Edgar Mittelholzer

Guyana's Greatest Novelist (1909-1965)

Friday, February 17, 2006

Book Shelf

Corentyne Thunder

Enduring News From The Past

Posted January 11th. 2005

By Wyck Williams

Some books become classics because of their power to capture in a tour de force of writing the essence of a particular time and place. Think of V.S. Naipaul's House for Mr. Biswas, that dense portrait of colonial Trinidad; or Roger Mais' The Hills Were Joyful Together, the masterpiece of Jamaica yard fiction. A similar case could be made for Edgar Mittelholzer' Corentyne Thunder as a classic in its own right, the book that more than any other signals the birth of the novel in Guyana.

Back in those distant years popular perception of Essequibo cast it as the cinderella county, bush-plenty, teeming with rivers but neglected; Demerara was where our fledgling institutions engaged the colonial powers, where among ourselves we argued and fought our way to Independence. In Berbice county, amidst the sugar estates and rice fields, in the savannahs under blazing blue skies, our country folk were engaged in life-draining travails. Mittelholzer writes about their personal struggles with the land, with poverty, inertia, empty nights and forced concessions.

He wrote Corentyne Thunder in 1938 at the age of twenty nine. At the time he was living and working odd jobs in New Amsterdam. The manuscript was sent to England and had a perilous existence until finally it found a publisher in 1941. This information is from the fine introduction by the scholar Louis James when the book was published again in 1970. Louis James points out that at the time Mittelholzer was a total unknown. There he was a would-be writer wrapped up in the (self-) belief his novel would somehow, one day be published; "filling exercise book after exercise book" with his observations; his subject, Guyanese East Indians on the Corentyne.

Corentyne Thunder is out of print again but the firm realism of its prose, the author's accurate evocation of character and landscape might just permit it another incarnation.

One of its central characters is Ramgolall. "He was an East Indian who had arrived in British Guiana in 1898 as an immigrant indentured to a sugar estate. He had worked very hard. He had faithfully served out the period of his indenture, and now at sixty three years of age he minded cows on the savannah of the Corentyne coast, his own lord and guide." (p. 9) Mittelholzer's novel takes off from this point in history, from this "work-racked" body of a free man, now "his own lord and guide".

But the opening pages suggest another point of departure. Ramgolall is driving home his cows one day, "thin brown body naked save for a loin cloth". His wife who is with him stops suddenly, groaning in pain, "her breathing came in heavy gusts as though her soul were fatigued with the things of this life and wished to leave her body in gasp after gasp of wind." (p. 11).

It is an epiphanic moment many Guyanese would recognize, a man discovering his impermanence in an indifferent landscape, who will now look out on life as if he were alone in the world: "Ramgolall stood up in panic, looking all around him. He saw the cows, a group of moving spots, headed for their pen and getting smaller as they went. He could smell their dung mingled with the iodine in the air. He could see the tiny mud-house, with its dry palm-leaf roof, where he and Beena and Kattree lived. It stood far off, a mere speck." (p. 11)

Ramgolall discovers how inexorably like those high clouds in Guyana's skies life passes. His time of indenture will fade into insignificance. His children living on this earth will carry on without him, making what they will of incidents of the future. Making what they will, too, of his inheritance, the shillings he hoards in a canister; for "money coming in" gives Ramgolall an enormous sense of security.

Counterpointing Ramgolall is the other central character Big Man Weldon, a rich white cattle owner. His view of life is narrowly rapacious. He says at one point "The damned world wants reorganizing. That's what's wrong. Less talk about morality and religious myth and more simple, practical commonsense." (p. 92) His world view collides with the world of Ramgolall in a predictable way. He takes a liking to Ramgolall's eldest daughter (from his first marriage), a pretty East Indian, one of many Indian girls invited to the white Overseers' Quarters for sexual diversion.

With little protest from Ramgolall he lures her away from her mud-house home. Seizing the chance to escape a life of permanent deprivation she goes with him and becomes installed: "a healthy female slave whom [Weldon] brought into his house to satisfy his sexual needs and to reproduce his kind". (p. 94) Out of this common-law union come seven children but Big Man Weldon's great love and pride is in his eldest son Geoffrey (Ramgolall's grandson), a light-skinned young man who like his father is made of "stern stuff" (his other children he views as "mere animals: intelligent animals who had not yet emerged from the oblivion of their immaturity" (p.93)

Interplay between fathers and their willful offspring runs through the novel. Big Man Weldon's mixed-race son inherits his father's predilections. Tel pere, tel fils, he impregnates a young woman (his father arranges an abortion); he impregnates Ramgolall's daughter (he offers her hush-hush money). Born into privilege and Queens College educated, he hopes to win the Guiana scholarship and envisions a future far, far away from the Corentyne, on a trajectory that leads to cold England and academic laurels.

