When I learned my family and I would be picking up and moving to a town called Georgetown, Guyana, my first association of the place was to a book I had read recently. Papillon, the memoir of a French convict sentenced to a South American penal colony, is primarily set in French Guiana, not Guyana. But Guyana wasn’t itself called Guyana at the time. The wider region was known as Guiana and comprised of colonies controlled by the British (then British Guiana now independent Guyana), the Dutch (then Dutch Guiana now independent Suriname), and the French (then and now French Guiana). Also, Papillon did spend some time in and describes Georgetown, now my home, following one of his prison breaks.
I began to read as many books about or set in Guyana as a librarian with Interlibrary Loan powers can access. The project took me down many pleasurable reading paths: I enjoyed a new and impressive first novel by a young Indian author, I perused the works of a Nobel laureate, found still-good advice on where to eat in Georgetown from an 83 year old book, and unearthed a few unjustly unheralded authors whose primary works are long out of print and copies of which had to be summoned via ILL from backwater municipal libraries possibly too understaffed to keep up with culling their collection of unread books.
I’ve been in Guyana for over two months now. This seems a good time to go back and review the literature I absorbed. How well did those books prepare me for the reality I’ve encountered?
Guyana: The Bradt Travel Guide. Kirk Smock. 2011.
I believe this to be the most recently published travel guide dedicated to Guyana. I’ve had a tendency to favor Lonely Planet guides. But, to my knowledge, they have not produced a guide to Guyana (apart from a few pages in a guide for the entire continent). The Bradt guide’s publication date deterred me. But a friend bought it for me. Having it, I dipped in, realized it was well-written and read it cover-to-cover. If any indication of Bradt guides, I’m a convert and will look for them on the shelf first.
If reading a travel guide cover-to-cover sounds like an unpleasant idea, please consider three things. First, you might be willing to do the same if you were getting ready to move to a place like Guyana. Second, the book is long on historical, political and scientific information both in designated areas and throughout in context. And lastly, the level of detail in this book is such that it often veers into the genre of travel memoir with author, Kirk Smock, as its hero. In addition to information about accommodations offered by a lodge, one will learn about the background and eccentricities of characters – the owners or guides – one is likely to encounter while lodging there. The owner of one eco-lodge in the Rupununi asked me how I knew about the existence of his lodge, a fair question given its location and lack of website or other discernable marketing strategy. I mentioned the Bradt Guide. “Ah, Kirk is an old and dear friend,” he said.
The downside of the book’s vivid detail is that the text risks becoming obsolete and misinforming readers even faster than in the already ephemeral shelf-life of a typical travel guide. Already I have called a number and been asked “How did you get this number.” I informed him of its being printed in a travel guide. “Oh, my son runs the business now. Let me give you his number.” On another occasion I visited a restaurant highly recommended by the intrepid and discerning Smock only to find it under new management and comically dysfunctional. To be fair, the book was revised a full six years ago based on an original text that is over nine years old – an antiquity. Quite a run for a travel guide still finding readers. Kirk Smock needs to revisit Guyana for a new edition before Lonely Planet cuts in on Bradt’s monopoly. In case he’s indisposed, perhaps I’ll email Bradt and offer my humble services. I find myself with time on my hands in this hot country.
A Hot Country. Shiva Naipaul. 1983.
A novel set in a fictional country, but so apparently modeled on Guyana I read it as such. The main character is a citizen of a newly independent country but descended from the old colonial, slave-holding masters. Guilt ridden, he atones for the sins of his family by operating an unprofitable bookshop in the capital city, by marrying a woman descended from indentured servants almost as a project for her intellectual betterment, and – in short – by stubbornly refusing to leave the country even as it descends into despotism with his kind identified as a public enemy.
The novel, steeped in cynicism and hopelessness, is a long rebuke of the damage wrought by colonialism. I would have been receptive to a slightly more cheerful take on the place I was about to call home. For all that, this book was one of my favorite discoveries. The book so well evokes the feeling and flavor of being in Georgetown. Several times while walking around the central district, I’ve half expected to come across a bookshop operated by an old, penitent white guy. Perhaps I will yet.
