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Suspended Sentences

Written by Jan Lowe Shinebourne for Wasafiri on no date provided

At face value, this is a collection of conventional, prose fiction, the more so for being presented as such by a fictional editor whose persona the author, Mark McWatt, adopts or borrows, to present these stories, and who claims to be one of a group of Guyanese schoolboys from the late sixties, former pupils of St. Stanislaus College, one of two elite boys’ secondary schools (Queens College being the other), who once harboured literary ambitions (of which these stories are evidence and proof) but who have since left behind, the Guyana about which they wrote, and perhaps abandoned their literary dreams, and their colonial/postcolonial Guyana of old -- dreams and origins the fictional editor is reviving by having tracked down, edited and published their old stories. It's a structure complicated by its own organic paradoxes and contradictions that are easily missed by a non Guyanese reader because it runs the risk of occluding the very meanings it so brilliantly conceals and reveals simultaneously. Nevertheless, McWatt has boldly chosen to run this risk, as he confesses in the Preface, 'of writing a book of short stories, purportedly by different authors and within a narrative frame'. For 'a', read one narrative frame.

The singular narrative frame is maintained by the voice of the fictional editor, Mc Watt himself, who exists inside and outside the stories. Inside because he is author of the biographies of the writers, and purportedly shared their lives, having grown up in Georgetown (the capital of Guyana) with them, known their families, and gone to the same schools and university with them.

You might think this provides enough of a launching pad on which to secure a reader’s interest, a starting point from which to approach these stories as offering intimate glimpses into the lives of the Georgetown, Guyanese middle class and its intrigues of, class, race and colour rivalries, so well dramatized, even sensationalised in the fiction of Edgar Mittelholzer, a precursor of this younger generation of male Guyanese writers, though Mittelholzer grew up in New Amsterdam, Berbice with its more Church of England, Protestant, North European and Dutch influences, compared to Georgetown’s more Roman Catholic, Southern European influences(especially Portuguese).These layers of Guyanese origins and identity are conjured in the biographical notes McWatt presents, about the writers of these stories. The boys are variously of East Indian, Chinese, Portuguese, Amerindian, and European ethnic origins. However, to limit your interest in these stories merely to Guyanese small town family and society intrigues, is to limit the stories’ interest to mere gossip. McWatt, in choosing to give the collection one narrative structure, is pointing to something more powerful and important than this, that can expand the reader’s interest in Guyana. In the different voices of the writers that like a chorus find unity in McWatt's/the editor's voice, we experience a Guyana beyond the pettiness of social and political materialities. It’s a Guyana we've already met in Wilson Harris, Edgar Mittelholzer, and Martin Carter. Who are the literary antecedents of these young would-be writers of St. Stanislaus College, antecedents whose voices chorus in these stories, inasmuch as the young writers' voices chorus in McWatt's.

