrapped in silence inside closed or broken communities, whether in Buxton or in public institutions or in those “refugee” enclaves overseas. Absurdities and disorders within the lives of our elected or ordinary folk cry out for the satirical intelligence of a VSNaipaul, or Mittelholzer’s keenly observed realism.

Drums of My Flesh comes from over seas but chooses not to address urgent human issues at home.

It opens with a Guyanese man strolling with his daughter, Catriona, near the Rideau River in Canada. Her Irish mother, we learn, is at home “reading about Ireland’s landscape.” The little girl is three years old, and still glowing with “Look, Daddy, a raccoon!” innocence. Near the river there’s a park frequented by “people from the embassies and high commissions all around.”

To make her a viable character for his novel, author Dabydeen drains her of credible life then, implanting archetypal tissue, re-presents her with a growing “consciousness”. She’s suddenly old enough to “contemplate”. Her personality “seems to be forming before my eyes”. When she asks 3yr old questions he senses her spirit’s “incessant stirrings”. At one point her 3yr old curiosity moves her to ask her father: “why do you keep talking to yourself?” (If she was thirteen, not three years old, holding a cellphone not his hand, it might have been a different story.)

The problem for the old man is: how can his storaged memories of Guyana be wired to the consciousness of his daughter? Should he even try one day to make her aware of her connection to his past – his father, his mother & grandmother, brothers & sisters; Hindu deities, those eccentric village folk; the sugar estates, “agitation over British rule”, racial riots & the Coldstream Guards; and a young man cycling home along a winding public road? (Curiously, contact with other ethnic groups in Guyana goes unregistered in these memories,)

The reader can sense quickly the fictional challenges some authors in the diaspora invent for themselves. You start thinking, if Dabydeen could pull this off, Drums of My Flesh would be a praiseworthy literary feat. But Cyril Dabydeen is not Wilson Harris who can lure the reader into a shower of metaphors, linking time zones and communities of experience sometimes with dazzling reimagined effects.

Here and there in Drums of my Flesh Dabydeen lets slip allusions to several weighty authors – V.S Naipaul, Michel Foucault, Indian Proverb, John Keay, Joseph Brodsky, Carl Jung. You get the feeling, though, that his writer’s bag of devices is filled with fluffed up straw; his talent strains to infuse complexity in the novel.

The prose rarely rises above H/Bollywood cinematic means. Here for instance is what happens as a newly wed couple gets ready to consummate their marriage

“Tassa beat louder. Wind wafted against the eiderdown of the night.
Curtains drawn.
The wedding guests chanted outside the window of a high house built on stilts. My father’s awkward coping with his deep-seated need, groping in the dark: he and my mother being adolescents merely. Legs, thighs bared....
Blood flowed, a haemorrhaging shame. My mother and father entangled or confused in their contrived romance…
The Atlantic waves lashed everywhere. The cattle kept lowing.”

Enriching the Guyanese canon? The prose “wafting” with the winds of Guyanese prose masters? Some readers might well think so.

As he walks with his daughter the father’s mind feverishly “conjures up images” and makes swift deliberative connections; so that looking at the waters of the winding Rideau River he “unconsciously draw[s] parallels with other rivers, creeks. Dark brown or chocolate-coloured waters too in the faraway Demerara, Essequibo, Berbice in Guyana, then the Orinoco and the Amazon. The Ganges and Yamuna rivers also. Again, origins. The Liffey in Ireland, as the Irish also come closer.”

That’s a lot of river water running with resonance around his head. This father reveals here a too easy talent for global connectivity. Still, the reader is invited to join his Canadian afternoon stroll, and share his emotions & musings about the Guyanese identity as sluiced through the memories of our migrant author (otherwise doing very well, thank you, only connect).

One device Dabydeen uses is to introduce, for instance, a jaguar, a creature the narrator’s father one day hunted, caught and caged. This caged jaguar pops up in subsequent pages where it morphs into things metaphoric: “Jaguar spots in my mind’s roving eye”; the jaguar in his father’s eyes; a Bengal tiger; the tiger “on that last ship which had brought my forefathers to these shores”; a jaguar “with a horse’s hind quarters” galloping and leaping over waves. There’s plenty stuff like this to get sharp academics going, with pencils and rulers all set for cross-cultural diagramming and inert abstractions about identity.

The novel shifts from here (father & child) to back there (boy & village) in abbreviated sections, each ringing with conjured images of what really interests Dabydeen, his once tough, now exotic life growing up “on a sugar plantation…on the Guiana coast… on the edge of the world in South America”.

Juxtaposing the Courentyne past and his new Canadian residency the author asks readers to consider seriously the chasm between old vanished lives and a little girl’s tabula rasa possibilities. But after awhile the sentimental leaping back and forth grows wearisome; the bits and set pieces feel contrived and artificial. There is no question in the end, though, about the author’s ethnic rep credentials and his ethnic market appeal.

Our migrant communities, nursing anxieties as livid as skin rash, often find themselves longing for the salve of any ethnic “victory”; for occasions to gather in a park, pay tribute to heroes, dance traditional dance, share cricket stories. Drums of My Flesh is a novel for a displaced, conflicted (but fairly comfortable) generation backtracking home for “connections”. Its romance with the past might alleviate feelings of isolation and unwantedness in Guyanese diaspora enclaves; it offers cultural “representation” to the unrepresented living on the margins in disdainful cities.

The novel, it should be noted, was shortlisted for the Impac Dublin Literary Prize (2007). It won the Guyana “Best Book of Fiction” Prize (2006). That might make you stop and wonder. Sometimes you can’t argue with awards or success, the way these things go.

Book Reviewed: Drums of My Flesh: Cyril Dabydeen: TSAR Publications, Toronto: 2005, 234 pgs.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

TWO POEMS: by Brian Chan

The lantern you carry
is your own body
of light and your beauty
is its constant glow
at which I dare not stare
for fear of being
shattered by its softness.

Instead you I glimpse
out the edge of my eye
where all miracles
remain as loose as clouds
and are not erased
by a collector’s itch
to own them to dust.

We Living

are only as bold as we entertain
our ghosts whose presence dares sharper
than any words they tried to bequeath us.
Yet their least song, half-remembered,
will revise itself as we continue

writing it with our every urge to sing
ourselves: there is no escaping
the shadow of their totem of silence
whose voice and stare, disinterested,
yet demand we sing on in the spirit

of brave flesh.

