Stabroek News

Review of Aftermath of Empire by Ameena Gafoor

By Alim Hosein

The institution of the Guyana Prize for Literature more than 30 years ago has helped enormously in giving credence to the concept of Guyanese Literature. The Guyana Prize has inspired a sizeable body of new writing which continues to grow. But this has not been matched by a parallel body of criticism. While much critical work is being done at the University of Guyana and elsewhere, the publication and availability of such criticism is lacking. Much of it is presented at conferences, and is rarely published in books or journals, both in Guyana and abroad. Also, while there have been scholarly volumes on writers such as Martin Carter and Edgar Mittelholzer, there has not been much focused attention on single writers and volumes being published on one writer. The reading public therefore does not see much sustained critical examinations of emergent Guyanese writers and even our old masters. 

Ameena Gafoor’s Aftermath of Empire The Novels of Roy A. K. Heath is therefore timely and welcome in more than one way. First, it is a body of work by a local researcher, and this is always welcome, in any country in the world. Second, it helps to fill the space in published criticism of Guyanese literature mentioned above. Third, it is a single, sustained examination of one writer, which promises rich discussion. Fourth, this kind of publication causes the readership to sit up and take notice, and so it opens up the author’s works to those who might have missed it or passed it by. Fifth, it stimulates further scholarship, and provides the basis for such.

This is not the first time that Gafoor has contributed to Guyanese and West Indian scholarship in a major way. She does this in ‘The Arts Forum,’ which she established in 2002. She also founded, edits and manages The Arts Journal, a major scholarly publication, which has produced 12 volumes of new writings, criticisms, histories, reviews and more since its inception in 2004. She has been occupied with research on Heath for some time, and Aftermath is one of the products of this engagement.

Aftermath is well-presented book. Its cover features a painting – Kali’s Necklace – by Bernadette Persaud, a distinguished national artist. Persaud has also had a long and productive association with Gafoor in promoting art and culture through The Arts Forum and The Arts Journal.  Aftermath comes from a reputable academic publisher who happens to be from right here in the Caribbean. It is a substantial work of nine chapters, amounting to over 250 pages, and this includes copious and useful notes, an appendix and a bibliography. After the “Preface”, the “Introduction” and first chapter provide a useful background to Heath. The next chapter deals with Heath’s first three novels – his trilogy – as a group. The subsequent novels are thereafter dealt with in their chronological sequence. 

The name of the book locates Heath both historically and thematically. Historically, it places him and his work in Guyana’s pre-and post-independence era.

Thematically, the title evokes thoughts about outcomes, consequences, and effects, and ironically suggests the devastation wreaked by the powerful. All of these ideas are substantiated in Gafoor’s analysis of Heath’s novels.

Heath has been recognized as an excellent writer and thinker. He has been included in a number of surveys, including 50 Caribbean Writers (1986), the Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora (2008) and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2012), and he was selected to deliver the Eighth Edgar Mittelholzer Lecture in 1983. But it is Gafoor’s major argument that Heath has not received proper critical attention, and moreover, that there are major deficiencies in the criticisms of his writing. She argues and demonstrates this in her “Introduction,” where she says “…the general weakness of the existing body of criticism, its piecemeal and sporadic nature” (p. 17); the harsh comments about Heath’s writing, such as his supposed “technical misjudgments and clumsy writing” and “ungainly style” (p. 15) and the narrow social interpretation of Heath’s work – can be noted. Addressing such concerns is the primary driving force behind Aftermath, and this provides the book’s justification.

Gafoor takes particular issue with the social reading of Heath’s novels and sets out to deepen the critical response to them. Her alternative critical position introduces a critique of scholarship – she persuasively shows that reading Heath’s novels as stories about “man and society” limits appreciation of the “depth of psychological realism” (p. 11) and the “complexity of the human mind” (p. 10) which make his novels unique in West Indian writing. She therefore sets out to “broaden the scope of existing analysis beyond the simplistic thesis about environment…” (p. 12) and show that Heath was attempting to chart “…an alternative vision of renewal and regeneration of the individual and society” (p. 17). 

