August 1, 2012 issue

Book Review

'Orealla' a feat of historical reconstruction

Roy Heath, Orealla, London, Allison and Busby Limited, 1984, pp.255
ISBN 0-85031-528-X

A review by Frank Birbalsingh

Orealla is the ninth of ten novels by Roy Heath (1926-2008) who was born in Guyana and, in 1950, moved to England where he remained for the rest of his life. Mostly set in Georgetown, Guyana's capital city, Heath's novels are so imbued with local sights, sounds, smells, speech and unique features of the landscape that they offer rare and penetrating insight into the history and culture of twentieth century Guyana. Since he was born in 1926 - about the same time as the action of Orealla - the novel remains a feat of historical reconstruction even if Heath's skill in reconstructing Guyanese social history is already well known from his other novels and from his masterly memoir Shadows Round the Moon (1990).
Although he is not the narrator, Benjamin or Ben, as he is known in the novel, dominates the action of Orealla which opens with his marriage to Tina and a separate relationship with Mabel who becomes mother of his three children. Strange how, in the midst of a Caribbean, colonial environment regulated by values of race, colour and class, someone like Ben who is from the black working class becomes a part-time journalist while holding a full-time job as a horse and carriage driver. Stranger still is Ben's restless and brooding nature which nurses a deep-seated eagerness to settle scores. This gradually comes out after Ben is arrested for trying to break into a home in a rich area of Georgetown. Instead of being sent to jail, Ben is assigned to work (and receive pay) as a live-in cabman for Thomas Schwartz: "a big man in the civil service responsible for the destruction of old currency notes."
Schwartz who is brown-skinned or "red" is called "Master" throughout the novel, and lives with his unnamed wife, known only as "mistress" in an opulent, Regent Street home which includes Edna the maid and a syphilitic tenant named Fatpork. This bare outline hints at a delicious irony in the author's view of the social prestige of the Schwartz family or the unjust and racist, colonial structure to which they belong. There is much gossip, for instance, of intrigue about the family's shady origins, and rumour about the decline of their fortunes when Mr. Schwartz gave: "his wife's brother money to avoid an embezzlement charge and suspension from the Civil Service."
Orealla focuses on a dramatic (psychological and tactical) contest between Ben and his employer who despises him for colour and classist reasons, and is constantly infuriated by Ben's gratuitous impudence. It all comes to a head when Schwartz's wife goes away on one of her periodic trips to visit her sister in New York and, accidentally, while he is climbing a ladder to do repairs on the house, Ben looks through a window and sees Schwartz in bed with his wife's best friend. Ben successfully blackmails Schwartz by threatening to tell his wife about his infidelity, and extracting a promise to increase his own pay and withdraw the rent charged for Ben's aboriginal friend Carl to stay in the Schwartz residence. Later, after Mrs. Schwartz dies, Ben loses this hold over Schwartz, and their contest ends in a rather melodramatic denouement with Ben shooting Schwartz and being sentenced to death.
But melodrama is merely a vehicle for the author's thoughts about his homeland. For instance, we cannot ignore the fact that, despite its title, the action of Heath's novel has almost no connection with Orealla, an aboriginal or indigenous village on the Guyana side of the Courantyne river that separates Guyana from Suriname. The chief connection is Ben's aboriginal friend Carl, a Macusi, who is dismissed as a mere buck-man in Georgetown, and plays a tenuous role as a vagrant wandering around a city which he: "hated with every fibre of his body;" for although Carl hankers after Georgetown whenever he is in Orealla, Ben claims that Carl's Orealla offers: "the security of the which there was no return from the terrors and beauty of this world." But Orealla is no Eden. At best it is a lost or doomed Eden: "Orealla was doomed to be trodden into extinction by the horsemen of progress." While it is not asserted as doctrine, the notion of fate or destiny - of events taking their own course, independent of human needs or preferences - is explicitly mooted more than once in the novel whose final lines describe Orealla as a place: "where Carl and his clan were holding out against the advance of an alien way of life, with the dead hand of its justice sanctifying a crime of appalling enormity." What more can be expected of a colonial society in which people: "respected nothing except outward appearances and the fetish of skin-tone!"
If ideas in Orealla imply a comprehensive Guyanese culture consisting of all ethnic groups including aboriginals, the language of the novel revels in idioms, images and expressions of speech that are either uniquely Guyanese or partly Caribbean, for example, "bischka" (a card game); "eye-turn" (feeling dazed); "bittle" (food); "gil" (a penny); "eye-pass (insult); and phrases such as: "he got two woman an' want to huff my man from me"; "the hum of voices sounded like a nest of marabuntas"; "she tumbled into adultery as a fly falls into a bowl of guava stew"; and "you just lie there like comoodie when he swallow bush pig." This is not to mention reproductions of threats and quarrels that are sheer music to the ears of Guyanese, and a description of Georgetown that is as evocative as anything Dickens ever wrote of London: "Georgetown itself with its inequalities, its prison, its avenues of jacaranda and flamboyant, its stretch of river and ocean, its fishing boats laid up in channels along stone jetties, its secret backyards, its sugar wharves... and administrative buildings conceived for permanence of an alien rule..."



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