From “Gift of Screws” © Brian Chan

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Jan Carew: Rewind & Last Hurrah

Jan Carew grew up in a time and a country where old men felt safe and respected, and young men lacking employable skills did not consider their prospects as young thugs; and the nation’s gun-crime sector was still in its choke an’ rob infancy. Affordable travel abroad was maritime, and the educated could dream of travel overseas, study at universities, Art & Culture, bohemian or middle class self-indulgence; thoughts of revolution, student demonstrations and civil disobedience; Camus, Fanon & CLR James; the struggle for Independence; race & consciousness; jazz and exile in Paris.

These were some of the possibilities and destinations for the Guyanese wanderer, the title of the latest work of fiction by Jan Carew.

“Wandering” for the folk of Carew’s generation carried implications of privilege and golden opportunity far different from the blown about uprootedness of today’s backtrackers and getaways. Back then the world was a less imperiled place. These days Guyanese could feel like “aliens” closer to home, on the island of Barbados, for instance. Economic insecurity might preclude any thoughts of travel abroad for self-discovery and adventure.

Carew’s wanderings took him to several world capitals and to residencies in university towns in North America and Europe. In the process he acquired multiple identities (he has been described as a Guyanese-born Canadian of African ancestry) and fulfilled multiple roles (poet, playwright, educator, novelist, activist intellectual, philosopher and advisor to several nation states).

At one point in his development his creative instincts, eschewing bland middle-of-the-road poetics, channeled his mixed-race origins into a full-time academic interest in Black Studies. The result has been a truly impressive body of researched and achieved work.

The Guyanese Wanderer (2007) reads like a collection of career-concluding stories. It will be received in academia with the kind of reverence that at the same time pays tribute to the author’s odyssean productivity.

Characters in his early writings inhabited a world that seemed at first oddly removed from anything readers knew. Which was part of their fictional attraction, the wonder at their invented newness. The prose swept you away to word-conjured regions. You returned to the real world with a new luminous way of seeing, through filters of the imagination, how our peoples lived their lives, scattered on the wild coast or in the interior.

In this collection Carew appears to be pouring familiar characters into the old mould. Or dipping the same old calabash into familiar streams. There’s an account of student & cultural dissonance in Paris, porknockers and their women up the Potaro, and a Brer Anancy tale. A stubborn, lonely West Indian Londoner “living in a room with faded wallpaper and with a radiogram” talks about the old days of hostility to WI immigrants; and a young man on his way to UWI, St Augustine talks about family secrets with Couvade, a preacher-woman.

The writing process this time, as before, could be described as collaborative – Carew the writer listening to suggestions from Carew the sociologist, the painter, the poet. “The moon nudged its way above canopies of coconut palms and moonlight and smoke from Roberts’ pipe drove away the mosquitoes singing around his grizzled head. Navy blue shadows squatted under the trees like tethered beasts. The old man, with his shotgun across his knees, listened to rainfrogs crying out to the moon and who-you birds conversing with ghosts.”

Considering that by and large newspaper horror and opinion is all the thinking readers on the coast may have time for, it might be instructive to get reacquainted with (or, more importantly, read for the first time) a Guyanese prose master.

There’s an old school formality and density in the prose, an attention to detail that will require reader patience. The characters might seem overdrawn, the descriptions and canvas texture a bit lush after all these years. Sometimes character conversation has a flow that might sound high-toned & theatrical to iPod millennium ears, as when one character pleads: “Caesar, Caesar, why don’t we escape from these foreign-rass places? We took a journey to an expectation that turned bitterer than aloes. We’re trapped in these blasted old cities where cold stones are sucking our lives into them.”

One has to remember that Carew, like Edgar Mittelholzer and Wilson Harris, was among our first pioneer writers giving life & dignity to our colonial peoples, describing and naming our hinterland, the raw beauty of our coastline:

“On a clear day, he could make out the hills above the Tumatumari rapids and the neat, luminous green terraces that migrant farmers from the Caribbean had created. Beyond Tumatumari, there was an occasional hole in the canopy of flowering treetops, where some lone individual was pitting his energies against a continent of forests.”

The most enjoyable story, “Chantal”, is set in a bar in the diamond fields of Guiana with the spirit, Kanaima and the river mists and gold diggers everywhere. The prose again feels overwritten, but its pivot is a woman on the brink of an important insight, a tingling prelude to personal liberation:

“The five years that she and Chantal had been man and wife had tied them in a web of habits and hidden animosities, and she had, somehow, always been the one to give in, to compromise. But tonight, she told herself, ah feel like some kindah pocomania’s taken me over, and this powder-puff of a man from the city who I don’t really give a damn about, is the one triggering it.” Sliding into creole rhythms that way, author and character work together to guide the story from its indigenous source to an engaging modern parable.

Carew’s early novels – 50 yrs old and brimming with Guianese folk myth, character and situation – now float in bookspace, little read because unavailable. Much like the rarely heard because no longer played music these days of, for instance, Louis Armstrong.

This should come as no surprise. The world stage is still under reconstruction; new global players strut their stuff and thunder their inclusivity from power bases as diverse as Venezuela and China. Higher decibel levels, lower intelligence quotients, answering machines & cell phone transmission mediate human conversation. The days when prose fiction influenced the way many readers envisioned their lives may be passing quietly into history.

So how important or enduring, you might wonder, is Carew’s fiction outside of academia and student assignment? Can anyone spare the change to travel back to a time when Guyanese saw futures of independence worth staying home for?

To weary generations the dance in our party politics between the “pussycats” and “wolves” picks up or slows but rarely stops for breath; and deepening investment in our drug transit sector tears away at the nation’s moral fibre. These might be tempting though riskier times to wander off somewhere, to cross seas in boats or planes wanting only to begin again on some distant shore. The Guyanese Wanderer offers a little respite, some dry land of creative success & example.

It is a slender but solid reprise of (post)colonial writing at its best, displaying the native materials Carew worked with to set in motion his career. His powers of observation, his deep affection for the Guiana of his boyhood and young manhood are all in evidence.

Though paved with achievement, his travel & development path from colonial to internationalist might be difficult to emulate these days; but the courage of his imagination, as the arrowhead of nation-building, art or business enterprise, could be the missing key to our continuing crisis: one-eyed governance, that temper of sullen self-interest among disaffected citizens.

Author Carew (b.1920, in Agricola village) has been a beacon of inspiration to many Guyanese familiar with his work, much like Edgar Mittelholzer and Wilson Harris; ‘lone individuals pitting their energies against a continent of books’, you could say.

