Sunday, May 31, 2009

Two Guyanese Novelists

My copy of Roy Heath's Kwaku, or The Man Who Could Not Keep His Mouth Shut (1982) came to me in a box of books given to me by a friend who was moving, a box mostly full of African literature from the sixties, and I confess I didn't have much idea of what it was when I added it to the Stack. It is a novel of Guyana, and by coincidence the author has historical similarities to the author of the only other Guyanese fiction I have read, Wilson Harris, whose Guyana Quartet (a 1985 omnibus edition of his first four novels, Palace of the Peacock, 1960, The Far Journey of Oudin, 1961, The Whole Armour, 1962, and The Secret Ladder, 1963) I read sometime before starting this blog a couple of years ago. They are contemporaries, Harris born in 1921 and Heath in 1926; Heath moved to England in 1951 and Harris did the same in 1959, and both men spent the rest of their lives there (Heath died in 2008 and Harris, as far as I can tell from Googling, is still with us), and both started writing as expatriates.

Today there is a vibrant Guyanese literature written in-country and by young writers with working class immigrant backgrounds in the US, including women writers and much social realism, similar in all of these ways to contemporary Spanish Caribbean literature. Wilson and Harris represent the previous generation, with the traditional colonial sense of living on a far fringe of the old (in their case British) empire, and without the omnipresence of America and its secular pop culture. They are inward-looking writers who focus on the quotidian challenges of economic survival, social dignity, and romantic happiness of their young male characters. The younger generation of Caribbean writers (Maryse Conde, Junot Diaz, or Edwidge Danticat for examples) tends to have a strong sense of identity forged in the post-colonial, post-sixties dialectic of identity politics.

The characters in these earlier novels are almost wraithlike in comparison, unsettled and inchoate in their sense of themselves, their relation to historical and cultural elements (notably magical explanations and folk mythologies), and live in deeply insular worlds of small villages at the very edge of the bush. They are humble people confronted with a hardscrabble reality who do not necessarily see themselves as moral agents or as representatives of a "people." They are self-interested by necessity. They do not see, say, endemic alcoholism as a symptom of oppressive conditions caused by far-off sinister powers, but rather as a plain fact of emotional survival. No information is coming in from beyond the horizon, and none is sought.

In Kwaku Heath does a wonderful job of conveying the ragtag fatalism of these poor people. Everyone, including Kwaku himself, sees him as a sort of village idiot, but what sets him apart from the rest is not obvious. He dares to think that he might make things better, get to a better world, but he is unable to organize himself and is so resistant to conformity as to have virtually no friends among his village peers. Still he lives a life that is much more than nothing, with his wife Miss Gwendoline (originally scouted out by Kwaku's uncle who needs to marry him off to get rid of him), who in spite of everything is in love with Kwaku to the end, and their eight children, a job soling shoes for the local cobbler who knows him to be a reliable worker, and even something of a photography hobby encouraged by his neighbor old Mr. Barzey who gives him an ancient camera.

All of this comes apart when Kwaku decides to try to escape village life by moving to New Amsterdam (Georgetown is too intimidating a prospect) where he acquires a reputation as a healer. He is patently a fraud although in fairness he never asked for people to decide he had such powers. Thus ensues an interlude of having money, decent clothes, and a sense of respect that has heretofore eluded him. This is all short-lived. Kwaku is one of the lost, without the resources to be a householder, a patriarch, or a professional. His only freedom is poverty, the freedom to lose your house, or your job, or all of your money, because it never amounted to anything anyway.

That all sounds pretty bleak, but this isn't a bleak book. It's frequently funny and filled with engaging characters and incidents, episodes just outlandish enough to be outrageous and possible at the same time. Everyone speaks in a local English patois that features interesting grammatical structure and plenty of idiomatic phrases and verbal tics. I found it entertaining and I recommend it.

The pleasures of Wilson Harris are more austere. His style is both erudite and dreamlike. He is not following the Spanish "magical realist" formula, he comes to his foggy surrealism through his own ideas about characters who live on the margins of the town and the jungle, the old and the new. There is a far greater awareness of the surrounding tropical forest (Harris was a trained land surveyor and served as Senior Surveyor for Projects for British Guyana for four years in the fifties). Some of the most memorable passages occur at a work camp where a small group of men have to sort out their status and their motives. He is darker than Heath, there is violence and menace, both between characters and from nature (a jaguar carries away a neighbor's baby). The river is always present, both of these writers of Guyana portray the fact that coastal Guyana is a wet, tropical place. At times Harris was a little too atmospheric for my taste, I remember a sense of plowing along through a pea-fog narrative that could be hard to follow, but as I said this is definitely by design. Harris is the more ambitious of the two, but Heath is the more entertaining.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Vile, Silly Bodies

