Amongst the eclectic accretion of books gracing the walls of Georgetown’s Jesuit presbytery is a splendid junky paperback called “Don’t Stop the Carnival” by Herman Wouk. I wish I was called Herman (Hermione?) Wouk. It must be very freeing.
This paperback is fronted with a wonderful retro-glam 1970’s photograph of a cocktail (glacé cherries! with Fresh Slices of Orange! in a champagne glass! caressed by harlot-red long nails! who could resist the delicious frisson of sin?). It proclaims itself “spiced with sex and tragedy”. An author with a moniker like Herman Wouk can gleefully cast his pearls with éclat into a pigswill plot. Glittering mischievously, almost buried in the gleeful mêlée of characters and plot twists, are some imaginative and sensible social theories.
This one is my favourite: “The West Indian is not exactly hostile to change, but he [sic] is not much inclined to believe in it. This comes from a piece of wisdom that his climate of eternal summer teaches him. It is that, under all the parade of human effort and noise, today is like yesterday, and tomorrow will be like today; that existence is a wheel of recurring patterns from which no-one escapes; that all anybody does in this life is live for a while and then die for good, without finding out much; and that therefore the idea is to take things easy and enjoy the passing time under the sun”.
It’s thought-provoking. Once I have got over my 21st century post-feminist itch at the lordly, rather colonialist reverberation of it, I wonder if he’s right. I ponder its relevance to Guyana.
He goes on immediately to burst another bubble: “The white people charging hopefully around the island hammering up hotels, laying out marinas, opening new banks, night clubs and gift shops, are to him merely a passing plague. They have come before and gone before”.
Over the last couple of weeks I have talked to several friends doing development work in Georgetown. My envy at their communications and resources and networking opportunities was quickly superseded by sympathy. The dogs are in their mangers. Where cooperation could be increasing their impact, competitiveness and territorialism are building distrust instead. There is a whiff of hostility in the air. We white people may not be hammering up hotels and laying out marinas, but how different do our new, 'developmental' projects look to Guyanese? There are some excellent, professional, committed, sincere white people working in Georgetown, but to my surprise many of them envy me, living and working at ‘the grassroots’, far from the partitioned and thinly suspicious air of Georgetown. Not being treated as ‘merely a passing plague’. Not even, I dare to think, being viewed that way by my community.
How humbling, to have the rug tugged out from under the sensible shoes of Development by a cocktail-hour comic thriller! I admire and envy Herman Wouk’s disregard. I think he got a great deal of cheeky enjoyment out of writing an airport paperback with a stronger theoretical underpinning than the nihilistic dullities provided by many post-doctoral battery bantams. National curriculum designers all over the globe should be patting him on the back for writing a truly differentiated novel. He invites you to ponder, or not, because he doesn’t give a toss either way. He gets away with it because it’s utterly non-sanctimonious. What a refreshing challenge!