With the volume of digital chatter & transaction rising worldwide, his wanderings and writings might end up out of fashion and underappreciated – catalogued and stacked on library shelves; waiting to be opened & studied again; the ideas and discoveries still at war with injustice & inequality around the world.

Book Reviewed: The Guyanese Wanderer: Stories: Jan Carew: Sarabande Books: Louisville, Kentucky: 2007, 105 pgs.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Citizens of Anywhere & Yesterday

Digital publishing may have come at just the right time for Guyanese living in metropolitan cities. It offers one solution to the problem of what to do with all those stored-up village memories, those blissful “growing up” years in rural deprivation. Self-publishing allows migrants to cherish (or unburden) much psychic baggage as they put down roots elsewhere. The stuff of nostalgia could turn quickly into writer’s fodder.

So far the few digital books to appear seem products of leisure, rather than creative, activity. While other migrants – nose to the grindstone, the due date – are busy adapting old habits to new hardships, the writers appear conflicted about “home” but sufficiently solvent to “look back” across oceans.

They respond to surges of grey, diasporic sentiment, and an “alien” unease with new residency. “Journey” works as an appealing metaphor. The books they produce do not ask to be bundled with that body of work developed by overseas authors long ago, Naipaul & Lamming, or Mittelholzer & Wilson Harris, authors for whom writing became a vocation, and who by “looking back” gave us transformative ideas about the structures and behaviours they observed.

It takes craft, endurance & luck to hammer out a work of fiction, get it to publishers, get it past the publisher’s preferences, past editorial scrutiny. Self-published authors go around that filtration system. They worry less about style, “the reader” or issues outside self centres. You’ll find their digital products not on bookshelves, but by searching the worldwide web.

One example your search engine might unearth is A Journey of Promise (2006). The central character’s “journey” starts in a rural village called Promise; then moves on to “the rural suburbs of Guyana to urban city life in Georgetown, and thereon to London.” Born in London, author Holly Nurse “spent much of her childhood in Guyana”, and graduated with a degree in English from the University of Surrey

The curious thing about A Journey of Promise is the bright confidence with which the author fabricates character and place. Part memory, part invention, with bloglike scraps tossed in, the book contains few real traces, or identifiable features of Guyana.

Earlier migrant authors burdened with issues of colonialism and identity could not escape the imperative to name places, to identify on the world map new landscapes beyond the canefields – places fertile with images, people and a language of significant human survival.

A Journey of Promise responds to different imperatives. With a click of the mouse, and using digital software that won’t question purpose or motive, Holly Nurse, who writes like a really nice person, creates an illusory world in which unpleasant issues in the past are erased.

In her imagination Guyana is the subject of sparkling rehabilitation. There is Promise, “a sleepy rural village” about 100 kilometres from the city, the All Seasons Church run by the Reverend Bruce, an annual Summer Fair, the High Dam Hospital; and a big white house with big iron gates and fierce Dobermans, where the country’s eligible bachelor, Troy Richman, lives.

The story is set in the 70s, but there’s just one reference to that decade’s hard times when the central character, Gillian Honey, visits the Coop Shop in the city. She observes fatigue on the faces of a crowd that has waited three hours for the delivery truck. But Gillian Honey’s family knows the Shop supervisor; they manage to secure sacks of rice without fatigue.

Gillian Honey, it should be mentioned, is a child of privilege and cross-cultural circumstance. “My dad was an English soldier…Mother was a hybrid, Caucasian, African and Native American.” These outsider origins leave Honey more concerned with departure requirements than “arrival” rituals; with personal, not group, development. “At age 17 years”, she tells us, “I learnt to ignore society’s polarized opinions.”

You start wondering: were there ever such extraordinary folk? did anyone really learn to ignore those bipolar years of disorder? ignore “Burnham”, the social misery of socialism, the deep ethnic wounds? What coastal village sheltered such self-absorbed lives?

The book depicts no scenes of identity worry or tormented relationships. Far from the Sargasso seas of creole existence elsewhere, there is only the plainness of life along Guyana’s coast. The story line is slender and unfolds at a “sleepy rural village” pace. Young narrator starts journey from her village, receives a “proper” education, survives a few romantic entanglements; goes to London, finds an English friend, trains as a nurse; then comes home to a reception reserved for achieving returnees. There is a happy ending – the narrator gets married and drives off with the groom in a Bentley to their new home on Mansion Hill.

In Guyana Gillian Honey displays an interest in our flora and fauna, in magpies and rhododendrons but not much else. In England she can’t help but notice how differently the English observe the Easter and Christmas seasons. Otherwise, she goes about her business, each day getting up, off to work, coming home. No disturbing street encounters, few pleasures (no sex, no thinking about sex); just this earmuffed, self-contained ordinariness of being.

Content to glide like this, Gillian Honey gives away very little of her inner life. Her personality may have sprung from what some regard as quintessential to the Guyanese persona: the active concealment or evasion of dark truths; a capacity for mythical thinking.

But, you might ask, why fuss over fiction of the flimsiest imagining, whose author makes no claim to literary seriousness? Completing her “journey” might be this author’s effort to cleanse her memory of harmful plaque, removing whatever threatens her equilibrium with the past. Readers may not recognize the Guyana Holly Nurse shares through publication; but a (self-published) book like A Journey of Promise could be enough to keep any diasporic resident “going” these days in cold, immigrant-hostile cities, trains to catch, old scratchy lives to remaster.

Self-publishing offers possibilities & rewards beyond that sense of accomplishment, doing things “my way”. Near the end of this narrative you might pause to consider, if only this digital writer had looked harder at the world around (and worked harder on sentences like, “Tiny lumps of clouds sailed over the silvery globe, escaping into oblivion.”) A Journey of Promise might have been a more thoughtful, engaging book.

In other words, had Holly Nurse, with a layer of irony, placed trust in the value of a weightless “not-belonging”, her character’s journey might have opened up deeper interiors of innocence and ravaged souls, providing bifocal insights & understanding for the folk who lived through Guyana of the 70s, beaten and embittered as never before; fearing so much back then, wanting to belong there so bad.

Book Reviewed: A Journey of Promise: Holly Nurse: iUniverse Inc. New York, 2006, 107 pgs.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Guyana Prize Winners: 98 & 02

Back in the 1930s when he was 27 or 28 yrs old, the world must have seemed a bleak place for a man of literary ambition; and Edgar Mittelholzer, then “totally unknown”, must have chosen to deal with that bleakness by putting aside his ambitions; perishing the thought of ever getting published, and writing just for the hell of it. After all, who would be interested in his characters – barefoot colonial labourers toiling in mud and rice fields on the Corentyne?

