Narrowing vision

By Charmaine Valere

Fictions, Volume 1, by Ruel Johnson
Janus Press, no ISBN, 98 pp

In the introduction to Fictions, his new book of stories, Ruel Johnson asserts: “I see Fictions as I saw Ariadne, as part of a necessary, incidental provincialism in Caribbean literature, writing that feeds in an un-self-conscious way on the experiences of the author living in this particular place, work in which lamentable exile does not somehow constitute a fuller life than that which exists here.” With that assertion, Johnson repeats his controversial vision of a narrower paradigm for classifying Caribbean literature. One may be inclined to then ask, what is Fictions’ contribution to this vision of the Caribbean writer’s place?

Ariadne and Other Stories, Johnson’s first collection of short stories, won the Guyana Prize for Literature (for best first book of fiction) in 2002. His work continues to show the strong influence of the styles of Borges and Nabokov, and Hemingway’s modernist manner of dialogue. But also evident are other more classical story forms, such as the fable, the biographical journal story, and the event-plot story. As in Ariadne, his key subjects continue to be the condition of Guyana, and the condition of men in Guyana. Five of the ten stories in Fictions contain points of interest, but are mostly unremarkable. The other five are worthy of highlighting.

Two journal stories (one biographical) chronicle the travels of the two types of Guyanese writer Johnson distinguishes in his introduction: the local, and the overseas. The former, in a story titled “CCLE, A Personal Journal,” is invited to a conference in Toronto shortly after winning the Guyana Prize. In his journaling, he confesses he has arrived at some level of international celebrity, but is not quite comfortable with introducing himself as “Ruel Johnson dot dot dot of the dot dot dot.” But the story makes its most important statement in this line: “I launch Ariadne & Other Stories . . . and all the rest followed.” Here, he defines his home — Guyana — as the centre of his writing. It is a place from which he can depart, but his departure is always as a result of his writing, which takes place in and from that centre.

The Guyanese writer who has made some place outside the Caribbean his home, however, is portrayed in antithesis to the home he once knew. In “The Aviary,” a temperature metaphor is used to illustrate the heat and chill of distance between the overseas-based writer and his former home. Visiting Guyana, he is awkward and out-of-place, and he becomes aware that he is no longer really wanted there: not by the woman who once desired his return, and certainly not by his recently deceased brother, who once sent him a message hoping (unsuccessfully) for political solidarity.

Recent readers of Johnson’s weblog, where he posted excerpts from these stories before the book was published, were privy to some of his angry airing-out as his marriage fell apart. And then a story of a crumbling marriage — “The Last Affair” — takes centre stage in Fictions. In “The Last Affair” the couple’s marriage, aided by infidelity and discontent, is headed towards a break-up. The story is an engaging mix of raw emotion and elegant, controlled prose, chronicling the break-up month by month. But though its keenly drawn characters are captivating, its violence, and the narrator’s explanation for it, are at least very disturbing. But maybe the most important message in the story is a moral one about infidelity.

Another story, “The Last Assassin”, casts the real-life Walter Rodney and William Gregory Smith — whose posthumously published account Assassination Cry of a Failed Revolution refutes the generally accepted belief that Rodney was assassinated — as hero and villain. What make the story notable are the shades of grey in which hero and villain are drawn. And the depiction of Rodney as a talking head who only gains “bits and pieces of brain” as Smith’s death vision is potentially a great talking point for the collection.

The final story, “Cumae”, may be the one with the most contemporary feel. Set in Georgetown, it is a tale of a group of young men on a night out in a part of the city known for its decadence: a place where the sons of corrupt, influential businessmen can meet to show off their extravagances and privileges, and denounce their corrupt inheritances; a place where they indulge in excesses and lawlessness. It is their modern-day heart of darkness. This heart of darkness, though, is not just an inheritance from their fathers; it is also an inheritance from the distant past when the area was once a brutal prison for slaves. The story, which includes “heroic” awakening moments for two of the young men, provides penetrating observations and commentary on some connections between Guyana’s past and present.

There is substance that will both delight (even elicit marvel) and disappoint in Fictions. Johnson’s range and depth of characters, his interrogation of cultural symbols and heroes, his celebration of the local artist for whom success in writing is attainable, make it worth the read, and help the collection give artistic definition to its author’s place — Guyana. Whether or not Fictions holds up under the glare of scrutiny invited by Johnson’s statements in the introduction — how it indeed contributes to his narrower vision of Caribbean literature — remains to be seen.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2008

Charmaine Valere is a literature adjunct professor at Bloomfield College in New Jersey. Born in Guyana, she writes about Guyanese and Caribbean literature at her blog, Signifyin’ Guyana.