Back in the 1930s when he was 27 or 28 yrs old, the world must have seemed a bleak place for a man of literary ambition; and Edgar Mittelholzer, then “totally unknown”, must have chosen to deal with that bleakness by putting aside his ambitions; perishing the thought of ever getting published, and writing just for the hell of it. After all, who would be interested in his characters – barefoot colonial labourers toiling in mud and rice fields on the Corentyne?
How could he make their narratives compelling to world readers? to local book lovers wedded to imported fiction? in a colony of botanical gardens but no bookstores? and no cultural group to award him a prize for trying?
Fast forward to 2003; walk into the Church Street bookstore, and there on the book shelves is Ariadne & Other Stories: Winner: Guyana Prize for Literature 2002, Best First Book of Fiction. Progress, if you need reminding, is as unstoppable as the May-June rains.
You might search the same bookshelves in vain for copies of Mittelholzer’s novels. They are out of print; hard to find; gone the way of the weatherbeaten logies at Diamond.
Mittelholzer, too, had hoped his first book would be a prize winner. The literature scholar Louis James, in his introduction to the Heinemann edition, tells us he had entered “the first thirty thousand words of Corentyne Thunder…in a publisher’s competition overseas.” Must have wrapped, sealed and mailed off it at the post office in New Amsterdam around 1936. Got it back – assuming they were generous enough to send it back – along with his 16th letter of rejection.
Ruel Johnson’s Ariadne was submitted in 2002, a year when the Prize committee announced that locally-based authors would be permitted to submit work in manuscript form. In other words, you could have stapled together your most inspired poems scribbled on napkins at the Palm Court Bar, they would have been given serious consideration. What charitable times we lived in then!
For readers still unfamiliar with the Mittelholzer prose flow & precision, here are sentences from Corentyne Thunder (1941) you could consider exemplary: “On the northern side of the road the wide canal of muddy water was waved like the back of an alligator, and one could smell the Corentyne rankness of it, the odour of fish and sherriga crabs, of mud and dead wild plants.” (p. 37)
Or take, for instance, this portrait of plantation worker intimacy done in Mittelholzer’s unadorned prose rhythms: “When they had slept and awakened he spoke to her in a quiet voice, his eyes looking into hers. He stroked her arm and kissed her and caressed her body everywhere. The day was without wind and the savannah a-tremble in the heat far away, and she felt very happy lying with him in the cool shadow of the mudhouse.”
And here, straining for stylistic heft, are sentences from young Johnson’s Ariadne (2002): “Silently, he cursed that sygian limboland between dreaming and waking; the inevitable, colourless river of unconsciousness that washed away the memory of dream-pain and dream-pleasure alike.” (p. 83) Like markers of cleverness & profundity, intended to catch the eye of any “dream-reader” or Prize juror, Johnson’s sentences sit on the page bloated with required reading.
Characters in Ariadne spend most of their time hanging about in Georgetown, talking and brooding. You get the sense they’re there as day labourers on the Johnson literary plantation. At night getting ready to make love, a character discovers his woman under sentences like this: “She purred another deep, guttural emission, as he entered her.” Even in bed the fellas can’t get away from the young author’s overseeing ego.
Here and there in the book, like portraits hung on the walls of his personal library, you come across references to authors Johnson considers inspiring: Derek Walcott, Gerald Manley Hopkins, W. Somerset Maugham, Martin Carter, Siegfried Sassoon, Mary Oliver, a Pulitzer prize-winning American poet; and someone named Gordon Lightfoot.
On an Acknowledgement page Johnson complains about the Caribbean’s “far-flung and fragmented geography, small population and increasing apathy towards literature.” (Mittelholzer, you imagine, might have had similar thoughts in his day, but didn’t see the need to beat that bony cow of truth on a blank page.) Since winning the Prize in 2002, not much has been heard or seen of Johnson’s “distinctive voice” outside of newspaper columns.
These points of comparison might feel like unkind jooks; in a fractured nation drained of modernizing skills young talent should be “encouraged”; but some truths are inescapable. Johnson’s prize-winning book is a 92 page booklet. It has been hyped as a local, not a diasporic, production (Printed Courtesy of Courts, Georgetown). The author is known for his pride in local residency. There are supportive blurbs from notable residents praising his “intelligence”, his “best young” potential.