How could he make their narratives compelling to world readers? to local book lovers wedded to imported fiction? in a colony of botanical gardens but no bookstores? and no cultural group to award him a prize for trying?

Fast forward to 2003; walk into the Church Street bookstore, and there on the book shelves is Ariadne & Other Stories: Winner: Guyana Prize for Literature 2002, Best First Book of Fiction. Progress, if you need reminding, is as unstoppable as the May-June rains.

You might search the same bookshelves in vain for copies of Mittelholzer’s novels. They are out of print; hard to find; gone the way of the weatherbeaten logies at Diamond.

Mittelholzer, too, had hoped his first book would be a prize winner. The literature scholar Louis James, in his introduction to the Heinemann edition, tells us he had entered “the first thirty thousand words of Corentyne Thunder…in a publisher’s competition overseas.” Must have wrapped, sealed and mailed off it at the post office in New Amsterdam around 1936. Got it back – assuming they were generous enough to send it back – along with his 16th letter of rejection.

Ruel Johnson’s Ariadne was submitted in 2002, a year when the Prize committee announced that locally-based authors would be permitted to submit work in manuscript form. In other words, you could have stapled together your most inspired poems scribbled on napkins at the Palm Court Bar, they would have been given serious consideration. What charitable times we lived in then!

For readers still unfamiliar with the Mittelholzer prose flow & precision, here are sentences from Corentyne Thunder (1941) you could consider exemplary: “On the northern side of the road the wide canal of muddy water was waved like the back of an alligator, and one could smell the Corentyne rankness of it, the odour of fish and sherriga crabs, of mud and dead wild plants.” (p. 37)

Or take, for instance, this portrait of plantation worker intimacy done in Mittelholzer’s unadorned prose rhythms: “When they had slept and awakened he spoke to her in a quiet voice, his eyes looking into hers. He stroked her arm and kissed her and caressed her body everywhere. The day was without wind and the savannah a-tremble in the heat far away, and she felt very happy lying with him in the cool shadow of the mudhouse.”

And here, straining for stylistic heft, are sentences from young Johnson’s Ariadne (2002): “Silently, he cursed that sygian limboland between dreaming and waking; the inevitable, colourless river of unconsciousness that washed away the memory of dream-pain and dream-pleasure alike.” (p. 83) Like markers of cleverness & profundity, intended to catch the eye of any “dream-reader” or Prize juror, Johnson’s sentences sit on the page bloated with required reading.

Characters in Ariadne spend most of their time hanging about in Georgetown, talking and brooding. You get the sense they’re there as day labourers on the Johnson literary plantation. At night getting ready to make love, a character discovers his woman under sentences like this: “She purred another deep, guttural emission, as he entered her.” Even in bed the fellas can’t get away from the young author’s overseeing ego.

Here and there in the book, like portraits hung on the walls of his personal library, you come across references to authors Johnson considers inspiring: Derek Walcott, Gerald Manley Hopkins, W. Somerset Maugham, Martin Carter, Siegfried Sassoon, Mary Oliver, a Pulitzer prize-winning American poet; and someone named Gordon Lightfoot.

On an Acknowledgement page Johnson complains about the Caribbean’s “far-flung and fragmented geography, small population and increasing apathy towards literature.” (Mittelholzer, you imagine, might have had similar thoughts in his day, but didn’t see the need to beat that bony cow of truth on a blank page.) Since winning the Prize in 2002, not much has been heard or seen of Johnson’s “distinctive voice” outside of newspaper columns.

These points of comparison might feel like unkind jooks; in a fractured nation drained of modernizing skills young talent should be “encouraged”; but some truths are inescapable. Johnson’s prize-winning book is a 92 page booklet. It has been hyped as a local, not a diasporic, production (Printed Courtesy of Courts, Georgetown). The author is known for his pride in local residency. There are supportive blurbs from notable residents praising his “intelligence”, his “best young” potential.

Allowing for its first-book pretentiousness, Ariadne succeeds in showcasing its author as he tries out his prose tools and searches for a personal style. It is a compilation of notes, sketches, works in progress, comic book cartoons and poetry. 92 pages of itsy-bitsyness; fragments of unfinished business, the author too busy serving notice of great things to come. And it’s there on the shelves of the bookstore on Church Street. (Mittelholzer would have loved the bookstore.)

Back in 1998 the judges thought Gokarran Sukhdeo’s The Silver Lining also deserving of the award. In post-Prize statements he explained his book was written when he was 16 yrs, but put away; then sent off to the Prize committee when he was 38 yrs old. He shares this much with the once “totally unknown” Mittelholzer – the waiting, the flare-ups of doubt about the manuscript’s win ability.
Since his 1998 Prize, nothing has emerged from Sukhdeo apart from social commentary in newspaper columns. The Prize, it seems, offers no guarantee of long-term creative output. In a country of corroded institutions, where serious art like daily living often demands deep reserves of endurance and altered mental states, the modus operandi for success in writing would seem straightforward: gather your slim resources, take your Prize shot; then, with your toolkit escape elsewhere.

The Silver Lining at 184 pgs is a more substantial effort, certainly worthy of any committee’s consideration. Rearing to tell his story, Sukhdeo opens with a synopsis; then an inspirational Introduction for readers still hesitant. Once inside, however, you discover this is yet another book about “growing up” outside Georgetown back in the days; this time in the village of Patentia, “a little hamlet in the Wales Sugar Plantation” on the West Bank.

It is labelled a novel, but it’s more a documentary of what the author has witnessed or experienced as a young man: his village school days, the village “characters” (wise Uncle Panchi, cruel Fatboy, the Police Station Corporal); a village romance, family struggle, as when a mother who married at age 15 joins a weeding gang on the sugar plantation after her husband disappears; camping out in the bush with school buddies, and eating amazing meals: “That night they ate a hearty dinner of boiled as well as barbecued fish with guava soup and wild fruits for desserts, using the lotus leaves for plates and wooded spoons fashioned out of bamboo.” (p. 75)

The bonds and antipathies that develop in Sukhdeo’s small world are not so much “crafted” as explained. He wants you to read and be “informed”. There is information, in case you need it one day, on drainage systems and a West Bank road project; and how Canals Polder got its name. It is possible his village material offered much to remember fondly, but little else for the imagination to work with.