The Sly Company of People Who Care. Rahul Bhattacharya. 2011.
Written the same year the intrepid and discerning Kirk Smock rang up his contacts in Guyana to see if they still answered their phones, this debut novel is the better sequel to the first edition of his heroic travel guide.
How much do I love this book? Let me post – with interpolations – the publisher’s promotional copy from the cover flap to count the ways.
In flight from the tame familiarity of home in Bombay (read: Harrisonville), a twenty-six-year-old cricket journalist (read: forty-year-old librarian) chucks his job and arrives in Guyana, a forgotten colonial society of raw, mesmerizing beauty. Amid beautiful, decaying wooden houses in Georgetown, on coastal sugarcane plantations, and in the dark rainforest interior scavenged by diamond hunters, he grows absorbed with the fantastic possibilities of this new place where descendants of the enslaved and indentured have made a new world. Ultimately, to fulfill his purpose, he prepares to mount an adventure of his own. His journey takes him beyond Guyanese borders, and his companion will be the feisty, wild-haired Jan (read: Wendy).
In this dazzling novel, propelled by a singularly forceful voice, Rahul Bhattacharya captures the heady adventures of travel, the overheated restlessness of youth (read: middle-age), and the paradoxes of searching for life’s meaning in the escape from home.
The Middle Passage: The Caribbean Revisited. V.S. Naipaul. 1962.
V.S. Naipaul and Shiva Naipaul (A Hot Country author above) are brothers. Born in Trinidad, V.S. Naipaul now lives in England and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001.
Both brothers are skilled and successful writers. But I imagine their parents asking Shiva, “Why can’t you be more like your brother V.S. and win a Nobel Prize in Literature?”
This was the very first book I read about Guyana and laid a lot of groundwork for understanding the political situation in the country. The chapters that deal with Guyana focus on an election taking place at the time of Naipaul’s visit. He attends political speeches, interviews candidates, and talks with the people he meets about their perceptions. He finds a country divided along racial lines with its leaders oscillating between calls for unity and naked exploitation of divisions for personal gain leading to widespread cynicism and partisan tribalism. Nothing about that sounds unfamiliar.
This book also taught me that no one is quite so harsh or despondent in their criticisms of a country than a developing country expatriate on a return visit. Its author occasionally loses sight of his privileges, in my opinion, and derives undeserved pleasure from looking disdainfully down on his former compatriots.
Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple. Deborah Layton. 1998.
Obligatory that I read at least one book about the Jonestown Massacre since journalistic accounts and survivor memoirs make up a huge portion of all the books written about Guyana.
This is an enjoyable read if absorbed as a true crime thriller in the voice of a slightly untrustworthy narrator. Otherwise this comes across as a poorly written, self-serving memoir by a former high-level cult leader looking to clear her name. So caught up with the notion of herself as a victim, she never gets around to reflecting on her own responsibility, such as her role in purchasing and shipping contraband – guns, ammunition, and presumably cyanide – to Jonestown, even before she went there herself and supposedly discovered how off the rails Jim Jones had gone in the jungle.
What I find depressing about Jonestown is not that charismatic lunatics like Jim Jones exist, but that ordinary people like Deborah Layton followed him and did his bidding. Anyway, Jonestown has little to do with Guyana, so I’m officially done reading about it.
Because Layton was a trusted member of Jones’ inner circle, and because a large portion of the book deals with her attempt to arrange a flight from Guyana without a passport on hand, a lot of this book is set in Georgetown rather than Jonestown. Many of the places she describes are now my familiar stomping grounds: the U.S Embassy, the airport, the lobby of the Pegasus Hotel, the Cultural Center where the Peoples Temple presented programs to the public, and even their Georgetown headquarters which was a house at 41 Dennis Street in the Lamaha Gardens neighborhood where I now live (The cult member living in the Lamaha Gardens house slit the throats of her three children and herself when commanded by radio from Jonestown to do so). One passage describes the hazards of hiking on foot from Lamaha Gardens to the embassy, a walk I’ve had on a few occasions. Layton also details her interactions with various inept, bumbling US Embassy consular staff members which I found amusing. The US Embassy is where I picked up a copy of this book.
