Popular literature is an important and substantial study. It is a genre whose international impact is astounding. This is in reference to published work – mostly novels, but including other disciplines – that appeal to a mass audience, belong to a popular tradition and/or uses narrative techniques or fictional quality to appeal to and delight readers.
The international impact of this genre of published work is beyond belief in terms of the millions of readers and billions of dollars, fame and fortune for its authors such as J K Rowling and Robert Ludlum. In Guyana there has been a modest corpus in terms of numbers of novels published over the past 25 years or thereabouts. It is steadily rather than rapidly growing but its own impact is capped by a reading public that is not quite so large.
Even when limited to novels, the field covers many types. We will limit ourselves here to the more sophisticated, those with a certain literary claim like the Bourne Trilogy or Harry Potter series. In looking at the Guyana corpus there is absolutely no interest in comparison with those, but an attempt to address the popular novels developed out of Guyana.
A number of them have appeared since the 1990s. Quite remarkable is The Return of the Half-Caste by Lewiz Alyan, exceedingly racy and sensational. Its captivating reach sweeps across the excitement of the spiritual, the supernatural, a surfeit of sex, a particular Amerindian world and the diamond mining industry in Guyana’s mysterious interior.
This was followed by a series by Roopnandan Singh – short novels of urban Indian life, mostly domestic, in Guyana. Eve and Wild Maami are two examples in this genre by Singh which delve into the tales of sexual intrigue, domestic conflicts and adventure. Characters challenge the norms of social life and moral behaviour, often creating sensation.
There are fictitious tales of coups d’etat in Guyana carried out either by a guerilla group as in the novel Coup D’Etat, or by factions of the military as in The February 23rd Coup. Coup D’Etat is more remotely fictionalised, although it does have recognisable echoes of a Guyana over-controlled by a dictatorial strongman, corrupt politics and its usual serving of sex. The February 23rd Coup is undisguised Guyana under the iron rule of President Burnham. Its author, Chetram Singh, produces one of those novels that go back to the Burnham era and resistance against the regime, this time among GDF officers. The other novel in Singh’s series is Flour Convoy, which targets the excesses, brutality and ruthlessness of the period in a novel of topical and popular appeal.
Another example of the genre is by a career journalist who also set the story among GDF officers in undisguised fashion. Beyond Revenge is by Godfrey Wray and follows the adventures of a young female GDF officer in a battle against her Chief of Staff. This novel goes out of its way to invoke sensational fiction, army scandals, shocking Roman Catholic secrets and corrupt hangovers from the Jonestown massacre. It is unrepentant, sensational fiction.
The popular Guyanese literature also goes over into other types of writing and publication. Just two examples of those are the works of Stephanie Bowry and Barrington Braithwaite. Bowry produces collections of stories drawn from the nation’s oral literature. They are fascinating tales, most of them collected over several years and narrated by Bowry in her own style. They move from the spiritual and supernatural through legendary crime stories to tales from Guyana’s interior.
Braithwaite uses the more novel medium of the comic book. He chooses this form of popular reading to tell stories mainly dominated by folklore, legend, myth and tradition. These include the The Jaguar series, the El Dorado heritage, Anancy, as well as the History of the Porkknockers and the fictitious adventures of the Mighty Itanami. Braithwaite’s is serious work of some weight, with which he informs his audience and entertains them with tales and facts that he has researched. He treats with history, culture and national heritage using a popular form to appeal to and reach wide general audiences.
This is not very far from the professed intentions of journalist and novelist of Guyanese origin, Rosalind Kilkenny McLymont in her latest fiction The Guyana Contract (2015). She acknowledges deep interest in Ludlum whose devices would have impressed themselves upon her, certainly evidenced by The Guyana Contract.
