Book: Once Upon a Time in the Corentyne
Author: Malcolm Alves
Critic: Glenville Ashby, PhD
Malcolm Alves’ dance with life is as spirited and artful as the swirling dervishes. Unbowed, Alves’ ‘ensemble’ trots through every nook and cranny of life with innocent abandon. They are young, authentic and credible. In them we see ourselves and the childhood we yearn to experience again, if only for a day.
These pubescent boys are unsettled by life’s most surprising curved balls. They are ‘Teflon’ even withstanding the drowning of their friend. By the day’s end they seem to have buried the tragedy as they anticipate a fun-filled summer vacation in Guyana’s remote parts. From New Amsterdam and Georgetown they descend on Number Nineteen Village, Corentyne, in Berbice.
With a leading and supporting cast of compelling characters, Alves has cleverly crafted a living stage where fantasies and dreams flourish. If only we could join this cast of Jasper, Spanner, Tarzan, Tillman, Barnie, Dillip, Coco and Squingee. The boys embrace Milo, the protagonist, who is charged with narrating their experiences. He is shrewd, even conniving, but overly sympathetic.
Alves constructs his tale around the boys’ sojourn in rustic Corentyne where they are fed tales of mythical snakes of incredulous strength that lurk the environs, and phantasmagorical beings, ghosts of the region’s colonial past. For sure, the imagination of country folk is intoxicating.
Overlapping the many moments of levity are vexing, stubborn social issues. Racism, religious tribalism, domestic violence and drunkenness will outlive the boys but, unlike adults, they are never enraged or mowed by humanity’s poisonous side, at least for the moment.
Still the tale of a poor farmer unsettles Milo, in particular. The boys attentively listen to the recount of a ghostly white man on horseback who promised to show the farmer the location of buried treasure if he returns alone. All ears, the boys learn the details: “His wife encouraged him to go the following day to see what he could get. The man was afraid, so the wife encouraged him to take her brother with him, but have him hide…After a while the white man came riding again but this time he was angry. […]”
The story ends with the horseman pursuing the frightened farmer whose body was later found by villagers. The jar of riches was never recovered. Is there a far more ominous, prophetic message behind this legend? Is poverty’s unending grip on even the most undeserving more pressing than we imagine?
Milo eventually shakes off his unease, his youthful exuberance never smothered for long. Soon we are reminded of child-like infatuations and forbidden rendezvousing. Milo falls hard for an inscrutable dirt-poor girl named Indira. In due time they share a kiss and Milo is expectedly smitten; but the denouement of this encounter he could have never imagined.
Throughout the narration there are generous servings of comic relief, from Jasper being duped into milking a bull, to a rampaging bull whose freedom was cut short, but not before Milo surprises himself with his sprinting and leaping prowess. He recalls, “Tarzan was supposed to be fast and some kind of athletics champion in Georgetown, but I was there with him with my ‘bad’ toe. I remember seeing the gate to Crandon’s yard coming up fast on the right and then it was drifting under me as I vaulted over it, landed in the yard without breaking a stride and bounding up the stairs. […]
Nocturnal trips to the outhouse and urinary and scatological chatter are dramatically eventful. But all good things come to an end, and this end will prove indelibly traumatic for Milo. Indira is brutally assaulted, raped and murdered. Milo is shattered, uncontrollable.
“It was not fair. We were supposed to meet after school when school reopened…My sorrow and gut wrenching grief was suddenly replaced with anger like I have never felt before.” When he learns the details of her slaughter his anger gave way to sorrow.
“She was not raped by one but a gang of drunkards. I began to crying again. I must have cried myself to sleep… when I awoke the sun had set and it was dark.”
Later, Milo abruptly alights from the bus before it could leave Corentyne en route to New Amsterdam. Overwhelmed with grief he makes his way to the Police Station. It is there that he unexpectedly sees bloody photos of Indira, her throat slit. He recalls the horror, “I must have gasped or screamed for the policemen turned suddenly and glared at me. Then everything went black.”
A vacation that began with exhilarating promise for young Milo ended in lasting despair. As this dark chapter ends, Alves pays homage to a life cut short. It reads: Dedicated to the Memory of Roshnie Pertab Singh, a.k.a. “Indira” – Raped and Murdered on June 6, 2006 at Number Nineteen Village, Corentyne, Berbice, Guyana. To this day, not a single person has been convicted for this horrendous crime.
Once Upon a Time in Corentyne by Michael Alves
Publisher: Malcolm Alves
Available at www.unitedstatesofthewestindies.com
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