The writing grows urgent & didactic when the author (using “character” discussion or debate that would otherwise sound implausible) gives us his thoughts on issues that bothered him as a former resident: such as labour relations with the old Booker, Connell & Co., the importance of culture and family responsibility (Hindu), the pitfalls of capitalism & socialism, the National Service idea (terrible).

This village theme & territory, once considered “underrepresented” in our literature, has been explored more imaginatively by others with a mature grasp of the tools of fiction. Certainly, in Mittelholzer’s ground-breaking Corentyne Thunder. A sense of deja-written must have crossed the judges’ mind. It is tempting, therefore, to conclude that softhearted, enabling thoughts might have weighed in their decision-making. If that’s the case, then like debt forgiveness it casts a long shadow, obscuring inner deficits and fostering the illusion of achievement. And that might not be “good news” for Guyanese fiction.

The judges for the Prize, it should be pointed out, have been at times high-profile, high achievers from our university and from the diaspora, among them previous Prize winners like celebrities invited back. This has given rise to tension and unhappiness among local underachievers, as well as some race-based questioning of the fairness of the judging. To suggest there might be a lowering of the bar in years when Prize submissions are substandard, or just plain awful, would infuriate already disgruntled locals.

Be that as it may, like our shiny new (World Cup) Hotel & Stadium, the Guyana Prize for Literature is here to stay and will be open for business to awardees and judges, local and overseas, for years to come. Standards might be lowered, but they’re not entirely lost. For any plucky fresh talent, less worried these days about rejection, but wondering what to do, where to go with that first typescript, the paths to fame or shortlist glory in Guyana seem well lit, now that the worst have passed.

Books Reviewed:
Ariadne & Other Stories: Ruel Johnson: Self-published: Georgetown, Guyana: 2003: 92 pgs.
The Silver Lining: Gokarran Sukhdeo: Self-published: New York, 1998: 184 pgs.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

August 03, 1834: Kill the Pigs!

Recognised everywhere in the Caribbean as the day the Abolition Act was passed in England freeing the slaves, August 01, 1834 comes back to life in this book by Hugh “Tommy” Payne. Slave labour was about to become a thing of the past but in British Guiana, as elsewhere, it didn’t happen quite so fast. As our former National Archivist reminds us, the slaves woke up next morning ready to celebrate freedom only to discover fresh obstacles and gauntlets.

Ten Days in August 1834 suggests that like most things in this world the situation was a little more complicated, the move to freedom stymied by plantocrat resistance, slave naive optimism and the unhurried loosening of controls in the Colonial Office. Payne has gone to great lengths examining documents & records to extract a narrative of events surrounding the exercise of power on the Essequibo Coast.

On the day after the Abolition Law came into effect, slaves on the plantation La Belle Alliance believing they had been granted the day off did not report for work. Incensed by this behaviour Charles Bean, Attorney of La Belle Alliance, showed up with plantation overseers and reminded the labourers of their “obligations”.

The slaves were threatened and coerced. They remained defiant. A serious crisis developed. It was defused when the Reverend John Duke who occupied the Parish Manse nearby interceded and brokered a truce of sorts. Slaves were prepared to work if the planters agreed to adequate remuneration for the extra labour that day.

The following day, Sunday August 03, 1834, a determined Charles Bean returned with a military force. This time his armed men proceeded to slaughter pigs which were raised and valued by the slaves. Bean’s plan was to enrage the slaves and provoke the kind of protest that might encourage the Governor to declare a state of emergency and delay the abolition process.

Major Bean had been instrumental in putting down the Demerara Slave Insurrection years before in 1823. Then the slaves were under the impression that an Amelioration Act passed by the British House of Commons providing better conditions was intended to free them, and that their freedom was now being withheld. The rebellion was crushed. Bean hoped to follow the same procedure of provocation and harsh reprisal. His plan didn’t succeed because a slave leader named Damon showing great perspicacity stepped forward and advised the slaves to control the rage and fall back on a new strategy of passive resistance.

The following Monday (August 04, 1834) Damon staged a peaceful demonstration inside the Trinity Parish Churchyard, unfurling a flag and preparing to spend the entire day. He was joined by labourers from other plantations. They did not disperse until a face-to-face meeting was arranged with Governor Carmichael Smyth outside the church.

New lines of division emerged that led to strained relations among the colonists. Sympathetic to the cause of the restive labourers were the Governor Sir James Carmichael Smyth, recently appointed from the Bahamas, and held in high regard by the Secretary of State for the Colonies; and The Reverend John Duke whose church the slaves attended and who had interceded on their behalf.

On the other side representing plantation interests were an array of individuals. Among them, Major Charles Bean, the pig slaughtering Attorney; Josias Booker, Manager of an Estate who had arrived in Demerara “to seek his fortune”; William Hillhouse, who wrote a series of letters in the Royal Gazette of British Guiana critical of the Abolition proposals; and George Bagot, High Sheriff and First Fiscal of British Guiana, “a trusted confidant of the leading Planters.”

These quaint titles carried considerable weight back in the days. In a time of disrupted certainties, status and responsibility were carefully calibrated. Slaves had to pass through a process of identity reclassification before they were eventually freed. The Governor, for instance, was forced to send a memorandum to the appointed Slave Protector explaining the following: “I am quite aware that a Slave may be employed by his Master in any Work he may think proper. But as after 1st of August no Apprenticed Labourer can be employed as Praedial Labourer who is registered as a Non-Praedial”.

Payne is an earnest scholar-historian, but in this book he is less interested in casting one group against the other in an oft-referenced duel of colonial rights vs. wrongs. The Abolition Act shook the colony to its foundations, pitting settled, old power against a nascent labour movement, and intensifying fears and hatred. Events in England, as when the Secretary of State for the Colonies resigned, proved just as important to developments in the colony. Payne attempts to peel away public faces to show furrows of alarm and hardening will.

Narrow self-interest and rising anxieties about the colony’s fate struggle within the performance of duties. Reverend Duke for all his religious compassion urged the slaves in sermons to “practice obedience to the Higher Powers” in heaven and on earth. As a slave owner himself he worried about the adequacy of the compensation he would receive once they were freed. Josias Booker found an opportunity to move up from Estate manager to entrepreneur. He petitioned influential people in the Colonial Office and elsewhere in an effort to secure the rights to valuable Crown Land. His plan was to plant & profit from commercial crops.

Governor Carmichael Smyth, perceived by the planters as someone “who had come blundering in from the Bahamas”, eventually realized that Bean’s reports of incidents on the Essequibo coast were exaggerated and designed to force him to proclaim Martial Law. As Governor he refused to be outmaneuvered. He arrested and put on trial those who took part in that “outrageous” passive resistance exercise. In the aftermath he used his power to quash the sentences of 32 prisoners, but he allowed the hanging of the ringleader, Damon, to go forward on account of “a need to uphold respect for the law”.