Clearly, the novel has an interest in portraying Guyana in several contexts. There is the historical, as the story moves from the 1980s, culminating more than a decade later but reflecting much about the politics and economy of the country in those periods. The narrative has a tendency to make an impression with its international reach – being set in Marseilles and Paris – but predominantly rooted in Guyana and the USA. It places Guyana among the giant international interests. Perhaps with traces of nationalism and patriotism, McLymont places a small developing nation as being highly regarded and being strategically pivotal, and even influential, in the ambitions of multinational corporations and in the boardrooms of big international business.
The novel delves into many issues concerning Guyana apart from politics, such as race, history, the economy, culture and crime. But its larger interests get to those almost as a sub-set of its dealings with international finance, a European crime ring, human trafficking, modern slavery, race in the USA, Wall Street affairs and big finance, multinationals and their dealings with third world countries, graft and Latin American crime. This is all delivered within a continuing frame of a love story and a tendency to positions of feminism. It is, however, a novel with clearly distinguished popular features in its structure, techniques and characteristics.
The plot surrounds a black American girl, a university business graduate, who goes off on a tour of Europe and dramatically escapes being captured and enslaved by a human trafficking gang. On her return home she is recruited and quickly rises to the high echelons of a consultancy firm, one of the best on Wall Street. Her company seeks to nail down an extremely important contract with the government of Guyana which brings her into direct contact with local politics, Wall Street politics, and the international cocaine trade.
That same circle and cycle of events also brings her back in contact with the criminal ring from which she had escaped in France and face to face with the young man she thought was the architect behind it. This encounter fits the plot within a romantic frame as a popular love story while embroiled in intrigues of murder, the financial rat race and pits the moral fibre of one Caribbean nation against the failure of another, all placed in a post-colonial context.
While making positive statements about a black girl in America triumphing over racist patriarchy in the huge intimidating arena of big finance, it makes negative ones about a third world country suffering from post-colonial hangovers. The Guyanese government is strong, holds its independent position and makes a decision based on its own terms in the important contract against pressures from American financial interests and Latin American crime lords. The insecure Jamaican government on the other hand, rejects a contract with the consultancy firm because of neo-colonial self-contempt which causes them to be uncomfortable with a black woman handling their accounts. Jamaica is further humiliated by the vengeful retaliation of the powerful firm.
The novel is thus inconsistent in its post-colonial championship of developing countries maintaining independence and dignity against North American interests. Similarly, the strong, successful young black woman ends up a damsel in distress. This is quite inconsistent with the way she fights and forces her escape from abduction in Europe. She ends up somewhat reduced, down from her position of power and strength, to helpless vulnerability and needing to be rescued by her male knight in shining armour. That makes excellent copy for a love story, but not very convincing under feminist scrutiny.
The Guyana Contract, however, rises triumphantly over lengthy passages of description which occasionally have the reader wishing it would move on to the next point, to be masterful in its craft in which the very meticulous detailed descriptions capture important aids to characterisation, motivation and sensitive pointers of plot and atmosphere. The techniques of the popular novel serve it excellently.
McLymont manages a sustained discussion of the errors of Guyana’s dismantling of its railroad system in fairly unobtrusive fashion. While one may guess that the author does see it as an error she succeeds in proceeding regardless with the integrity of her plot. A struggle is sustained as to whether the government will decide to accept a new infrastructure based on air transportation.
Suspense is a major weapon wielded with skill by the author. McLymont is a journalist and editor with considerable experience in covering the factual and in contact with business and finance. She draws a great deal on her own experiences and manages well to balance autobiography with fictional story-telling. She does not always achieve fidelity and is inconsistent in what she decides to represent as pure fiction as against what she presents as social realism.
But she never falters as the intricate craftsman of an intriguing tale. The Guyana Contract engages in a good deal of nostalgia from a writer in exile with a story about Guyana. But it communicates the politics, the social realism and the economics in good balance with the fantastic, the sensational and the romantic. McLymont is an effective narrator and weaves a tale of boardrooms and cities in a matrix of the suspenseful devices of the popular literature of Guyana.
It is a thriller that definitely deserves to be read with satisfying rewards to the reader.