So, the narrative structure is a stylistic metaphor that speaks to us about the mysteries of a Guyanese literary heritage, which is a heritage of the mind, of psychic power that chimes with the power of the continental landscape that is the mother of such minds, the ability of the minds of its authors to speak simultaneously for the dead and the living with conviction, to translate the puzzles of the landscape and weather, to bridge the jungle and the city, the hinterland and the coastland, to rhyme with extremities of weather, of religions, and cultures the better to see beyond them, beyond colonial origins. There is a common, psychic vision that is remarkably shared by the schoolboy would-be writers, that mark them out as special Guyanese literary descendants that McWatt has, consciously or unconsciously, underscored, perhaps out of his own profound feeling for Guyanese literature, that makes this a special, historic collection, a bold statement by someone who is a critic, a poet and a fiction writer. We are used to Derek Walcott, V. S. Naipaul and Kamau Brathwaite, island writers if you like, theorizing about the nature of Caribbean literary creativity and their literary influences and heritage. Here, we have a Guyanese writer, not theorizing, but pointing to the nature of Guyanese literary influences and creativity in a Guyanese way, mysteriously, paradoxically, metaphorically, boldly revealing the Guyanese writer as sorcerer and magician harnessing the power of nature to literary vision. The story that's the best example of this in the collection is Victor Nunes' 'Afternoon without Tears', set in the rainy season on an island on the Essequibo River, In his fictional editorial guise, McWatt points out the influence of Wilson Harris in the story. The narrator in the story paddles a canoe through the rain, heading for The Purple Heart hotel on his way to Anna Regina, bypassing an Essequibo island called Charity that very much resembles Leguan Island. He paddles through rain and mist and meets on the way figures who are like ghostly apparitions who speak in exactly the language of such apparitions in a Harris novel like The Secret Ladder), and who are described in exact Harrisian terms: ''I felt at first they were easily dismissed as obscure tribal remnants, upon whose ancient shore and birthright had washed up, like flotsam, an unfathomable civilization''. The author of this story is Victor Nunes, the one the fictional editor, thinks is the brightest, most gifted of the young writers, the Head Boy who carries the legacy of Wilson Harris consciously, with his powerful sense of the hinterland and Guyanese archetypal legacies of ancestors who can be sensed only psychically, as ghosts lying in wait, buried among the elements, obscured by the jungle, wind and rain, contactable only in moments of epiphany that lift us out of the material into another zone. If 'Afternoon Without Tears' dialogues with the legacy of Wilson Harris, then 'The Bats of Love' must surely dialogue with the legacy of Edgar Mittelholzer. Its author is purportedly H.A.L. Seaforth, nicknamed 'Prince Hal', clearly a nod in the direction of Shakespeare, the meaning of which clarifies as the subject of the story unfolds and reveals itself to be the Hamlet figure Lloyd Cadogan, among the school friends, the one who committed suicide, and whose funeral opens the story. In his biographical notes, 'Prince Hal' is described as 'tall and dark with stately, aristocratic bearing'. Mittelholzer called his autobiography 'A Swarthy Boy', a reference to his status in his colour conscious family as the one with the darkest skin. St. Stanislaus College had the reputation of attracting the 'fair-skinned', especially white boys of Georgetown, particularly the sons of the well-off Portuguese, Roman Catholic community. The school was founded by a Polish Priest and named after a King of Poland. Against this background H.A.L. Seaforth, the author of 'The Bats of Love', would have been an outsider at St. Stanislaus, marginalized by his black sin, like Mittelholzer in his family. If we read Nunes story, Afternoon Without Tears for how easy or difficult it is to carry and transcend the masculine influence of Wilson Harris as a literary father by losing yourself to Mother Earth, I think we can read Seaforth's story as indicating how a young writer wrestles with Mittelholzer as literary father. The fictional editor reveals here his own name to be David Adams, and his occupation to be lecturer in English at the Cave Hill campus, like McWatt, and thus, himself steps out of the literary shadows to adopt the documentary historical voice Mittelholzer did in novels like his Kwayana trilogy. He reveals his very close friendship with Lloyd Cadogan to stretch from childhood (including the friendship between their families, in which the boundaries blurred between fussy, anglicized Victorian, sexually repressive mother figures who they shared for better or worse). Their friendship survives all the way to Leeds University in the sixties, where they share the experience of sexual awakening, and share the love of a South American fellow student, Elena, whose earthiness and sexual directness, is in stark contrast with the repressed frumpiness of their Guyanese mothers and aunts. 

If lifting the repression of ancestral memory by means of contacting the ghosts of the landscape is the gift of Wilson Harris in 'Afternoon Without Tears', then in 'The Bats of Love', clearly the gift of Mittelholzer is to lift the repression of love and sexuality. In this story, McWatt reveals a special feeling for Mittelholzer that takes us beyond his reputation as the writer of Guyanese race relations and bodice rippers like the Kwayana stories, and reveals the Mittelholzer persona and legacy as leaning most towards the articulation of a deeply sensitive masculine sensibility, preoccupied with restoring a lost innocence and trust to relations of friendship and love between men and between men and women. 'The Bats of Love' is about the love between two boys that survives from childhood to manhood but ends in the tragic suicide of one of them, the one who was the perfect student, who was gentle and did not need to prove his masculinity, who was beaten by female teachers. As students at Leeds University, they finally meet a woman, a South American poet, who, instead of smothering their masculinity, liberates it. I like the delicacy with which McWatt handles their excitement and enthusiasm for Elena, with subtle irony that deflates and negates pornographic expectation. It's customary for sex to be portrayed heavy-handedly (pun unintended) in Caribbean literature, exploited for its pornographic appeal, so McWatt's delicacy in this story is refreshing, and radical, in how he articulates the part played by men and women in modulating their femininity and masculinity to each other. How David and Hal articulate their masculinity to each other is as important as how they express it to women in determining their liberation from sexual repression. It's finally in the language of love that Elena initiates them, when they translate one of her poems in which she likens the male scrotum to a bat:

The skin o love is soft
To the touch, like a stretched wing
That brushes your cheek and fills the night
With fear and wonder

Not only the academic and literary, but the psychological education of the Guyanese male writer is the underlying theme of this collection. In this story, McWatt reveals it to be the subject closest to his heart.

This is a review of Suspended Sentences

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