For Payne the hanging of Damon would seem to be as significant for Guiana as the price paid by celebrated heroes like Cuffy and Kowsilla. Damon, he reminds readers, was hanged on October 13, 1834 “one day after the 342nd Anniversary of Columbus’ landing in what he erroneously but cunningly termed the New World’. This single local event and its repercussions, Payne suggests, is equal in weight to that well-documented global other.

He makes a similar claim of “significance” for the slaughter of the pigs which led to the passive resistance exercise in churchyard, pointing out that years later, in 1838, the new Governor of British Guiana, Sir Henry Light, in a proclamation to the Colony, “took cognizance of what had taken place in those Ten Days of August 1834”, and expressed the hope that it would serve as a model “for the freedom of millions of Slaves now held in bondage in other countries.”

Payne’s methodology has been to pour over correspondence, documents & reports kept by colonial administrators and preserved in the national Archives of Guyana. Based on these and speculative oral accounts, Payne makes “plausible deductions” of what took place in those 10 days. His aim is to provide “information and enjoyment” to the general reader (one wonders how much “enjoyment” readers will find in these grim accounts); but in his effort to reanimate events in the past Payne forgoes his scholar’s language and picks up unfamiliar prose tools.

Documents on the page alternate with explaining paragraphs, but Payne often slips into editorializing using exclamation points, underlining and bold type to make sure you get his point. Sometimes in flights of imagination, when for instance he attempts to put the reader in the middle of tense developments, the prose stiffens into ornate (1830-1930s) sentences, as in: “Bongggg! The last of twelve strokes from the clock in the hall of the ‘great House’ on Pln Richmond reverberated its way to final silence.” Or when he writes: “The position of the sun in the sky, as it moved on its exorable course to the western horizon, indicated that the hour of five o’clock had arrived.”

His preface sets you up with a summary of what’s to come, and a postscript includes a summary of what you have just read. Add to that Payne’s tendency to retrace the same incident from a different viewpoint, and the reader might feel frequently bowled over by a repetition of events. Oddly, for a work dealing with a critical juncture in our history, there are no photos of people or places. This results in a parched-savannah dryness in text and texture that might have been relieved by a few glossy illustrations.

Flaws aside, 10 Days in August 1834 is a fairly engaging work. It joins equally illuminating explorations of power & resistance dramas in our past by UWI Professors Alvin Thompson and Brian Moore. Payne’s canvas is broad, his narrative many-angled as he shifts the focus among colonial adversaries and probes what (he imagines) they were thinking. He has attempted a “linking of fragments” into a cohesive narrative that gives new shape to past knowledge.

When you think about it, events that later pushed Guyana from colonial status to Independence, with its cast of famous names and infamous betrayals, cry out for a similar path-breaking approach and analysis; for narratives that go beyond the perpetuation of ethnic demons. Greater distance from more recent transitions – ‘the Burnham dictatorship’, for instance, and the raw emotions it still evokes – will no doubt encourage a neutral & comprehensive appraisal of that period: the interplay of agendas, real-life issues & circumstance; the protagonists’ obsessions; the seeds of disintegration in the exercise of power.

Until then we remain at the mercy of newspaper people, that daily bombardment of pugnacious argument & naming; the news that hides the old, still-lingering dependence; and younger, cynical minds for whom our history would seem little more than a morass of ideological posture, victim bitterness and death anniversaries. Soft targets, blunt instruments.

Book Reviewed: Ten Days in August 1834: Hugh “Tommy” Payne: Caribbean Diaspora Press Inc. Brooklyn, New York, 2001: 287 pgs.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Poetess Abused, But Willing

Mahadai Das (1954 – 2003)

Since her death in 2003 the poetry of Mahadai Das has been embraced in some quarters with as much fervor & sadness as the poetry of Martin Carter. Not far behind the glowing tributes are many references to her personal life. You could develop any number of profiles from intimate details made public about her.

Consider these for instance: “Delivered by midwife on October 22nd 1954”, with its hints at susceptibilities and risk. “The oldest of ten children”, upon whom great expectations were hoisted, and a fate beyond multiple childbearing. Her death after illness & “open heart surgery”, suggesting a child might have come into the world already marked for death.

Other details may or may not support the notion of a foreshadowed life: former beauty queen (Miss Diwali, 1971), standard bearer of beauty for her racial group; political activist, going against the current, aligning her hopes not with a race-based party. Answering instead a post-Independence call to nation building. “I Want to be a Poetess for My People.”

Gender and race might have been questions Das grappled with as she worked through tertiary institutions (Universities of Guyana, West Indies, Columbia/ NY, Chicago), and courses in Philosophy. In Bones (1988) you might anticipate the shelling of women “issues”, or a feminist rigour in the lines. There is, instead, delicate sentiment and a wistful self-probing. “Though I have reason/ to blow trumpets, I play/ an elegiac flute in silver hours/ of a misty morning, calling birds with songs.” (from “Resurrection”).

Bird images are plentiful in this collection; but then there’s so much one would wish to take flight from in Guyana – the cages of poverty & race, the cast nets of leftover ideologues. Das admits to being “Bird stricken. / Shrunken my globe, my joys, small circumference.” Birds like thoughts fly out of her head; sometimes their fate is the clipped wing, or like “a pigeon anklestrung/ homefed” the trapped availability of spirit.

Das has been gathered in the folds of ethnic heroism, her past mistakes forgiven. Her folly as an Indian woman (in the 70s) was to cross over into political territory controlled vindictively by black men. No doubt reviled for this act of infidelity, she was welcomed back in death by the heritage keepers (and others lost in blind sympathies) and embraced as victim of her own “naïve faith” and idealism – wanting to be a “poetess” of the wrong people. For she believed in a hairy concept of “national allegiance” being promulgated at the time by those hard black men.

What’s not so openly acknowledged is the first surge of bravery that pushed her craft out against race-based currents; that first-born, front running individuality that landed her eventually in the company of black men. (There were reports – and more recently the trashiness of newspaper comment – of sexual assault on Das while she did National Service in the 70s). Insular group thinking, not base impulses, was surely what worried Das most. And the irony cannot be missed of her life running out on a more accommodating island of black men (Barbados).