The Ventriloquist’s Tale. Pauline Melville. 1997.
This is a worthwhile novel by a Guyanese author. Shifting between generations, and between Georgetown and the Rupununi Savannah, the novel focuses on the experiences of an Amerindian family (as the indigenous tribes in Guyana are known). I really enjoyed this book and found it a good introduction to the traditions and modern problems of the true natives of Guyana. So much of what has been written about Guyana focuses on the conflicts that exist between former slaves from Africa and former indentured servants from India. The Amerindians are often neglected in the literature since, having been mostly wiped out early on, they comprise less than 10% of Guyana’s population and live mostly in the interior away from the population centers.
Ninety Two Days: A Journey in Guiana and Brazil. Evelyn Waugh. 1932.
A Handful of Dust. Evelyn Waugh. 1934.
Mr. Evelyn Waugh appears as a sort of off-screen character in The Ventriloquist’s Tale by Pauline Melville above. Placing the author of Brideshead Revisited in the Rupununi Savannah seemed an odd detail to invent from scratch. I easily found, of course, that Waugh did indeed travel around those parts, circa 1932, and even wrote two books about it.
Several of the details concerning Waugh in Melville’s novel were drawn from his travel memoir, Ninety Two Days. Members of Pauline Melville’s family appear as characters Waugh encounters on his travels. “Almost everyone of importance in the Rupununi has some ties with the Melville family,” he observes. I didn’t know that about Pauline Melville’s background, so it was interesting to learn something about her from Waugh.
In Melville’s book, Waugh is portrayed as an odd, curious man and as usually not comprehending what goes on under the surface of the Amerindian tribal cultures he encounters. Waugh portrays himself in much the same way in his travelogue. But with consistent wit, good humor, and insight. He complains hilariously; the title of his travelogue suggests he was counting the days until he could leave.
Waugh is a racist, and an apologist for colonialism. So be advised that reading this involves some reading between the lines. Even so he creates several sympathetic portraits of individuals of various races, and occasionally seems to be aware of his own blinders.
I was pleased to find that a Georgetown hotel and restaurant which Waugh praised still exists virtually unchanged. Cara Lodge remains a beautiful, breezy place to dine and relax (and smoke a cigar if you happen to have one). A book written 83 years ago gave me excellent advice on where to get dinner in Georgetown.
Once in Guyana, I ran across a book by Waugh in the American Embassy “library” (read: randomly donated assortment of books on a shelf in a hall). I selected A Handful of Dust not intending to further my Guyana reading project, but just to sample Waugh’s fiction. I anticipated a post-war novel set in England which is exactly what I got the first two-thirds of the way through. Then a principal character suddenly announces he’s off to Demerara (the Brits knew Guiana as the place from whence came their cherished Demerara sugar). And a funny but slightly clichéd novel ridiculing British social conventions suddenly became a roaring jungle-exploring adventure set in and around Guiana. The character’s travels take him through Georgetown, up the Corentyne River, and into the clutches of a Dickens-loving heart of darkness. It will suffice to say, he stays in the jungle longer than he planned (Being stuck in Guyana and trying to escape are major themes throughout the literature…Mmmm). Waugh is hilarious, but, once again, I found it hard to avoid the impression he relishes his racism.
The West Indies and the Spanish Main. Anthony Trollope. 1859.
Another work in the category of celebrated English novelist rambling about the colonies. I read only the chapter that recounts his two weeks in British Guiana. I intend to circle back and read the entire book. I would for no other reason than this is some excellent writing, and Trollope’s enjoyable personality and wry style of reporting reminds me of Mark Twain.