I have a few old favorite writers with whom I salt the Stack. Anthony Burgess, Lawrence Durrell come to mind. One of them is Evelyn Waugh, and I've just read Vile Bodies (1930), published when he was 27. I read Waugh essentially for laughs. He is a social satirist with the sharpest of tongues, and a keen ear for English (as in the country, not the language) accents and idioms. England is a country where accents reflect class as much as they do region, and Waugh epitomizes this very English practice of using idiom to portray the farcical collisions of parallel social worlds.

Waugh is also a master of English silliness. "Silliness": not exactly absurdity, although closely related (Monty Python), there is a streak of adolescence running through English humor. Part of this is catharsis for the socially hyper-vigilant, protocol-bound English, part of it reflects a feeling of insularity and of belonging to a closed society, like the "public school" communities that produced so many English writers. There is a kind of showing off to the other lads, talented enough to get away with it with teacher (if history repeats itself first as tragedy then as farce, that would be Evelyn Waugh:wicked::Kingsley Amis:obnoxious). Other notable in-crowd entertainments of the period are Ronald Firbank whose antics have not aged as well, and P. G. Wodehouse's very funny stories of Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves, which are still very funny and still have a satiric bite (an Englishman in graduate school with me in the States frowned once at the mention of Wodehouse: "I don't approve of all that class snobbery," he said, obviously having no idea).

In Vile Bodies a drunken socialite, strip-searched at customs coming over from France, uses her social connections to the Prime Minister to exact revenge, only to precipitate the fall of the government when the PMs mousy daughter has the Bright Young Things over to 10 Downing Street in the wee hours of the morning. The writer of a London gossip column commits suicide when he can no longer get invited to the right parties, and his replacement finds success making people up and touting awful restaurants and clubs as the next hot place, although his attempt to get London's gentlemen to wear green bowlers meets with little success. And so on. The first half, where the Bright Young Things are rampaging around London and environs, is better than the second, mostly taken up with the stilted and abortive courtship of Adam and Nina against the backdrop of Nina's deranged old gentleman father and his crumbling estate.

This is the Waugh that everyone knows: sharp-tongued, witty, laugh-out-loud funny. My favorite of these is Scoop (1938, the first Waugh novel I read), more lampooning of the newspapers which in Waugh's universe are filled with the sheerly false as well as some great sequences in British East Africa, which is also the scene of Black Mischief (1932; Waugh's inhumanity to man certainly extends to Africans towards whom he is patently racist. The only thing that can be said in his defense is that, come on, he hates everybody). These three and Decline and Fall (1928, his first novel) are the best satirical novels and they all deliver: you will laugh while you read them.

But it is easy to be misled about what Waugh is, easy to identify him as someone reveling in the gratuitous privilege of classista interwar Britain. He is not that. He is in fact deeply critical of this society, drawing attention through conspicuous absence to the generation of young men who lost their lives in World War I and chillingly prescient about more wars to come. On the last page of Vile Bodies two officers drink champagne with a prostitute in the general's staff car in the middle of a devastated battlefield "and presently, like a circling typhoon, the sounds of battle began to return." George Orwell described Waugh as "about as good a novelist as one can be while holding untenable opinions." I love George Orwell but I doubt he grasped Waugh.

Waugh is also a deeply religious man who seems to embody secular modernism precisely because he is at war against it. There are occasional glimpses behind the mask in the satirical novels, but his masterpiece is Brideshead Revisited (1945) (I remember as a teenager thinking that I really needed to read Brideshead first!). In this novel he is in the zone, at the peak of his powers as a stylist, and the writing is beautiful enough to carry the reader along through the disquisition on the modern loss of moral foundations. Come to think of it, he reminds me of Nabakov this way: most of Nabakov's work is dark, well-written, and under-read (Laughter in the Dark, Despair, Invitation to a Beheading), but Lolita rises above the rest by the power of the prose itself. Brideshead Revisited is Waugh's equivalent, the masterpiece.

There is much more. There is a trilogy of war novels (published together under the title Sword of Honor) that I have not read but that is not regarded as his best work. I have read A Handful of Dust (1934) which in my opinion is too rough to be considered "satire" although I can imagine being in a dark enough mood to be amused. There is quite a bit of travel writing that I do intend to explore.