One wonders what if anything Das was “committed” to after her flight from Guyana. There is ample record of “travel” and “study”, but in Bones little evidence of all the harrowing or enlightening stuff she must have lived through as she moved among men and around the world. Poems set in North America (“Chicago Spring”) or drawn from her reading (“For Anna Karenina”) don’t display much more than transient insight and metaphor.

What Bones reveals, however, is the readiness of the Diwali beauty queen to be participant in parades of national achievement. Finding no nation, no worthwhile “people” achievement Das wraps herself up and ships away. “In your heart, I have not found a port/ but wide-open seas where I may dream.” In low, dark moments of limbo her lines wander away from her declared purpose into self-commiseration. “I mourn unflowered words, / unborn children inside me.” “Like a packcamel in desert terrain/ I will ride, the load of existence/ upon my camel’s hump”.

If the sentiments there sound a bit lush & long-suffering for a still young ‘poetess’, wallowing on the page in wet clichés, you could blame her welcome backers for ignoring her flaws, for shielding person & poetry, as it were, from gossip and unwanted assault.

There are poems in Bones about regret, isolation, yearning and death, but Das offers only thoughtful reflections on these themes – “Tomorrow, I rise/ between dead thighs of another day” – leaving an occasional puzzle at the end for reader homework. In one long poem (“For Maria de Borges”) Das conjures auras of vulnerability and circling doom with vivid if uninspired imagery: “Death rides, high black moon over all my dreams. /Secret rider across sky’s low fields.” The tremulousness of the estranged heart, rather than beauty and body beset on all sides, was the subject that really preoccupied her.

At age 40 to 49 life expectations, you suspect, begin to solidify. In Das there’s a sense of business unfinished, of something ambivalently poised & pained but not yet formed. The “bird” images again come to mind. Das seems constantly up there, lone sparrow in bruising winds; still beating against currents, but wanting some strong arm or rock to rest on; and unable to find rest (or laurels) in religious faith or ethnic solidarity or diasporic achievement.

For she might have considered becoming a niche poet (like Guyanese Grace Nichols) writing long-memoried, winning poems about her race and her uplifted womanhood. She could have sneaked into academia, funneling her roots & victim experience into Ethnic or Gender studies. There was certainly no lack of agreeable choices. Circumstances and her illness, it seems, cut options thin.

Still, you can’t help but admire her tireless wings, the tribe-challenging individuality that ignored fears & warnings and kept daring the unknown. The nerve of her, her uncommon will to work against the odds – “My bark of reeds/ is frail, light stems – insufficient. The current is fierce.” You sense sparks of bright courage & goodness, a (pre)disposition perhaps too openly trusting for road or sea (“Unlike Columbus/ I am neither helmsman nor sailor”).

You sense, too, in the lines an embryonic “consensual” Guyanese identity, the birth of which seemed precious & important to Das. It is for this reason her poetry merits our patience and attention.

In the end the serious reader returns to the first poem in Bones, “Sonnet to a Broom”. Trust this Guyanese poet to think a humble broom deserves a sonnet, though given the omnipresence of brooms in our rural culture you begin to understand. As imagined by Das its function is to “gain only a clean floor of truth”. When work is done it withdraws unremunerated and (like many a poet’s work) “unpublished” in attics.

The last lines of the poem read, “Yet unreproachful, you return to use/ efficient though abused, but willing.” Comes close, doesn’t it, to a portrait of that familiar ethnic stereotype, content to toil one arm behind her back. More likely you’re hearing the resilience of a CEO’s pretty secretary who keeps hidden in her drawer desire for creative self-expansion, a wish to be called up for higher responsibilities.

But as it seems there was so much still forming in Mahadai Das’s poetry; and in her life – as in the lives of “the people” she once wrote for – so many transitions incomplete. Though from all indications you’d have to think she was getting there.

Book Reviewed: Bones: Mahadai Das: Peepal Tree Press, England 1988: 53 pgs.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Pleasures and Misfirings of Myth

Characters in Mittelholzer’s Shadows Move Among Them (1951) would have given considerable thought to any suggestion that ghosts, jumbies or shadows as experienced in a forest environment were little more than “electrical misfirings” of the brain. This viewpoint was put forward by scientists in a recent issue of the journal Nature. They claim that human agents by sending electrical messages to the brain could induce anyone to think “duppies” are real entities.

In Shadows Mittelholzer’s folk had their own theory about ghosts & spirits. When asked to explain bizarre behavior in the jungle, one character described it as “myth pleasure”. This, he says, is when people exercise their creative imagination and amuse themselves in accordance with a code of make believe. “We here create our myths and conventions day by day and discard them as easily as we create them”. Seen in such playful, rational terms and robbed of its ancient mystery and fears, life without spirit visitations could be managed with greater confidence even if futures remain indeterminable.

Myths and inner worldly behavior have been central to the fiction of Wilson Harris. An entire scholarship industry has built up around his books. The sequence of novels that comprise The Guyana Quartet was published between 1960 and1964. Harris has argued firmly & obscurely against “realism”, its “inadequacy” as a tool for exploring the complexity of Caribbean history and peoples. His aesthetic manifesto (in Tradition, the Writer and Society, 1967) hovered like a giant theory-filled airship over everyone in the region who taught literature, or considered writing fiction in the 70s.

The thorny metaphysics of his fiction, needing explication and explicators, might have eclipsed any burgeoning interest in Mittelholzer’s writings beyond those blandly informative historical overviews and the circumstances surrounding the author’s exile and demise in England.

Shadows was recognized in Time Magazine as one of the significant works of fiction published in 1951, a “hard to classify novel.” It could be read today as a comic parallel to those hyper-articulate folk taking off on metaphor-laden boat rides up the Canje river in The Guyana Quartet. The novel’s humour and inventiveness, the “mad slant” Mittelholzer brings to the Guyana landscape would appeal to many in the Caribbean not disposed to “brood”. Guyanese readers might find it particularly enjoyable on the level of comic fantasy.

Europeans as anthropologists, Governors, entrepreneurs have been drawn to Guyana with its explorable Interiors and underrepresented tribes. From Schomburgh to the Roths these very serious men have left us museums and maps and musty volumes of fadingly important information. In Shadows Mittelholzer uses three Europeans as central characters and it is tempting to view the novel as a satirical commentary on those explorers who came before.

Reverend Harmston, the central character, is unlike those early serious men. Educated at Oxford he brings his family to British Guiana in 1937 and takes them 100 miles up the Berbice River. There he adds to his vocation the responsibilities of coroner, registrar and protector of Amerindian rights. Once settled he starts thinking, maybe he could build his own cross-cultural civilization amidst the splendour of rivers & forest, “the gruff roar of baboons” and the Amerindians astonishingly in harmony with nature.

