Book Smart - Off to good start, by way of Guyana

Aug 14, 2007 at 5:48 pm

The Guyanese Wanderer: Stories
By Jan Carew. Sarabande Books; 107 pgs., $15.95.

The first book of a new series in Kentucky literature isn’t set in the bluegrass. Instead, this short-story collection is informed by the reflections of an author who has traveled the world and partaken and contributed to many art forms. Jan Carew has also been an exemplary teacher and participant in academia and the varied settings of social change, and this led him to be a Visiting Scholar at U of L and to eventually call Louisville home.

    “The Guyanese Wanderer” was recently issued by Sarabande Books as the inaugural edition of the Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature.

    The 10 stories include recurring characters who are presented in a dazzling array of perspectives. There is a general flow to the settings — which start at the meeting point of South America and the Caribbean, and end in the capitals of post-World War II Europe — that mirrors Carew’s travels up to the 1960s. The personal adventures are described with details that are finely drawn with an eye for sensuous detail and an ear for contemporary language. Reading the earlier stories is helped immensely by a glossary (which could have used more entries) for terms of regional features and samples of dialect and slang. The language shifts gradually until there are French phrases prominent in the last (Paris-set) story. Carew’s characters in the later stories are assimilating somewhat, but they also join anti-colonial organizations. The earlier stories among the Guyanese poor show plenty of the day-to-day limitations and outright dangers that cause people to rise up — but the delivery system for this subtext includes coming-of-age stories, rural capers where fruit thieves go up against plantation-hired strongmen, and more than one instance of magical realism. Even the mythological spidery trickster (here called Bra Anancy, but he’s shown up in other guises in various diaspora over centuries) takes the stage briefly in a tale that raises questions about how to deal with those who are propertied and demanding — when to tag along and support, and when to let them hang themselves.  

    Both major plotlines and small paragraph-long asides are brimming with humor and passion — and often turn on a dime from one to the other. A prime example is “Chantal,” which is named for a rural farmer who is ambitious and hardworking. But the very story itself is claimed, in a sheer act of will, by his wife, who flirts with another man and comes to realize why she would (and maybe should). “The Initiation of Belfon” is brought about by an older woman who foresees the university student’s struggle to break free of those who raised him but had not taught him how to truly take leave of them. Timeless struggles between men and women, between the covetous and the egalitarian, between the home-loving and those who drive themselves out … Carew can get a very full and thought-provoking array of inter- (and intra-) personal conflict going on with just a handful of pages. Add to this his penchant for sweaty realism of characters speaking in vernacular and the occasional passage of austere narrative omniscience, and the results are dense and kaleidoscopic like collaborative poems.

    But the author will not let the dazzle of his expressiveness hold attention until the stage goes dark — he clearly wants the reader to hear there is a reason the stories had to be told, for individual voices to be heard, but also for entire classes, as when the thief Ti-Zek visits a ritual insult upon a plantation owner’s cremation urn: “You had so much that from your housetop to the end of the sky a man couldn’t see all that was yours, and now all you can claim is enough earth to cover your blasted ashes. You had to leave all that land, and the money in the bank and the bad-mindedness to crush other people’s lives in your weak trembling hand.”

    From studies at Howard University and the Sorbonne to teaching at Princeton and Northwestern, and in the pages of plays and a considerable amount of nonfiction (an entire edition of the Race Relations Institute’s journal Race and Class was devoted to his appreciation), Jan Carew has lived as a distinctive and distinguished individual. His short-story collection makes for a promising start to this book series. Though Austin Clarke’s introduction includes some unnecessarily convoluted sentences, the observations are very good, and a rewarding experience is under way with this handsome paperback.

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