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.

No comments: