Comedowns

Susan Fromberg Schaeffer

  • Shadows round the Moon by Roy Heath
    Collins, 254 pp, £12.95, May 1990, ISBN 0 00 215584 2

A well-known author with reason to suspect people who arrive bearing gifts of extravagant praise likes to tell this story. An African woman who had just had a child saw someone approaching her hut intending to view her new infant and compliment it. The mother ran as fast as she could, hid the baby, and in its place substituted a stone, which she wrapped in the baby’s blanket. The guest arrived and proceeded to tell the mother what a beautiful baby she had and began making predictions about the wonderful destiny awaiting the infant. When the guest left, the mother loosened the blanket, unwrapped the stone, and found it shattered into little pieces.

This theme – that too much praise may be the next best thing to murder – has been taken up in America, where several books have recounted the miserable fate of the first novelist who meets with overwhelming success and then spends the rest of his life calamitously struggling to keep up with himself. But the fate of someone who is given too much too soon is more comfortable to contemplate than the destiny of the man who is given too little too late. I remember a graduation ceremony when I was put in charge of Isaac Bashevis Singer, who was to receive an honorary degree. It was raining and my sole responsibility was to keep the almost-octogenerian Nobel Prize-winner dry. But Singer took it into his head to take an un-crowded route to the dining-room, and I shepherded him, his wife and two friends through the pouring rain. We arrived soaking wet. As we walked, I asked Mrs Singer how she was bearing up under this cloudburst of attention. ‘Oh, it’s very nice,’ she said. ‘Of course, we are too old to enjoy it.’

I think of Mrs Singer, and not of the African woman whose stone baby was shattered, whenever I contemplate the achievement of Roy Heath’s eight novels. Heath, a Guyanese writer, has now produced a remarkable body of work yet is still unknown in America. He is virtually unknown in Britain, where he has lived and written for the last twenty years – in spite of having won the Guardian’s fiction prize for his novel The Murderer, and in spite of years of excellent reviews. How he has continued to thrive in the face of an indifference that is probably more bitter to experience than outright rejection is a mystery. This endurance raises questions about the origins and nature of a talent at once inescapable to the author and unrecognised by the public, questions more interesting than those posed by the life of a Margaret Mitchell, who, after Gone with the Wind, found herself overwhelmed by the force of her own celebrity.

Roy Heath’s novels are unlike any I have ever read. British reviewers have called them exotic, and they are exotic, although not because of their unfamiliar settings (all of them are set in British Guyana) or the extravagant behaviour of the characters who inhabit the world Heath creates. What makes these novels exotic – and intoxicating – is how wonderfully they accomplish what the Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky said all art must do: they make new rather than merely making known. Roy Heath’s world is no more exotic than that of Franz Kafka, but it is no less exotic, either. After some acquaintance with Heath’s characters, the reader finds them not in the least strange, but so familiar as to be frightening, so that everything we know to be true of them – their sudden plunges into lunacy, their tendency to take a step and find that the ground beneath them is no longer solid – we come to suspect is also true of ourselves. Our view of ourselves is made new, is changed, by reading Roy Heath. His work is the best illustration I know of the axiom which holds that in order to be universal a character must first be portrayed in all his unique, even eccentric specificity. The shock of Heath’s work – and it is a shock – comes, when we realise, not how different we are from his Guyanese, but that we are identical with them. Here is Mrs Singh, the Shadow Bride of the novel of the same title, a woman obsessed by her only son: ‘Mrs Singh broke off in the middle of her tirade ... astonished by her conduct, by the realisation after all these years, that her husband was really dead, by all that had befallen her since her marriage as if it had happened to someone else and she had just heard tell of it.’ Heath’s beautiful yet simple language is the instrument which allows him to obliterate all difference between the reader and his characters. And he observes with such profound understanding that gratitude seems the only response.

Heath’s Guyanese are middle-class people who live in a universe where ‘coming down in the world is a kind of death,’ and where the constant struggle is to avoid ‘destitution, the nightmare of middle-class expectations’. They are not only confined by a class structure inherited from Colonial times: they are also confined, if not driven mad, by their internalisation of this structure. Prejudices that were once foreign, if not ridiculous, have come to dominate their consciousness. Heath writes of himself in the present book:

Prejudices pile up like solid crockery, tiny prejudices so small as to challenge awareness; large prejudices that weigh one down, like the old woman the young man was obliged to carry on his back the rest of his life. Prejudices, false assumptions that nestle in the mind and pass for independent thoughts, began to worry the growing awareness of my early teens. A family that ate from enamel plates and drank from enamel cups could not be regarded as ‘decent’ ... There was the prejudice of colour, perhaps the most corrosive and degrading of all.

The tragic consequences of a class-ridden society is Heath’s great theme, but the bedrock of his work is his frightening belief that man is not free: not free to behave as he wishes, not free to understand reality. Only in extravagant behaviour, in ruin, in madness, in drunkenness, in a life in the bush where society’s rules do not apply, is freedom, or an illusion of freedom, to be found. That the freedom produced by deviant behaviour may be no more than an illusion is the most bitter irony of all. Finally, nothing can be known absolutely. As his self-made priest, the barbershop ‘Minister’ of Georgetown, once told him, ‘human society was heading for a system that would strongly resemble the beehive, when the word pleasure would disappear from our vocabulary, a recent arrival anyway. Just as free will was a vanishing concept in philosophy, so pleasure would recede into the limbo of abandoned expectations. I believe that what excited me most about the Minister’s views was the implication that concepts, even feelings, were relative.’

His fiction fascinates as folk tales do where the air of inevitability and the air of surprise so paradoxically and delightfully co-exist. The rules which govern Heath’s world, like the rules which govern folk tales, are felt to be clear. His characters seem to revolve less around a cluster of ideas than around a set of axioms that govern his fictional world as firmly as the laws of physics govern the world in which we daily walk about. If at times one rebels and thinks that the characters need not end as badly as they do, one also somehow believes that only a tragic end will suit them. In the folk tale, danger that can lead to catastrophe is often represented by the dragon. In Heath’s world, class structure is one dragon; the desire to be free is another.

The trilogy of the Armstrong family – From the Heat of the Day, One Generation and Genetha – is Heath’s masterpiece. The entire family is doomed from the instant their lower-class father successfully courts their upper-class mother. It comes to seem inevitable that they must, one by one, be brought low by the spectre of class-consciousness. We finish the trilogy with the sense that the characters, fully developed and well-differentiated, are somehow invariable, that, questions of sex or wealth or mental health aside, they are all the same. We are, I think, in the presence of a tragic modern folk tale.

In From the Heat of the Day, Mr Armstrong marries a woman whose status is greater than his. Humiliated by her superiority and by her family’s treatment of him, he will torment his wife for having stooped to marry him. His wife, out of love for him and her children, as well as out of fear of destitution and disgrace, will submit to him, allowing herself to be driven into madness, and will die because of her husband’s neglect. The children, who love their mother, take her side and, after her death, their love for their father is overwhelmed by their resentment and contempt for him. Deprived of the wife he so mistreated, Armstrong finds he can barely live without her, and is left standing in the wreckage he has brought about.

The second novel in the trilogy, One Generation, follows the life of the Armstrong son, Boyie. He has pondered the debris of his parents’ marriage, and when he falls in love he seems to avoid the mistakes his father made. He falls in love with Indrani, a young Indian woman whose social standing is considerably lower than his own. Yet Indrani is inescapably above him in that she is for ever out of reach, being married and watched over by her husband’s strict and vengeful family. Near the end of One Generation, Boyie and Indrani are both murdered, not, as one might have expected, by her husband, but by an employee Boyie has snubbed. He is murdered by a man he has humiliated, as his mother has humiliated his father. And it is of the greatest significance that the murderer is never caught, much less suspected.

Genetha is the third act in Heath’s tragedy of class. Boyie’s sister, Genetha, takes up with a friend of his who is far beneath her. This man grows to resent her for her superiority. Yet the more he resents her, the more obsessed with him she becomes. Her story repeats the pattern of her mother’s: helpless because of her passion for this man, she signs over her house to him and he wastes no time in moving in his own family and throwing her out. She suffers a breakdown, loses her job and drifts into prostitution. Esther, an ex-servant of the family, eventually finds space for her in her brothel. She does so out of remembered affection coloured by her need to humiliate the girl and to demonstrate how life has turned the tables: ‘The servant was now the mistress, the former mistress’ daughter a dependent friend with a room on the upper floor and, for the succession of girls who came and went, an obscure connection with Esther’s past.’

Heath’s autobiography, Shadows round the Moon, depicts a childhood almost hallucinatory in its intensity. He charts the growth of an individual consciousness from its first flares and flashes through its awakening to an awareness of status, separateness and death. The memoir begins with his earliest memories and ends with his decision to leave for England. Shadows round the Moon relentlessly pursues the notion that a people can be free in law but not in mind. In order to avoid disease and destitution, his mother brings the family to live in Georgetown with his Aunt Anna, a woman Mrs Heath despises for being in business. The aunt responds by embarking on a malevolent persecution that soon verges on madness. When visitors come, she unscrews all the light-bulbs so that conversation must take place in the dark. She insists that Heath’s family confine itself to one unlit room and when Mrs Heath attempts to leave, she attacks her. It is only when Mrs Heath’s father comes to Aunt Anna’s house that the aunt is cowed – presumably by the old man’s special standing – and the mother is allowed to escape.

But Sonny, Heath’s admired older brother, is not to escape. Sent away by his widowed, financially harassed mother, he has lived with his grandfather and his grandfather’s second wife. When his grandfather dies, his widow has no further interest in the child. Sonny returns to his mother’s home, where, one day, Heath finds him walking in circles under the house. This is the beginning of a breakdown that will lead to an asylum.

Events come to mind, like a pack of illuminated cards which can be read singly and present a record of disaster, disregarding the narrative convention of time ... [My mother] arrives home, pushing her bicycle before her. Sonny and his friends are playing cricket with a hard ball. They all stop as she comes through the gate. Then, without warning, Sonny throws the ball at her. It misses her head by a few inches and there is a great void in the afternoon ... Sonny appears at my primary school during the midday break, bearing a photograph of himself when a small boy. He seeks out Aunt Edna, with whose family he had lived for so long. She refuses to receive him.

The pack of cards illuminates a terrible scenario. The mother, fearing destitution, sends the son away, and for this he never forgives her. Later, he returns to the home of his childhood bearing a picture of himself as a small boy, evidently hoping his Aunt Edna will recognise him as the same child who belongs to the house: but even then his aunt refuses to take him in. Now, returned to his immediate family, Sonny is like a stateless person, and Heath, his younger brother, becomes tormented by a recurrent dream in which Sonny accuses him of stealing from him. What he has stolen, although Heath never says so, is Sonny’s place in the family. His mother, who prefers to attribute Sonny’s breakdown to excessive reading, nevertheless seems to understand this when she says: ‘Sonny is the sacrificial lamb of the family’s well-being.’ His mother has stolen something as well. She has maintained her place in the world. But to keep her place she has had to abandon her child.

Many chapters read like small novels or sketches for novels and the memoir would be worth reading for these alone. There is, for example, the story of Sophie and her lover, who enjoy making one another jealous. She is found one day with her neck broken by this same lover. There is an account of the Forest Ranger, who lives half the time in town and half in the bush, and who invites Heath to accompany him into the interior during his two-week vacation. But first he takes Heath home to visit his wife, of whom the Forest Ranger claims to be terrified. Heath cannot understand the Forest Ranger’s terror of this diminutive woman, but he is soon seduced by her conversation, and shortly thereafter wakes up to find himself in her bed where she lies naked beside him. Against a friend’s advice, Heath goes into the bush with the Forest Ranger, who shows him a letter his wife has written him telling him of the affair. Heath is left contemplating the complexities of people’s emotional lives, and the intricacies of a marriage hopelessly complicated by prejudices of class and colour:

The Forest Ranger admitted to a lifelong feeling of being ugly in spite of constant reassurances to the contrary. Certain that his wife saw nothing in him and that she never forgave him for taking her off the shelf – he lost heart and tried desperately to please her, but without success. He saw their marriage go from bad to worse ... I had time to dwell on her perversity, for so often I had heard stories of light-skinned women who waited for a ‘suitable’ man to come along only to settle later for someone they would not otherwise have chosen. Nor was the Forest Ranger’s wife the first to turn her own fancied humiliation against a husband she appeared to welcome at the time of their courting.

Despite its many virtues, this memoir cannot begin to suggest the achievement or power of Roy Heath’s novels, nor should it be compared with them. Readers should turn first to Heath’s fiction: it is always best to come upon the puppeeter after having seen the puppet show. It should also be said that it is very difficult to quote effectively from Heath, whose effects build slowly and who avoids bravura writing.