The piecemeal and sporadic critical response to Heath is illustrated in the body of critical work. Of the 75 published sources that Gafoor cites, most are reviews of From the Heat of the Day (11) and The Murderer (18), the only two of Heath’s nine novels to sustain the imagination of the critics, with reviews of them stretching from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. Most of the reviews are found in publications such as the Times Literary Supplement and British newspapers such as the Observer. As Gafoor summarises, “[t]he criticisms range from mere announcements to tenuous critical efforts to thoughtful assessments” (Note 35, p. 226-7). Even where the “thoughtful” scholarship exists, it falls short of doing justice to Heath’s work. One of the reasons might be the overwhelming number of critics who are foreign to Guyana or the Caribbean. Surprisingly, however, this is not the main reason since Gafoor shows that even highly-regarded Guyanese and Caribbean critics have failed to grasp the nature of Heath’s work. 

This critical deficit makes the Aftermath all the more interesting and important. By examining each novel in detail, Gafoor demonstrates that each work is a thoughtful and insightful examination of the “complexity of the human mind and human personality” (p. 10) and that together, they constitute a sustained meditation on Guyana. She convincingly shows the overall thematic coherence of Heath’s work, and she underlines this through her chapter titles. A Man Come Home and The Murderer are dealt with together under the theme: “The Novels of ‘Independence”; Kwaku and The Ministry of Hope illustrate the theme “Community in Chaos”. Titles of other chapters: “In search of Community” and “In Search of Self” illustrate and reflect further issues germane to Guyana’s independence and development. In summary, her analysis successfully opens a new perspective on Heath’s work, and therefore forces re-evaluation of his place in our intellectual tradition.   

Gafoor’s response to the harsh comments on Heath’s style and artistry is abundant but more indirect. She does so in a number of ways throughout the book, touching on various technical, developmental, artistic, and innovative elements of Heath’s writing. For example, she adduces samples to illustrate how seemingly innocent descriptions have deeper levels of meaning, such as the description of Agricola, which includes a “trench that ran along their street with its green moss-like growth” (p. 55) or ‘Gee the predator – “the crooked timber of humanity”’ (p. 125). She highlights the technical developments in his writing, such as his employment of a different style for Genetha (p. 85) in order to explore the female consciousness, and his technique for handling time (p. 59). She picks up trends in his work, for instance, identifying the character Fingers (Genetha) as the forerunner of other trickster figures in Heath’s fiction (p. 93). In these and other ways, Aftermath is rich with examples of Heath’s technical skill and artistic virtuosity.

The second interesting and important aspect of Aftermath is the critical approach Gafoor takes in order to accomplish the task she set herself. Her approach is that of exegesis. Derived from the Greek word for “interpretation”, exegesis involves “close reading”: expounding on the meaning and connections of a work through close examination of the actual text. This approach was deliberately chosen by Gafoor as the best way to establish Heath’s place in the literary canon: “the need for a close textual reading […] would allow one to judge whether Heath can claim a place within the Guyanese literary tradition and that of the Anglophone West Indies” (p. 17). She proffers support from Edward Said: “…a close reading of a literary text…will gradually locate the text in its time as part of a whole network of relationships…” (p. 17).  Further, this approach allows her to show the development of Heath’s ideas: “…we have chosen to conduct a textual analysis of the novels on a book-by-book basis…so that the trajectory of the writing can be more effectively traced” (p. 18). 

There are some limitations to the exegetic approach. First, it does not always allow in-depth analysis of a work. Second, there is the danger, especially when the exegesis involves more than one work, more so by the same author, of being repetitious. A third hazard is that of “telling the story”: having to repeat details about the narrative. Another issue is that close reading yields a welter of commentary about various aspects of a text, which keeps the reader moving from point to point. A little bit of each of these is unavoidably present in Aftermath. But overwhelmingly, the close reading mode has allowed Gafoor to accomplish her task of presenting a credible alternative reading of Heath and of establishing the coherence, quality and importance of his writing. This represents a substantial advance over much of the existing criticism on him.

