From the first delightful story to the last in the collection of 12, Deryck Bernard's Going Home and Other Tales from Guyana gives us memorable characters who intrude on the manners and pretensions of British Guiana's society. The stories are tersely written, and involve themes, relationships, and confrontations that explore and reveal insight to the complex human condition—in much the same way as Hemingway's (one of Bernard's writing influences) stories do.
To do the collection justice, a summary of each tale’s contribution to the whole is certainly worth my writing time (and likewise, your reading time :). Because it’s lengthy, I am posting in two parts.
“Ben,” the first in the collection, begins with the description of an aunt Hildred who disapproves of much of the social indulgences around her. She disapproves of dances, parties, cricket and football on Sundays, and calypso, and only approves of church and manners. The young narrator is sent to live with her presumably to be taught manners that his fun-loving, disreputable mother can’t teach him. The most important lessons he learns however, come from his observations of Ben, a bawdy, sort of vagrant character with contemptible manners who his aunt surprisingly likes.
As the narrative progresses, two important revelations are made: Ben reveals a once-celebrated, sensitive, artistically talented side, and the narrator discovers his aunt’s past romantic connection to Ben. The revelations provide an unexpected twist from what one might expect of the two characters—a narrative ploy Bernard uses several times in the collection.
Moreover, regarding a possible statement on the condition of British Guiana’s society, the revelations may indicate that the once romantic relationship between the arts and manners—a colonial English inheritance—is over, and in its place is a disconnected, perverse apparition of what once was. What is left appears to be both a repudiation of the past, as well as a distinct longing for it. Ben may no longer be seeking celebration and admiration for his artistry, but when he does perform, there is the sense of a return to past glory.
In “Black Water,” one of my favorites in the collection, a young man becomes enthralled with the married woman he’s sexually involved with, and envisions taking her away from her husband. When the husband’s presence intrudes on that vision, all the young man can do is escape.
The encounter between the lovers leads to a comic case of misinterpretation. He thinks her easy sexual compliance is a sign of her desire to escape her marriage, and he is willing to help her do so. I can’t help but think these lines must have driven home her disinterest in escaping with him: “I think Mr. Palmer [the husband] came back home. You better go through the window.”
In his efforts to escape, the young man is physically muddied, and the incident causes him to be ridiculed by his friends. But, the mud and stink wash off relatively easily with no remnants—probably like Hermia’s memories of him.
The young man’s desire for escape to America where he can hide his banditry (banditry = escape with another man’s wife) contains some irony: The young man is romantically idealistic in believing that in America he could transform, reinvent his illicit relationship with Hermia. America is also the place to which many desirous of escaping the hardships resulting from colonial banditry fled.
SSSSHH, HERE’S THE REAL SOURCE OF INSPIRATION…
The subject of “Big Joe” is a man with a “marvelous range of skills and careers,” who is the narrator’s childhood hero. Joe’s skills include town crier and grave digger. The young narrator aspires to be like Joe despite his grandmother’s disapproval of his “low ambitions.”
The connection between the town crier (whose historic role was to provide information to a largely illiterate community) and the narrator, who is academically promising but disillusioned, is significant.
In part, the young man’s state of disillusionment is described as such: “I hated school and the mimicry of Englishmen, and pretentious red people and tortured frustrated Blacks and Indians. . .I had no interest in becoming like all the others, licking the boots of the second-rate bores who ran our colony…” It’s important then that the town crier is the person who inspires him most. To the narrator, Joe’s fluidity, his ability to be all things he wants, must seem like freedom. So, Joe’s lecture to him about the town’s expectations of him resonates louder than his grandmother’s lecturing.
The lecture is a resounding narrative moment because it proclaims that the one who caters to the illiterate is the one who passes the torch (so to speak) to the new generation, who must go well beyond literacy.
As entertained as I was by “Bourda,” it was probably the most problematic (for me) in the collection. No, it wasn’t the demeaning talk about womenfolk, although that did make me cringe a little. (What Western woman wouldn’t be a little annoyed at male talk about having “womenfolk under control?”). What I found more problematic was the moment where the language leaden-ed the flow of the narrative.
Now the moment was rather brief—so brief it could well be forgiven (as a matter of fact, the story is so otherwise well written, it is forgivable). But, I pause to comment because I think it is a brief indication of what happens when (as critic Al Creighton theorizes) writers seek to memorialize and forget they are working within the constructs of fiction. Creighton wasn’t talking about Bernard’s writing, but read what he says here about Bernard and others in comparison.
Here’s what I’m talking about: In the midst of the narrative where the men are finally in the stands sharing food and liquor, you get this: “You cannot eat alone at cricket. You have to pass your bowl, flask, cake tin and anything else around your friends. Your friends would have brought friends and would pass your fried rice or roti to them. Of course, a friend of friends will pass you some of their food…” The attempt to formally explain or pay tribute is (I find) unnecessary because the men’s actions speak well enough for the ritual / tradition taking place.
THERE’S A SMELLY VAGRANT IN CHURCH…
In “Choker,” on the hand, as in most of the other stories, I find much to admire in the structure of language.
The formality of the language is creatively undercut by the roguish details of the narrative’s main character, Choker. He was once a cabinet-maker and musician who has fallen from grace, and is described as “never tidy or clean on any occasion.” After trying several businesses, Choker finds religion. In the poker-faced, formal description of Choker’s church experiences is the narrative’s successful aim and shot at organized religion.
At one church where he presents himself along with his huge bible, the narrator’s grandmother almost faints with shock. And, when he sits next to Mrs. Nutting, “a respected and prim matriarch of one of society’s notable light-skinned families,” it becomes the talking point for weeks.
The narrative’s most notable potshot however, is at the church’s vicar who doesn’t wait for Mrs. Nutting to complain, he immediately “beard[s] Choker with a long and complicated harangue about communicants and catechism and standards that [makes] no sense, and [becomes] more convoluted as the vicar [goes] on.” The vicar, after all, “[is] not a man of great intelligence or learning.”
At another church (St. Mary’s Roman Catholic), Choker’s reception was “at least more efficient. He was shepherded to a quiet corner, where he could do the least harm, and instructed by the priest that he needed to do many things to himself before he came back.”
And so it goes from church to church. His appearance, questions, and boredom with the liturgy and hymn singing is a disruptive menace in the Methodist Church, and to the “clap hand” church goers who at first appear to welcome him, he is secretly a smelly clown.
The very formal language used to tell the story of a disgraced (another vagrant character) man who is judged as an intrusion on mannerly, organized religious society succeeds in illustrating the absurd clashes between colonial institutions and attitudes, and natives.
[TO BE CONTINUED]