It’s an imperialist settler’s dream, after the search for Eldorado, and since he is miles away from official Georgetown scrutiny Harmston wastes no time establishing (what years later in 1960s North American argot would come to be known as) “a hippie commune”.

The location is an exotic sounding place called Berkelhoost, an old plantation once owned by an old Dutch family with an exotic name, the Schoonlusts. In 1763 there was that famous slave revolt. As the legend unfolds in this novel, the white family members were slaughtered, but strangely their 17 year old daughter, Mevrouw Adriana Schoonlust, did not object when threatened with sexual assault. Her life was spared and she became a servant of the slave leader, Cuffy, attending to his sexual needs (and doing secretarial chores since Cuffy couldn’t read or write.)

Mittelholzer sets his novel in a place memoried in blood, lust and ghosts in the plantation ruins, a place where the Devil “lurks in the shadow of every twig.” But the newly-arrived Harmston family is unfazed by its blood-soaked history. As if to neutralize the horror of what took place, Reverend Harmston encourages more ‘natural’ human relations, a kinder sexuality. Pleasure without foreboding, you could say.

No wine or alcoholic beverages are allowed at Berkelhoost (they’re against the health code.) But the ethos of “hard work, frank love and wholesome play” becomes the tricolor flag of the Harmston civilization. At the end of one of his Sunday sermons, for instance, Reverend Harmston switches roles and reads this community bulletin: “Our monthly consignment of goods is due by this Wednesday’s steamer…a fresh shipment of contraceptives and contraceptive appliances is expected by this same opportunity, and any of you who might find yourself running short can call whenever you like to replenish your supplies.”

The second European in the novel is Hendrick Buckmaster, resident scholar & historian, “a regular fun-stick” around the reservation. He has a cheerful explanation for his jungle disinhibitions: “I’ve got an oversexed Doppleganger, my boy. It does nothing but father illegitimate children…I’m king of sleep-walkers in this neighborhood – my Doppelganger, I mean. And as for sleep-acting – well you ask some of these Buck women and hear what they tell you.”

The Harmston model is a basically simple one: shared responsibilities, plus a blending of European enlightenment and the “local influences”. Structures, codes and “secret laws” would impose discipline on unruly inclinations and native behaviors. Conditions are spartan but life though regimented is far from beholden to the Ten Commandments. Harmston calls his an “elastic” religion, a pragmatic mix of “Thou shalt nots” and the leavened humanity of “spirit and fevered flesh”.

His forest-dwellers are not entirely free to run around half-naked in pursuit of pleasures and self-interests. Harmston sets up his education system. Lots of aesthetic stimulation, immersion in the Best of European Culture: Chopin, “Aida”, Shakespeare, “The Ride of the Valkyries” (whose chorus & trumpet overtures blasting through the forest would have lifted the heads of local birds and animals) and the US Time Magazine. Depending on aptitudes the children are separated into “squads”: the Book squad, Drama squad, Labour Squad.

Order at the forest settlement is maintained with balata whips. (Who said building a civilization would be painless?) Harmston’s daughters are slapped hard on the face if disobedient. Malefactors are generously granted three chances to mend their ways. A fourth offence would lead to their “elimination” as incurably bad folk. An Amerindian wrongdoer with a special fear of jumbies is manacled in a shed believed to be haunted by the ghosts of the slaughtered Dutch family. Throughout all this the Harmston authority is never challenged.

The European through whose interrogatory eyes we wander around the settlement is a tormented young man named Gregory. He arrives with a raft of personal “issues” that spring from crumpled nerves and marriage memories he can’t erase (Harmston considers him a refugee from an “over-civilized Europe”). Actually a psychiatrist had suggested a change of environment (the strangeness of Guyana) as a cure for his ills.

Slowly he is tugged into the oddness of the Harmston experiment and he begins to display odd, trancelike behaviours of his own. In time he becomes the love interest of the Harmston girls, a precocious 14 year old who sends him notes (“My Flat Chest Burns For You”) written in her blood; and 19 year old, sexed-up Mabel Harmston who wants to give up her free loving way with Amerindian boys and settle down. The big question for Gregory is his readiness to give up England (its night clubs, restaurants and banking system) and commit weeks, years of his life to a forestrial haven of corials, hairy spiders and those erotically charged Harmston girls.

Events in the novel are not outlandishly funny. Mittelholzer manages to keep a thread of 1930s colonial credibility running through the pages. At the same time the tone of controlled amusement permits the reader a varied response, now shaking with laughter, at other times lulled by the creepy visual and sound effects of the Guyana forest.

Lightning and thunder, torrential rains and the full moon intervene at hallucinatory moments of self-discovery, and though the benabs aren’t built with creaking doors things manage to go bump on the forest floor amidst all the insect and bird noise. His Europeans might come across as cartoony inventions, but the straight-faced depiction of the Berbice wilds is a measure of the author’s intimate knowledge of Guyana, from city to forest & savannah.

Outsiders must trust Mittelholzer when he writes: “The fire-flies flickered without sound in the darkness – several at a time, sporadic and unstable…The air was laden with the leafy scent of dew on decayed vegetation, and came to him in slow drifts as if borne on the waves of insect-shrilling….” (p. 46)

You might wonder, where are the Guyanese men and women in Shadows? Aside from the Amerindians who represent “the local influences” they are miles away in Georgetown. Keep in mind, this is the 1930s. The brightest local minds are probably preparing to set out for Oxford U., LSE and other hatcheries of radical thinking. Years later they would return and, like Reverend Harmston, begin their own cross-cultural experiments, be it “socialism” or “cooperative republicanism”; or the ethnic mesmerism that seeps through our segmented land.

Maybe Shadows, published in 1951, with its European settler themes and characters, was Mittelholzer’s cautionary tale for our unsettled nation. In the jungle, he might be saying, be wary of white elephants and European dream-builders, their seed bags bulging with capital and ‘big ideas’. They come to Guyana in many postures and disguises. Some may not even speak in European tongues. A few could well be shape-shifting Guyanese.

Grant them a wish, concessions, tracts of green, virgin land anywhere, you never know what they’ll do next; the grand schemes they’ll devise, the human cost and waste if these grand schemes misfire.

Book Reviewed: “Shadows Move Among Them”: Edgar Mittelholzer: J.B. Lippincott Company, New York, 1951, 334 pages.

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