Ramgolall's daughters on the other hand, mired in poverty on the Corentyne and going nowhere, must worry about their prospects, about their father's hoarding of money and the limits it places on their threadbare lives. (As if to demonstrate what untried life possibilities exist away from their father's miserly habits, Ramgolall's son by another woman shows up midway through the novel. He owns a rice mill and property; he plans to marry with Christian, not Hindu rites - "it carry more influence in business"; his wife to-be subscribes to American magazines like True Romance, True Confession; he drives a dark-blue motor car).

Important to the book's structure is the turbulent stuff of Mittelholzer's life-breeding narrative: scenes of naiveté & seduction, pregnancy, talk of abortion, murder, courtroom drama arising from the murder (in which the oratory of dueling Guyanese lawyers almost overshadows the crime); scenes of everyday drudgery and muted desperation. And interbraided in all this - not as colourful backdrop, though here and there bits of prose embroidery seemed aimed at the overseas publisher's eye - is the external landscape: the black chimneys of Speyerfeld Estate, "white heat and sudden wild showers in the late afternoon", dead animals floating in canals, the grey waves crashing on No. 63 beach; jumbies, blue sakies and 'people waiting by the roadside'.

His prose emerged from direct contact with these fertile places. With no video/audio distractions back then he paid close attention to the life around him. He did not flaunt his knowledge of 'East Indian culture'. He strips away all that and shows us the ordinary humanity of men and women bound like destiny to the land. The reader is pulled in by writing that is spare and unsentimental in its explicitness, controlled and powerful in its reach into the Guyanese imagination.

Here, for instance, is Mittelholzer (in 1938) keeping his lines lean and tight: "Ramgolall parted the flour-bag curtain that hung in the doorway, and the dim light of dawn came in, making them all grey like clay-mud near the cow-pen gleaming dully after a shower of rain." "Rain go fall plenty today," said Kattree, blinking at the east. "Grey cloud pile up high." "'E might pass off," said Beena who thought of going aback with Jannee and preferred to be hopeful. "Wind go start blow soon as sun come up."

His characters are sentient, cramped beings. They rattle about in chains of superstition; sometimes they find cause to celebrate; left to themselves they grapple with post-indentureship and eke out lives on the periphery, far away from New Amsterdam, far removed from imperial calculations in Georgetown and London.

And always the grim sense that, despite or because of decisions taken in those far off places, very little will change in their personal lives. When Ramgolall dies, "cold and stiff and staring glassily at nothing", his daughter steps outside their mud house and looks around her. "The savannah still had its look of calm peace. The air still smelt rank with fish and cow-dung, and the breeze still brought with it's the strong refreshing odour of sea-weed and Corentyne mud."(p. 229). (Today's readers might find her cool response too neat and 'literary' a closure to the novel, but given the hard miseries Ramgolall imposed on his daughters the ending would seem appropriate.)

So what makes Corentyne Thunder the classic Guyanese novel? And why not the highly praised Palace of the Peacock (1960), for instance, with its impenetrable prose and thriving scholarship industry? And isn't this after all a matter of personal taste?

You could make the case this way: Mittelholzer's novel, were it made available today, would touch chords in many more readers from the general public. Its depiction of landscape (internal and external) offers insights into the Guyanese psyche: the colonial crucible in which our identities took form, the rippling effects down through generations.

Folk who grew up outside Georgetown would understand the intimate connection between estate and people, plantation and village; how our lives for better or worse have been shaped by these places with their English/Dutch names (and their affectionate Guyanese resonance). That bond between land and people was never stronger than in Berbice county, never more boldly depicted than in Corentyne Thunder. For those born after Independence Mittelholzer's novel has the verve to forge emotional links with the past, to broaden our understanding of a region traditionally identified with one ethnic group.

In Corentyne Thunder Mittelholzer has left us more than just a classic Guyanese novel. (You marvel at the faith he placed in his characters. He must have wondered at times: did anyone outside Guyana in 1938 care about these Corentyne folk? their at ease creole conversations? was anyone outside Guyana in 1938 even aware they existed?) We can learn again from him how to embrace the land where so many worked and died; and, if we aspire to write about it today, how to pay close attention.

Book Reviewed:

Corentyne Thunder: Edgar Mittelholzer: Heinemann, London (1970)

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