2011, 281 p
Two things attracted me to this book. First, the title. Second, the fact that it is set in Guyana, the country formerly known as British Guiana. And my interest in British Guiana? Well, Judge Willis spent several years there as a judge, and I’ll be dealing with this period of his life in my thesis. I approach the British Guianan section of my thesis with excitement mixed with a degree of trepidation. Judge Willis was there at a fascinating time, just as the abolition of slavery was actually implemented, albeit fudged somewhat by the imposition of a long ‘apprenticeship’ on erstwhile slaves to protect the plantation-owners’ interests. But then I think – I know Port Phillip intimately- its layout, its weather, its smells, its air, and I have at least been to York (Toronto) for a month and can start to imagine in my mind’s eye what it might have looked like- helped no end by a small scale model of 1825 York that I saw at William Campbell House in Toronto. Does it matter that I’ve never been to the Caribbean?
Fortunately, it’s as if this book has been written just for me. The narrator is a 26 year old Indian journalist who had briefly visited Guyana to cover a cricket tour, and he decides to return to be a “slow ramblin’ stranger”. It took me a little while to realize that this book is, in effect, a travel book in three almost self-contained parts and that the plot, such as it is, meanders slowly. The first section was rather disorienting: the narrator’s sharp ear catches the patois, and like him, you need to guess your way through. I was beginning to wonder whether the book was going anywhere and whether I was unable to detect, let alone remember, the plot until I realized that I was approaching it the wrong way. Like the narrator, I just had to watch and listen, and go where-ever it took me.
There is a lot of travel in this book- boats into the jungle, buses, taxis and small planes. He accompanies some ‘porknockers’ into the rainforest jungle where they sluice illegally for diamonds on the edge of the dank watercourses; he travels to Brazil and Venezuela; he moves from place to place. He is the quintessential observer, he watches carefully and captures images and voices deftly, and he travels light both physically and emotionally. It is only in the last section that he fleshes out into a character in his own right as he travels to Venezuela with the sensual and demanding Jan, and as their brittle relationship fractures in the traveller’s bad dream of cheap accommodation, poor planning, inadequate language and little money.
There’s a lot of history and politics in this book. A note on the very first page explains that the term ‘Indian’ in Guyana refers to the descendents of the indentured labourers from India who were brought across to work on the sugar plantations after the abolition of slavery, and who now comprise 43.5% of the population. The Africans comprise 30.2%, Mixed Race 16.7%, Portuguese 0.20, Chinese 0.19 and Whites 0.06. The indigenous people at 9.2% are called Amerindians. Indians from India are referred to as Indian nationals- and this is what our narrator is. He is well-placed to see and feel the mutual incomprehension that the East Indian and Indian National have of each other, despite the vaguely recognizable physical appearance and the smell of Indian food that they hold in common. He thinks about the wound that is left behind when someone leaves a village, their family, their country, and yet the inconsequentiality of that leaving for India as a whole.
The mind goes back to the wound. To the East Indian the wound has been profound, in ways he knows and does not. But in the geographical India, that pitiless, unceasing land which bothers not for whom it crushes or expels, there has not been the slightest cut. The numbers have been undramatic, the impact negligible. The people have been of the unimportant kind: nobodies whom nobody remembers, nobody knows of and nobody can be asked to care. (p. 99)
He observes, too, the racism of these groups, forced to co-exist with each other. Racism is everywhere; race is everything.
His descriptions are drenched with colour, and given that I’m not ever going to set foot in Guyana, they have sated my yearning to experience the weather, the sky, the smells, the air, for myself.
We put on shoes and gathered our things and began walking. The trail was fresh squelch and the trees were still swaying apocalyptically though the rain was now beating slower. The immense wetness of the rainforest made one feel submerged, but for the smells. The smells were many, mud and leaves, heart of trunk and rotten fruit; the rustle of small animals, the slither of lizards, they all came scented. It was soggy underfoot, thick squelch or big drenched leaves, brown, red and green, twenty or thirty deep. It was walking on marshmallow. (p. 62)
Or the sight of the city awakening:
The bliss of the city is when it awakens- not the dawn hours haunted by the middle-aged shedding fat or burnt out adolescents returning home, but a little after, when the cleaning machines have brushed away yesterday’s evidence and the fresh day is falling crisp as golden wafers, when reasonable people with reasonable habits are coming out of their holes to dot the world with their strange faces, their gestures, costumes, voices, until bit by bit, by living magic, the grand tapestry is made. (p. 221)
And the title? Well I’m not sure if I know what it means. The India that expelled its people didn’t care, but I’m not sure that the Guyana that he describes here cares much either- for all the good will, there is also brutality, venality and suspicion. There is this cryptic aside:
Once I found a curious paean to the Dutch civilizing mission. It was a four-page fine-print pamphlet, organized in sections, composed by an apparent descendant. It extolled the courage of the pioneers- ‘who risked life and limb for the sake of the generations to come’. It lamented the passing of the Dutch Reformed Church- ‘which had given the people moral organisation for prosperity’. … The enterprise of the Dutch West India Company itself was honoured with its own subsection. Here the first three words had been struck out by a blotted, once garish, purple nib. They had been replaced by a single word. SLY. In the margin a sentence had been started, they think like they care- and abandoned there due to excessive blotting. (p. 90)
Inscrutable. Like many fragments, it hints at meaning but it’s hard to capture it. The whole book felt hard to capture, and yet by the end of it you realized that it had somehow captured you.