But I also think this is an essential piece of writing for understanding the Guyana one encounters today. Written only a few decades after the abolition of slavery in the British empire, Trollope grapples with the labor question facing sugar plantation owners. He is plainly aware that his account as a respected novelist will be considered by policy makers; he even directly addresses the British parliament as a body, and presents his views as counter arguments to the Anti-Slavery Society who were at the time agitating for more labor protections for former slaves in British colonies and against the increased importation of more indentured servants whose presence kept low the cost of labor therefore adding to the woe of former slaves. Trollope’s racism is truly disgusting at times. All the more so because his ideas won the day and helped shape Guyana.
“The Coolies and Chinamen have aptitude in putting money together,” he says by way of contrast with the former slaves. “The love of money is a good and useful love,” he goes on, turning a Christian dictum on its head. “The Negroes as a class have not this aptitude. Consequently, they lie in the sun and eat yams.” Perfectly summing up his broader worldview, he says, “Money, like other loved objects – women for instance – should be sought for with honour, won with a clean conscience, and used with a free hand.” Pages later he says “the Negro” lacks the intellect to properly understand and practice the Christian religion. This very opinion from the guy who thinks the love of money is the root of all…good!
One additional observation that stands out as unusual about Trollope’s account: he loved the place. He truly and deeply adored British Guiana. He intended to retire there. To quote an excerpt:
When I settle out of England and take to the colonies for good and all, British Guiana shall be the land of my adoption. If I call it Demerara perhaps I shall be better understood. At home there are prejudices against it I know. They say it is a low, swampy, muddy strip of alluvial soil, infested with rattlesnakes, gallinippers, and mosquitoes as big as turkey-cocks…(and here he carries on hilariously with a long list of miseries, But)…There was never a land so ill spoken of – and never one that deserved it so little. All the above calumnies I contradict; and as I lived there a fortnight, – would it could have been a month! – I expect to be believed.
If there were but a snug Secretaryship vacant there – and these things in Demerara are very snug – how I would invoke the goddess of patronage; how I would nibble round the officials of the Colonial Office; how I would stir up my friends’ friends to write little notes to their friends! For Demerara is the Elysium of the Tropics – the one true and actual Utopia of the Caribbean seas – the Transatlantic Eden.
I’m finding it hard to leave off quoting, because he goes on and on, in finer detail, singing the praises of Demerara. But the longer I read the more I realized that what he admired about the place has nothing to do with the people who call it home. He admires how efficiently those same people have been exploited. He enjoys benefiting from the fruits of their uncompensated labor. He scoffs at the do-gooders of the Anti-Slavery Society in England for taking their cheap sugar for granted. And, importantly, he hoped his proposal for importing more indentured servants would preserve a colonial government he admiringly classified “a mild despotism, tempered by sugar.”
This book is long out of print and apparently rather rare, but also in the public domain and freely available as digitally scanned pages online.
Palace of the Peacock. Wilson Harris. 1960.
This is some heavy literature by a Guyanese author. Dense with symbolism, Creole idioms, and poetic descriptions of the places and people of Guyana, one would suppose I ought to love this. I do appreciate it, but to love a book, enjoyment must enter into the reading experience.
This is part of a larger work – The Guyana Quartet – which I own and may or may not get around to reading. For all its acclaim and seeming importance, this was a real slog for me.
Wilson Harris has also written a no less cryptic novel about the Jonestown Massacre which I find conceptually intriguing but I doubt enough so to break my rule about reading more books on the topic.
Corentyne Thunder. Edgar Mittelholzer. 1941.
Getting my hands on copies of Edgar Mittelholzer’s mostly out-of-print writing took some finesse and patience but was worth the effort. Mittelholzer is my favorite Guyanese author so far.
