Our Lady of Demerara

Written by Michael Mitchell for World Literature Today on

That's the way most of us are, glass-eyed. We only see the visible. It's the artist, the one who dreams oddly but whose waking life is an effort to clarify the dream, who knows the nature of the bird's particular livingness, even in its seeming dead state.

Kamau Brathwaite is said to have suggested that ""post-Wilson Harris"" would be a better category for assessing novels than postcolonial. By this reckoning, David Dabydeen's fifth novel is undoubtedly post-Harrisean. In terms both of subject-matter (a series of mesmerizing miniplots executed with deft artistry and a breathtaking sense of rhythm revolve around global philosophical concerns which set the novel apart from the more provincial English tradition) and of experimental technique, Dabydeen acknowledges the foundations laid by the older Guyanese master. This becomes clear in the sense of timelessness achieved by planting an allusive intertextual maze of interlocking and reflecting stories in which each selection both cancels and enriches the others.
The focal point of Our Lady of Demerara is the gift of a manuscript, a bundle of papers, by an Indian named Samaroo to a Coventry journalist, Lance Yardley. With the manuscript, Samaroo gives Yardley a lens, indicating that the way of reading is as important as the story; the second half of the novel then purports to be Lance's imaginative reconstruction of the manuscript, telling how a Catholic boy who has spent his childhood in an Irish monastery is taken to live in Coventry by his grandfather before being sent to British Guiana in 1914. The two halves exude quite different flavors but are interconnected at many points like entwined vines.
The first begins with a sordid description of Lance's cruises for Coventry prostitutes, his short-lived marriage to Elizabeth, posh descendant of a colonial planter and his indentured Indian servant, and the death of Lance's petty-criminal father. This part, narrated alternately by Lance and Elizabeth, culminates in a brutal murder and Lance's journey to the Guyanese rain forest in search of his ""Priest."" Until then, the novel appears to be a murder mystery with Lance as the chief suspect, set in a linear time frame with characters who veer toward condescending stereotypes. One clue that this is not so is the ubiquitous allusion to ""Jack and the Beanstalk,"" in which an exchange that seems like robbery provides access to a new world of danger and opportunity. For instance, one character swaps his car for seeds that sprout live fish.
The boy in the second part of the story comes under the influence of two priests, Father Wilson and Father Harris, bickering friends described as ""adversarial twins,"" and it is Father Harris who teaches the boy to glue broken eggshells together, ""fabricating a whole but taking care to leave a memory of the original in which the breakage can be seen."" The boy's stories, reminiscent of those told by Beckett's dying Malone, are luminous illustrations of a quest inspired by an absent Mother and impure Virgin veering between religious obedience and defiant assertion of the human imagination.