by Rahul Bhattacharya
This is a very dense novel. It’s packed full of people: in Guyana, 90% of folks live along the narrow coastal strip, and a few live in the interior jungles. I’m guessing those few are the original inhabitants:
- Wapixana and
The others are descended from African slaves imported in the 17th century to cut cane and Indian indentured servants. There are “Rastas” from the Caribbean, “Putagees” (of Portuguese descent), and “coolies” from China. There is racial tension between the Afro-Guyanese and the Indo-Guyanese; the indigenous people seem to have been thoroughly marginalized. Throughout the novel, people speak Guayanese Creole, a colorful polygot tongue:
The narrator is a young man in flight from his caste and his job as a cricket journalist in India. As he travels around Guyana for a year, he hears conversations like this one:
- “You cyan see Guyana in one life, you know,” he continued. You could see all of it- but not in one life. Too beautiful and too big fuh see in one life.
- As one feared, there was an interjection.
- How much country you seen, buddeh?
- Don’t tell me stupidness, bai. You jus know, right? Some island and islet in Essequibo, right they as big as England.
- Guyana as big as England.
- Well, as big as UK. You ever hear of UK?
- I hear they as big like Barbados.
- Bai, me batty bigger than Barbados.
- And you fine.
- When they said fine in Guyana, they meant thin.”
I found the first half of the novel, like the narrator, exasperatingly aimless. If you’re not into cricket or jazz, you may find the meandering journeys “Gooroo” (Guru) takes with the scam artist/porknocker (diamond miner) Baby to be tedious. It’s like listening to a coworker describe his dream. There is no story arc, just random events.
I hung in there because the reported conversations and bits of Guyanese history, nature, and politics were fascinating–not because the writing was skilled.
Second Half — The Better Bit
The story picks up in the second half of the novel, when the narrator meets an Indo-Guyanese sexpot named Jan. (Jaan, it turns out, means “beloved” in Hindi.)
While Guru has been seduced by Georgetown’s brown waters and heavy, decaying wood structures, Jan can’t wait to leave. She talks Guru into taking her on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride to Venezuela by way of Trinidad. (He, of course, pays for everything.)
(Why are there are no direct flights from Guyana to its neighboring country of Venezuela?)
Although Jan and Guru should have much in common, by way of their shared ancestry, it somehow serves to divide them. I enjoyed how the novel explored the theme of identity and origins.
A Conversation Between the Went-There and the Stayed-Home
Kaieteur Falls in Guyana…the world’s largest single-drop waterfall. Three times the height of Niagara Falls.
“In the Guyanese country, a costal frill on either side of Georgetown–in the Guyanese country, the East Indian and the Indian national look at each other. It seems an innocuous exchange. In fact, it is loaded…”
Guru goes on to describe his conversation with the Indo-Guyanese husband of a Cuban he meets. The man says he is sad because he has a hole in his heart since his ancestors left India, a hole which nothing can fill.
“It was one of those wide-open, sentimental Guyanese country evenings: fry fish and rum and Lata across a night-time canefield on the Corentyne.
‘And yet brother,’ he added, ‘we find that Indians do not consider us to be Indians.’
It was an accurate observation. But I thought it might be patronizing to tell him what I felt, which was two, perhaps conflicting things. That, you know, you are out here where the Caribbean meets South America under these brilliant stars and you should be fucking delighted. The other was that you, brother, are more Indian than I…”
Unfortunately for Guru and his new lady-love, re-entry into Guyana without papers can be dangerous. Soon the couple’s adventure takes a terrifying and all-too-believable turn.
My recommendation on this one is to read as much of Part 1 as you can stomach, then skip immediately to part 2 and don’t feel guilty about it.
Mixed Rating: Five shots of Guyanese rum! (Best in the world, apparently.) And then five hangovers. 😉