Allowing for its first-book pretentiousness, Ariadne succeeds in showcasing its author as he tries out his prose tools and searches for a personal style. It is a compilation of notes, sketches, works in progress, comic book cartoons and poetry. 92 pages of itsy-bitsyness; fragments of unfinished business, the author too busy serving notice of great things to come. And it’s there on the shelves of the bookstore on Church Street. (Mittelholzer would have loved the bookstore.)
Back in 1998 the judges thought Gokarran Sukhdeo’s The Silver Lining also deserving of the award. In post-Prize statements he explained his book was written when he was 16 yrs, but put away; then sent off to the Prize committee when he was 38 yrs old. He shares this much with the once “totally unknown” Mittelholzer – the waiting, the flare-ups of doubt about the manuscript’s win ability.
Since his 1998 Prize, nothing has emerged from Sukhdeo apart from social commentary in newspaper columns. The Prize, it seems, offers no guarantee of long-term creative output. In a country of corroded institutions, where serious art like daily living often demands deep reserves of endurance and altered mental states, the modus operandi for success in writing would seem straightforward: gather your slim resources, take your Prize shot; then, with your toolkit escape elsewhere.
The Silver Lining at 184 pgs is a more substantial effort, certainly worthy of any committee’s consideration. Rearing to tell his story, Sukhdeo opens with a synopsis; then an inspirational Introduction for readers still hesitant. Once inside, however, you discover this is yet another book about “growing up” outside Georgetown back in the days; this time in the village of Patentia, “a little hamlet in the Wales Sugar Plantation” on the West Bank.
It is labelled a novel, but it’s more a documentary of what the author has witnessed or experienced as a young man: his village school days, the village “characters” (wise Uncle Panchi, cruel Fatboy, the Police Station Corporal); a village romance, family struggle, as when a mother who married at age 15 joins a weeding gang on the sugar plantation after her husband disappears; camping out in the bush with school buddies, and eating amazing meals: “That night they ate a hearty dinner of boiled as well as barbecued fish with guava soup and wild fruits for desserts, using the lotus leaves for plates and wooded spoons fashioned out of bamboo.” (p. 75)
The bonds and antipathies that develop in Sukhdeo’s small world are not so much “crafted” as explained. He wants you to read and be “informed”. There is information, in case you need it one day, on drainage systems and a West Bank road project; and how Canals Polder got its name. It is possible his village material offered much to remember fondly, but little else for the imagination to work with.
The writing grows urgent & didactic when the author (using “character” discussion or debate that would otherwise sound implausible) gives us his thoughts on issues that bothered him as a former resident: such as labour relations with the old Booker, Connell & Co., the importance of culture and family responsibility (Hindu), the pitfalls of capitalism & socialism, the National Service idea (terrible).
This village theme & territory, once considered “underrepresented” in our literature, has been explored more imaginatively by others with a mature grasp of the tools of fiction. Certainly, in Mittelholzer’s ground-breaking Corentyne Thunder. A sense of deja-written must have crossed the judges’ mind. It is tempting, therefore, to conclude that softhearted, enabling thoughts might have weighed in their decision-making. If that’s the case, then like debt forgiveness it casts a long shadow, obscuring inner deficits and fostering the illusion of achievement. And that might not be “good news” for Guyanese fiction.
The judges for the Prize, it should be pointed out, have been at times high-profile, high achievers from our university and from the diaspora, among them previous Prize winners like celebrities invited back. This has given rise to tension and unhappiness among local underachievers, as well as some race-based questioning of the fairness of the judging. To suggest there might be a lowering of the bar in years when Prize submissions are substandard, or just plain awful, would infuriate already disgruntled locals.
Be that as it may, like our shiny new (World Cup) Hotel & Stadium, the Guyana Prize for Literature is here to stay and will be open for business to awardees and judges, local and overseas, for years to come. Standards might be lowered, but they’re not entirely lost. For any plucky fresh talent, less worried these days about rejection, but wondering what to do, where to go with that first typescript, the paths to fame or shortlist glory in Guyana seem well lit, now that the worst have passed.
Ariadne & Other Stories: Ruel Johnson: Self-published: Georgetown, Guyana: 2003: 92 pgs.
The Silver Lining: Gokarran Sukhdeo: Self-published: New York, 1998: 184 pgs.