A fifth jeopardy is that the close reading critic needs to be scrupulously honest and not import ideas into the work or stretch his or her interpretations. Finally, it goes without saying also that the exegetist must also be up to the task: he or she must possess the necessary perception and knowledge to open the works to the reader and do justice to the writer.  Gafoor does not fail on these counts. She recognizes some of these limitations and knows how far she is prepared to push them: “[e]ven though a close reading approach has been indicated, the work is informed by theoretical approaches to criticism without any self-conscious engagement of them” (p. 17). Her scholarship and grasp of Heath’s work are also impressive: she is also able to use a wealth of references – not only to literature, but also to politics, economics, development studies, sociology, history, psychology, literary criticism, feminism, religion, political science and more – to elucidate the penetration and profundity of Heath’s novels, and to establish their connectedness to Guyana and the Caribbean. A particularly rich instance of this occurs in her discussion of Kwaku and The Ministry of Hope (pp. 166-168). Additionally, her rich and copious notes and sources underline Gafoor’s deep engagement in her subject and her mastery of it.

There are a few instances where Gafoor falters. For example, she defines the actions of Ramjohn (One Generation) as “motiveless malignity” (p. 78) but yet goes on to advance reasons which can plausibly contradict her own summation of this character. Similarly, in discussing Ben (Orealla) she suggests that a character who is a thief, but also a newspaper columnist and cab-driver seems “out of synch” (148). But later in the same chapter, she supports Paul Binding’s contention that Heath possessed the genius for creating complex characters who reflect the “truth of mankind…that the self is multiple and defies labelling” (p. 153).

The charge about Heath’s strange writing and manipulation of his characters is hard to defend in the limited space and approach of Aftermath. For example, in relation to the forced marriage to a corpse in Kwaku, Gafoor’s comment is: “Although it is difficult to exhaust the meaning of this morbid development, the reader can be sure that this grotesque realism at least points to the irregularity of the social world that Heath is writing about” (p. 172). This proffers an interpretation of the episode but does not explain or justify its macabre nature. 

The close reading technique does not allow Gafoor to deal adequately with the artistic aspects of Heath’s writing. While, as mentioned before, she offers wide examples of his craft throughout Aftermath, one has to read through her analyses to gather these. Secondly, brief statements such as his “spare, dispassionate style” (p. 116), “Heath’s narrative style in the trilogy is deceptively simple, his dialogue spare and almost Pinteresque” (55), and perceptive statements such as “Heath’s technique for handling time in the trilogy bears directly on his vision of man’s alienation, inner despair and existential dread…” (p. 60) cry out for elucidation and discussion.

Similarly, Gafoor’s evidence of Heath’s redeeming vision has to be accumulated from brief statements among the welter of discussion on each novel. This aspect of Gafoor’s argument needs more latitude than it is allowed in Aftermath, since it is one of her main issues, and since the positivity of Heath’s vision is not easy to perceive (indeed, it is her claim that critics have failed to see it). In addition, statements such as “Even though Genetha culminates in human defeat and failed relationships, in betrayal and unmitigated loneliness, the reader is enriched by the experience, by the humanness of the antiheroine and by her courage in her pursuit of selfhood” (p. 106) are really projections that might not coincide with reality.  

The merit of exegesis is that it uncovers: it opens up the text and shows the hidden depths of what may seem to be simple surfaces. This is the most successful aspect and the greatest benefit of Gafoor’s work. Through her close reading, she uncovers the depth, richness and importance of Heath’s novels. It is impossible to come away from Aftermath without being impressed by Gafoor’s engagement with Heath’s writing and without agreeing that a reading of Heath is important to understanding Guyana’s development as a nation. This is a boon to scholarship and a tribute to Heath himself. Another valid reason for the close reading approach is the sheer lack of perception of the fore-mentioned criticisms of Heath’s work. It is as if the reviewers and critics have so palpably failed to see what Heath was trying to do, that Gafoor sets out to literally show them. She even includes a map of Guyana and a map of Georgetown.

Aftermath is a rich and dense book. Given the insufficiency of the criticism on Heath, it necessarily takes on a lot of work. Its driving premises, while starkly stated in this review, are complex and important. Its tremendous value is that it offers much for the reader to think about and explore further, even though it is an introductory study. Part of the success of the book is that it points to rich veins of ideas, artistry, issues, themes, propositions, and more for the student or researcher to mine. I think that Gafoor has succeeded in shifting the ground of Heath criticism: Aftermath will go a long way to changing the opinions of his work and his place in Guyanese and Caribbean literature. Hopefully also, new criticism would spring from this book, on Heath and on other deserving Guyanese writers, and also on Guyana’s pre- and post-independence condition. This vindicates Gafoor, her thesis and her book.