This particular book focuses on a poor East Indian dairy farmer and his daughters living near New Amsterdam in the part of Guyana that borders Suriname. The characters are beautifully vivid and humane. The writing is graceful and simple but with a unique style that feels rooted in the place and its people. I seem to encounter characters from this novel everywhere I look in Guyana; key elements of the plot are echoed daily by the always sordid and often grisly headlines of Guyana’s newspapers.
I had hoped to find the full catalog of Mittelholzer’s works readily available in the Guyana National Library. They do indeed own several of his titles. Unfortunately, the librarians keep Mittelholzer under lock and key. Along with most of their Caribbean literature collection, his books are for in-library use only.
(The library in Georgetown is a perfectly preserved fossil of a public library and I’m so glad to have it. Housed in a grand old Carnegie building, when one ascends into the library, the first sounds one hears upon entering is of multiple typewriters tapping away. A row of clerks are creating cataloging records on index cards. These are handed over to a line of pages who walk them over and file them appropriately in a beautiful, vintage card catalog cabinet and then return to the typists for the next card – a wonderful, old system. Moreover, the library is so well staffed – as are all the government offices here – one encounters a helpful staff person behind every desk and down every aisle. Despite their traditional methods of organization, they do offer computers to the public which, lacking internet in my house, I’ve had occasion to use.)
Papillon. Henri Charrière. 1969.
Another book about the struggle to escape the miseries of living in this part of the world. As noted above, this is not a book to read for detailed information about Guyana in particular. But, as one of my all-time favorites, it is, I think, a book to read.
On re-reading the passages that actually mention British Guiana, I found it noteworthy that although he didn’t spill a lot of ink over it, Charrière did live in Georgetown for some considerable length of time. His problems stemming from being a French convict were more or less at an end the moment he landed here having set foot on British soil. Going back to Paris was out. So he seems to have considered settling down here. Apparently he lingered long enough in British Guiana to try several business ventures: a restaurant in Georgetown, an apt-for-his-nickname venture collecting and exporting rare butterfly specimens, and, later, a strip club up-river in Mackinzie, a mining town since renamed Linden, now the second largest city in Guyana. Charrière might have given me at least a chapter on all of this, but alas he mentions these tantalizing details in the course of a passing sentence or two, adding that the strip club landed him in legal troubles and led to his daring flight by sea to Venezuela where he finally settled and became a citizen. So after escaping from the French penal system, he became a fugitive from the British empire as well.
Papillon’s little-documented adventures in Georgetown and up the Demerara might provide fun fodder for an independent research project and sequel novel to Papillon should Bradt fail to return my calls.
A Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge. John Gimlette. 2012.
A relatively recently published and serviceable if not amazing travel memoir, once read at a KC Royals game (see above). A Wild Coast includes accounts of the author’s travels in Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. The author goes to some out-of-the-way places including the remote and mostly overgrown Jonestown site in Guyana, an African village of escaped slaves in the Surinamese jungles, and the former penal colony island off the coast of French Guiana once home to Papillon.
Gimlette relied on Kirk Smock’s first edition Bradt guide to direct his travels in Guyana and wrote a friendly forward for Smock’s second edition.
The Lost World. Arthur Conan Doyle. 1914.
Guyana’s Mount Roraima, a mountainous, jungle-covered plateau surrounded by sheer cliffs, may have inspired the isolated, dinosaur-infested setting of this book written by the creator of Sherlock Holmes. If that seems a tenuous stretch for inclusion in a Guyana reading project, well, perhaps. But did I mention dinosaurs?
This is a great read, although one more book consistent with the theme of going into the jungle and having difficulty coming back out.
I do have a few remaining Guyanese authors on my short list. My wife has recommended Of Marriageable Age by Sharon Maas. I will definitely read more of Edgar Mittelholzer, and still need to read E.R. Braithwaite whose acclaimed 1959 novel, To Sir, With Love, was turned into a film starring Sydney Poitier.
However, now that I’m in Guyana, I’m reading less about Guyana. For that I can just go outside. I’m reading less in general and writing more.