Another life?

Jeremy Taylor on Our Lady of Demerara, by David Dabydeen; originally published in the Caribbean Review of Books

  • David Dabydeen

Our Lady of Demerara by David Dabydeen (Dido Press, ISBN 1-902-115-44-9, 278 pp)

David Dabydeen is a writer festooned with respect. Born in Guyana, he is professor of literary studies at the University of Warwick in England, a bastion of academic “Caribbean studies”. Three books of poetry (including Coolie Odyssey), four previous novels, and two volumes on Hogarth have won him a Commonwealth Poetry Prize, a Quiller-Couch Prize, a Guyana Prize, and various other competitive shortlistings. A watercolour by Derek Walcott graces the jacket of this new novel; on the back are rapturous comments on Dabydeen’s previous work from Hanif Kureishi and Penelope Lively, Anita Desai and Maya Angelou. The book is dedicated to Wilson Harris and Derek Walcott, who are both thanked for their support. Even Crufts could not produce a better pedigree.

Just what Our Lady of Demerara is about, on the other hand, is less easy to say.

There’s something about Guyana that nurtures mysticism; and there’s something in that mysticism that is profoundly ambiguous. Forest and river are felt to be enriching yet sinister, magnetic yet terrifying, regenerative but destructive; their spirits promise solace and tenderness, but rip your guts out. Readers of Wilson Harris are not always certain whether the books are too profound for comprehension or too dense to be readable.

David Dabydeen’s new novel shares something of the Harris mythology. It is essentially a novel about transformation — the possibility of sudden, radical, personal regeneration and rebirth. Catholic ideas about redemption and cleansing from sin are strongly present here; so are Hindu ideas about rebirth into different life forms. But the strongest suggestion is Arawak, about radical transformation even during one’s lifetime. The idea is constantly reinforced by the multiple voices that tell the story, and the emergence of new characters bearing the names of old ones.

Dabydeen has created a fairly obnoxious anti-hero as the subject for transformation. He is the drama critic on a local newspaper in the dreary English city of Coventry, and a “serial philanderer”, according to the blurb — more accurately, what you might call “a great prostitute man”, wittily named Lance. In the first, realistic part of the book — subtitled “Abortions (The Old Testament)” — Lance endures a brief and stormy marriage, the abortion of his child, and a dalliance with an Indian prostitute who is gruesomely murdered (by someone very much like Lance himself). Suddenly overcome with self-loathing, and by fear of police enquiries, he takes himself off to Guyana to cleanse himself of his wicked ways and invent a new narrative of his life. “I have come to Demerara to find the Priest in myself,” he writes piously to his ex-wife, “and so be cleansed of sex.”

“Of your sex,” he adds in a subsequent letter.

Why Guyana? Because his ex-wife was the descendant of a plantation dalliance there; because he had promised to take her on holiday there; and because a manuscript had come to him, the rough journal of a pious young man who had been sent there a century before to help one Father Jenkins in his attempts to convert the heathen Hindus and Amerindians. The journal, exuding innocence and goodness, begins to function as a spiritual guide.

Quite what happens to Lance in Guyana is unclear, partly because of the technical paraphernalia Dabydeen deploys to tell the story —?multiple voices, multilayered narrative, radical lurches back and forth in time — and partly because of the difficulty of knowing what to believe.

The site of the old Catholic mission is occupied by a hostel for pork-knockers, the legendary Guyanese gold-diggers, providing respite and sexual services. It is run by a somewhat decayed princely figure, Rajah, whose feeling for the natural world and the spirits just manages to temper his cynicism (“All-body here is foul. We is one spirit, no high or low, top or bottom, all is thief or abductor or bugger-man”). Rajah is also known as Manu, the name of the “magician” in Dabydeen’s long 1994 poem “Turner”, “who will teach / Us how to squeeze, drain, blend, boil the juices / Of herbs for medicines, or bandage the sprained / Foot of a chicken.”

Lance decides that his own cleansing — his becoming, his reincarnation — shall be accomplished by reworking the young priest-apprentice’s story, with himself in the central role. This he duly writes. He is last glimpsed in a place called Pillar, a mystic place of black rocks and treacherous currents and forest spirits. Here he unearths the skull of Fr Jenkins, slain by the Arawaks. Lance is in the company of an Amerindian woman who, we are told, is “wearing no undergarments”.

Lance’s self-serving manuscript forms the second part of the book — “Reincarnations (The New Testament)”. It brings into focus questions that have nagged the reader earlier. Lance’s sudden decision to quit Coventry for Demerara had seemed out of character but not impossible — this, after all, is the nature of startling transformations: they startle, and don’t have to be credible or comprehensible. But as he re-invents himself in the imaginary, virtuous persona of the long-dead priest-apprentice, all the reader has to go on is his own testimony. Lance is the only witness in his own defence, and automatically suspect.

His ex-wife, when she gets to read his manuscript, doesn’t buy the idea of transformation: “Anger swelled up in me as I read, anger in Lance’s draping himself in riddles and allegories, refusing to appear nakedly before me.” The question of whether Lance is now a genuine “struggler for wholeness and transfiguration” or merely a “born-again pagan” is left open, whether Dabydeen intends that or not; and the image of the Amerindian woman at Pillar, who has already been introduced as a sexual slave of the pork-knockers, does not smack of

Lance’s new narrative of himself is cast in poetic terms, rich in imagery and thought-sequences, teasingly attaching old names to new people as if to ask: what sort of transformation are we dealing with here? The reader is asked to accept at least the possibility that the self can be regenerated, “born anew and in multiplicity”; that “from fissure, crack, abortion and rupture” can emerge “utterly different redemptive conceptions of one’s self, as incomprehensible as the nature of the gods”. But it remains a possibility only.

Our Lady of Demerara continues the development of Dabydeen’s fiction into richer, denser, mystical territory. His creative imagination has long been stretched taut between England and Guyana, and he has been a penetrating and inventive writer on both. Disappearance (1993), for example, was based on the wonderful idea of a young Guyanese engineer hired to shore up the crumbling cliffs of post-colonial England’s south coast; A Harlot’s Progress (1999) imagined a life for a young black boy portrayed in a Hogarth engraving. He is an intriguing writer of formidable gifts, and he spans the psychic gulf between cultures and sensibilities as well as anyone.

But this new book seems to ask the reader to accept redemption on the basis of lyrical writing and Lance’s special pleading. The judgment of his ex-wife in England (“Lance’s run off with some whore in Demerara”) is just as plausible.


Reproduced with permission from the Caribbean Review of Books (CRB), November 2004. Copyright Media & Editorial Projects Ltd (MEP) and the CRB.