Caribbean Bookshelf (November/December 1997)

New books for and about the Caribbean

A Mouldy Destiny — Visiting Guyana’s Forbes Burnham

James W. Ramsahoye (Minerva Press, 1996; ISBN 1–86106–130–7)

Long after Forbes Burnham’s death Guyana is still recovering from his tyranny. Scourge of the middle-class and an intrusive controller of its major institutions, Burnham created social, political and economic rifts that refuse to go away. Nowhere are these more evident than in the decay of Guyana’s education system. Once the pride of regional educators, its schools are a deepening national shame: failure rates in all subjects have soared since the Burnham era. In this book, James Ramsahoye constructs a fictional dialogue between himself and Burnham’s ghost while attending the 150th celebration of the founding of Queen’s College — arguably Guyana’s finest secondary school. Cobbling together programmatic notes from Burnham’s writings (the title is a pun on Burnham’s A Destiny to Mould), Ramsahoye probes the Burnham legacy erratically, but fails to make sense of it. Amateurish prose, unforgivably bad doggerel and strange lapses of taste and judgement mar what could have been an interesting survey of Guyana’s darkest years. Instead, a self-serving and pretentious literary style soon exhausts all but the most indulgent reader. Ironically, the book’s failure is itself a poignant example of Guyana’s cultural emasculation at Burnham’s hands. One need only peep at Mittelholzer, Carter, Harris, even Carew, to see how far removed from even elementary literary competence this book is.

The Bounty

Derek Walcott (Faber and Faber, 1997; ISBN 0–374–11556–7)

If you felt a thrill at “the padded cavalry of the mouse” in Walcott’s earlyRuins of a Great House, you will savour this collection. Sensuous details are everywhere: “the fading morse of fireflies and crickets”; the glide and twitch of “New creatures ease from earth, nostrils nibbling air”; the “rustling archery” of sea palms; illustrated pigeons that “gurgle epigraphs/ for the next chapter”, and the image of standing “like an exclamation on a page of white ground” in a European winter. The title poem, an elegy for his mother Alix and the poet John Clare, arguably does for elegy what Omeros did for epic. Praising Walcott’s “enchantingly Ovidian wryness and sense of nostalgia,” no less an authority than Professor John Bayley has written that: “Elegy makers of the past would admire almost as a new variation on the form’s technique the way in which sorrow for his mother makes him hate the lines he is writing in her memory.” Elegant tinkering with traditional forms is Walcott’s trademark. At least thirty of the other thirty-seven in the volume poems hymn the Caribbean past that has shaped him, in enviably beautiful language: I am considering a syntax the colour of slate,/ with glints of quartz for occasional perceptions and/ winking mica for wit. There are moments when the diction feels overwrought, and lines narcissistically fine tuned — ever a sunspot of Walcott’s lyricism. But have no doubt about it, here is one of the century’s great poets writing at the height of his powers.

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