Book: Down In Demerara
Author: Mike Manson
Critic: Glenville Ashby, PhD
Mike Manson’s ‘Down in Demerara’ is storytelling at its best. Manson’s protagonist, Felix Radstock, is witty, self-deprecating and disarming, a sympathetic figure on a fact-finding mission in the South American country of Guyana. It is a place that oozes with potential and unrivaled natural beauty, and at the same time is reeling from a broken infrastructure, a shady underground economy and a sense of fatalism.
Manson’s drama unfolds in 1999 when the entire world is gripped by Y2K computer anxieties, a concern that is hardly shared by Guyana where already, nothing works.
Radstock, an economist, is contracted by the UK-based Department of Development Overseas (DoDo) to apply his Radstock Framework, a data model to assess the labour market by determining “supply and demand, skills and assessment of local prospects.”
The Englishman gets an in-depth look at a country on the brink of economic collapse, a country at the mercy of global economic forces. He learns that “the country’s bauxite is of high quality and the workforce is dedicated, but there is less demand and world prices have dropped”. With no help from the Statistics Office, a non-functioning entity, he must rely on ‘Flexible Thought Planning.’
In Linden, he is impressed with community volunteers, and moved when a “tall and dignified” man bemoans, “Something has to change; we need a new deal. We want our pride back.”
He feels the same hopelessness when he visits GuySuCo, the Sugar Company, and concludes, “once again, the people of Guyana had been well and truly shafted.”
We are intrigued by a Doctor Professor Lucas whose forename is Professor, who gave himself the title of ‘Doctor’ when he became a government minister. He is described as having “the most impressive weightlifter’s shoulders… his neck muscles appearing to go up to his ears [with] vast water-melon fists [and] hands of a worker not a bureaucrat.” But this minister’s heart is in the right place.
He is eager to burnish his country’s image: “Ever since Reverend Jim Jones…we have been wary of supporting settlers going up-country. People come intoxicated by the bush…It is not good for our reputation. We need investment, we don’t want to scare people away.”
In a later meeting with Radstock, he vents his frustration, “The I.B (International Bank) advised us we should raise more revenue from taxes. It’ll help you meet your spending commitments, they say. But sixty percent of the economy is informal. When you write your report, give them the full story, [that] miners grab land illegally; that we do not have the manpower to adequately police the interior. The I.B tell us we are in ‘economic stress’ and will have to make difficult decisions. We are in this situation because of the I.B.”
Then there is the meticulous and intriguing, Xavier Yoland Zeeland, a PhD graduate who is fiercely patriotic and hardly seduced by opportunities abroad. He decries the brain drain, describing those who leave in near treasonous terms: “People have no loyalty.” His Afrocentric views unsettle Radstock: “I keep my name out of respect for the suffering of my ancestors. You white people want to disregard what you did to my brothers and sisters…It’s a hurt that runs deep. There is a lot of healing to do. It starts with honesty.”
And there is Jim Bucket, a socialist whose cameo doesn’t go unnoticed. “We have a freer concept of state control than you are used to…we have another type of gold. We call it the informal economy,” he informs Radstock. “There is so much potential in Guyana, but we are divided…we should be standing together, shoulder to shoulder, fighting the imperialist running dogs. Are you sure you don’t work for the CIA?”
Despite fears of irrelevance, “things [in Guyana] happen at a natural pace.” Radstock at one point is advised to “sit down and take it easy. Breathe the cool night air. Enjoy yourself.”
Radstock’s gloomy prognostications are delivered with a healthy dose of comic relief. Here he recalls an exchange with a driver charged with getting him to an appointment:
“Despite the road being scoured by deep ruts and potholes big enough to paddle in, the taxi man drove at breakneck speed.”
‘I want you to drive slowly,’ I shouted.
‘This is slow. It is dangerous to go any slower.’”
And how can we not laugh when Xavier, scared stiff, refuses a return flight from Kaieteur Falls to Georgetown opting to return by boat. When asked ‘how long’ a journey, he responds “It depends on many things: The weather, the flow of the river, the availability of canoes, inter-tribal warfare. Four, maybe five days, at the least.”
And we are captivated by Radstock’s adventure in the heart of the rainforest with Zodac, a ganja-smoking Rastafarian guide whose fantastical tales of kanaima and curupira alarm the Englishman. “We must be vigilant,” he cautions, “The devil walketh about seeking whom he may devour. We must protect ourselves. I must smoke more ‘erb.’ We laugh a bellyful when a shrunken head on a stake is encountered in the forgiving surroundings amid the drums of the Macawaiwai.
‘You are in great danger,’ Zodac warns.
‘They have just killed a white girl. For certain a white man will be next.’
Radstock is shaken, asking for a place to hide only to be told, “It’s you they are after, not me.”
Throughout, there is enough side-splitting exchanges and tropical beauty to intoxicate Radstock. “Everything about the rain forest was extreme,” he recalls. “The heat, the moisture, the pure colour. The bush was teeming with energy. I was alive.” And of Kaieteur Falls, he imagines it becoming a world class tourist destination.
Guyana, for all its woes, can be magical.
But there is an unforgiving, inhumane side to Guyana that Radstock stumbles on. In the rugged bosom of the Amazon, indigenous people are forced out of their ancestral land, sacred land that is now the home of hardened pork-knockers (miners) and cold, ruthless managers and overseers. Here, human life is dispensable and greed runs wild.
Radstock wrestles with his thoughts. Maybe ‘something had to be done to protect the Amerindians and their indigenous culture; were the International Bank really colluding in the destruction of the environment? Maybe mining is a good thing and would help the country’s economy, but not if conditions were like this.’
Radstock is asked to somehow salvage Guyana, but, he is also desperate to find meaning in a world of uncertainty.
It has been two decades since the Englishman’s maiden visit to Guyana. One can only wonder what he would find today.
Down in Demerara by Mike Mason
© Copyright Mike Mason 2019
Publisher: Tangent Books
Available at Amazon
Ratings: Highly recommended
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