IS THIS WHY THEY DIG FOR GOLD?
“Going Home,” is a cold, hard look at the myth of El Dorado. In the story, the search for gold is as elusive for Englishmen with legal rights and massive, noisy machines as it at first appears to be for the group of native men. The narrative focuses on the things that motivate the search for gold, and makes its most important statement there.
“Why did I come?” That’s the question posed by the narrator at the beginning of the story. He answers, “A lot of other young men were doing it. It looked easy. You collected all your savings, you borrowed from your family and friends, you went into the bush and, in a year, you came back rich, able to afford gabardine and trouserine suits; and to drink White-Horse whiskey, and to go to the races at D’urban Park and place bets on horses without worrying about your next meal, and walk into the Woodbine with a beautiful red woman in tow. It was easy. Many had done it before.”
By the time you’re done reading the story, you wonder why anyone in his right mind would think those things are worth dying for. But of course those are the things—clothes, alcohol, entertainment, women—that have motivated many men in the history of Western civilization to seek riches.
The story’s absurdities / ironies underscore its points: the unsuccessful plundering by Englishmen with machinery...the natives who ignore the Englishmen’s failures and head off to plunder with their bare hands...the natives who risk their lives for ideals inherited from a colonial ideology that has created their false desire for those things in the first place…
Some of the pieces in the collection appear fragmented (Creighton deems them incomplete), but connecting the fragments can give a complete picture of the message conveyed.
“Photographs,” “Sonny Coming,” and “Sugrim, Patrick and Me,” can be read together as revisitations that attempt to right past wrongs. Those wrongs include a child who was made to feel inadequate, the mother who suffered along with that child, and Indians who were mistreated in the school system. Revisiting those injustices, and showing either the fall of the attackers, or the redemption of the persons unjustly treated—a son’s academic success, an Indian man’s position of power—brings the story of the human condition full circle. In that sense they are complete.
FIGHTING FOR THEIR MAN…
In “The Big Fight,” as in “Black Water” the story of the mistress is the center of focus. In “Black Water” the story is humorous and the female lover is married; in “The Big Fight,” two women battle over a man to whom neither is married. And there is an additional point of interest.
The story begins with the narrator’s observation that 19th Century British novelist Anthony Trollope once visited the quiet town in which the story takes place and felt as if Rip Van Winkle lived there and no one remembered to wake him up. The Trollope reference adds some significance to the story of women who quarrel and fight over a man, since some of Trollope’s female characters were women who exhibited characteristics outside the normal expectations of Victorian women.
The fight between the two women brings infamy to the quiet town, and is given the titles “niggeryard story,” The Rumshop Romeo,” and “Women at War” by observers and the press. But I remain uncertain whether or not their fight is truly outside the norm of behavior for women of that period. It may have been sensational because of where it occurred (a quiet town), but outside the norm of male / female relationships?…I really don’t know.
As in the case of the male lover in “Black Water,” the person (in this case persons) attempting to overturn or change the direction of the triangular relationship in “The Big Fight” is unsuccessful and is ridiculed. In both pieces, the story of the mistress is made comic, ridiculous, absurd, dangerous…anti-romantic.
Question I hope to answer one day: how has the story of the mistress (the other woman) been handled in Guyanese fiction? Right now, I wonder what precedes Bernard’s handling of the mistress in his fiction.
“The Dance” is another story about religious and other hypocrisy. This one, unlike the relationship between the narrator and Choker in the story of the same name is closer to the narrator’s home. One of the hypocrites in the story is the narrator’s father. The religious men (the narrator’s father and Brother Singh, who are good friends) organize a fund-raising dance, even though they believe dances are for sinners. The dance flops because people refuse to pay to enter.
But the narrator also points to a possibly deeper level of hypocrisy. Brother Singh is married to a Black woman. Regarding the couple, the narrator tells us “the village had never forgiven the Johnson girl for marrying a ‘coolie,’ as Bro. Singh was called behind his back. . .There were even sinister rumors that Sister Singh had learned to cook roti and curry. Dad had made dark threats over the consequences if mum ever tried to cook such heathenish food in his house.”
The narrator’s close relationship to the persons involved in the hypocrisy does two important things narratively. One, it legitimizes Choker’s experiences, adds veracity to the indictment in that story. Two, the young boy’s recognition of his father’s inconsistencies may suggest a generational change in attitudes.
WHO’S THE REAL HERO?
“The Visitation,” the last story in the collection, is another fragmented piece that appears to be more memorial, than story. It tells of a visit to the narrator’s village by “The Doctor,” and “Kabaka.” The story conveys the feeling of pride Guyanese had for the two “greatest men in the colony.” The one sour note is the narrator’s father who warns, “they were all communists and atheists and would lead the country into perdition and wickedness. . .that the two heroes would destroy the colony if they ever got hold of it from the British.”
The father’s sentiment is largely unsupported in the narrative. Most of what we get is the narrator’s sense of awe in being in the presence of greatness, and how good the men make them feel. There is one tiny moment of adult perspective from the narrator when he says, “a lot of what the Doctor said then would probably annoy me today but then it all felt good.” That moment however, does not interfere with the overwhelmingly positive feeling about the occasion.
The narrative ends with a note on Kabaka’s dismissal of the narrator’s father, who then fades into obscurity. This serves as more dismissal of the father’s sentiment. What’s more, if we see the father in “The Visitation” as the same father in “The Dance,” the validity of his sentiments is even further diminished. And on that note, the collection ends.
Going Home and Other Tales from Guyana gives rich insight to the following questions: What was the condition of native men’s lives in British Guiana? What did they long for? What successes did they have? What was the “failed” life like? How did they treat their women? What was the nature of their relationships with colonial institutions?
Like Hemingway, Bernard may well be recognized as a believable voice of his generation.
I thoroughly enjoyed the collection. I laughed, I learned, and I was moved. You would (be) too.
[Note: A little while back Mr. Bernard dropped me a line when someone alerted him that I was commenting on his book. I wonder if he could be persuaded to say something further about his writing. Does he plan on writing more fiction? What are his views about Guyanese readers at home and abroad?]